December 12, 2016 | Foreign Policy
Will Trump Stay or Go in Iraq?
Though the battle for Mosul has slowed to a crawl, the collapse of the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate — at least in its Iraqi incarnation — remains only a matter of time. Whether it happens before President-elect Donald Trump takes the oath of office on January 20th, or in the weeks and months shortly thereafter, it’s all but certain that the next administration will quickly be confronted with a fateful decision: Should it seek to maintain an ongoing U.S. military presence in post-caliphate Iraq? Or should the demise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s proto-state be the cue for a relatively rapid drawdown of American forces from the country — now numbering some 6,000?
As is the case with so much of the president-elect’s foreign policy, the answers to these questions are not yet obvious. Trump’s strong condemnation of the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 is now well established. During his presidential campaign, he repeatedly opined that it “may have been the worst decision” in American history. In Trump’s telling, the Iraq war destabilized the Middle East, empowered Iran, and wasted trillions of taxpayer dollars and thousands of American lives.
Whenever one pinpoints the exact date that Trump’s opposition to the war became fully manifest, there’s no doubt that his disdain for the American project in Iraq is of long-standing. Importantly, at the time when President George W. Bush was launching his troop surge in early 2007, Trump was already on record publicly urging that the U.S. military presence be immediately shut down.
As early as 2006, Trump had condemned the Iraq war as “a total mess, a total catastrophe, and it’s not going to get any better. It’s only going to get worse.” His prescription? “What you have to do is get out of Iraq.” In an interview with CNN in March 2007, Trump elaborated: “You know how they get out? They get out. That’s how they get out. Declare victory and leave.” His assessment at the time was clearly that the costs of maintaining a continued U.S. presence far exceeded any possible gains. To Trump’s mind, the pathologies of Iraq’s internal divisions were largely immune from American treatment. “[T]his country is just going to get further bogged down,” Trump said. “They’re in a civil war over there. There’s nothing that we’re going to be able to do with a civil war.”
For Trump, U.S. troops at best served as a temporary salve, suppressing deadly ethnic and sectarian tensions that would immediately re-emerge at the first opportunity. U.S. soldiers would be trapped in an endless cycle of violence at enormous cost in national blood and treasure. “[W]e’re keeping the lid on a little bit but [the] day we leave anyway it’s all going to blow up…. So, I mean, this is a total catastrophe and you might as well get out now, because you just are wasting time.”
Trump’s decade-long penchant to wash his hands of Iraq as soon as possible certainly had loud echoes in this year’s election campaign. One of his most consistent themes has been that “Our current strategy of nation-building and regime change is a proven failure.” As president, Trump pledged that “the era of nation-building will be brought to a swift and decisive end.” Referring to Iraq specifically, Trump said that “It hasn’t worked. Iraq was going to be a democracy. It’s not gonna work, OK? It’s not gonna work and none of these things work.” Even as the war against the Islamic State raged in the fall of 2015, Trump lamented that in Iraq “We’re nation-building. We can’t do it. We have to build our own nation.”
Add it all up, and any observer would be forgiven for drawing the logical conclusion that once the Islamic State is put to flight in Mosul, and its Iraqi caliphate as such has ceased to exist, Trump might indeed be tempted, as he advised in 2007, to just “declare victory and leave.” With the Islamic State threat whittled back to a more conventional terrorist insurgency scattered across disparate pockets of the country, Iraq’s biggest challenge will again become, as it has been since 2003, the problem of finding a formula for stable governance — in particular one that secures the buy-in of Iraqi Sunnis. In other words, nation-building — precisely the mission that Trump has made plain he wants America to be no part of.
On the other hand, however: During the course of the campaign, an integral part of Trump’s critique of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy became his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. Trump blasted Obama’s failure to secure a deal with Iraq’s government to maintain a residual American military presence, alleging that the precipitous U.S. retreat had opened a vacuum that directly led to the rise of the Islamic State. In a major national security speech last August, Trump said that in 2009 Obama had inherited an Iraq that “was experiencing a reduction in violence. The group that would become what we now call ISIS was close to being extinguished.” However, Trump charged, with an eye on boosting his re-election prospects in 2012, Obama in essence pissed it all away. “That failure to establish a new status of forces agreement in Iraq and the election-driven timetable for withdrawal surrendered our gains in the country and led directly to the rise of ISIS,” Trump said. “Without question.”
Hmmm. This obviously was a much different Trump than the one in 2006-2007 who couldn’t abandon Iraq fast enough. This Trump recognized that even while the war may have been a major mistake, U.S. forces by 2011 had started to make a meaningful contribution to longterm Iraqi stability. U.S. forces were making real progress — “gains,” in Trump’s words — and not just a temporary reduction in violence, but also efforts well on their way to actually defeating the Islamic State’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq. This version of Trump seemed to appreciate that while maintaining a residual troop presence in Iraq might be no picnic, the consequences of premature withdrawal could be much, much worse for the United States.
So which Trump will it be on January 20th? The one who appears to have written Iraq off as a lost cause? Who implies that after the battlefield defeat of the Islamic State caliphate that directly threatens the U.S. homeland, any additional U.S. commitment to Iraq would be throwing good money after bad, a waste of time, resources, and potentially lives, that has no possible rationale from the standpoint of securing U.S. interests?
Or could we instead get the Trump who seemed to appreciate that the only thing worse than staying in Iraq in 2011 was leaving Iraq? Who recognized that as difficult and frustrating as it was helping Iraq’s fragile state consolidate the hard-fought gains won with U.S. military support, the price paled in comparison to the likely costs of simply abandoning the country too soon, unleashing the forces of anti-American chaos to gather and strengthen unmolested — radical Islamists of both the Sunni and Iranian Shiite persuasion, each hell-bent in their own way on engineering America’s ultimate demise? The Trump who understood that foreign policy was frequently not a matter of choosing between good and bad options, but between bad and worse, between risky and riskier. Between two evils, to be sure, but one very likely lesser than the other.
In thinking through what to do in post-Mosul Iraq, Trump will surely look to at least two people with extensive experience fighting America’s wars there for counsel: his soon-to-be national security advisor, retired General Michael Flynn, and his appointee as secretary of defense, retired General James Mattis.
Flynn, like Trump, has made clear his view that the decision to invade Iraq was a disastrous mistake. But in his recent book, The Field of Fight, he also said that the change in strategy reflected in President Bush’s surge of troops “allowed us to win the war in Iraq.” That significant victory against the forces of radical Islamic terrorism was tragically squandered, according to Flynn, “because winning is only temporary if you don’t sustain success.” Flynn’s assessment leaves little doubt that the precipitous U.S. retreat from Iraq was fatally flawed. “Everyone that has paid attention to the unraveling of the situation in the Middle East realizes today the tragic error in judgment when President Obama made the fateful decision to pull out forces in Iraq in 2011,” he wrote. “This decision led to the rise of Islamic State and the significant and dangerous increase in Iran’s proxy war involvement across the region and its near takeover of Iraq as a surrogate.”
Mattis’s public views on Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq are harder to find, but in all likelihood no less harsh. At the time of the pull out, Mattis was in charge of U.S. Central Command, which was strongly recommending that the U.S. maintain a substantial troop presence. After retiring, Mattis testified in 2015 “that the military, the senior military officers, we all explained that the successes we’d achieved by 2010-2011 were — and this is a quote — ‘reversible,’ that the democratic processes and the military capability were too nascent to pull everyone out at one time.” Earlier in the war, of course, Mattis had led (and lost) Marines in battle to secure portions of western Iraq that were subsequently overrun by the Islamic State — precisely the kind of outcome Central Command’s recommendation was intended to prevent.
Importantly, the U.S. secretary of defense, Ash Carter — probably the most serious national security thinker in the Obama administration — has recently broached the need for the American military, along with its international partners, to remain in Iraq even after the defeat of the Islamic State. In a speech on December 3rd, Carter argued that “there will still be much more to do after that to make sure that, once defeated, ISIL stays defeated.” He made clear that “We’ll need to continue to counter foreign fighters trying to escape and ISIL’s attempts to relocate or reinvent itself. To do so, not only the United States but our coalition must endure and remain engaged militarily.” In Iraq in particular, Carter said that “it will be necessary for the coalition to provide sustained assistance and carry on our work to train, equip and support local police, border guards and other forces to hold areas cleared from ISIL.”
Regrettably, but hardly surprisingly, Carter’s boss, Obama, failed to pick up on the suggestion when he gave his final speech on national security in Tampa just days later on December 6th. While speaking at length about the fight against the Islamic State, including the climatic battle for Mosul, Obama had nothing to say on the issue of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq after the defeat of the Islamic State’s defeat. He did, however, yet again defend his 2011 troop withdrawal, insisting, however implausibly, that a residual U.S. presence would have done nothing to preclude the parade of horribles that ensued. At any rate, one was left wondering whether Carter’s pronouncements reflected the well-informed but largely random musings of a lone administration outlier or the official position of the United States government as decided by its commander-in-chief.
The war against the Islamic State is now hurtling toward an inflection point. The collapse of Mosul, when it comes, will mark the caliphate’s defeat in Iraq — at least in the short-term. Whether or not it remains defeated, whether or not we see the eventual emergence of an Islamic State 2.0, and whether or not Iran succeeds in transforming Iraq into a full-blown satrapy of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards — all these questions will be critically affected, for better or worse, by whether the United States and the military coalition it leads decide this time to stay in Iraq, or yet again to pick up and leave, as Obama did in 2011. The disastrous results of that decision are now apparent for everyone to see. Despite all his legitimate misgivings about the Iraq war, Trump indicated during the campaign that he also grasps the potentially tragic consequences that can flow when America prematurely abandons the battlefield. It will now fall to him to decide how the mistakes of the recent past can best be avoided and America’s vital interests in defeating radical Islamic terrorism advanced. The world anxiously waits and asks: What will Trump do?
John Hannah is a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.