Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ approach has been characterised by the withdrawal of the US from the world stage. Whether in the form of leaving treaties – such as the Paris Climate Accords or the Iran deal, multilateral organisations – like UNRWA and the WHO or the physical removal of troops from Afghanistan and most recently Europe. The latest manifestation of this strategy of withdrawal could be the most peculiar so far, leaving the US Embassy in Iraq.
The US Embassy in Baghdad is one of the largest diplomatic facilities in the world. The US is understandably sensitive to having secure diplomatic facilities. Attacks on its embassies abroad have been a common tactic used by its enemies as evidenced by the famous attacks in Beirut, Dar es Salaam and Nairobi.
The Beirut bombing in 1983, combined with a coordinated attack on a US Marines Barracks, changed US posture to the country in an instance. Likewise, the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran and the holding of US diplomats as hostages for years was a political hot potato in Washington.
The Embassy in Baghdad is building that has learnt the lessons of this past and is therefore less of a conventional diplomatic outpost and more of a modern fortress. At 104 acres, it is the largest and most expensive embassy in the world, nearly as large as Vatican City. Since it was built in 2008 it has been put to the test and targeted by rocket, mortar and gunfire. However, things substantially escalated in late 2019 when thousands of protestors breached the outer walls.
More recently following the US drone strike that killed Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, there has been a steadier tally of rocket strikes targeting the embassy. On January 26, 2020, the embassy was struck by three rockets, one which struck a cafeteria. This month US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has sent a letter of warning to Iraqi President Barham Salih threatening to close the mission warning that the US will “liquidate” those responsible for attacking American interests in Iraq.
Trump’s general posture behind withdrawals is that the US spends too much blood and treasure on parts of the world with little in the way of return. If you are so focused on withdrawing military forces, why leave it at that? The essence of the Trump posture is why keep a presence – presumably an expensive one – that can attack as a magnet for those wishing to cause America harm. The subtleties of the intelligence, relationships and symbolism of the US essentially ending its diplomatic relationship with a country that it invaded in 2003 are presumably less important.
A country as powerful as the US deciding that embassies are a nice to have, not an essential part of international relations, could have reverberating effects that go far beyond what happens in Baghdad. So much of how States communicate with each other is done via the high art of diplomacy. Deciding that ‘jaw jaw’ is no longer a modern asset for the global tool kit and that diplomacy is best done via leader’s twitter account is a revolution by another name.
A more sympathetic or nuanced analysis could see the Pompeo ultimatum as a game of bluff designed to elucidate a stronger response and clampdown from the Baghdad Government against the militias that currently hold huge amounts of sway in the country and play a central role of keeping the US Embassy in play. Threatening to ‘liquidate’ people only adds fuel to what is already a combustible situation.
However, there is also a practical consideration at play. For a President like Trump who is so sensitive to media optics, the notion of a withdrawal of personnel from Baghdad being seen as the equivalence of the helicopters from Saigon could be a humiliation. If the US do decide to leave it doesn’t take a particularly imaginative mind to predict that America’s enemies would want to make the most of it. Images of militiamen smashing up the Ambassador’s former office or setting fire to a facility that cost so much to so many could cause lasting reputational damage and could come to define US-Iraqi relations for years to come