The administration’s Iran obsession produced a predictable backlash during Tillerson’s visit to the region this week:
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met top US diplomat Rex Tillerson in Baghdad Monday, challenging the secretary of state over his comments on Iranian militias in Iraq.
Tillerson, in Riyadh on Sunday, called on Iranian militias who are in Iraq to “go home” as the fight against the Islamic State group was ending.
His comments prompted a sharp response from Baghdad.
“The fighters of the Hashed al-Shaabi are Iraqis who have fought terrorism, defended their country and made sacrifices to defeat (IS),” Abadi said, according to a statement from his office.
Tillerson bungled things with the Iraqi government in a few ways. First, he presumed to tell Iraqis what they should be doing in their own country, and that was bound to elicit a negative reaction from Abadi (or any self-respecting Iraqi leader). He failed to grasp that the Iraqi government and many Iraqis see these militias very differently than Washington, and they would see no reason to do what Tillerson called for. Finally, he was so eager to make a show of opposing Iranian influence in Iraq that he harmed U.S. relations with Baghdad while achieving nothing of consequence. An administration less fixated on opposing Iran at every turn wouldn’t have made an issue out of this publicly, and might not have pressed the Iraqi government on this right now at all. A more competent and effective Secretary of State wouldn’t be issuing an ultimatum to Baghdad over their own affairs. A trip that was supposed to show off closer ties between the Saudis and Iraq in concert with the U.S. has led to a sharp rebuke for Tillerson from Abadi.
The bigger problem here wasn’t just Tillerson’s flawed execution, but the overall administration policy that makes “rollback” of Iran the guiding star of U.S. actions in this part of the world. The policy is misguided and likely to drag the U.S. into unnecessary conflicts, and this administration is so clumsy and ham-fisted in its diplomacy that it is going to damage relationships with regional governments and drive them towards Tehran anyway.