The Capital Steps comedy group had a very funny bit for its New Year’s Day show this year. A character representing Vladimir Putin is vacationing in Eastern Europe when he is approached by a border guard:
“Name?” the guard asked.
“Vladimir Putin,” the Russian strongman returned.
“Occupation?” the guard continued.
“No, I’m just visiting,” the actor-as-Putin quipped back.
The comedy is bittersweet because Russia under Putin has occupied territory in Georgia and Ukraine.
The bit comes to mind, unfortunately, in light of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s refusal to discuss an American troop withdrawal from Iraq after being asked to do so by Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
“We’re going to continue the mission,” said Pompeo, of the 5,000 U.S. troops still stationed in Iraq.
So, the question arises, just who are we now in Iraq?
Are we liberators, friends—or occupiers?
The immediate crisis will pass. The Iraqi Parliament unanimously voted to remove all U.S. troops in Iraq in anger at the U.S. assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani on Iraqi soil.
That U.S. action in turn was occasioned by an attack on a U.S. base by an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia that killed an American contractor. The Iraqi prime minister was seeking to assuage Iraqi popular feeling that the U.S. had betrayed its relationship with Iraq in carrying out the attack.
Nevertheless, there is also a widespread feeling in Iraq, especially among the Sunni Muslim and Kurdish minorities, whose representatives did not participate in the parliamentary vote, that the U.S. presence is a needed counterweight to the increasing influence of Iran. That may be why the resolution was carefully drafted to be non-binding.
Iraqi feelings about the U.S. have been mixed for some time. There is genuine appreciation for the U.S., both in freeing the country from the grip of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, and in helping to fight the Islamic State insurgency, which in 2014, occupied almost one-third of Iraq’s territory. American forces continue to help battle these insurgents.
On the other hand, there is also lingering anger over the immense bloodshed the U.S.-led 2003 invasion has occasioned during the past 16 years, and against other U.S. actions, such as the torture committed on its soil at Abu Ghraib prison, as well as the feeling that the U.S. does not respect Iraqi sovereignty.
Ironically, it was this same Iraqi desire for real independence from foreign influence, this time aimed at Iran’s presence, that had led to popular demonstrations across the country in November.
The Trump administration’s abrupt and dramatic action in assassinating Soleimani had the effect of distracting Iraqis from their concerns about Iran and strengthened ties between the Iraqi government and Tehran.
Undoubtedly, that effect was increased by President Donald Trump’s immediate threat to impose sanctions on Iraq if the request for the withdrawal of American troops were actually carried out. The specter of America threatening its own ally when we claim we are only in Iraq for its benefit was not lost on Iraqis, or on the rest of the world.
We have repeatedly asserted that we are not occupiers and that we have no desire for permanent bases in Iraq. The reaction of the Trump administration to the parliamentary vote raises legitimate concerns that this is not the case.
The reason that things have gotten this bad is the absence of a clear Administration strategy for the region. Trump’s basic aim seems to be to reduce the American presence in the Middle East without weakening U.S. power and influence.
That desire to escape the region is why in October he abruptly withdrew U.S. forces from Syria, abandoning our allies, the Kurds, and paving the way for an invasion by Turkey. Spasmodic actions, like the drone attack that killed Soleimani are a side show to Trump’s goal to bring all the troops home.
This should have led Trump to welcome the vote in the Iraqi Parliament. He should have said that if the U.S. is not to be allowed to protect its own forces in Iraq, we would be delighted to withdraw. We are only there, after all, at the request of the Iraqi government.
But to withdraw under pressure would have made the U.S. look weak in Trump’s eyes. That is why he resorted to threats in a context in which threats really make no sense.
The same combination of inconsistent goals is driving American policy with regard to Iran generally.
The administration set the recent events in motion when it withdrew from the multi-Party Iranian nuclear deal in 2018—an agreement that the administration had certified Iran had been honoring. While Iran used the economic resources freed up by the ending of sanctions to expand its influence in the region, it had stopped short of open confrontation with the U.S. and its allies.
Since the withdrawal, and the reimposition of economic sanctions by the U.S., Iranian behavior has become more aggressive, leading to attacks on shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, on a Saudi oil facility, and, now, on a U.S. base in Iraq.
The Trump administration almost had to respond to these provocations, which it did by assassinating Soleimani. But the administration has only its own actions to blame for the situation we are in.
Trump has no intention of provoking a war with Iran, which is why he was happy to let matters drop after the relatively muted rocket attacks by Iran in retaliation for the killing of its General.
Democrats were wrong to overreact to the Soleimani assassination by claiming the administration is courting war with Iran, which was the substance of the non-binding War Powers Resolution passed by House along Party lines after the assassination.
Actually, the administration does not have any long-term strategy for the Middle East. That is why we have been lurching from appeasement to reaction. That is also why we cannot say for certain why we are still in Iraq.
Capital-Star Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Listen to his podcast, “Bends Toward Justice” here.