Opinion

After Manchester: Is Trump the Key Liability in the War Against Islamist Terror?

The recent horrific attack by 'evil losers', in Trump's words, won't swing the UK election. But will the U.S. president's hazardous position provide them a different win?

A man carries a young girl on his shoulders away from Britain's deadliest terror attack in over a decade in Manchester. May 23, 2017.
OLI SCARFF/AFP

The horrific bombing at the Manchester Arena is the most serious terrorist attack Britain has faced since the traumatic events of July 7 2005. At least 22 people have been killed and 59 injured, including many children and young people attending an Ariana Grande concert. Unlike the lone perpetrator knife and car attack in late March this year, close to the Houses of Parliament in London, in which five people were killed, the Manchester attack was a more sophisticated suicide bombing, clearly suggesting accomplices were involved.

The Manchester attack occurs only two weeks before the British general election on June 8. Many Israelis will remember how Hamas carried out a wave of suicide bombings in 1996, which arguably swung the electorate against the serving prime minister, Shimon Peres. Netanyahu won the election largely because he was perceived at that time by the Israeli electorate as the strongest candidate when it came to defeating terror. Nothing has changed in 20 years.

It cannot be stated for sure that the Manchester bombing was designed to disrupt or influence the election, but the timing is, in bald political terms, and unlike the Israeli example, auspicious for the incumbent.  

Prime Minister Theresa May's campaign has come unstuck over the last few days. Her u-turn over social care pledges in the Conservative manifesto has been deeply damaging to her campaign, abandoning a commitment following pressure from her Labour opponent, Jeremy Corbyn. The prime minster had a commanding lead of 20 points or more in the polls just days ago, but the polls have been narrowing quite sharply.

The Manchester atrocity provides a new twist. Unlike for Peres in 1996, the Manchester terrorist attack is likely to work to the advantage of the incumbent, May. The UK election campaign will now focus more on national security issues which suits the Conservative leader, a former Home Secretary. 

Meanwhile, the opposition's Corbyn has a chequered record on terror: he's been evasive when called upon to condemn the IRA, and he has spoken in the past of his “friends” in Hamas and Hezbollah, although he expressed some regret for this late in the day, saying, in 2016, that “It was inclusive language I used which, with hindsight, I would rather not have used.”   

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the terrorist attack in Manchester, alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem. May 23, 2017
JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

Damaging revelations have also emerged that Diane Abbott, a potential Home Secretary in a future Labour government, had expressed support for an IRA defeat of Britain in a 1984 interview. Corbyn’s ally, Andrew Murray, a leader of the far left Stop the War coalition, in which Corbyn has also been heavily involved, has consistently blamed the West for Islamic terrorism. The ill-judged appointment of Murray as Corbyn’s election campaign chief may yet spectacularly backfire against the Labour leader and May’s Conservative party will now be even better placed to cause him maximum embarrassment.

Clearly, the Manchester attack will have implications well beyond the UK elections. In his speech in Bethlehem Tuesday, Donald Trump stated,  "I won't call terrorists monsters, they would like that name. I will call them losers, because that's what they areThe terrorists must be driven out of our society forever and innocent lives must be protected."

However, there is international concern that Trump himself is a liability in the fight to build a coalition against Islamist terror. Yes, it is true that during his visit to the Middle East, the U.S. President has actually softened his tone against Islam as a whole, and acknowledged that Muslims are in fact the main victims of Islamist terrorism. It would be a positive development if Trump has finally internalized that he needs moderate Muslims on board to combat the scourge of Islamist terror.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May speaks outside 10 Downing Street after an emergency meeting of the Cobra committee after the Manchester suicide bombing. May 23, 2017
DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP

That's not the only area where Trump could be a liability. Yet, as David Frum, George W. Bush's former speechwriter, pointed out on Twitter, “As we mourn Manchester, remember: for a moment of ignorant boasting, the president betrayed one of the West’s best sources inside ISIS.”  The fight against global terror needs far-sighted and dependable leadership from the United States, but from London to Jerusalem and Riyadh, there remains the concern that the U.S. president’s reckless conduct, his exposure of classified information and his deep entanglement in a possible cover-up over ties to Putin’s Russia may put that in jeopardy.

The U.S. president declaring an all-out assault on Islamist terror when the ground is shifting under his feet may not have the definitive impact that victims of terror, like those in Manchester, deserve.

Dr. Azriel Bermant is a lecturer in International Relations at Tel Aviv University. His latest book is Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2016).