President Trump’s two highest-profile counterterrorism victories have been largely absent from his reelection pitch, a departure from recent elections in which the winning candidate made a prominent case for fortitude in battling jihadis.
Unlike President George W. Bush, who ran for reelection during his war on terror, or President Obama, who made the raid that killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden a cornerstone of his 2012 campaign, Mr. Trump and his team have yet to fully capitalize on the president’s successes against terrorism.
Neither the mission in October that resulted in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi nor the January strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani has been given significant attention in Mr. Trump’s battle with presumptive Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden.
The successful operations, which eliminated two of the world’s most powerful and dangerous terrorist leaders and seemingly offer powerful ammunition for a commander in chief who prides himself on strength, have been mostly missing from Mr. Trump’s recent speeches. His campaign also hasn’t made them the focus of a major concerted advertising blitz in the way political observers might expect.
Analysts say there are several reasons why. The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated economic free fall, as well as recent racial justice protests, have consumed so much political space that there is little room for foreign policy on the campaign trail let alone a serious appetite among voters to hear about it.
But political insiders say other factors are also at play. They say a more aggressive pitch on the president’s counterterrorism successes could backfire.
One concern is that the deaths of al-Baghdadi and Soleimani, while important victories in the fight against extremism, wouldn’t have the same emotional impact among voters as bin Laden’s demise.
“President Trump has had many foreign policy successes to advertise, though admittedly it’s hard to compare killing terrorist leaders who aren’t household names with the man responsible for 9/11 attacks,” said J.D. Gordon, a former Trump campaign national security adviser and Pentagon spokesman.
“Another complicating factor in getting that positive message out is that since many of our 2016 campaign advisers were framed as Russian agents by the #Resistance, including Democrats in Congress and legacy media, it could be safer for the current campaign to avoid foreign policy altogether,” he said.
Foreign policy record
The Biden campaign and its liberal allies have been taking the foreign policy fight to Mr. Trump. They say the president has been soft on Russia, bungled relations with China, unnecessarily stoked tensions with Iran, abandoned American allies in Syria and made a host of other serious missteps.
The backdrop of the political attacks is broader turmoil inside the Trump campaign.
Last week, Bill Stepien was tapped as Mr. Trump’s new campaign manager in a seeming demotion for Brad Parscale.
Although campaign officials denied that Mr. Parscale had been punished or demoted, the development added to an appearance of internal upheaval at a moment of questionable polling numbers for the president.
Recent polls have shown Mr. Biden with a commanding lead over Mr. Trump nationally and in key battleground states.
One of the big questions heading into the campaign’s final three months centers on the extent to which Mr. Trump may or may not try to steer public attention toward his foreign policy record.
As it tries to regain its footing, the Trump campaign seems willing to fight over foreign policy when attacked. Top campaign officials are quick to contrast the president’s record with that of Mr. Biden, who served as vice president while the Islamic State rose to power in Iraq and Syria.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Obama also oversaw the Iran nuclear deal, which lifted some economic sanctions on Tehran but, as critics assert, allowed millions of dollars to flow to Soleimani’s Quds Force and the various terrorist outfits it backs across the Middle East.
A matter of messaging
Trump campaign officials say they are aware of the president’s wins on counterterrorism and are prepared to tout them publicly within a wider narrative of national security success over the past four years.
“President Trump kept his promise to rebuild the American military after it was severely depleted under the Obama/Biden administration,” Ken Farnaso, the campaign’s deputy national press secretary, told The Washington Times. “And his ‘America First’ agenda has secured the elimination of two most-wanted terrorists, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Qassem Soleimani, the destruction of the ISIS caliphate, and sustained strong political and economic pressure on adversaries like Iran, Venezuela and Russia.”
The president and his surrogates have made those arguments, but there are key differences between the way the Trump campaign is handling the issue this year and how the Obama camp approached it in 2012.
Mr. Obama was reelected in the year after the raid that killed bin Laden, capping nearly a decade of searching for the man behind the 9/11 attacks. The Obama campaign team used the event as a sharp political weapon and suggested that Republican nominee Mitt Romney might not have ordered the mission as commander in chief.
The narrative proved effective in portraying Mr. Obama as a strong, decisive leader and blunting Republican efforts to once again cast a Democrat as weak on international affairs.
One of the more memorable campaign advertisements of 2012 featured former President Bill Clinton saying it was a momentous decision for Mr. Obama to order the assault on bin Laden’s secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
“Suppose the Navy SEALs had gone in there and it hadn’t been bin Laden. Suppose they’d been captured or killed. The downside would have been horrible for him,” Mr. Clinton said in the commercial. “He took the harder and the more honorable path, and the one that produced, in my opinion, the best result.”
The ad then asked, “Which path would Mitt Romney have taken,” before highlighting the Republican’s questioning about whether the U.S. should launch counterterrorism strikes in Pakistan or spend time and resources searching for a single terrorist leader.
Mr. Trump has aired some memorable campaign commercials, but some political analysts say none has brought his counterterrorism achievements to the forefront the way the Bill Clinton ad did for Mr. Obama.
Some specialists also argue that there may be little the Trump campaign can do at this point to effectively capitalize on the al-Baghdadi and Soleimani operations.
Talking about the strikes or crafting multimillion-dollar ad campaigns to highlight foreign policy achievements of the past, they said, likely would turn off voters who are rightfully consumed with domestic crises playing out at the moment.
“When you have people dying at the numbers they’re dying at in the United States right now, the threat from international terrorism seems to pale by comparison,” said Stephen Zunes, a professor at the University of San Francisco who studies the intersection of politics and foreign policy.
“If Trump embraced that,” Mr. Zunes said, “it could even backfire.”