President Donald Trump’s interviews seldom fail to deliver moments that have newsroom fact checkers busy, sometimes scratching their heads, other times, updating their Pinocchio spreadsheets of presidential lies and misrepresentations.
For Iraq watchers, though, Trump’s interview with CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday was a bonanza of exclamation marks.
Here’s the upshot: The president said he would keep American troops in Iraq because he wants to keep an eye on Iran.
“I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem,” he said on Sunday, clarifying that he’s not planning on attacking Iran. “All I want to do is be able to watch.”
There’s just one problem: Trump failed to run his strange surveillance plan by his Iraqi counterpart.
Iraqi President Barham Salih told reporters in Baghdad on Monday that U.S. troops are in Iraq to help local forces fight terrorism, not spy on Iran.
“Don’t overburden Iraq with your own issues,” said Salih, “The U.S. is a major power … but do not pursue your own policy priorities, we live here,” he added, flat-out rejecting the notion.
The Trump administration has been all but literally gunning for Iran. Last year, Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and re-imposed brutal sanctions on the country. In addition to taking issue with Iran’s ballistic missile program, the Trump administration has demanded that Iran essentially change its entire foreign policy in order to once again get sanctions relief. His administration continues to maintain that all options, including a military one, are on the table.
“I don’t think it was a fully-considered statement,” said former Ambassador Barbara Bodine, who served in Iraq (among other countries) during her diplomatic career. “I don’t think he understands how we ‘watch’ a country.”
She also pointed out that U.S. government facilities in Arab countries in the Persian Gulf serve to monitor Iranian activity. And that’s on top of the, you know, actual spying. “We’ve got satellites, and spies, and spooks, and allies, and all sorts of things and people who ‘watch Iran,'” said Bodine, listing some of the ways U.S. intelligence operates inside Iraq.
Unilaterally stating how U.S. troops should remain on an Iraqi base is “not considered appropriate diplomatic behavior…particularly if it would complicate a, let’s call it, workable relationship out of necessity.”
“Small point, sir: Sovereign state,” said Bodine, referring to Trump’s plan.
Another important point is that Iran is actually an Iraqi ally in the war against extremist groups, such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS). While the political relationship between the neighbors can be tense, there is little doubt that without Iran’s support of the Shia milita in Iraq, ISIS would be on far stronger footing in the country rather than in territorial retreat.
“Iran and Iraq need to have a working relationship and so, diplomatically, this is not what you do. Politically, this is not what you do,” said Bodine.
Indeed, the geography of the region seems to elude Trump, who appeared unaware that the base to which he was referring in Iraq — the Ayne Al Asad Airbase — is closer to the country’s border with Syria, to the west, rather than Iran, to the east.
The president should know where the base is. He went there for a very brief visit over the Christmas holidays, and that visit didn’t go over so well either. He tweeted out a photo that betrayed the location of Navy SEAL team, made false statements about the raise he got the troops, and managed to infuriate Iraqi leadership by failing to notify them of his visit, and to meet with his counterparts while there.
That visit stirred debated among Iraqi lawmakers, who felt their country’s sovereignty had been attacked and considered a vote booting out U.S. troops.
Continually insulting sovereignty, said Bodine, will serve to “degrade our relationship” with the country, which is a U.S. partner — for now.
“Not even our friends know from one day to the next what the President of the United States is going to say. And even when he says something, they don’t know what that means, or if it’s really going to happen,” said Bodine.
For instance, when the president in December said that he was pulling U.S. troops out of Syria, the Kurds, who helped U.S. forces fight ISIS were caught off guard, as were the Israelis, who have worried about Iran using Syria as a tactical military base.
“I think the greatest risk we run is that we become irrelevant background noise to the countries in the region,” said Bodine, adding that increasingly, U.S. partners in the region might talk to Turkey or perhaps Russia rather than the United States.
“They don’t know what we’re going to do — we’re not predictable, we’re not reliable, we’re not dependable.”