Over the weekend, the Iraqi parliament voted unanimously to expel American military forces from Iraqi soil. It was not a binding measure, but it was a signal that Baghdad is far from pleased with the United States.
Asked about the vote, Donald Trump suggested to reporters that he had financial considerations on his mind. "We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that's there," the president said on Sunday. "It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We're not leaving unless they pay us back for it."
He was apparently referring to the al-Asad base, which the United States did not build, though we spent considerably to improve in recent years.
Referring to Iraqis, Trump added, as part of the same Q&A, "If they do ask us to leave, if we don't do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they've never seen before ever. It'll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.... If there's any hostility, that they do anything we think is inappropriate, we are going to put sanctions on Iraq, very big sanctions on Iraq."
In other words, as far as the American president is concerned, he'll punish our allies if they ask us to leave their country. Yesterday, administration officials sent a related signal with comments to the Washington Post.
Senior administration officials have begun drafting sanctions against Iraq after President Trump publicly threatened the country with economic penalties if it proceeded to expel U.S. troops, according to three people briefed on the planning.The Treasury Department and White House will probably take a lead role if the sanctions are implemented, the officials said. Such a step would represent a highly unusual move against a foreign ally that the United States has spent almost two decades and hundreds of billions of dollars supporting.
The Post spoke with Peter Kucik, who served in the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which implements sanctions policy, under the Bush and Obama administrations, who said, "I'm astounded by what's even being discussed. You don't typically use force against your allies. We are threatening to use extreme coercive policy tools against countries with whom we are allied."
That's true, of course, though it's just as striking to consider the head-spinning turn of events that unfolded over a couple of days.
On Sunday morning, Iraq's parliament voted to expel American forces from their country. On Sunday afternoon, Trump threatened Iraq with sanctions as punishment.
On Monday afternoon, the Trump administration prepared a letter to Iraq's defense ministry, providing detailed information about plans for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, with an emphasis on the administration's "respect" for Iraq's "sovereign decision to order our departure." Later on Monday afternoon, the administration said the letter was a mistake, and on Monday night, the Washington Post reported on the White House's sanctions plan, citing word from senior administration officials.
I suspect there are some who are confident that Team Trump knows what it's doing in Iraq, but I'm less sure why.