Trump’s initial reaction to the prospect that Baghdad might order U.S. troops to leave was akin to a foreign policy temper tantrum. He threatened America’s democratic ally with harsh economic sanctions if it dared to take that step. As Trump put it, “we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before, ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”
Over the following days, it became apparent that the sanctions threat was not just a spontaneous, intemperate outburst on the part of President Trump. Compelling Iraq to continue hosting U.S. forces was official administration policy. Senior officials from the Treasury Department and other agencies began drafting specific sanctions that could be imposed. Washington explicitly warned the Iraqi government that it could lose access to its account held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Such a freeze would amount to financial strangulation of the country’s already fragile economy.
U.S. arrogance towards Baghdad seems almost boundless. When Mahdi asked the administration to “prepare a mechanism” for the exit of American forces and commence negotiations towards that transition, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flatly refused. Indeed, the State Department’s January 10 statement made it clear that there would be no such discussions: “At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership—not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East.”
Throughout the Cold War, U.S. leaders proudly proclaimed that NATO and other American‐led alliances were voluntary associations of free nations. Conversely, the Warsaw Pact alliance of Eastern European countries formed in response to NATO was a blatantly imperial enterprise of puppet regimes under the Kremlin’s total domination. Moscow’s brutal suppression of even modest political deviations within its satellite empire helped confirm the difference. Soviet tanks rolled into East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush reform factions and solidify a Soviet military occupation. Even when the USSR did not resort to such heavy‐handed measures, it was clear that the “allies” were on a very short leash.
Although the United States has occasionally exerted pressure on its allies when they’ve opposed its objectives, it has not attempted to treat democratic partners as servile pawns. That is why the Trump administration’s current behavior towards Iraq is so troubling and exhibits such unprecedented levels of crudeness. America is in danger of becoming the geopolitical equivalent of a middle school bully.
If Washington refuses to withdraw its forces from Iraq, defying the Baghdad government’s calls to leave, those troops will no longer be guests or allies. They would constitute a hostile army of occupation, however elaborate the rhetorical facade.
At that point, America would no longer be a moral “force for good” in the Middle East or anywhere else. The United States would be behaving as an amoral imperial power imposing its authority on weaker democratic countries that dare adopt measures contrary to Washington’s policy preferences. America might not yet have replaced the Soviet Union as (in Ronald Reagan’s words) the “evil empire,” but it will be disturbingly far along the path to that status.