Vice President Joe Biden took no questions Monday during his brief Briefing Room appearance at the White House. He was there to drive a message, not discuss. Iraqi security forces, with U.S. military support, had killed the two most senior leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq, operational leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri and spiritual leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. “Their deaths are potentially devastating blows to Al Qaeda in Iraq,” Biden said. “The Iraqis led this operation. And it was based on intelligence that the Iraqis themselves developed.”
The killings may hold more symbolic value for the Iraqi government, and the White House, than strategic value. Al Qaeda in Iraq has long been a weakened body, far less concerning to U.S. intelligence leaders than other Al Qaeda groups in Yemen and Pakistan. On Sunday on Fox News, Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. Commander in Iraq, described the Iraqi group like this:
First off, Al Qaeda continues to be significantly degraded. We’ve got to put this in perspective, Chris. First quarter fiscal year ’10 was the lowest number of incidents we’ve had in a quarter, the lowest number of high-profile attacks, the lowest number of indirect fire attacks, the lowest number of civilian casualties, the lowest number of U.S. force casualties, the lowest number of Iraqi security force casualties. So the direction continues to be headed in the right way. Yes, they are still capable of conducting attacks against innocent civilians, but the Iraqis have rejected the ideology of Al Qaeda. They are rejecting Al Qaeda as a whole inside of Iraq. We continue to make progress against them. There is still work to be done. There will still be bad days ahead of us, but it’s becoming more and more difficult.
It is notable, however, that the White House brought out Biden to trumpet the killings of al-Masri and al-Baghdadi. In the wake of health care reform’s passage, the White House has been far more aggressive in driving its messages of the day. Just last week, the President dominated national news for three days with his signature foreign policy initiative, global nuclear security. Obama immediately shifted to financial regulatory reform, bringing Republicans to a meeting at the White House, and then Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner appeared in the briefing room, for a rare appeal to the press for more aggressive reporting.
And the stuff ahead of us now is derivatives, it’s “too big to fail,” it’s complicated stuff — okay? But make sure that you bring the same level of exposure and the spotlight on the choices ahead, because we — I think we all have an interest in resisting the efforts that are going to be made — and they’re going to come still — to weaken, to exempt, to carve people out of those basic protections.
Just two months ago, during the debate over health care, the White House was effectively under siege. Almost all the news coverage was news coverage about the legislative process of health care, not a story the White House wanted to talk about much. All has changed. The White House is back in the driver’s seat, shaping and directing the news of the day.