If you still have any doubts that American policy in the Middle East has become completely bonkers, just think about recent threats made by the United States to punish Iraq economically if it kicks U.S. troops out of the country – a decision its parliament has approved in a nonbinding resolution.
Iraq, you might recall, is a country that the United States has invaded no less than twice in the last three decades, and where it’s lost the lives of thousands of servicemen (let’s not forget the maimed, either) and spent more than a trillion dollars – first reversing the late Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of neighboring Kuwait, then overthrowing Saddam himself, then occupying the country and trying to stamp out various insurgencies, then fighting the jihadist group ISIS.
America still keeps thousands of troops in Iraq and keeps spending hundreds of billions of dollars annually trying to secure the country militarily and rebuild it economically. And these policies have continued under President Trump, even though he has stated repeatedly that he’d like nothing better than to end such “forever wars” – at some point.
So it’s fair to say that Mr. Trump considers Iraq’s security and prosperity to be awfully important American interests.
And if so, why has the President warned Iraq that it would face “very big sanctions” and “sanctions like they’ve never seen before” if the Americans are forced to leave? And how on earth could reports be true that his administration has told Iraq that it would lose access to billions of dollars of vitally important oil earnings it has no choice but to keep in an account at the Federal Reserve system’s New York branch?
Sure, making good on these threats would produce disaster for Iraq. And Mr. Trump has backed his words with deeds several times during his presidency – on tariffs on metals and on China, on tariffs on Mexico to achieve more immigration enforcement cooperation, and of course on Iran’s attacks on American assets.
But these Trump actions weren’t taken against countries the President wants to help, including for self-interest-based reasons. By contrast, his Iraq policies demonstrate that self-interest is exactly why he wants to stay in that country militarily – despite continued cost and risk. Why, therefore, would any Iraqi with a working brain believe the President? Unless Mr. Trump has been converted that perverse Vietnam-era logic that he has to “destroy the town to save it”? Or unless (at least many) Iraqis and their politicians really doubt Trump-ian suggestions that he would indeed be comfortable withdrawing soon, or fervently hope they’re not true, and are simply playing to their more skeptical countrymen?
Yet even the possibility (and indeed the likelihood) that Iraqis are playing political games with their – again, nonbinding – resolutions presents a problem for the United States. For how smart is it to stay dangerously and expensively mired in a country whose leaders believe such shams are needed simply to stay in power?
Finally, if Mr. Trump really could take Iraq or leave it, then why not leave now? If it’s ultimately so expendable, then why expose a single further American soldier to danger, or spend a single additional taxpayer dollar, there?
If the United States was at the beginning of a deep involvement in Iraq, a respectable argument could be made for these latest Trump-ian threats and other statements. Sometimes such good cop/bad cop tactics can help governments walk tricky tightropes that are worth walking. But even those who tend to see value in such acrobatics have to concede that, after nearly two decades, precious little progress has been made toward creating an Iraq that can handlie its major challenges (which clearly are internal) by itself, and therefore supporters of the status quo need at least to consider the possibility that the policy’s a fool’s quest.
As for those of us who have long argued that current Iraq policies have been doomed and that the United States should wash its hands of the country, and indeed the entire hopelessly dysfunctional Middle East – the latest jumble of Trump words and deeds can only leave us more convinced than ever.