The Backfiring Iran Obsession and the Baghdad Embassy Protests
The growing Iraqi backlash to the recent U.S. airstrikes escalated significantly with a massive protest that broke into the American embassy in Baghdad. Kelley Vlahos has already discussed this on our State of the Union blog:
Protesters have stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and reportedly set fire to the main entrance area, shouting “Death to America” and “Down, Down, USA”.
The protesters are made up of members of the Popular Mobilization Forces, and they are demanding the expulsion of U.S. forces from Iraq. Far from “restoring deterrence,” the airstrikes have provoked a massive and hostile reaction that puts U.S. forces in greater jeopardy and completely undermines whatever influence the U.S. still had in Iraq. I said yesterday that this was Trump’s big Iraq blunder, and that may have understated how significant it was. The New York Timesreports on the protests:
Protesters broke into the heavily guarded compound of the United States Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday and lit fires inside to express their anger over American airstrikes that killed 24 members of an Iranian-backed militia over the weekend.
The men did not enter the main embassy buildings and later withdrew from the compound, joining thousands of protesters and militia fighters outside who chanted “Death to America,” threw rocks, covered the walls with graffiti and demanded that the United States withdraw its forces from Iraq.
The situation remained combustible, with protesters vowing to camp outside the compound indefinitely. Their ability to storm the most heavily guarded zone in Baghdad suggested that they had received at least tacit permission from Iraqi security officials sympathetic to their demands.
The president has feebly insisted that the Iraqi government protect the embassy after ordering an attack that went against their wishes and violated their country’s sovereignty. It is a bit rich that he invokes international conventions when the president has made a habit of trampling on them and tearing them up. The host government should protect all diplomatic facilities, but then most host governments haven’t just been subjected to an armed attack on their security forces by the same state that now demands protection. You can’t violate another country’s sovereignty on Sunday and expect them to respect yours on Tuesday. For all of Trump’s national sovereignty rhetoric, it has always been clear that he thinks of sovereignty as a one-way street where the U.S. gets to do what it wants to everyone else and the rest just have to take it.
More dangerously, the president has blamed Iran for the consequences of his own bad decisions:
Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will. Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 31, 2019
That probably overestimates how much control Tehran has over the militias in Iraq that it supports, and it drives the U.S. and Iran closer to direct conflict when our government should be looking for a way to calm the situation down. The larger problem here is that Trump and his advisers routinely oversimplify every regional issue and see everything only in terms of Iran’s “malign activities.” They don’t see other countries in the region on their own terms and they don’t view local actors as having their own interests and agency, and that leads to lousy policies that keep blowing up in our face. Does Iran’s government have a hand in these protests? They likely do have some role in encouraging them. Would these protests be happening anyway because of the president’s foolish decision to attack and kill dozens of Iraqis? Of course. Blaming Iran for everything that we don’t like and holding Iran responsible for things that they can’t control is a good way to get into a disastrous war.
Trump keeps taking the U.S. and Iran to the brink of that war because he refuses to give up on his bankrupt and destructive Iran policy. He claims not to want this war, but everything he does makes it more likely. The increased tensions and greater instability that we have seen over the last eighteen months is a direct result of the president’s decisions to renege on the JCPOA and to launch a relentless economic war on the Iranian people. The crisis will persist and things will get worse if the administration uses only coercive and aggressive measures in its dealings with Iran. The Iran obsession has already been a costly failure for the U.S., and the longer that it goes on the higher the costs will be for everyone involved.