Opinion: Trump’s stumbling Mideast retreat
Washington — Iraqi President Barham Salih measured his words in a telephone interview from Baghdad Monday. He didn’t want to worsen a quarrel with President Trump over U.S. access to an air base in western Iraq. But Iraqi politics are fragile, and ill-considered statements by American presidents can have big consequences.
“I appreciate what the U.S. has done to help Iraq,” Salih told me. “We honor that sacrifice. But this success in Iraq is precarious and should not be unduly burdened. It could easily unravel.”
Short translation of this diplomat-speak: Mr. President, don’t shoot yourself in the foot. If you describe al-Asad Air Base as if it’s an American facility, it offends Iraqis — and adds to Iraqi domestic political pressure against any continued American military presence there.
Trump lurches from blunder to blunder on the Middle East. His latest statements about rebasing American forces in Iraq were so glib and insensitive to local politics that you have to wonder if the president even understood the mistakes he was making. Sometimes, Trump’s conduct suggests a behavioral syndrome in which he seems to have no real comprehension that his comments offend others and increase his social isolation.
The Iraq gaffe followed a much more serious mistake in judgment in December, when Trump suddenly announced he was pulling 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria at a time when their commanders said their job of destroying the Islamic State wasn’t finished. Despite opposition from virtually every corner of the U.S. government, Trump pushed ahead, and officials say the withdrawal will be completed by the end of April.
When you ask U.S. officials what future security arrangements will exist in northeast Syria, you get a mishmash of answers, none of which add up to a coherent policy. The U.S. asked French and British forces if they might stay, but they balked, so right now, Turkish, Russian and Iranian forces are positioning to fill the vacuum.
Trump last weekend invented a new solution: Everything would be fine, because he was moving the Special Operations forces to Iraq. “We have a base in Iraq, and the base is a fantastic edifice. … We spent a fortune on building this incredible base. We might as well keep it,” he told Margaret Brennan on CBS’ “Face the Nation” last Sunday.
Trump explained (if that’s the right word for his chain of illogic) that if there is new trouble in Syria, as is widely predicted, “We’ll come back if we have to. We have very fast airplanes, we have very good cargo planes.”
Trump’s rebasing-to-Iraq approach, unfortunately, may put American soldiers at greater risk. Right now, the people who kick down the doors of Islamic State terrorists in Syria are our Kurdish-led allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces. If the U.S. instead does the raids from Iraq, the danger for U.S. personnel will increase. But in Trump world, that’s apparently an afterthought.
Trump might have avoided a diplomatic crunch if he’d stopped with the rebasing. But no, he wanted to advertise that, with his plan, he could use the Iraqi base “to be able to watch Iran.” He continued: The al-Asad base is “perfectly situated for looking at … different parts of the troubled Middle East rather than pulling up. And this is what a lot of people don’t understand.”
The disturbing part is that Trump doesn’t seem to realize that there’s an Iraqi government in Baghdad, facing substantial pro-Iranian pressure, that wants to control its own sovereignty. American forces were invited to Iraq in 2014 to combat the Islamic State, and Iraqis are genuinely grateful for American help. But they don’t want another occupation.
Indeed, some Iraqis had been agitating recently about America’s continued presence at al-Asad and other bases. In the weeks before Trump’s botch-job on “Face the Nation,” President Salih had in fact been struggling to keep pro-Iranian politicians from introducing legislation in the Iraqi Parliament to force an American withdrawal.
Trump may have a proprietary feel about al-Asad Air Base because it’s the one place in Iraq that he is known to have visited. He was there on Dec. 26 for a fly-by stop with troops that he turned into a quasi-political rally, touting his border wall, warning about caravans of migrants and signing “Make America Great Again” hats. “We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” he said. “Under my administration, we’re winning now.”
It’s painful to watch an American president in this stumbling, vainglorious retreat. As one Middle Eastern leader said to me recently: “Who can look at the United States as a reliable partner?”
— David Ignatius is a columnist with Washington Post Writers Group.