24 August 2019
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greet military personnel during an unannounced visit to the Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on Dec. 26. Photo: Reuters
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greet military personnel during an unannounced visit to the Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on Dec. 26. Photo: Reuters

The political calculations behind Trump’s Xmas visit to Iraq

Last Wednesday, US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania paid an unannounced visit to the Al Asad Air Base in Iraq and met with American troops.

No matter whether you like Trump or not, you do have to admire his political calculations and his courage to make the trip to Iraq, which is still a very dangerous place.

The president was given a very warm welcome by his troops. Even though Trump is only pulling American forces out of Syria and Afghanistan but not Iraq, generally speaking, frontline US soldiers and their families back home are overwhelmingly in favor of withdrawing troops from the region.

With the troop withdrawal decision, Trump may have firmly secured the votes of the servicemen and women as well as their families.

And another reason why Trump was suddenly making a trip to Iraq in a “bottom-up” fashion at a time when Defense Secretary James Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly have both recently jumped ship is that he apparently wanted to demonstrate to fellow Americans that he can still command respect from the armed forces even without the backing of military heavyweights.

Given that, one can certainly expect that Trump is going to appoint more and more people from his inner circle who have no direct military background to key positions in the Pentagon in the days ahead, such as the incoming acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, or some right-wing lawyers, arms dealers, top oil company executives, etc.

Many people would often compare Trump’s military withdrawal from Syria to a massive troop pullout under his predecessor Barack Obama.

However, there is a striking difference between Trump and Obama when it comes to their policies towards Syria.

As compared to Obama, Trump has no big concern over deploying heavy and devastating weapons to Syria and is a lot less concerned about the resulting casualties of the local “terrorists”.

And the heavy-handed strategy towards Syria has apparently gained favor with some key figures in the American military-industrial complex.

As we can tell from his speech, Trump stressed that it is mission accomplished for US troops in Syria, but he didn’t rule out the possibility of sending American forces to the region again in the future.

Besides, if we read between the lines, we can also notice that Trump could have dropped a hint that the United States may return to Syria if necessary in a way that doesn’t entail any direct troop deployment, but can still benefit the arms industry.

The First Couple’s Christmas visit to US bases in Iraq this year actually came one day later than the schedule of previous US presidents during such trips, a fact that initially put Trump in the firing line from left-wing media in the US.

Nevertheless, it seems Trump may have delayed his trip on purpose in an attempt to “lure the snakes out of hiding”, so that when he quietly swept into Iraq and appeared on national TV along with his troops, he could resoundingly rebut the leftist accusations against him, and instantly render all the bad press from the American news media as “fake news”.

In the post-truth era, the best tool Trump can rely on to substantiate his allegations that the mainstream American media is biased against him is such “cast-iron proofs”.

And if these “cast-iron proofs” continue to pile up, over time, they may take a heavy toll on the credibility of the mainstream newspapers in the US.

As far as Trump is concerned, at this point his biggest goal is obviously not to pull his troops out of Syria as soon as possible, or to reflect on whether or not he has betrayed the Syrian Kurds, but rather, to win his second term in the 2020 presidential election.

That being said, judging from the recent key personnel reshuffle in his cabinet, it seems Trump’s only criterion for deciding whether an individual is fit for a key position on his governing team is that the person must be able to stay in tune with his 2020 election campaign from now on.

And that probably explains why throughout his speech in Iraq, Trump was focused overwhelmingly on domestic issues like the ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government, Congress’s refusal to approve funding for building a wall along the US-Mexico border, etc.

These topics might sound totally irrelevant to the issues of withdrawing US troops from Syria and Afghanistan, but this is indeed one of the various tactics pulled by Trump to “hijack public opinion” and drum up public support for his policy agenda.

As long as Trump is able to prove that mainstream public opinion is on his side over his decision on troop withdrawals, then he can not only boost the popularity of his administration, but can also earn himself more bargaining chips in dealing with Congress.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 28

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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