Unsurprisingly, US President Donald Trump has once again managed to demonstrate a masterclass in how to lose friends and alienate people. According to the White House, the president and first lady made an unannounced trip to visit US troops stationed in Iraq, having travelled there “late on Christmas night” to thank military personnel for their role in fighting Daeshthe Islamic State terror group (ISIS). His visit caught everyone, including his hosts, off guard, stirring some Iraqi lawmakers into pledging to call an urgent session of parliament to pass laws requiring American military personnel to ship out of Iraq and go home.
Iraq has no sovereignty left to violate: Of course, this all comes days after Defense Secretary Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis resigned following the president’s announcement that he would be pulling out of Syria. Trump’s decision to withdraw citing ISIS’ defeat struck many as an admission of US capitulation to Russian and Iranian designs on the country, while granting some concessions to NATO ally Turkey in northern Syria after years of American support for the radical leftist People’s Protection Units (YPG), linked to the terrorist PKK group who are responsible for the deaths of thousands in Turkey.
After years of undermining their own allies and allowing a resurgent Russia to establish global prestige by successfully intervening to save Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s bacon, Trump has now gone a step further and humiliated Iraqi politicians. Not only did he come unbeckoned, but he also failed to agree to terms for meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who was powerless to protest.
Imagine if a self-described friend turns up unannounced on Christmas Day with a noisy entourage and takes one of your best bedrooms for the evening while ignoring the head of the household and the broader family. Although Iraqis are largely Muslim, the analogy accurately describes how many in the country felt, and not only the political class.
This led Iraqi lawmakers and unironically Iran-sponsored Shia militias to accuse Trump of violating Iraqi sovereignty. MPs issued calls to convene an urgent session to discuss passing laws to compel American troops to leave, while pro-Iran militants such as Shia cleric Qais al-Khazali directly threatened US troops with violence over Twitter.
While this all sounds very patriotic, it is actually laughable that these actors (in more senses than one) are denouncing violations of Iraqi sovereignty. Khazali, Hadi al-Amiri and others who have denounced Trump’s visit are all in Iran’s pocket and have been for decades. In fact, Amiri even fought against his own country during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, yet now has the gumption to start flag waving. Most of the politicians decrying US involvement were huge cheerleaders for the 2003 invasion and are still its main beneficiaries apart from neighbouring Iran.
Indeed, without American military power and air support, Iran’s proxies would not have been able to beat ISIS back in the first place. The hypocrisy of those waving the flag of Islam and Iraqi nationalism in the face of the “Great Satan” is mind-boggling, and it is because of them that Iraq no longer has any sovereignty left to violate.
Trump is sending a message: Nevertheless, by treating Iraq as a colony, Trump was attempting to send two messages. The first was that the United States was still relevant in the Middle East despite his abandonment of Syria. The office of the president possessed the prestige and power to turn up anywhere in the region, meet US troops there as the commander-in-chief, and entirely ignore the subordinate Iraqi politicians that Washington had put into power when it invaded in 2003. The second message was perhaps demonstrative of how there is a method to Trump’s madness.
Although a lot of attention has been given to Syria by the media, activists and opposing political agendas – and for good reason considering the sectarian genocide perpetrated there by Assad, Russia and Iran – Trump’s decision to make a military visit to Iraq was to indicate where his strategic orientation lay. It is often overlooked and stifled by the media for a variety of reasons, but Iraq is the geostrategic lynchpin of the entire region. Trump even told US troops at Iraq’s al-Asad Air Base that the country could be used as a forward base if Washington wanted to do anything in Syria.
Thanks to the US invasion, Iraq is also ground zero for the rash of terrorism that has been emblematic of the Middle East for almost two decades, and it is also the main artery by which Iranian expansionism is fed. Without Iraq in its thrall, Iran would struggle to intervene effectively in Syria, its ability to support Hezbollah in Lebanon would be curtailed, and it would lose its easy access to the Mediterranean.
In short, Iraq is the gateway to stabilising or perhaps even dominating the entire region. Not only is it a hub that connects to Syria in the west, Iran to the east, Turkey to the north and Saudi Arabia to the south, it is also one of the world’s most resource rich geographies. It has historical significance in that it was just a few decades ago a regional power to be reckoned with as well as being the beating heart of the Arab and Islamic golden age during the Abbasid caliphate centuries ago. Finally, because two major powers active in the region – the United States and Iran – see this significance, their interventionism and interference actually increases Iraq’s strategic value as it becomes a battleground with resources invested to ensure victory. Ultimately, however, without action, there can be no tangible increase in power.
The Trump administration does not become more relevant simply because the president decided to visit Iraq in this fashion. So far, three US administrations have consistently lost the battle for influence to Iran, and subsequently lost power across the Middle East. Bush, Obama and now Trump have all failed to exercise effective control over the Iraqi colony, which by now is clearly an Iranian colony. It is unlikely Trump will be the man to reverse this state of affairs.