President Trump Needs to Reverse Course on Iraq – and Fast.
Last week, President Trump ordered his national security team to undertake a 30-day review of the nation’s strategy to combat ISIS.[i] However, in just the 11 days since he took office, Trump has already jeopardized the hard-earned gains of the last two years against ISIS in what has been the central theater of the campaign: Iraq.
Last week, the new Commander-in-Chief doubled down on his campaign riff that America should have “taken Iraq’s oil” – this time while standing in front of a wall of fallen CIA officers, idly musing “maybe you’ll have another chance.” Then on Friday, he banned nationals from the seven countries, including Iraq, from entering the U.S. for 90 days. Yesterday, Iraqi’s Parliament responded in kind - voting to block U.S. citizens from entering Iraq.
All this comes as Iraqi forces backed by thousands of American troops and air power move to complete the liberation of Mosul – the last major ISIS stronghold in Iraq. But now Trump’s careless words and policies risk snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Here are four reasons why the new administration needs to reverse course on Iraq – and quickly.
First, “take the oil” is as unworkable as it is unprincipled and unwise. Iraq produces about 4.5 million barrels of oil each day, in fields spread from the Shia-dominated south to the northern fields near ethnically-mixed Kirkuk. To “take the oil” would require massive infrastructure to be maintained and defended, likely via a large U.S. military occupation against Iraqi resistance over decades of extraction. Further, Iraq needs its oil to survive – it accounts for over 90% of Iraqi government revenues. If America stole it, how could Iraqis afford fight ISIS, never mind govern their country?
Second, the travel ban and “take the oil” endanger American lives. Trump’s plans to ban Iraqis and “take the oil” talk are uniting Iraqi’s fractious communities – unfortunately against Americans. Nearly 6,000 Americans are inside Iraq today, working hand-in-hand with Iraqi forces to defeat our common enemy. But talk of taking Iraq’s oil has already angered Iraqi militiamen who threaten “world war” if Trump tries. Why make the job of our troops harder?
Third, the travel ban on Iraqis is already undercutting the campaign against ISIS. The Iraqi General Talib Al Kenani who leads his country’s elite counter-terrorism service – the primary Iraqi force fighting ISIS—has spent a decade working closely with CENTCOM. His family was relocated to the U.S. for their protection.[ii] Now he can visit neither. For his part, Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi may not act on his parliament’s recommendation to ban Americans, especially the military. However, as former Iraqi Ambassador Likamn Faily noted, even the parliamentary vote will “certainly have an adverse impact” on the fight against ISIS.[iii]
Fourth, Trump is weakening our allies and empowering our rivals. Prime Minister Abadi has been weakened by Trump’s rhetoric and actions. Abadi has put his political life and physical safety on the line to emerge as a key American ally in fighting ISIS. He resisted immense pressure from Iran to keep Shia militants on the sidelines of key battles. But the week has made America look unreliable and ill-intentioned. The result has been to empower adversaries like Moqtada al-Sadr, and Shia militias – many of whom are working to marginalize the U.S. and give Iran a greater role.
All of this matters even more because, as Iraqi forces dislodge ISIS from Mosul, the political fight for the future of Iraq is underway. American diplomats and commanders can play a vital role in making sure that Iraqis united in fighting ISIS do not now turn their guns on each other. President Trump’s words endanger American leverage – which explains why both Iran and ISIS have celebrated each utterance.
For the sake of America’s national security, President Trump should rescind the travel ban and disavow talk of stealing Iraq’s oil. The fight against ISIS is at stake.
Hardin Lang is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he focuses on U.S. national security and multilateral affairs, Middle East policy, and the role of Islamists in the region. He worked in Iraq from 2003 to 2005.
Daniel Benaim is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, researching U.S. policy in the Middle East, as well as a visiting lecturer at New York University. He was a Middle East advisor to former Vice President Joe Biden.