Trump’s Rubicon moment in Iraq: Praising America’s 'warriors,' ending wars

Will his visit bolster him at home, while causing anger in Iraq among pro-Iranian factions who want to use it to remove US forces?

U.S. and Turkish soldiers conduct the first-ever combined joint patrol outside Manbij, Syria, November 1, 2018. Picture taken November 1, 2018. Courtesy Arnada Jones/U.S.  (photo credit: ARMY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
U.S. and Turkish soldiers conduct the first-ever combined joint patrol outside Manbij, Syria, November 1, 2018. Picture taken November 1, 2018. Courtesy Arnada Jones/U.S.
“We like to win; we are going to win,” US President Donald Trump told the troops at Al-Asad airbase in central Iraq.
It was his first visit to US forces abroad, and comes in the wake of Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria. It also comes in the wake of the resignation of US Defense Secretary James Mattis, who was popular with the troops, and also the resignation of anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk.
Trump’s decision to go to Iraq the day after Christmas is part of an attempt to change the narrative after being slammed for his reversal of Syrian policy and accusations that he made the decision without consulting the Pentagon or the State Department. By speaking at Al-Asad in western Iraq, he sought to reach out directly to the American military. This was an important and symbolic speech because it comes at a crucial point in his foreign policymaking and also midway into his administration.
“You’re modern day warriors,” Trump said, praising the troops.
Reading from a prepared speech, he sought to emphasize some points, going off the prepared text from time to time. He listed the various units at Al-Asad, including the 201st Regional Support Group, the 1st Expeditionary Rescue Group and the 3rd Cavalry regiment, as well as the special operations group stationed in Iraq.
Trump sought to highlight the achievements of the four-year-long war on ISIS, including what he said was the liberation of 20,000 square miles of territory and 3 million civilians.
“Because of these gains, the service members in Syria can come home,” he said. Trump noted the US initially getting involved in Syria for “three to four months,” which appeared to be a reference to US support of the Syrian rebels against Bashar Assad’s regime in 2011.
For Trump, it was one long war that should be ended. “I gave our generals six more months in Syria [in 2016], and that was a year and a half ago. They said they need six more months and another six more months, and another – and I said no.” He said US troops needed “clear objectives,” and that after reducing ISIS-controlled areas by 99%, other countries in the region could do the rest.
TRUMP DESCRIBED the US withdrawal as deliberate, casting cold water on criticism that it was spur of the moment. He also said the US would stay in Iraq to prevent an ISIS resurgence and to keep an eye on Iran. His emphasis was on America no longer doing all the fighting and funding of conflicts without getting reimbursed. “We aren’t the suckers of the world.”
To rounds of applause, he said that the US was fighting in areas where it shouldn’t be fighting and spending billions on 19 years of war, a reference to the long war since 9/11. “We want to fight where it is meaningful,” he said, noting that anyone who attacked America would suffer consequences like no one has suffered before.
Trump appeared at ease and relaxed with the soldiers. After the speech, he also took selfies with them.
This is a Rubicon moment for the US president. He sought to use the speech to show that he is in touch with average American demands and to challenge Democrats, who he referenced several times, to build a stronger border wall and also to fund the military better. This is a rare politicization of a speech in front of the troops and it will be noticed back home. He is trying to position himself for the new year when a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives will challenge Trump’s policies.
He also wants to shore up supporters and cast doubt on the challenges he has faced from senators who balk at his Syria policy. Senator Lindsey Graham has been a harsh critic of leaving Syria and abandoning US partners on the ground who helped fight ISIS. He also warned Trump not to follow up with withdrawing from Iraq. “We also must not abandon our Kurdish allies who have fought so hard by our side in Syria.”
Trump, however, did not mention those allies, instead saying Turkey would deal with ISIS and the US would be working closely with Turkey. Turkey has vowed an offensive against US Kurdish partners in Syria, setting up a strange scenario in which the US leaves and watches one of its allies fight another.
The Trump doctrine here is that the US must come first and that these foreign problems are not America’s problem. For instance, Trump was criticized in Iraq for not meeting officials in the government. Iraqi leaders didn’t even seem to know Trump was planning a visit. Although the president’s team reportedly reached out to Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s office, the Iraqi leader didn’t want to come to Al-Asad air base so the personal meeting was cancelled.
It’s not entirely clear when Trump planned the visit – whether he decided to go after the decision to leave Syria on December 19 or before that. National Security Advisor John Bolton, who was one of the few advisers he confided the Syria policy change to before making it, came with him.
NOW, IRAQI politicians are slamming the visit, especially the pro-Iranian groups. Qais Khazali, a one-time detainee of the Americans who formed a Shi’ite militia and then became a political leader as well, said that Iraq’s parliament should vote to remove US forces from the country. This is not surprising, as many of the pro-Iranian parties and groups have opposed the US presence in Iraq, only asking for help against Islamic State, but not wanting a real American involvement.
 With the exception of the Kurdish autonomous region, much of Iraq is hostile in one way or another to the US presence, either due to historical reasons such as lingering support for Saddam Hussein, or because of US-Iran tensions or perceived US abuses during America’s 2003-2011 role in Iraq. In the Kurdish region there were hopes for a Trump visit, even as there is criticism of the US walking away from Kurdish areas in Syria.
Trump’s visit wasn’t about Iraq or the Middle East; it was primarily about Trump and US forces. In this sense it feels like a Rubicon moment because that is when the Roman leader Caesar decided to cross into Italy with his army to oppose the meddling politicians in Rome.
Trump wants to leverage his Iraq visit to tone down criticism at home, and show that while he may not make friends in major media, he has the support of average Americans. This has been his narrative from the beginning, seeking to challenge the status quo and also to question US commitments abroad and whether the US is paying too much and doing too much for foreign countries.
In the region, the visit will be judged as Trump sticking by his Syria decision and seeking to reduce the US footprint.
This will encourage Russia, Turkey and Iran to continue to pursue their agendas in Syria and perhaps to leverage anger in Iraq over Trump’s visit to pressure the US in Baghdad as well.
With McGurk gone, a key US official who worked on Iraqi coalition politics and smoothing relations between Baghdad and Saudi Arabia is no longer working on the Iraq file. Trump’s team may now find that leaving Syria causes more dominoes to teeter.