In Bullying Iraq, America is Starting to Look Like the New Evil Empire
The U.S. has occasionally exerted pressure on democratic allies, but never treated them like servile pawns. Until now.
A policy statement that the State Department issued on January 10 asserts that “America is a force for good in the Middle East.” It adds, “We want to be a friend and partner to a sovereign, prosperous, and stable Iraq.” Yet the Trump administration’s recent conduct toward Iraq indicates a very different (and much uglier) policy. Washington is behaving like an impatient, imperial power that has concluded that an obstreperous colony requires a dose of corrective discipline.
Washington’s late December airstrikes on Iraqi militia targets, in retaliation for the killing of an American civilian contractor working at a base in northern Iraq, greatly provoked the Iraqi government and population. Massive anti-American demonstrations erupted in several cities, and an assault on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad forced diplomats to take refuge in a special “safe room.”
The drone strike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani outside Baghdad a few days later was an even more brazen violation of Iraq’s sovereignty. Carrying out the assassination on Iraqi territory when Soleimani was there at the invitation of Prime Minister Adel Abdull Mahdi to discuss a new peace feeler from Saudi Arabia was especially clumsy and arrogant. It created suspicions that the United States was deliberately seeking to maintain turmoil in the Middle East to justify its continued military presence there. The killing of Soleimani (as well as two influential Iraqi militia leaders) led Iraq’s government to pass a resolution calling on Mahdi to expel U.S. forces stationed in the country, and he promptly began to prepare legislation to implement that goal.
Trump’s initial reaction to the prospect that Baghdad might order U.S. troops to leave was akin to a foreign policy temper tantrum. He threatened America’s democratic ally with harsh economic sanctions if it dared to take that step. As Trump put it, “we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before, ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”
Over the following days, it became apparent that the sanctions threat was not just a spontaneous, intemperate outburst on the part of President Trump. Compelling Iraq to continue hosting U.S. forces was official administration policy. Senior officials from the Treasury Department and other agencies began drafting specific sanctions that could be imposed. Washington explicitly warned the Iraqi government that it could lose access to its account held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Such a freeze would amount to financial strangulation of the country’s already fragile economy.
U.S. arrogance towards Baghdad seems almost boundless. When Mahdi asked the administration to “prepare a mechanism” for the exit of American forces and commence negotiations towards that transition, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flatly refused. Indeed, the State Department’s January 10 statement made it clear that there would be no such discussions: “At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership—not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East.”
Throughout the Cold War, U.S. leaders proudly proclaimed that NATO and other American-led alliances were voluntary associations of free nations. Conversely, the Warsaw Pact alliance of Eastern European countries formed in response to NATO was a blatantly imperial enterprise of puppet regimes under the Kremlin’s total domination. Moscow’s brutal suppression of even modest political deviations within its satellite empire helped confirm the difference. Soviet tanks rolled into East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush reform factions and solidify a Soviet military occupation. Even when the USSR did not resort to such heavy-handed measures, it was clear that the “allies” were on a very short leash.
Although the United States has occasionally exerted pressure on its allies when they’ve opposed its objectives, it has not attempted to treat democratic partners as servile pawns. That is why the Trump administration’s current behavior towards Iraq is so troubling and exhibits such unprecedented levels of crudeness. America is in danger of becoming the geopolitical equivalent of a middle school bully.
If Washington refuses to withdraw its forces from Iraq, defying the Baghdad government’s calls to leave, those troops will no longer be guests or allies. They would constitute a hostile army of occupation, however elaborate the rhetorical facade.
At that point, America would no longer be a moral “force for good” in the Middle East or anywhere else. The United States would be behaving as an amoral imperial power imposing its authority on weaker democratic countries that dare adopt measures contrary to Washington’s policy preferences. America might not yet have replaced the Soviet Union as (in Ronald Reagan’s words) the “evil empire,” but it will be disturbingly far along the path to that status.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative, is the author of 12 books and more than 850 articles on international affairs.