It’s not likely the American public realizes just how dangerous a remark President Trump made at the CIA on Saturday really was, or how it will make things very difficult for the U.S. military as it fights terror going forward. Speaking in front of the CIA’s Memorial Wall, Trump said the following:
The old expression, ‘to the victor belong the spoils’—you remember. I always used to say, keep the oil. I wasn’t a fan of Iraq. I didn’t want to go into Iraq. But I will tell you, when we were in, we got out wrong. And I always said, in addition to that, keep the oil. Now, I said it for economic reasons. But if you think about it, Mike, if we kept the oil you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money in the first place. So we should have kept the oil. But okay. Maybe you’ll have another chance. But the fact is, should have kept the oil.
Sober-minded members of the president’s own party were as flummoxed as I was when they heard the president say them, and the president doubled down Wednesday night in an interview with ABC News, insulting the government of Iraq—with whom we are partnering to defeat the Islamic State—in the process:
Well, we should've kept the oil when we got out. And, you know, it's very interesting, had we taken the oil, you wouldn't have ISIS because they fuel themselves with the oil. That's where they got the money. They got the money from leaving—when we left, we left Iraq, which wasn't a government. It's not a government now.
I just spent two years as the Pentagon’s senior civilian responsible for the Middle East. We didn’t get everything right during my time at the Department of Defense, and we left a lot of work to do for the next administration, but one thing we undeniably did is put the Islamic State on the pathway to defeat in Iraq and Syria. During the time I served in the Pentagon, the territory controlled by the Islamic State shrunk by about half—thanks to a very patient campaign plan that worked by, with, and through partners on the ground and which gave them an ample supply of U.S. and coalition air power. When Trump raised his right hand to become the president, Iraqi forces—under the command of the same Iraqi government Trump claimed on Wednesday night didn’t exist—were in the process of consolidating their hold on the eastern half of Mosul, the Islamic State’s last major stronghold in Iraq.
The United States, however, is now thinking about its role in Iraq after the Islamic State is defeated. First, many of the units that have been so instrumental in defeating the Islamic State—most notably the Counterterrorism Service, or CTS—have been chewed up in the fights for Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul. Those units will need to be reconstituted and will struggle to do so without U.S. assistance.
Second, the Iraqis will need to prepare to fight the Islamic State in its next incarnation—that of a traditional terror group, conducting hit-and-run or suicide attacks against the Iraqi people. The United States and its coalition partners will likely need to leave some troops behind to teach, train, and mentor the Iraqi special operations and police forces as they make the switch from winning back territory to protecting the population in territory under Iraqi control.
All of that means that the United States will want to leave a stay-behind force in Iraq, and not just for Iraqi interests but for U.S. interests: No one wants to return to a situation similar to the one in which U.S. forces deployed in 2014, where the Iraqi military the United States had left behind in 2011 had atrophied due to both neglect and the politicization of its officer corps by the former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
Trump’s careless words bind his own military’s hands. BuzzFeed’s Borzou Daragahi—who was part of a Pulitzer-finalist Baghdad bureau for the Los Angeles Times in 2007 and knows Iraq well—has been keeping track of the way in which Trump’s rhetoric is being received in Iraq. (The tl;dr version: not well!) The fear many have is that once the Islamic State is defeated in Iraq, the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq will be tempted to turn their attention toward the U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq.
One area in which the Iranians, in particular, have consistently bettered the United States in Iraq has been in messaging. The Iranians have been very savvy in using investments in Iraqi media to sow doubt about the true intentions of the United States. That’s why a year ago, at a time in which the United States had just helped Iraqi forces recapture Ramadi, 40 percent of Iraqis nonetheless believed the United States was “working to destabilize Iraq and control its natural resources.”
“Pshaw!” we would tell the Iraqis at the time. “That’s typical Middle East conspiracy-mongering!”
Well, the joke was on us, because our elected head of state apparently believes what the Iraqis feared we believed. (Also, we are no longer in any position to arrogantly poke fun at our brothers and sisters in the Middle East for their fondness for conspiracies. We now have our own problems in this regard, and as the Iraqi-Lebanese satirist Karl Sharro has pointed out with glee, the United States is beginning to look more and more like an Arab country these days.)
So if what the president said was such a disaster for U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East, why and how did he say it?
The why is easiest to answer: Trump is basically the guy you find yourself sitting next to in a bar on a Thursday afternoon who offers commentary on the cable news playing in the corner. He doesn’t really think about the second- and third-order effects of what he’s saying, because that’s not his job. He’s just trying to enjoy his Michelob and strike up small talk. That’s what Trump was trying to do at the CIA: Establish a rapport with strangers in a bar, not really choosing his words very carefully.
Ah, I hear you say, but Trump was speaking on live television and is now the president of the United States. Yes, this is indeed the problem. The words of the guy at the bar don’t normally become national policy the moment he says them.
And this is why presidents are typically surrounded by people and processes that prevent them from saying and doing things that have not been fully thought through. Mike Flynn, Steve Bannon, and Jared Kushner, need to do their jobs and staff their principal.
The president has said he wants to support the military better than his predecessor. He is also saying things that put U.S. lives at risk in Iraq.
He can’t do both.