U.S. President Donald Trump used a lightning visit to Iraq – his first with U.S. troops in a conflict zone since being elected – to defend withdrawal from Syria and to declare an end to America’s role as the global “policeman.”
Trump landed at 7:16 p.m. local time at Al-Asad Air Base in western Iraq, accompanied by his wife Melania, following what he described as a stressful, secrecy-shrouded flight on a “pitch black” Air Force One.
The president spoke to a group of about 100 mostly special forces personnel and separately with military leaders before leaving a few hours later.
A planned meeting between Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and Trump was scrapped over disagreements in how to conduct the session, according to a statement from the Iraqi PM’s office.
“A disagreement over how to conduct the meeting led to the meeting being replaced by a telephone conversation,” the statement said.
White House video showed a smiling Trump shaking hands with camouflage-clad personnel, signing autographs and posing for photos.
Morale boosting presidential visits to U.S. troops in war zones have been a longstanding tradition in the years following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Trump has taken considerable criticism for declining to visit in the first two years of his presidency.
At the Iraqi military base, Trump sought to defend his “America first” policy of pulling back from multinational alliances, including what to many Americans seem like the endless wars of the Middle East.
“It’s not fair when the burden is all on us,” he said. “We don’t want to be taken advantage of any more by countries that use us and use our incredible military to protect them. They don’t pay for it and they’re going to have to.”
“We are spread out all over the world. We are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous,” he added.
Trump told reporters he had overruled generals asking to extend the Syria deployment, where about 2,000 U.S. forces, joined by other foreign troops, assist local fighters battling the ISIL group. “You can’t have any more time. You’ve had enough time,” he said he told the top brass.
Time to withdraw troops?
The drawdowns – and the abrupt way that they were announced – helped lead to the resignation of U.S. defense secretary, James Mattis, who has been one of the administration’s key heavyweights. In his unusually forcefully worded resignation letter, Mattis appeared to chide Trump when he stressed his own “strongly held” views on “treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors.”
Trump has also taken flak from France and other foreign partners and senior figures in his own Republican party.
However, the president has made disentangling America from its wars a priority since his 2016 election and he said in Iraq that the US would no longer be treated as “suckers,” CNN reported.
On Wednesday, Trump said “we’ve knocked them out,” although he appeared to hedge his bets – following widespread criticism that his victory declaration is premature – when he added that Iraq might be used as a future base for operations in Syria.
In Afghanistan, Trump wants to withdraw about half of the 14,000 soldiers locked in a war against Taliban guerrillas that has long resembled a stalemate.