Don’t stop with Afghanistan, Double Down and Get Out of Iraq
On a debate stage in South Carolina during the 2016 Republican Party primary, Donald Trump delivered one of his harshest critiques of American foreign policy in the Middle East.
“George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East,” Trump thundered. He continued, “They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none.”
Trump was booed by those in the debate hall. Some of Trump’s critics thought his remarks would hurt his chances in military-friendly South Carolina. But Trump overwhelmingly won the state and ended the candidacy of Jeb Bush, for whom brother and former President George W. Bush campaigned in the days following the debate.
Trump would continue this line of messaging in the general election, repeatedly reminding voters of Hilary Clinton’s support for the Iraq War and other misadventures in the Middle East. Research on voter attitudes in key swing states regarding foreign policy found that these condemnations of America’s endless wars – including Iraq – played a key role in Trump’s victory on election day.
But of the three major military conflicts President Trump inherited upon assuming office – Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria – Iraq is the one he has made the least progress in ending, despite the central role it played in his foreign policy messaging during the 2016 campaign.
Fortunately, there is a new opening for Trump to correct our current course in Iraq and conclude one of the worst foreign policy blunders in American history.
In May, after months of deadlock, the Iraqi parliament finally installed a new Prime Minister – Mustafa al-Khadmini. Around the same time, a senior Iraqi general indicated the Iraqi government wanted to begin negotiating a withdrawal of American forces. This followed a resolution passed by the Iraqi parliament in January that demanded American forces withdraw from the country.
President Trump should take note of these signals from the Iraqi government and work to plot a course for the full withdrawal of American troops from Iraq – just as he is doing in Afghanistan.
There is no compelling reason for American troops to remain in Iraq. The territorial caliphate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been destroyed. The remaining small pockets of ISIS fighters pose a greater threat to regional powers like Iran than the United States. Additionally, American-supported Iraqi Security Forces have been handing over U.S.-made equipment to Iranian-backed militias. Accordingly, continuing the U.S. military’s “train and equip” mission in Iraq could inadvertently strengthen the capabilities of Iranian proxy forces.
Some argue Mustafa al-Khadmini’s appointment as Prime Minister offers a chance for the United States to increase its influence in Iraq due to his perceived pro-American orientation. However, Khadmini’s ascent was also blessed by Iran and he recently had a friendly meeting with Iranian-backed militias responsible for the deaths of Americans.
We should not expect Khadmini’s government to break with Iran and take a more overt pro-American stance. Leaving an American military force in Iraq is not likely to change that dynamic.
Moreover, if President Trump were to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, he would have the strong support of the American people. A recent poll conducted by YouGov showed 68 percent of Americans would back such a move. Another poll conducted by the Tarrance Group showed nearly 60 percent of self-identified pro-Trump voters in key swing states favor a full withdrawal from Iraq.
Leaving Iraq also presents an opportunity for Trump to draw a policy contrast between himself and former Vice President Biden. Like Hillary Clinton, Biden was an early champion of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Trump could argue that he ended a war that Biden helped start.
With almost 4,500 lives lost, nearly $2 trillion spent, and our nation facing significant challenges here at home, there is no better time to end our military involvement in Iraq. President Trump should make it a priority to put an end to one of the biggest foreign policy mistakes in American history – a mistake he has righteously condemned for years. Doing so would be a popular move with the American people that would allow the United States to focus on more pressing foreign and domestic priorities.
Dan Caldwell is a senior adviser to Concerned Veterans for America and the foreign policy campaign manager for Stand Together. He is a veteran of the Iraq War.