When then-President Trump ordered a strike that killed two leaders of two terrorist organizations with zero collateral damage, many in the media, academia, and Hollywood immediately condemned it as impulsive and dangerous. When President Biden ordered a drone strike against alleged ISIS-K members that instead killed an aid worker and his family, the reaction in those same quarters amounted to barely a reprimand.
The study in contrasts underscores just how differently the two presidents' actions are filtered through the media and academia prisms.
Trump's attack on January 3, 2020, killed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps's Quds Force commander and terrorist mastermind Qasem Soleimani along with his ally, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, a leader of the Iranian proxy terrorist group, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Removing these two monsters, responsible for the deaths of Americans, disrupted Iran's plans to kill more Americans in Iraq and to solidify Hezbollah's control over Lebanon.
Biden's August 29, 2021, attack in Kabul, on the other hand, killed an aid worker named Zemari Ahmadi and his family; most of the casualties were children. The strike came less than 48 hours after the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport that he blamed on ISIS-K. As he telegraphed the coming response, Biden promised, "We will not forgive. We will not forget. . . . We will hunt you down and make you pay."
Almost immediately after the strike, White House press secretary Jen Psaki dismissed reports of civilian casualties as the unfortunate result of secondary explosions, while she boasted about "our over-the-horizon capacities — which by the way killed two ISIS terrorists." Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said, "We had very good intelligence that ISIS-K was preparing a specific type vehicle at a specific type location," assuring reporters that "at least one of those people that were killed was an ISIS facilitator."
National-Security Adviser Jake Sullivan went on Fox News to talk up the boss, claiming that two high-level ISIS-K planners were killed before they could carry out more attacks, assuring the nation that Biden "will stop at nothing to make ISIS-K pay." Biden himself boasted on August 31 of the attack in a speech in which he warned ISIS-K, "We are not done with you."
It should be noted that mainstream-media news divisions were properly skeptical here, as they have been throughout the Afghanistan withdrawal fiasco. On September 10, the New York Times and Washington Post reported that the strike may have killed an aid worker and his children. Questions continued to mount about what really happened until, weeks later on a Friday afternoon, with Joe Biden having already departed for his regular weekend vacation in Delaware, the U.S. military admitted the failure.
They called it a "tragic error" and confirmed the death of Zemari Ahmadi, who worked for a nonprofit group called Nutrition and Education International. Up to nine other people, including seven kids, were killed. Considering that the attack killed no ISIS-K and no Taliban members, one might expect a quick condemnation, even an obligatory one, from those who condemned Trump's successful attack.
The pundit class, however, was far more eager to put this strike into proper historical context, if they weighed in at all.
MSNBC's Chris Hayes (who questioned whether Soleimani was really a threat after Trump's successful strike) deflected blame from Biden's botched strike by tweeting, "WE HAVE BEEN DOING THIS FOR TWENTY YEARS," while acknowledging the details are "horrifying."
Rachel Maddow criticized the Soleimani killing, calling it an "assassination" and mocking Trump for saying "the action was to stop a war." On her September 17 show, she praised the military for its mea culpa, lauding it as "something we are not used to seeing at all." No mention of Joe Biden.
CNN pundits Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo both criticized Trump's claim that Soleimani posed an imminent threat to the U.S., quibbling over the meaning of the word "imminent," but neither has taken to Twitter to criticize Biden's failed strike. On his September 17 show, Cuomo faulted "the Pentagon" and "the Department of Defense" but had only the mildest criticism for Biden. Cuomo still found a way to fault the Trump administration, "which in 2017 relaxed the rules of engagement for airstrikes." On his September 17 show, Lemon barely even mentioned the drone strike, allowing CNN correspondent Jeff Zeleny to report on the military's press conference. No outrage, no condemnation.
Biden's rushed, politically expedient hit was an unforced error.
In reality, Biden's rushed, politically expedient hit was an unforced error that should inspire far more outrage than Trump's successful one against Soleimani.
Academics, too, were very quick to condemn Trump for killing Soleimani, with predictions of an imminent war against Iran and loss of respect for the U.S. throughout the world. Ervand Abrahamian of Baruch College, CUNY, claimed that Trump's hit had made the U.S. "a state terrorist power." Mehran Kamrava of Georgetown University's Qatar campus fretted that Trump had "badly misread the situation." If either man has made similar complaints about the Biden administration's killing of an aid worker, he is doing so quietly.
At the University of Michigan, Juan Cole convened his "Experts Advisory" panel within hours of Trump's attack. Cole argued that "[b]y murdering Qassem Soleimani . . . Trump has brought the United States to the brink of war with Iran." Cole also wrote an August 27 essay explaining how the Taliban and ISIS-K are mortal enemies and justifying Biden's exit as the best option. His most recent article addressing Biden's botched Kabul strike had the effect of downplaying it by highlighting problems with other drone strikes over the years.
Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University and Michael Traugott, another of Cole's University of Michigan experts, were among the many to float a "wag the dog" charge against Trump. Traugott claimed that Trump killed Soleimani "to distract from new disclosures about internal emails related to the withholding of aid to Ukraine." Don't expect either Dabashi or Traugott to call Biden's strike an attempt to make a feeble president, backed up against the wall of public opinion and reeling from charges of incompetence, look strong.
Then there are the celebrities. Rose McGowan's infamous "Dear Iran" tweet begged Iran, "Please do not kill us." Foreign-policy experts Alyssa Milano, John Legend, Alec Baldwin, Rosanna Arquette, and others chimed in as well. Until they condemn Biden by name with the same wit and energy, they all deserve Academy Awards for hypocrisy.
Not since Bill Clinton fired a few cruise missiles at some empty tents in Afghanistan and a factory in Sudan has a president so obviously ordered a military strike to detract attention from his errors and lapses of judgment.
In the end, Trump's widely decried strike in 2020 damaged Iran's ability to control its expanding empire. One early Trump critic, Yigal Carmon, found it a transformational act that "reversed all elements of weakness that characterized his prior conduct." Biden's feeble strike at nameless ISIS-K planners, on the other hand, has an air of Don Quixote tilting at ISIS-K windmills. It has only further hurt our image in the region and heightened concerns that our intelligence capabilities have been irreparably degraded by our withdrawal.
A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsberg-Milstein fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.