December 31, 2018
What was supposed to be a surprise good-will stopover on December 26 at Al Asad Air Base has created hard feelings instead — both in Iraq and in the United States—after President Donald Trump politicized his holiday message to the troops; tweeted photos of a top-secret Navy SEAL team; and failed to visit the nation’s prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
On the U.S. side, both pundits and politicians pushed back after the president autographed MAGA hats and claimed in his address to the troops that American forces were “suckers” for their service in Syria.
“As long as the message from the president is how wonderful it is that they are doing a service for the country, that’s great,” Charles Blanchard, a former general counsel for the Army and the Air Force during the Clinton and Obama administrations, told The Washington Post. “But when it turns into a political rally, what do people see? They see enthusiastic soldiers clapping and yelling for a partisan message.”
Robert Dallek, a presidential historian, told the DC-based news outlet that there’s always an element of politics when presidents visit troops overseas but that Trump transgressed the line.
“Lyndon Johnson went to Vietnam and visited the troops,” Dallek said.“Did he attack the Republicans? Did he attack his Democratic critics? No. It’s inappropriate. But, once again, what you have with Trump is someone who bends the rules and violates the norms in order to make himself look special or exceptional.”
And in reference to the SEAL team photos, an unnamed Defense Department official told Newsweek that the “deployments of special operation forces—including Navy SEALs—are almost always classified events, as to protect those men and women that are on the front lines of every overt and covert conflict.”
The source added, “I don’t recall another time where special operation forces had to pose with their faces visible while serving in a war zone.”
What’s more, The New York Times reported, a range of Iraqi politicians criticized President Trump’s visit the following day, and some called for a parliamentary debate on whether American forces should leave. The rebukes underscored the political sensitivities surrounding the U.S. military’s deployment in the country, 15 years after the American-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and led to his execution in 2006.
Plans for the visit had been shared in advance with the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. Still, the Times reported, representatives from rival parties in Parliament said that the visit, which lasted three hours and did not include a face-to-face meeting with Mahdi, was an arrogant affront.
American forces left Iraq in 2011, but returned three years later at the Iraqi government’s request to help reverse the Islamic State’s rapid spread in the country, including its takeover of Mosul, once Iraq’s second-largest city. But calls for the Americans to leave have grown in Iraq since the Islamic State was largely routed from the country last year.
One spokesperson called on the nation’s Parliament to “play its role … and put an end to the frequent violations to the Iraqi sovereignty by the American government and to issue a decision to get the American forces out of Iraq.”
President Trump said at Al Asad that he had no plans to order the roughly 5,200 U.S. service members in Iraq to come home. He also spoke from Al Asad by phone with Mahdi and invited him to visit the White House. Plans for the two to meet in person at the base were canceled for security and logistical reasons, according to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary.
This was President Trump’s first visit to vist the troops. In response to all of the criticism, he tweeted on December 27, “CNN & others within the Fake News Universe were going wild about my signing MAGA hats for our military in Iraq and Germany. If these brave young people ask me to sign their hat, I will sign. Can you imagine my saying NO? We brought or gave NO hats as the Fake News first reported!”
There were no polling results yet on the president’s initial opportunity to have “boots on the ground” in a combat zone.
Research contact: @nytimes