The events of the past six weeks indicate that there is a system behind President Donald Trump’s seemingly chaotic decision-making process. He may sound like a syntax-challenged narcissist at times, but that does not mean that his intuition is any less astutely honed than it was three years ago. The result is puzzling at times and on the whole impressive.
For an example of Trump’s shrewd rhetoric take his account of al-Baghdadi’s demise. It sounded crude. The ISIS leader “died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way, but our gallant dog chased him down.” His followers were a bunch of “very frightened puppies,” and in the end their boss “died like a dog, he died like a coward… The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him.”
Pretty coarse stuff, unless you consider its effect in the Islamic world. Of course there is no way to know Baghdadi’s feelings as he faced death, but it is wrong to assert that “such boastful speculation is unworthy of the seriousness these events deserve.” If the Muslim world was Trump’s primary target audience, Trump’s pitch was perfect. Baghdadi’s fans and his designated successor’s potential followers—some tens of millions of Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia—are unsubtle, coarse young men, too poor to marry and full of le besoin de faire quelque chose. They, and their friends and neighbors, will have seen Trump’s address all over the Greater Middle East. It must have impressed many of them just as the President had intended.
The dog theme, pointedly repeated three times in Trump’s address, was not incidental. It may seem eccentric, but those acquainted with the “approved” Hadith know that Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, hated dogs with a passion. The orthodox canon speaks for itself. Dogs are “impure”: on Muhammad’s orders all black ones had to be killed in Medina. He permitted keeping of dogs for hunting and for the protection of herds and cultivated land. “Whoever keeps a dog, one quarter of the reward of his good deeds is deducted daily, unless the dog is used for guarding a farm or cattle,” Muhammad explained. In addition, “Prayer is annulled by a dog, a donkey and a woman”—in that order—if they pass in front of the praying people.
Hadith—the record of the words, actions, and tacit approval of the Islamic prophet—is the source of Islamic jurisprudence, together with the Quran. Both form the basis of all obligation in a Muslim’s earthly life. Trump’s colorful account of Baghdadi’s last moments, and those of his whimpering “puppies,” was accompanied by a picture of the wounded “beautiful” canine hero to boot. The President appears to have an uncanny intuitive feel for what will resonate in the Muslim mind, or else he has received good advice from those in the know. Either way, Baghdadi has been effectively demystified and the Islamic State’s revival made less likely.
In a similar vein, it is just possible that the impeachment frenzy will end with another jiujitsu coup by Trump when his enemies least expect it. They are already in trouble: after conducting a fraudulent for the past five weeks, Democrats made a remarkable U-turn by announcing that they would hold a vote of the full House to formalize the proceedings. This is tantamount to an admission that Trump and his allies have been correct all along when they complained that Pelosi et al had no right to unilaterally launch an impeachment inquiry without authorization by the full House.
It is beginning to look like the Democrats’ Trump Derangement Syndrome will come to haunt them on Election Day next year. There seem to be more Deep State skeletons in the closets of Kiev than the media machine can handle. The Steele Dossier and its purveyors, plus what promises to be the Mother of All Collusions—that of the DNC & Clinton campaign with Ukraine’s ex-President Poroshenko—would not have been so effectively activated without the initial wave of fury directed against Trump after the whistleblower’s complaint.
It is possible that Trump let the impeachment hysteria to proceed in its predictably unhinged manner, with the daily headlines reminiscent of Mueller’s theater a year ago (Trump’s finished, absolutely done for, truly gone, etc.) for a reason. In the end he may yet turn the tables with the fruits of the criminal investigation into the Kiev Connection which will reveal the real plot against “our democracy.”
But back to Baghdadi. He is gone, but some broader lesson needs to be drawn. For a brief while he was the caliph, theoretically combining religious and state authority in the tradition of Muhammad’s early successors, across Sunni Iraq and eastern Syria. For the first time since the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in the aftermath of the Great War, in 2014-2018 there was a substantial state-like entity presuming to revive the mantle of Sunni Islamic universalism.
As it happens, President Obama was loath to defeat ISIS. In its heyday he even claimed that “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.” Contrary to Obama’s assurances, Islam does condone the killing of infidels (non-Muslims) and apostates (Shiites)—they are not “innocents” by definition. And of course Muslims have been killing other Muslims ever since three of the four early caliphs, Muhammad’s immediate successors, were murdered by their Muslim foes. It was of course immaterial whether ISIS was true to “Islam” (however Obama chose to define it). The Islamic State was unwaveringly faithful to the principles and practices of historical Islam.
To his credit Trump had no time for such nonsense. He intuited the importance of actual control over the land for the murderous Islamist entity. Following the example of their prophet, who established his theocratic statelet in Medina after the Hijrah, ISIS fanatics saw control over territory as a fundamental precondition for the creation of the “caliphate.” Cyberspace was still used for indoctrination, and virtual networks of self-starters were constantly developed, but actual territory inhabited by real people was treated as the foundation of legitimacy. Without land, without cities and villages to control and tax, the notion of “caliphate” had no credibility.
Trump understood, and acted accordingly. At the same time, he was commendably disciplined in avoiding mission creep, specifically refusing to help “our gallant Kurdish allies” establish a statelet on Turkey’s southeastern border. Last summer he proved unwavering in rejecting entanglement in any new Middle Eastern wars (specifically with Iran, after the attack on Saudi oil installations) and in seeking disengagement from the old ones (Syria now, and probably Afghanistan in the new year). Most importantly, Trump senses that decades of covert and overt support for allegedly user-friendly Islamic movements (notably the quest for moderate rebels in Syria), and reliance on sharia-promoting countries (such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) and hard-core revivalist regimes (the late Mohamed Morsi’s Brotherhood in Egypt)—whenever they were deemed useful to the Duopoly’s permanent-war objectives—have been an unmitigated strategic, moral and political disaster.
On balance, both at home and abroad, Trump is acting as if he had a coherent grand strategy. This may not be the case, but then his intuition is the best we’ve got. If he survives the next 12 months in office and gets reelected, at worst what we have seen so far is what we shall get in the ensuing four years. This is not bad, considering the alternative. At best he will survive impeachment, win the election, and proceed to fight for the reestablishment of proper presidential authority over the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. At worst we’ll be no worse off than we would have been three years ago, but for those 300,000 votes in the Midwest.