U.S. Iraq Strategy: No Madman Theory, Just Mad
If the Trump administration has a coherent strategy for the war in Iraq, it certainly isn’t obvious.
On the one hand, President Trump spoke critically of the conflict on the campaign trail in 2016, and he maintained that line after taking office. He called the 2003 invasion the “worst single mistake” in U.S. history in a 2018 interview and insisted, “great nations do not fight endless wars” in his 2019 State of the Union. U.S. forces have recently been consolidating their footprint in Iraq, and in January, a general’s letter obtained by Reuters seemed to say our troops would, after 17 years of war, soon leave Iraq once and for all.
But then the Pentagon announced the letter was inaccurate. And last week, Trump tweeted a threat to expand U.S. military targets to include Iran if Tehran “or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on U.S. troops and/or assets in Iraq.” Meanwhile, The New York Times reported the Pentagon is planning “for an escalation of American combat in Iraq,” even as “the United States’ top commander in Iraq [warns] that such a campaign could be bloody and counterproductive and risks war with Iran.”
A hopeful reading of this mixed messaging might attribute it to Trump’s notion of having a secret or “unpredictable” foreign policy in which the enemy can’t guess your next move. More likely, however, is that it’s precisely what it looks like: an utter lack of strategy which by default leaves us stuck in the same destructive patterns that have defined U.S. intervention in Iraq, and the whole Middle East, for nearly two decades. For all his rhetoric about rejecting Washington’s status quo, in Iraq, Trump has prolonged it.
Perhaps this is because he does not actually want to exit Iraq. Or perhaps he wants to leave but doesn’t know how and is surrounded by hawkish advisers pushing to stay. Regardless, with these threats against Iran, Trump risks floundering into yet another chapter of this needless war, lurching aimlessly toward attacking a new enemy and committing the United States to spill more blood and treasure on a war we should not fight.
This is a grave—but still preventable—mistake. Instead of expanding the war in Iraq to include a proxy or direct fight against Iran, Trump should withdraw all U.S. troops immediately and never send them back.
Much like erstwhile Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, neither Iran, its affiliates in Iraq, nor the diverse other groups, like the Islamic State, that the U.S. is already fighting in Iraq pose a credible threat to vital U.S. interests. There is no scenario in which any of these actors could conquer the United States. But there are a multitude of scenarios in which the Trump administration deciding to maintain or expand American military intervention in Iraq plunges us into additional decades of costly, counterproductive warfare that adds greatly to Mideast chaos and not at all to U.S. security.
Rather than further escalation, especially including an attack on Iran, our next step in Iraq ought to be complete and immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces. Lt. Gen. Robert P. White, the commander who reportedly advised the Pentagon against pursuing its plans for a new Iraqi campaign, is entirely right in his warning: It would unnecessarily put thousands of American troops in harm’s way and waste limited resources.
Our next pivot in Iraq should not open a new front but close all the old ones. We need a realistic, diplomacy-first foreign policy, not a reckless reliance on military meddling in other nations’ political affairs. Now more than ever, in this strange time of pandemic, we need to be pragmatic and pursue peace.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Defense One, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.