President Trump has repeatedly boasted that he has a fail-safe plan to rid the world of ISIS. He proclaims that while he’s in power “ISIS will be gone… they’ll be gone very, very quickly.”
So his decision in his first week of office to snub Iraq, a country with whom the United States is currently conducting anti-ISIS military operations, is perplexing. Unlike the other six countries designated in Trump’s immigration ban (which the administration is vowing to keep alive despite judicial actions to halt it), Iraq is a U.S. ally—a vital one. The U.S. military and diplomatic corps have spent years working to make that so.
Trump has also dumped heavy criticism on Obama for making Iran a “great power,” and recently tweeted that Iran is “rapidly taking over more and more of Iraq.” His national security adviser Michael T. Flynn sees Iran as the lynchpin of “an international alliance of evil countries and movements” working against the United States. But after working for years to keep Iraq away from an encroaching Iran, Trump’s insulting ban will only strengthen Iranian influence there.
If defeating ISIS is one of Trump’s key foreign policy goals, why harm diplomatic ties with an ally in the anti-ISIS fight, one of the two countries in the world where ISIS actively controls territory, and one that is already close to falling entirely under the sway of Iran? Trump keeps referring to a secret master plan, but since he hasn’t revealed any of it—even, reportedly, to the national security establishment that would implement it—we have to assume that he’s improvising on Iraq and ISIS like he has been on everything else so far.
There are currently around five thousand U.S. troops helping Iraqi forces fight ISIS in Iraq, now more than three months into the offensive to remove militants from Mosul, the country’s second-largest city. The Iraqi president recently suggested that the fight could last until Easter. After Trump’s ban was announced, the top Iraqi general of the coalition told a reporter, “There are many American troops here in Iraq…. After this ban, how are we supposed to deal with each other?”
There are also thousands of American contractors and diplomats in Iraq, and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad appeared to be blindsided by Trump’s order. The embassy sent a memo to the State Department warning that the immigration ban would be felt “disproportionately” in Iraq, the only one of the countries affected by the ban where the United States enjoys full diplomatic presence. Former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who served under President George W. Bush in Iraq, said the decision to include Iraq in the order left him “speechless,” and called it a “moral failing” that the U.S. wouldn’t let in Iraqis who had worked with the United States. (The White House has since backtracked on this, after a recommendation from the Pentagon.)
The reaction from Iraq’s lawmakers, too, was unsurprisingly hostile. The Iraqi parliament voted unanimously for the government to ban Americans from entering the country if the Trump administration doesn’t reconsider its decision (a federal judge has since ruled that the ban was unconstitutional, and a federal appeals panel subsequently rejected Trump’s appeal, but the administration is “considering and pursuing all options” to re-activate the ban, including appealing again or requesting an emergency stay from the Supreme Court). Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi took the high road by saying that he would not enforce any retaliatory measures because “we are in a battle, and we don’t want to harm the national interest.” Abadi displayed the kind of statesmanship sorely lacking in Washington. He tweeted a smiling photo of himself with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman and Lieutenant General Stephen J. Townsend, the U.S. commanding general of the anti-ISIS coalition, soon after the ban and the parliament vote. In a February 9 phone call, Abadi urged Trump to review the ban. Many within the U.S. government have also encouraged the White House to delist Iraq.
But the ban could spell the end of Iraq’s pro-American prime minister, and push the country more tightly into Iran’s embrace. One of the great ironies of the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled the Sunni-led government of Saddam Hussein is that by empowering the majority Shiites in Iraq the war also emboldened Shiite Iran, a U.S. adversary, giving the country more power in the region. A few days after the ban was announced, National Security Adviser Michael T. Flynn said that the White House was “putting Iran on notice” for its test of a ballistic missile and Trump tweeted ominously about Iran gaining greater presence in Iraq. As the Trump team increases its bellicose rhetoric toward Iran, pro-Iran political forces including former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are working to gain footing in Iraq in advance of the 2017 provincial and 2018 parliamentary elections. Robert Ford, who served twice at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad between 2004–06 and 2008–10, said Trump’s ban embarrassed Abadi and made him look weak, while benefiting Maliki. The powerful Shia Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) forces, which have been essential to the counter-ISIS offensive, called for a ban on Americans entering Iraq, as did influential Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
Surely Trump’s arrogance is not lost on Iraqis. He appears to forget that Iraq has some say in the matter of its alliance and responsibilities; and Iraqis won’t fight ISIS on America’s terms unless they feel like they’re being treated as a partner in good standing, rather than a vassal. The confrontation with Iraq, which could cost America’s counter-terrorism campaign dearly, will be an early object lesson for Trump in the give-and-take of alliances—the art of the deal of international security.
The confrontation with Iraq, which could cost America’s counter-terrorism campaign dearly, will be an early object lesson for Trump in the give-and-take of alliances—the art of the deal of international security.
Trump appears unconcerned that the Iraqis would do anything in return to jeopardize our relationship. In his campaign foreign policy speech, Trump said that the United States would help countries in the region that are fighting ISIS, but “this has to be a two-way street… They have to appreciate what we’ve done for them.” Iraq is not just reliant on the U.S. for support in the ISIS battle but also for financial aid. The Iraqi economy is working through an economic crisis caused by the drop in oil prices, but recent oil cuts planned by OPEC—of which Iraq is a member—may complicate that recovery. Just two days before Trump took office, the U.S. signed a $1 billion, five-year sovereign loan guarantee with Iraq underscoring “the strong and enduring commitment of the United States to support the government of Iraq in this critical moment in the fight against Da’esh” (the Arabic acronym for ISIS). Iraq is on the top-ten list of U.S. foreign aid recipients, with $500 million in military aid and economic and development assistance allocated to Iraq in fiscal year 2017. There are also U.S.-based multinational corporations operating there, including General Electric (which was specifically mentioned in the memo from the U.S. embassy in Iraq as a company that would be adversely affected by the ban).
Further straining the U.S.-Iraq relationship, Trump questioned why the United States didn’t just “take the oil” after the poorly planned and ill-fated U.S. invasion that began fourteen years ago—which, it should be noted, is against not just our military law but also international law. He even went on to suggest that we may have another chance to do so.
Trump has shown that he intends to knock down as much existing infrastructure on all policy fronts as he possibly can.
Trump has shown that he intends to knock down as much existing infrastructure on all policy fronts as he possibly can. His decision to include Iraq in the immigration ban and his bravado about pillaging its oil do just that. These decisions show a lack of respect not just for the Iraqi people but for the U.S. military and civilian staff that have been working for years to fix past missteps. If he does have a master foreign policy plan, his posturing of late has made it appear that severing the U.S. alliance with Iraq is part of it. Either that or this is just more arrogant, from-the-hip policymaking with the potential to harm the United States, both at home and abroad, for years to come.
Cover Photo: Department of Defense Photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro.