Imagine trying to punish Donald Trump by making it easier for him to withdraw American troops from a Middle Eastern country.
Next they’ll penalize him by greenlighting construction of a new Trump hotel and casino in downtown Baghdad.
The headline is true, Iraq’s parliament did technically approve a resolution this morning that could potentially lead to U.S. troops being withdrawn. But read the fine print. It was only the Shiite MPs who showed up to vote; the Sunni and Kurdish members, totaling not quite half the chamber, boycotted despite threats from Iranian-sponsored militias that anyone who declined to support the measure would be considered a traitor. And that’s not all:
The legislation threads a fine needle: While using strong language demanding that the government “end any foreign presence on Iraqi soil and prevent the use of Iraqi airspace, soil and water for any reason” by foreign forces, it gives no timetable for doing so.
It would end the mission approved in 2014 that gave the United States the explicit task of helping the Iraqi forces to fight the Islamic State. That agreement gave the Americans substantial latitude to launch attacks and use Iraqi airspace. But the measure would leave in place the Strategic Framework Agreement, which allows an American troop presence in Iraq in some form.
As I understand it, all today’s vote did is attempt to formally withdraw Iraq from the coalition to defeat ISIS. If Iraq leaves the coalition then the reason for allowing U.S. troops to be stationed in the country — defeating ISIS — evaporates. It’s an indirect way, in other words, of signaling that Americans (and other foreign troops) should leave. And it’s not even binding law. It would become law if the Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, signed it, which he’s given every indication of doing. But there’s a catch:
Lawmakers responded by passing a nonbinding resolution calling on the government to end the foreign troop presence in Iraq. The United States and Iraq cooperate under a strategic framework agreement whose cancellation requires binding legislation. Iraq’s caretaker government is not legally authorized to sign such a law, Iraqi legal experts said.
Why is Abdul Mahdi part of a “caretaker government” in the first place? Because: He’s Iran’s boy, and Iraqis have grown tired of being governed by Iran’s boys. He came to power, and was protected while in power, due to the efforts of Qassem Soleimani, who brokered the deal that installed him as PM and then leaned on various political factions inside Iraq to stick with him. That didn’t sit well with Iraqis who already resent Iranian domination; two months of mass protests followed and eventually forced Abdul Mahdi to resign. He remains in office for the time being while the country tries to figure out how to form a new government that’s acceptable-ish to all factions.
In other words, today’s resolution was championed by an Iranian stooge and ratified by Shiites who are either allied with Iran themselves or too fearful at a fraught moment to defy Iran’s demands that the U.S. be rebuked. Media coverage that fails to note those sectarian wrinkles in the politics of the vote is as skewed as some of the reporting last week alleging that “demonstrators” attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Those weren’t demonstrators, they were militiamen backed by Iran and led by a guy who himself ended up painted across the asphalt next to Soleimani in Thursday night’s airstrike.
An interesting question is why today’s resolution wasn’t more forceful in rebuking the U.S., i.e. designed to repeal the Strategic Framework Agreement instead of backhandedly calling for American withdrawal by removing Iraq from the anti-ISIS coalition. My guess is that Iraqi Shiites are in too delicate a position politically to get overly aggressive on Iran’s behalf. They know from painful experience how vicious sectarianism in Iraq can be; the more emphatically they side with Tehran against the U.S., the more nervous the Kurds and Sunnis will get. They also just spent several months absorbing mass protests against Iranian hegemony over Iraq, with plenty of young Shiites participating. If they go all-out in serving Iran’s agenda here, the protesters might be even more aggrieved and the country might be (further) destabilized. They’re caught between their masters in Tehran and their constituents so they took a half-measure.
Frankly, they may not want the United States to leave much more than the Sunnis and Kurds do. Losing U.S. military support — and money — makes preventing the revival of ISIS that much harder. And having American troops nearby provides a political counterweight to Iran’s influence, something the Shiite-dominated government can cite to domestic critics as evidence that the country’s not as beholden to Iran as they claim. “Would an Iranian-owned proxy really allow the U.S. Marines to be stationed within its borders?” The American presence helps maintain a certain balance of power, maybe even providing Iraqi Shiite leaders with more room to maneuver politically than they’d enjoy if Iran had a completely free hand in Iraq. So long as Americans are there, Shiite leaders have to play both sides to some extent. What’s their excuse not to serve Iran slavishly once the Americans are gone?
American hawks are in no mood to see the Iraqi government do Iran’s bidding, even via half-measures:
In addition to reports that Kurdish & Sunni blocs denied quorum needed for today’s Shia vote to be binding, it’s not even clear if bilateral Strategic Framework Agreement (which governs our presence in #Iraq) gives an acting PM like Mahdi the authority to expel U.S. forces.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) January 5, 2020
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) January 5, 2020
It would be strange, and maybe dangerous, to see Trump strike back at Iraq by suddenly talking up the prospect of a new Kurdistan after the embarrassing “they’re no angels” episode in October. But you never know. Trump is transactional, and Iraqi Kurds must have purchased some goodwill from him today by refusing to participate in Iran’s “rebuke America” pageant in the Iraqi parliament. He hasn’t commented yet on today’s vote but he did tweet this on Friday:
He’s probably torn between his instinct to leap at the chance parliament provided him to withdraw American troops from Iraq and his instinct to show strength by not letting Iran muscle the U.S. out of Iraq via a vote by its Shiite clients. There’s also political risk potentially to him if the next Iraqi government enforces today’s resolution and asks America to leave. If that occurs and it leads to an ISIS revival in Iraq and Syria, Trump will be left having to explain to American voters how and why that was allowed to happen on his watch. “The Iraqis asked us to leave because I targeted Iran’s general” might not hack it, especially if ISIS 2.0 were to attack westerners. Maybe his pal Erdogan will let American troops stage operations against ISIS from Turkey.
Here’s the military advisor to Iran’s supreme leader telling CNN that Iran will retaliate with a blow equal to the blow the U.S. inflicted by killing Soleimani. He also said they’d stick to military targets. Are they going to try to assassinate a top military officer?