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Trump’s Big Iraq Blunder

President Donald J. Trump speaks with reporters during a briefing with military leadership members Wednesday, December 26, 2018, at the Al-Asad Airbase in Iraq. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

The New York Timesreports on the surge of anti-Americanism in Iraq following the recent airstrikes against an Iraqi militia:

While there has been some criticism of the militias’ attacks on Iraqi bases where Americans are stationed, most objections are now being leveled at the United States. The populist cleric Moktada al-Sadr, for instance, urged the militias to abandon “irresponsible actions,” saying he would work with them to use legal and political means to kick out the Americans.

Analysts also said the scale of the American attack — on five sites in two countries with two dozen people killed — made it likely that Kataib Hezbollah would feel compelled to respond and could rally anti-Americanism.

The heavy-handed U.S. response has done more to aid Iran than it has done to harm them. It has served as a distraction from Iran’s interference in Iraq, and it has focused public anger on the U.S. instead. It is typical that an action favored by Iran hawks ends up redounding to Iran’s benefit. Every time that hard-liners think that they are injuring the Iranian government they wind up doing them a favor. That was true in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and it has been true many times since then. Using force against an Iraqi militia may satisfy war-hungry ideologues at FDD, but it is a good way to alienate everyone in Iraq. Unless the goal is to drive Iraq’s political leaders closer to Iran, the Trump administration just made a major blunder. That is part and parcel of an incompetent and destructive Iran policy that has destabilized the region for no good reason.

It shouldn’t surprise us that people resent having their country and security forces attacked by a foreign government:

And while the militia is closely tied to Iran, many Iraqis see it primarily as an Iraqi force and were angered by an attack on it by an outside power.

“We are talking about a foreign force attacking an Iraqi force,” said Maria Fantappie, the senior adviser on Iraq for the International Crisis Group.

When we cut past the rhetoric about “self-defense,” we see that the U.S. launched an assault on members of Iraqi security forces without the Iraqi government’s permission. Imagine if we had invited another government’s military into our country, and then they take it upon themselves to attack our people over the the objections of our government. That is what the U.S. just did to Iraq. At best, it was an abuse of the privilege that the Iraqi government has granted the U.S. by allowing our forces to operate on their soil. At worst, it was a flat-out act of aggression against a partner government. If we were in their position, we would be outraged and we would have every right to be. The smart thing to do now is to apologize to the Iraqi government and remove the remaining U.S. troops from Iraq as soon as possible.

Hawks claim that the U.S. will discourage further attacks by hitting Kata’ib Hezbollah with airstrikes in multiple locations, but that is very likely wrong:

The United States may have been trying to send a message that killing Americans was a red line not to be crossed, said Ranj Alaaldin, director of the Proxy Wars Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Doha, Qatar. But the toll of its attack was likely to yield “more intense and expanded operations” against Americans.

“What the U.S. intended and what the U.S. will get could be two very different things,” he said.

The U.S. is usually very bad at understanding how adversaries see things and anticipating how they will respond. Our leaders assume that they are “restoring deterrence” when they are goading the other side to take more aggressive action. They think that smacking the other side in the face with a few airstrikes will cow them when it naturally just makes them angrier. Hawks refuse to see things from the adversary’s side, and so they are constantly misjudging what will and won’t provoke more attacks. A continued American military presence in Iraq at this point is just asking for trouble. The Iran obsession makes American troops less safe, and it is going to get more Americans killed if it isn’t reined in now.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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