On Wednesday, Dec. 26, President Donald Trump made an unannounced visit to al-Asad Air Base in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump stayed in the base near Iraq’s capital for roughly 3 hours – time was constrained due to security reasons – consisting of speeches, autographs and pictures with U.S. troops.
Trump claimed his reason for visiting Iraq was to “come and pay (his) respects, most importantly, to the great soldiers, great troopers we have.” After all, presidential visits to troops overseas have become an American tradition during the holiday period. The tradition’s origins can be traced to Franklin Roosevelt’s visit to Morocco during World War II, since replicated by his successors: Nixon’s visit to Saigon in 1969, Clinton in Bosnia in 1996, and so forth.
Despite what may be seen as a continuation of tradition, Trump’s visit to Iraq proves to be a distraction from the administration’s shaky foreign policy decisions, and a hypocritical movement when considering earlier remarks made by Donald Trump before his visit. Furthermore, Trump’s visit conceals a problem that many past presidents have perpetuated: a foreign policy marked by blindness, hypocrisy, ignorance and myopic decisions.
Trump’s remarks may have bolstered U.S. troop morale, reaffirmed America’s dominance on the international stage and established security in American troops by reminding them that the Islamic State group (IS) is “very nearly defeated.” Although it is true that IS has lost substantial territory (most notably Mosul), it is a superficial understatement to say that the militant organization is nearly defeated. After all, the fight against IS is also a fight against an ideology and a bureaucratic system, which will require more time and caution than Trump seems to anticipate.
Trump’s presence in Iraq seems to be symbolic of America standing with her troops for whatever length of time is necessary (which in Iraq’s case, Trump believes to be relatively short). However, prior to his visit to Iraq, Trump uttered some remarks that present another image and mindset.
These remarks included the assertion that the United States will more than likely end its presence in Syria, as Trump has ordered troops out of the country. Trump decided to ignore the opposition from his defense department and made the decisions based on his belief that IS is almost wiped out, and the American task in Syria is long over. Consequently, in fury and disappointment, General James Mattis resigned from his post as Secretary of Defense. This resignation is interpreted as a loss of a rational political actor, for despite his rather callous and relentless mindset, General Mattis provided a much-needed perspective and level of experience with regards to U.S. security policy.
Similarly, President Trump has called for a reduction of troops in Afghanistan. Strategic analysts pointed out that a reduction in troops could create a void for terrorists to fill and enhance their presence. Thus, while Trump is maintaining an American presence in one country, he is drastically reducing or completely eliminating a similar presence in other countries.
Apart from hypocrisy, though, Trump seems to be ignoring his shaky foreign policy decisions so far. For example, his infamous endorsement and support of Vladimir Putin’s Russia shifted to an attitude of half-hearted antagonism as he attempted to express a tough position by imposing sanctions on the country. Shortly after, however, Trump expressed that he was once more open to working and cooperating with Putin. Continuing this shifty trend, Trump failed to provide a fixed stance on Russia’s aggression against Ukrainian ships last year, but decided to cancel a meeting with Putin in the G20 summit.
Russia has not only acted against American intentions in Syria but also challenged democratic and American interests in Eastern Europe by annexing Crimea and encroaching on Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty in a bloody and ruthless war. His unwillingness or inability to condemn Russia and secure U.S. interests is troubling, if not uncharacteristic.
Trump has also proved to be quite effective in leaving behind the failure of a raid in Yemen that happened during January 2017. Foreign policy consultants, analysts and other White House members repeatedly warned Trump, and discouraged him from going through what they saw as “Obama’s leftovers.” However, Trump saw the raid as an opportunity to gather vital intelligence, and establish American presence in a country where Al Qaeda is creating strong ties. He remained steadfast and unfortunately, the raid led to the death of a Navy SEAL named Ryan Owens. Some may remember the standing ovation Trump provided during his first address to a joint session of Congress in honor of Owens, as well as the image of Owens’s wife letting out some tears while being consoled by Ivanka Trump.
Despite Trump’s significant blunders, it would be unfair to point to the incumbent president as the first or only chief executive to do this, since many preceding presidents have committed similar mistakes, and created a foreign policy problem for America.
One of the most vivid examples is Bill Clinton’s experience with Bosnia. In 1995, ethnic cleansing on a massive scale took place in Bosnia which targeted Muslims, but Clinton turned his back on the horrors being committed abroad. Eventually, Clinton did send troops to Bosnia that December. One year later, Clinton arrived at Tuzla Air Base to rally troops and lightheartedly remind soldiers of their accommodations and accolades — a warm ambiance for a place marred by prolonged ignorance until it was too late.
A commonality between administrations thus becomes apparent. Failures and mistakes are covered up and left to be forgotten. Traditions, gestures and apparently innocent actions become distractions from questionable moves in the execution of foreign policy.
Trump’s holiday visit to troops may be viewed as a much-needed gesture of support for troops overseas, but one cannot completely ignore the problem America is currently facing: a dualistic approach to American intervention overseas, relations with expansionist regimes and failures that are slowly being forgotten. Americans should view any further similar actions, regardless of who is doing them, with deep skepticism and worry.
America, just like any other country, is not impeccable. However, what matters is how and when we decide to improve on our faults to prevent future lapses in judgement. As citizens of a liberal democracy, we should make it a habit to speak out against the injustices, violations and hypocrisies committed by our government.