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, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and Defense One, among other outlets.
One of the final significant acts of the Trump administration may be the closure of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Axios reported shortly before Christmas, as the largest embassy in the world continues to sustain rocket attacks by Iran-linked militias.
The possible closure has largely been analyzed for its potential effect on U.S.-Iran relations: President Donald Trump tweeted threats of retaliation against Iran should further rocket attacks claim any American lives, and he is reportedly being briefed on a "range of options" for response.
Those implications are significant, particularly given how close the U.S. came to war with Iran a year ago. But also deserving attention is the state of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq itself, where the embassy is located -- and where the United States has been at war for 17 years. Trump's tenure has served to further permanentize U.S. military intervention in Iraq, so much so that the prospect of closing the Baghdad embassy raises more questions about the chance of starting a new war with Iran than about ending the old war in Iraq.
As Trump prepares to leave office, a review of his Iraq policy can help identify a different way forward for President-elect Joe Biden.
Trump came into office promising a "new era of peace, understanding and good will" in American foreign policy. His administration would "finally [learn] from the mistakes of the past," he said shortly after his election in 2016. "We will stop looking to topple regimes and overthrow governments, folks. Our goal is stability, not chaos, because we want to rebuild our country."
He continued to use that rhetoric throughout his presidency, often touting his intent to move away from nation-building and end "endless wars" so American resources could be refocused on domestic priorities. He decried the Washington consensus against "precipitous" U.S. withdrawal from conflicts long since devolved into unwinnable chaos. He labeled the war in Iraq the "worst decision in the history of our country," a grave mistake that sacrificed millions of lives and trillions of dollars for a fight with no plausible victory or connection to vital U.S. interests.
And yet, for all that blistering critique, Trump has never seriously attempted to end the war in Iraq, even after the battle against the Islamic State wound down. He has not made promises about U.S. withdrawal from Iraq as he has for our interventions in Afghanistan and Syria. When the Iraqi Parliament voted for all American troops to exit their country in early 2020, the Trump administration, in other contexts so enthusiastic about external sovereignty, flatly rejected the demand.
Trump is presently overseeing a deployment reduction in Iraq to around 2,500 U.S. forces, but he plans to leave office with this war very much intact -- and with a ground presence barely smaller than the one he inherited four years ago.
Whatever he may say about ending wars, Trump's obvious disinterest in ending the war in Iraq makes sense if we remember the Iran-focused framing of the possible embassy closure.
"Iran policy has simply taken over Iraq policy," as Douglas Silliman, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2016 to 2019, told The Atlantic in February. Trump in many ways leaves this war much as he found it, with a relatively small but apparently indelible U.S. military footprint mainly concerned with a perpetual counterterrorism mission against an evolving slate of targets. But he has introduced a new purpose for U.S. military intervention in Iraq: "to watch Iran."
This is a conspicuously boundless purpose, a reason to stay in Iraq that will last as long as Iran exists to watch. It's self-perpetuating, too, as Iran sees the U.S. military presence in neighboring Iraq as a threat and accordingly escalates its regional troublemaking, including in Iraq, to demonstrate that it won't be intimidated. The more Trump insists on watching Iran from Iraq, the more there is to watch, and the more likely dangerous escalation becomes.
The incoming Biden administration should break this dismal cycle and effect the full U.S. withdrawal from Iraq that the Obama administration never completed and the Trump administration never attempted. That might include closing the Baghdad embassy, not as a diplomatic rupture -- we can and should continue diplomacy with the Iraqi government whatever our physical presence in the country -- but simply to deprive these militias and any other anti-American groups of visible, symbolic targets for violence whose destruction could draw us back into a new round of war.
Biden's differences from Trump on Iran policy should make this pivot not only feasible but desirable for the new president. And leaving Iraq for good could be an early and decisive political win for Biden: Most Americans had decided the war was a detriment to U.S. security as far back as 2005. The invasion was rejected as the wrong decision by over half the country by 2007. The war was broadly deemed a failure by 2013. And now, three in four would support complete U.S. departure.
To "watch Iran" isn't a good enough reason to stay at war in Iraq, as most Americans clearly realize. Hopefully, the Biden administration will realize it, too, and avoid repeating Trump's Iran-linked failure in Iraq.
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