So this was Iran’s “great” retaliation against America for the death of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani: 15 missiles lobbed at two U.S. bases in western and northern Iraq. Nobody died. In fact, it appears the Iranians may have missed on purpose, engaging in a face-saving gesture as they sought to de-escalate a situation at risk of spiraling out of control.
For his part, President Trump responded with magnanimity, telling Americans that since the attacks resulted in no U.S. casualties, he would not order another attack—thereby de-escalating further.
Where does the United States go from here?
The president chose prudence over greater pugilism with Iran. Nevertheless, the incident should make clear that the current U.S. position in the Middle East is untenable—particularly in Iraq. The 5,200 U.S. forces currently deployed in-country have giant targets on their backs. They should be repositioned to more defensible positions, in “friendlier” countries throughout the region as we let the Iraqis deal with their uppity Iranian neighbors.
Toward that end, the Pentagon “mistakenly” issued a draft letter detailing the prospect of an American withdrawal from Iraq. This was not a mistake.
Very often in government, institutional stakeholders strategically leak what should be classified information to friendly news outlets, in order to influence the national debate or undermine a president with whom those career bureaucrats disagree. This is particularly true during policy debates, as various cadres of elites form within the elephantine bureaucracies, and jockey to have greater influence over key policies. Despite having been embroiled in winless wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan for 20 years, there are significant institutional interests that not only believe the United States should have permanent bases in the chaotic Middle East, but that America can fight wars without actually winning those wars.
Few in Washington likely knew that President Trump was serious in his desire to remove all U.S. forces from Iraq. It seems likely that once an official policy memo was drafted detailing how the United States would remove its forces from Iraq, the memo was “mistakenly” leaked to the press.
Within 24 hours of the leak, the Pentagon, the State Department, and even the president himself indicated that U.S. forces would remain in Iraq—even as the Iraqi government voted on a nonbinding resolution asking for all U.S. forces to leave their country.
It seems probable that this represents a case of the “deep state” striking back. And, even though Trump is a belligerent foreign policy minimalist, he seems likely to placate the Pentagon in order to buy enough time to survive the impeachment, get reelected, and then implement his true agenda (part of which is drawing down from Iraq and Afghanistan).
Once the memo was “mistakenly” released to the press, Trump insisted that he would only remove U.S. forces from Iraq if the Iraqi government paid the United States for its commitments to Iraq’s freedom over the years. The president even threatened Iraq with sanctions unless they repay the United States for the blood and treasure spent to liberate the Iraqis. This is wishful thinking (as much as getting Mexico to pay for the wall). And, while it is useful to remind Iraqis and Americans of the blood and treasure we’ve already spent in Iraq, the truth is that the president simply needs to reposition U.S. forces to more defensible territories in the Mideast. This needs to happen before another Benghazi-type event occurs.
Iraq Is Not South Korea
I have spoken to numerous officials at the Pentagon over the past two years who insist on comparing the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan to our decades-long presence in South Korea. These professional strategists seem unaware that the only reason the United States remained in South Korea was that American forces could not defeat the combined armies of North Korea and China during the Korean War.
Our ongoing presence in South Korea, while helpful in supporting the democratic regime there, has also made American citizens responsible for the permanent security of the Korean Peninsula. In fact, it could be argued that the presence of U.S. forces in South Korea has led to the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
But, the United States has dozens of large bases with tens of thousands of troops deployed to nearby friendly countries throughout the Middle East. There is no need to replicate the problematic and expensive South Korean model in Iraq. The United States could contain malign Iranian ambitions without maintaining forces in an unfriendly country such as Iraq.
Iran Builds a Land Bridge to Syria, Lebanon, and Israel
The U.S. defense planners who argue in favor of turning Iraq into South Korea 2.0 do have a point: if the U.S. military totally removes itself from Iraq, the Iranians might complete their much-ballyhooed land bridge linking Iran to Syria and Lebanon (giving Iran’s leadership access to the Mediterranean as well as the ability to threaten their great rival, Israel).
But the Iranian project has been underway since the moment the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Iran has never fully managed to establish a secure bridgehead in Iraq beyond the majority Shiite-dominated parts of Iraq. As Iran expands its influence in Iraq, the Sunni population will resist.
As the Iranians increase their position relative to that of the Americans in Iraq, they will find only a tinderbox. For months, the Shiites of Iraq have led a sweeping protest against their own government. The Iraqi government is thought by most Iraqis, regardless of their religious preferences, to be hopelessly corrupt and unacceptably beholden to Iran.
Also, in Iran itself, the people are protesting against the reign of the mullahs. While Iran expands and focuses more on foreign adventurism in the Greater Middle East, the Iranian people will protest and become more disenchanted. Iranians want greater economic prosperity. So long as Iran behaves as a pariah state, the world will continue isolating Iran’s economy. This would be a victory for the United States.
Why risk that by staying as involved in Iraq as we have been?
Ignore the Warmongers
Frederick the Great famously said: “He who defends everything defends nothing.” This dictum should inform President Trump’s decision-making on Iraq.
The United States is overstretched and its forces will be vulnerable if they remain in Iraq. Those interventionists in the Pentagon who are plainly opposed to Trump’s “America First” strategy should be ignored. They’ve consistently spread American power too thin in the region and, because of their thinking, the U.S. position in the Mideast has been broken.
In his address to the country, President Trump argued that the United States no longer needed the Middle East in the way that it used to—and thanks to America’s growing energy independence, the Mideast should be of less importance than it has been in recent decades. Nothing would better signal that ineluctable truth than Trump repositioning American forces out of Iraq and letting the angry locals figure out their future.
People may be surprised by what the Iraqis ultimately decide. Until Iraqis do decide, however, the Iranians should be viewed as the principal villains in the region, not the United States.