Donald Trump on Sunday evening made a bold accusation: That the effort to retake Mosul from the Islamic State is actually an effort to influence the 2016 presidential election — to help Hillary Clinton.
Trump claims battle for Mosul is occurring now "because Obama wanted to show what a tough guy he is before the election"
— Igor Bobic (@igorbobic) October 23, 2016
Trump, the Republican nominee, said something similar at Wednesday night's debate in Las Vegas, although it was overshadowed:
But you know who the big winner in Mosul is going to be after we eventually get it? And the only reason they did it is because [Clinton is] running for the office of president and they want to look tough. They want to look good. [President Obama] violated the red line in the sand, and he made so many mistakes, made all the mistakes. That's why we have the great migration. But she wanted to look good for the election. So they're going in.
Over at WorldViews, Ishaan Tharoor dissected the practical problems with this argument — including the fact that the Mosul offensive has been in the works for more than a year, long before Clinton won the Democratic nomination. And then there's the fact that Trump is making an audacious argument about the use of military force for cynical, political purposes while offering no evidence to back it up.
But all of that aside, even that political argument doesn't really make sense, for a few reasons:
1) Obama isn't on the ballot — and he's popular
If President Obama were the Democratic nominee right now, this might make sense. He, after all, is the guy overseeing military action in Iraq; Clinton has been out of office as secretary of state for nearly four years and has no strategic role in what's happening or will happen.
What's more, Obama is already quite popular — significantly more so than Clinton, in fact. As The Washington Post's Philip Bump points out, Obama's approval rating is 54 percent in the most recent Gallup tracking poll, and he's even doing better among the kind of people who support Trump.
Put plainly: If this race were a total referendum on Obama's leadership, Clinton probably would be leading by even more right now. The idea that Obama needs to make himself look better late in the game by launching a risky foreign policy gambit in Iraq just doesn't comport with the political reality of how people view his presidency.
And if Clinton did benefit from Obama's success, Trump would have only himself to blame. Despite Obama's popularity, Trump for some reason has been arguing for months that she would be Obama's “third term.”
2) Clinton already leads on foreign policy
Even if Clinton did stand to gain from what happens in Mosul, it would be a risk that she almost definitely would rather not take at this point. She's already significantly ahead in the presidential race, after all, and she also leads Trump on issues such as foreign policy and combating the Islamic State.
A CBS News poll last week showed Clinton leading Trump on “which candidate would do a better job handling foreign policy” by a whopping 23-point margin, 59 percent to 36 percent. Her advantage on the Islamic State was smaller but still significant, at 50 percent to 44 percent. Clinton also leads on issues such as who would be better in an international crisis (55 percent to 41 percent in this month's Washington Post-ABC News poll) and handling the “responsibilities of commander in chief” (55 percent to 39 percent in a CNN/ORC poll earlier this month).
Put plainly: Clinton is looking solid on basically everything having to do with the conflict against the Islamic State. The idea that she needs a Hail Mary at the end of the campaign just doesn't make sense.
3) The law of unintended consequences
Related to the point above is the fact that you just never know what's going to happen in these kinds of situations. And what's more, there's no guarantee there will be a clear resolution by the time voters head to the polls on Election Day.
Already, we've seen an American service member killed in the offensive. And according to the Associated Press, there have been only “limited gains” in the first week and the battle could last beyond Nov. 8, which is 15 days from now:
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi insists the operation is progressing ahead of schedule. But the fight to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, is expected to take weeks, if not months.
Iraq’s army and police are still rebuilding from their humiliating defeat in the summer of 2014, when IS [the Islamic State] seized Mosul and much of northern and central Iraq in a matter of days. They have struggled in the past to make progress on more than one front simultaneously, and they have only advanced a few kilometers (miles).
As they get closer to the city and take the fight to more populated areas, they will have to rely less on coalition airstrikes and heavy shelling. The militants will have a dense urban environment in which to hide, and they’ve had two years to prepare.
It's not outside the realm of possibility that a foreign policy maneuver could be undertaken for political gain. But there's no evidence that that's the case here.
And if anything, the Clinton campaign probably wishes this X-factor wasn't looming over her increasingly likely victory in the 2016 campaign.