Analysis: ISIS raid gives Biden a foreign policy win as Ukraine, midterms loom

U.S. President Joe Biden watches military operation against ISIS leader in Syria from Situation Room in Washington
U.S. President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and other White House national security staff are seen in a White House handout photo watching the U.S. Special Forces operation in Northern Syria against ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi from the Situation Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 3, 2022. The White House/Handout via REUTERS

WASHINGTON, Feb 4 (Reuters) - The U.S. raid in Syria that led to the death of Islamic State's leader is a much-needed national security win for President Joe Biden after the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan while he tries to project an image of strength in a standoff with Russia over Ukraine, analysts said.

Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi, blew himself up as U.S. forces approached. The raid on the jihadist leader came after months of planning and was authorized by Biden earlier this week.

As well as dealing a blow to ISIS, the raid came at a good time for Biden, who is locked in a tense strategic tussle with Russia over Ukraine. John Bolton, a former national security adviser to President Donald Trump, said the successful operation could show strength to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"It can't hurt in the sense that it was a clear win," he acknowledged. "A lot of people should take notice of that," said Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush.

U.S. prestige suffered from the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan last August after 20 years of war. Even though his predecessor Trump also favored a withdrawal and agreed a deal with the Taliban, Biden's poll numbers dived after the messy withdrawal.

David Gergen, a former aide to Democratic and Republican presidents, said the Afghanistan chaos still hangs over Biden's foreign policy record despite the success against Islamic State.

"I think the trouble he faces in the international scene is stickier than it looks. It's going to be hard to reverse public opinion," Gergen said.

Bolton, one of the main foreign policy hawks in the former Bush administration, said going after Quraishi in northwestern Syria was "the right thing to do." But the legacy of Afghanistan still weighs heavily on Biden despite the raid, he said.

"I don't think it can repair the damage that was done to his credibility and America's credibility by withdrawing from Afghanistan."

Another stern test for Biden is the standoff with Russia over Ukraine. The United States and other Western nations say Russia's massing of some 100,000 troops along the Ukraine border could be a prelude for an invasion.

"I think the overall question is going to be how this gets resolved with the Russians," Gergen said. "He's going to be tested on toughness. But he's also going to be tested on competence."


At home, Biden is stuck in a months-long slump in the polls, reflecting Americans' frustration over the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation-plagued economy. That worries Democrats ahead of November's midterm elections.

While the midterms are months away and foreign policy is not a main priority for voters, demonstrating command in the raid on Quraishi and standing up to Putin can be helpful to Biden's position with U.S. voters, said David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Barack Obama.

"One of his problems right now is that the world seems out of control - everyday events in people's lives. They're looking for Biden to show command, so any opportunity to do that is valuable," Axelrod said. "These things are valuable from a political standpoint. Shows of strength are valuable."

Biden traveled to New York on Thursday to meet with the city's mayor, Eric Adams, a former police officer, and called for greater investments in local police departments and social services. Republicans have suggested Biden is weak on crime and tried to tie him to calls by some Democrats to "defund" the police. Biden has rejected the "defund" push.

Gergen said the Democratic president seems to be making an effort to project strength. "I do think Biden is trying to toughen up in the public eye," he said.

Biden beat Trump in the 2020 election in part by arguing he would bring competence to the job, and he enjoyed approval ratings close to 60% during his first few months in office. They fell to the lowest level of his presidency this week according to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll, which found 41% of U.S. adults approved of his performance in office and 56% disapproved.

The combination of the Syria raid and the New York visit could offset some Republican criticism, said Mo Elleithee, executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.

"It's hard to argue someone is weak on fighting terror ... after they've taken out, you know, one of the world's top terrorists," Elleithee said. "He was able to show results - important results - in national security, and I think you see him appearing like the grown-up in the room on crime."

Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell

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Jeff Mason is a White House Correspondent for Reuters. He has covered the presidencies of Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden and the presidential campaigns of Biden, Trump, Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain. He served as president of the White House Correspondents’ Association in 2016-2017, leading the press corps in advocating for press freedom in the early days of the Trump administration. His and the WHCA's work was recognized with Deutsche Welle's "Freedom of Speech Award." Jeff has asked pointed questions of domestic and foreign leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's Kim Jong Un. He is a winner of the WHCA's “Excellence in Presidential News Coverage Under Deadline Pressure" award and co-winner of the Association for Business Journalists' "Breaking News" award. Jeff began his career in Frankfurt, Germany as a business reporter before being posted to Brussels, Belgium, where he covered the European Union. Jeff appears regularly on television and radio and teaches political journalism at Georgetown University. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and a former Fulbright scholar.