Donald Trump’s visit this week to US forces in Iraq has to be seen as a highly peculiar move. Following his announcement to pull troops out of Syria and Afghanistan, which caused a split with senior Pentagon figures, it seems that Trump was making a desperate bid to reassure the military establishment. Perhaps even to forestall a feared coup against his presidency.
For nearly two years since his election, President Trump had not visited US troops in any active combat zone, unlike all his predecessors in the White House. His apparent indifference to overseas forces had engendered much consternation from political opponents and the media. In a recent editorial, the New York Times admonished: “Put Down the Golf Clubs, Visit the Troops”.
Recall, too, the US media scorn heaped on Trump when, during his trip to France in November to mark the centennial end of World War One, he declined to pay his respects at an American war cemetery “because it was raining”.
Trump is therefore not the sort of person to put himself in discomfort for others. That’s why it seems all the stranger that on Christmas Night, December 25, the president and his wife Melania left the comfort of the White House, and boarded Air Force One for a 6,000-kilometer overnight flight to Iraq.
The journey to Iraq was variously described in US media as a surprise and “shrouded in secrecy”. So secret indeed that the Iraqi government was not even informed in advance of Trump’s arrival. A hastily proposed meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi did not take place because the Iraqis were only given a couple hours notice when the US president landed.
In total, Trump and his delegation spent only three hours in Iraq and a reported 15 minutes talking to troops at Al-Asad Air Base, near the capital Baghdad. The president then flew back to Washington, making a brief refueling stop in Germany. Talk about a whirlwind spin halfway around the globe – and for what?
What this all suggests is that Trump’s visit was a hasty, ad hoc event that appears to have been done on the spur of the moment, in reaction to the news cycle over the past week.
As the New York Times put it: “The trip, shrouded in secrecy, came… less than a week after Mr Trump disrupted the military status quo and infuriated even some of his political allies by announcing plans to withdraw all troops from Syria and about half from Afghanistan. The president’s decision on Syria led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.”
Mattis’ resignation, followed by that of another senior Pentagon official, Brett McGurk, showed that there was serious pushback from the military establishment to Trump’s pullout order from Syria and Afghanistan.
Not only that but Trump’s political opponents within his own Republican party and the Democrats were given extensive media coverage for their protests against his order.
As CNN reported: “James Mattis’ resignation triggered an outpouring of anxiety and anger”.
Senators were lining up to condemn Trump for losing “the adult in the room” and a “voice of stability”. Mattis was hailed as “a national treasure” and praised for his “moral compass”. The eulogizing hardly squares with Mattis’ record of war crimes committed while serving as a Marines Corp general during the siege of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004, nor his psychopathic humor extolling the “fun of shooting people”.
Not for the first time, Trump was being denounced as a “traitor” by political enemies in Washington and the media. It was reminiscent of the way he was vilified after holding a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki earlier this year. Trump was again accused of “giving a gift to Putin” with his plan to withdraw US troops from Syria.
This time around, however, the political atmosphere was even more seditious.
By ignoring national security advisors and “the generals” over his Syria and Afghanistan announcements, Trump had crossed swords with the military-intelligence establishment. There was also a strong sense that the usual anti-Trump media were seizing on the opportunity to whip up Pentagon dissent against the president by lionizing Mattis as a “great leader” and whose absence would sap morale in the ranks.
The brooding political and military climate in Washington over Trump’s singlehanded decision-making may be the explanation for why the notorious couch-potato president felt compelled to get off his backside and head to Iraq in the middle of the night – on Christmas Night too.
Donning a bomber jacket and sounding jingoistic, Trump seemed to be grandstanding for militarism while in Iraq. “We like winning against terrorists, right,” he crowed to the troops. “We’re no longer the suckers of the world.”
Significantly, Trump added a new dimension to his pullout plan for Syria and Afghanistan. He pledged that US troops were not leaving Iraq – despite nearly 16 years being there after GW Bush first invaded the country in 2003. He also said that American forces would launch strikes into Syria from Iraq in the future, if and when needed. Presumably, this rapid-reaction force applies to all other Middle Eastern countries.
In other words, Trump is not signaling a peaceful scaling back of US militarism in the region, as some of his critics and supporters have perceived. Trump is simply rationalizing American imperialist power, making it leaner and meaner, to be operated out of stronghold bases like Iraq. Notice how the Iraqi government was not consulted on this Neo-colonial plan, which speaks of Washington’s arrogant hegemony, regardless of who resides in the White House.
Trump’s rushed visit to Iraq seems to have been made in an urgent attempt to let the Pentagon and the military-intelligence establishment know that he is not “going soft” on pursuing America’s self-ordained right to wage wars anywhere it wants for the cause of US capitalism.
In the immediate confusion over Trump’s announcement on December 19 of a troop drawdown in Syria and Afghanistan – and the media deification of “Mad Dog” Mattis – a dangerous period fleetingly opened up for his presidency.
Running scared, Trump dashed to Iraq to let the generals know that this president is still a reliable tool for American imperialism.