Did the U.S. just pledge to withdraw from Iraq? Or from Baghdad? Or, er, was it all a mistake?

I joked yesterday that trying to threaten Trump by kicking U.S. troops out of a Middle Eastern country is like trying to threaten him by approving development of a new Trump hotel. Iraq is throwing him right into the briar patch by insisting on American withdrawal.

In theory. In practice it’s more complicated. You know how he is about strength. Being told “get the hell out of our country” and dutifully complying does not scream “strength.”

Particularly knowing that that order is being given on behalf of Iraq by Iran. Reuters has seen a copy of the response to that order by the Pentagon:

“Sir, in deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq, and as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Prime Minister, CJTF-OIR will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement,” read a letter from United States Marine Corps Brigadier General William H. Seely III, the commanding general of Task Force Iraq.

The authenticity of the letter, which was addressed to the Iraqi defense ministry’s Combined Joint Operations Baghdad, was confirmed to Reuters independently by an Iraqi military source.

“We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure,” it said.

Did I hallucinate or wasn’t America’s posture as of this morning that we might sanction Iraq if they dared to rescind the invitation they extended to us to station troops there — or at least if they did so in an “unfriendly” way?

Speaking to reporters on Air Force One, the U.S. president said: “If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” Trump said.

The president added that “If there’s any hostility, that they do anything we think is inappropriate, we are going to put sanctions on Iraq, very big sanctions on Iraq.”

President “End Endless Wars” is going to occupy Iraq indefinitely until they compensate us for our bases? What?

Tucker Carlson might commit seppuku live on the air tonight.

Trump is all over the map on this subject even by his usual standards but I think it’s because there are contradictory impulses at work. One, as I say, is the imperative to project strength. He does want to withdraw from Iraq, I’m sure, particularly after spending the last two years insisting that ISIS is utterly defeated. (If there’s no more threat, why haven’t American troops redeployed already?) He does not want to withdraw under threat, however, particularly when that threat is effectively being made by Iran. Soleimani wanted American troops out of Iraq in order to make it easier to extend Iranian hegemony over the country. If killing him ends up producing the strategic outcome he wanted, that’d be a highly compromised “victory.”

My read on the letter is that we’re calling their bluff. As others have noted on social media, there’s no timetable specified. American troops will begin “repositioning” and then, at some point, withdrawal will occur. In that sense, it’s a mirror image of the resolution that the Iraqi parliament passed yesterday. The resolution formally withdrew Iraq from the anti-ISIS coalition, potentially ending the country’s role as a staging ground for anti-ISIS forces, but it’s not clear that the current caretaker government has the power to enforce that resolution. The resolution was also less aggressive than it could have been, allowing the Strategic Framework Agreement between the U.S. and Iraq that authorizes an American troop presence to stand. It smelled like a symbolic gesture, a half-measure taken by the Shiite members of parliament (the Sunnis and Kurds boycotted) to appease Iran by formally punishing the United States for Soleimani’s killing. Today’s response from the U.S. smells like a symbolic gesture too: Sure, fine, we’ll withdraw … eventually, if that’s reeeeeeeally what you want us to do after this Soleimani thing has blown over and you’ve calmed down and had time to think about it.

Does the Iraqi government really want to see American money dry up? Do Shiite nationalists in Iraq, not to mention Kurds and Sunnis, really want a country with no counterweight to Iranian dominion, especially so soon after Iraq saw mass protests against Iran’s influence over the government? What effect might a growing Shiite fundamentalist influence over Iraq have on sectarian harmony within the country?

Read the fine print on the letter, in fact, and you’ll realize that we’re not actually threatening full withdrawal from Iraq. We’re threatening withdrawal from Baghdad:

There are thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq. This appears to refer to a fraction of the total force.

I think the Pentagon’s just being conciliatory here, conceding that Iraq has the sovereign right to make us leave in the belief that everyone will chill out soon enough and this will blow over. Although that makes a potential Iranian attack on U.S. troops in Iraq that much more dangerous: America, starting with Trump, will not want to feel like it’s been chased out of Baghdad under fire. What happens then? Do we turn around and insist that we need to stay and defend ourselves over the Iraqi government’s wishes? What legal position would that leave us in with respect to U.S. troops on Iraqi soil?

But wait. Maybe … there’s been no threat to withdraw from Iraq at all:

Uh, what? What’s going on?