Trump’s broken promise on Iraq will hurt him in the 2020 election, and, given his narrow margin of victory in key battleground states, it could be the reason for his defeat. But the Democrats should not rest on this prospect alone. They should actively make it happen by convincing the public (or more precisely, those Americans who voted for Trump in 2016 because of his position on endless wars) that they can deliver when Trump could not.
Viewed through the lens of national security, the case for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Syria is actually simple. Begin with the most salient fact of all: The Iraqis want us to leave. In January, in the wake of the assassinations of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, the Iraqi parliament passed a measure calling for the end of all foreign forces on Iraqi soil. Acting prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi then sent a formal request to the U.S. government to begin discussions to end the U.S. military presence.
When the State Department deflected Iraq’s request, tens of thousands of protesters filled Iraq’s streets demanding the total withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country. If the United States stays, it will remain as an occupying power in violation of international law and without the cooperation of the Iraqi government or the Iraqi people.
This means that U.S. forces in Iraq will be at increased risk. An uncooperative Iraqi government together with an array of hostile Shiite militias — many of them armed not only with improvised explosive devices but also now with Iranian-supplied missiles — will make life unbearable for U.S. forces.
Since the Soleimani assassination, U.S. personnel have been largely confined to bases or to the Green Zone for their own safety. As such, they can serve no useful purpose in Iraq other than being a target for angry Iraqis seeking revenge on the United States.
The handful of U.S. troops in northeast Syria “guarding” Syrian oil from the Syrian government are in an even more precarious position. In Iraq, as in Syria, the United States would need to increase the number of U.S. forces on the ground just to keep the current deployment of troops safe. That means more money and potentially more casualties and more blowback. No president will want to take that unpopular decision without a strong national security rationale.
The official rationale is that U.S. military presence is needed to prevent the return of the Islamic State. This of course ignores that U.S. forces were previously only able to operate effectively with the active cooperation of Iraqi army units and with the tacit cooperation of Shiite militias guided by Soleimani’s Iranian Quds Force, both of which were essential to the defeat of the Islamic State over the past several years.
The real reason for the Trump administration wanting to maintain the U.S. military presence in Iraq is to limit Iranian influence and to block the “Shiite Crescent,” the stretch of Iranian aligned states from Iran in the east to Syria and Lebanon in the west. Iraq represents a strategic land bridge between Iran and its allies in Syria and Lebanon, and, under this theory, the United States must prevent it from firmly falling under Iranian influence.
If the purpose of U.S. forces was to limit Iranian influence in Iraq, then it has clearly failed just as the proxy war against the Assad regime has failed in Syria. In both cases, a misguided U.S. military strategy has opened the door to more Iranian influence, in part because Iran has been seen by both the Iraqis and Syrians as providing protection against violent Sunni extremists tolerated or even supported by the United States.
It is time to end this perverse cycle, and the only way to do that is for the United States to accede to the will of the Iraqi people and withdraw its military forces. It can do so confidently knowing that the Iraqis are demanding that all foreign forces leave — meaning that Iran is also under pressure to reduce its military footprint in Iraq — and that the time is ripe for real diplomacy. The Iraqis no longer want their country to be a battleground between the United States and Iran. And equally important, the Sunni Gulf states are looking for ways to de-escalate tensions with Iran after Iran demonstrated it could put their economies at risk.
For the first time in almost a decade, there is a peace to build in the region, and it is time for the United States to get with the program. This is the message the Democrats need to carry into the 2020 election.