It would mock history to say that Donald Trump was the first US president to violate Iraqi national sovereignty. Save for a brief interlude between 2011 and 2014 the United States has been militarily intervening in Iraqi affairs since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. At times that intervention has come at the request of the Iraqi government, as was the case in 2014 when the Obama administration deployed US forces back into the country to stem the onrushing tide of the Islamic State (IS). Most of the time, though, that intervention has come unrequested, the best example being the US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq in 2003.
But one of the most interesting aspects to the Trump presidency is the manner in which Donald Trump, in his simplistic approach to issues both foreign and domestic, has allowed the proverbial mask to slip and reveal the naked imperialism beneath. The president who openly boasts of committing war crimes while threatening to commit more and pardoning US service members who have already committed them, who has imposed brutal sanctions that are denying basic human needs to the Iranian people, and who talks gleefully about the US military as both gun runner and mercenary protection racket, has now made it as clear as possible that Washington regards Iraq as little more than a colony.
The January 3 US drone strike that assassinated Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy chair of Iraq’s militia umbrella organization, the Popular Mobilization Committee, outside of Baghdad airport was itself an act of supreme imperial hubris. Soleimani, the intended target, was a high-ranking official for a country with which the United States is not — at least officially — at war, making his assassination legally dubious. Muhandis, who may have simply been collateral damage, was a high-ranking official in the Iraqi government, ostensibly a US ally.
The Trump administration has claimed that the strike was an act of self-defense in the face of “imminent” attacks that Soleimani was supposedly planning, but that claim has been falling apart under scrutiny. What is even more dubious is the decision to assassinate him on Iraqi soil, without even notifying the Iraqi government that had invited him, apparently to discuss a regional peace initiative. What gave the United States the right to kill Soleimani? What gave it the right to kill Soleimani on Iraqi soil, without the knowledge — let alone permission — of the Iraqi government? What gave it the right to do so outside a busy commercial airport, potentially risking the lives of civilians in the vicinity? The administration’s feeble attempts at justification amount to a simple answer: because we could.
It’s worth noting that the Soleimani strike was the second time in less than a week that the United States had felt entitled to conduct airstrikes on Iraqi soil. On December 29, the US military conducted strikes against several targets (in both Iraq and Syria, where military intervention has been debatable from the start) linked to the Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah, in retaliation for a rocket attack two days earlier that killed a US contractor in Kirkuk. While arguably more justifiable from a self-defense standpoint than the Soleimani killing, those strikes still evinced a fundamental indifference toward Iraqi sovereignty, and Baghdad subsequently condemned them for that reason.
Events since the Soleimani assassination have really pulled back the curtain to reveal the contempt with which the US government regards Baghdad. Outraged by the strike, the Iraqi parliament on January 5 passed a resolution calling for the removal of all foreign military forces from the country. While nonbinding and passed over a boycott by the legislature’s Kurdish and Sunni Arab blocs, the resolution made it apparent that the Iraqi parliament no longer views the US military presence in its country as desirable or even acceptable.
The initial reaction from Washington was unambiguous — we’re not leaving. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News Sunday that “we are confident that the Iraqi people want the United States to continue to be there,” despite having just been given evidence to the contrary. Trump, meanwhile, railed against the Iraqi vote, alternately demanding payment from Baghdad for money the United States spent renovating Iraq’s Ayn al-Asad airbase following the 2003 invasion and threatening to impose “sanctions like they’ve never seen before, ever” against Iraq if it were to expel US forces. The effect of any US sanctions would likely be crippling to an already struggling Iraqi economy. In that context, Pompeo’s assertion to CBS News’ Face the Nation that the administration “is prepared to help the Iraqi people get what it is they deserve” seems at best laughable, and at worst ominous.
A brief and bizarrely comic interlude forced the administration to rip the mask off completely. The day after the Iraqi parliament vote, the Pentagon sent a letter to the Iraqi government declaring its intention, “in due deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq,” to redeploy US forces “to prepare for onward movement … out of Iraq.” The administration characterized the letter as a “draft” for “circulation” and its transmission to Baghdad as a “mistake,” but Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi insisted that the letter was “official” and even told reporters that the Pentagon had sent him a second version of the letter after he requested a clarification in the translation.
In a phone call with Pompeo Thursday evening, a day after the Iranians responded to the Soleimani assassination by firing missiles at two Iraqi military bases, Abdul-Mahdi pressed the issue, asking the Trump administration to send a delegation to Iraq to work out the details of a US withdrawal. It was at this point that the State Department responded with a statement that is remarkable for its matter-of-fact rejection of the idea that Iraq has the right to govern itself:
America is a force for good in the Middle East. Our military presence in Iraq is to continue the fight against ISIS and as the Secretary has said, we are committed to protecting Americans, Iraqis, and our coalition partners. We have been unambiguous regarding how crucial our D-ISIS mission is in Iraq. At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership—not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East. Today, a NATO delegation is at the State Department to discuss increasing NATO’s role in Iraq, in line with the President’s desire for burden sharing in all of our collective defense efforts. There does, however, need to be a conversation between the U.S. and Iraqi governments not just regarding security, but about our financial, economic, and diplomatic partnership. We want to be a friend and partner to a sovereign, prosperous, and stable Iraq.
The first sentence alone would belong in a Gaslighting Hall of Fame, if such a thing existed. The entire statement is simply a matter of fact “no” to the Iraqi government’s now repeated requests for the US military to leave the country. Moreover, it even manages to work in Trump’s demand that Baghdad pay the United States back for the Ayn al-Asad airbase, albeit more diplomatically phrased as a “conversation” about the US-Iraqi “partnership.” In truth, this statement is the clearest possible evidence that there is no “partnership,” at least not from Washington’s side. “Partnership” implies equality. A “partner” nation’s request not to have foreign soldiers based on its soil ought to be honored. At the very least its requests shouldn’t be ignored or countered with threats of economic punishment. Instead of a partnership there is instead a hierarchy, and Iraq is at the bottom of it.
There is little doubt at this point that the United States is a rogue state, indeed the most dangerous rogue state in the Middle East. From enabling the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen to immiserating the Iranian and Palestinian peoples, from exacerbating the civil war in Syria to creating instability in the Persian Gulf, Washington does what it wants, when it wants, with little regard for any semblance of rules, law, or, now, even for the wishes of its ostensible allies. To be sure, this state of affairs did not begin with Donald Trump. But in its campaign against Iran, the Trump administration has both escalated this US rampage and made it more apparent than ever before.