Surprise! Trump meets the troops in Iraq, defends Syria withdrawal

Donald Trump’s sudden appearance in Iraq yesterday provided a surprise on multiple levels. The troops at al-Asad Air Base in the western part of the country certainly got surprised by the Christmas visit. Adding to that was the first such visit by a First Lady, as Melania Trump came along to bring holiday cheer to the men and women deployed in the war zone:

President Trump greeted U.S. troops on an unannounced trip Wednesday to Iraq, where he defended his decision to withdraw forces from neighboring Syria and declared that the Islamic State is “very nearly defeated” while making his first visit to a conflict zone as commander in chief.

The president used his visit to al-Asad Air Base to amplify his call to draw down the U.S. presence in foreign wars and assert his personal influence over the military at a moment of tremendous turmoil at the Pentagon.

After months of public pressure for him to spend time with troops deployed to conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia, Trump touched down at the joint U.S.-Iraqi base west of Baghdad after a secret flight from Washington.

Accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, the president sounded a triumphant note as he addressed U.S. service members on the day after Christmas. “We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” he said. And he warned that he was committed to withdrawing troops from foreign wars even when his administration’s experts object.

CBS News also noted that it’s Trump’s first personal visit to a war zone. The troops gave him a rousing welcome, prompting David Martin to call Trump “a rock star” with the rank and file:

Trump insisted that withdrawal from Syria won’t mean a withdrawal from Iraq. Iraqi politicians, also surprised by Trump’s appearance and angered over it, want a special session of parliament to order the US to withdraw regardless:

Iraqi lawmakers Thursday demanded U.S. forces leave the country in the wake of a surprise visit by President Donald Trump that politicians denounced as arrogant and a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.

Politicians from both blocs of Iraq’s divided Parliament called for a vote to expel U.S. troops and promised to schedule an extraordinary session to debate the matter.

“Parliament must clearly and urgently express its view about the ongoing American violations of Iraqi sovereignty,” said Salam al-Shimiri, a lawmaker loyal to the populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Trump and the White House claimed that a lack of notice made it impossible for Trump to meet personally with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Abadi’s office had a different story:

The prime minister’s office later said in a statement that “differences in points of view” over arrangements led to a face-to-face meeting between the two leaders being scrapped.

The push to get the US out has little to do with this visit. Sadr and his followers have been demanding a US withdrawal since the early days of the war, and Sadr himself at one time fielded a militia that fought against the US, albeit briefly. The Kurds will not take kindly to that proposal, though, especially after what’s happening with Turkey in Syria. The Iraqi Kurds probably don’t trust the US much after that either, and for good reason, but they need us to stick around in order to keep from being dominated by the Sadrists. And like it or not, the Sadrists need us around to keep the Kurds within the Iraqi federation and to prevent the civil war that almost erupted a few years ago between the Kurds and Baghdad.

So the troops were delightedly surprised, the Iraqis were much less delightedly surprised, and so was the media. Some outlets had already begun to publish hot takes on Trump’s avoidance of war zones as Trump was all but landing in Iraq. The defense on this approach to journalism was rather ironic:

When there’s no news to print and no effort to find out, why print it at all? As Derek Hunter points out, it was all about narrative over news:

In fairness, QZ was hardly alone in the narrative-hot-take business. NBC and its affiliate MSNBC had run with it the day before, prompting a correction the next day. By the morning, the narrative had shifted somewhat into … a campaign-finance violation? Or maybe a  few hundred courts-martial? Take it away, CNN and Jim Acosta:

President Donald Trump made his first visit to a war zone on Wednesday, receiving an enthusiastic reception from many US troops there — some of whom may have run afoul of military rules.

Video footage and the written report of Trump’s visit with service members in Iraq showed the President signing “Make America Great Again” hats and an embroidered patch that read “Trump 2020.”

But troops’ requests for the autographs could brush up against Department of Defense guidelines for political activities.

Those guidelines say that “active duty personnel may not engage in partisan political activities and all military personnel should avoid the inference that their political activities imply or appear to imply DoD sponsorship, approval, or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign, or cause.”

What would the concern be for men and women of the armed forces having Trump sign their own hats that they brought themselves to their deployment? Perhaps our concern should be to keep from making them into political pawns for attacking the president. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a hat is just a hat, fellas. Merry Christmas, troops!