President Trump’s surprise visit to Iraq on Wednesday, his first to an erstwhile war zone, allows deployed U.S. military forces to see their commander-in-chief in action. It also gives Trump an opportunity to meet with important Iraqi leaders on their soil.
Given his reluctance to travel outside the U.S., Trump had seemed out of touch with his presidential responsibilities. But now, Trump has corrected that interest in a manner that looks good and is good. I note the “looks good” element here because other U.S. military personnel stationed elsewhere will look kindly upon the photos of their smiling colleagues joining a smiling president in a theater of combat operations. Perception of leadership is an integral part of effective leadership. In that sense, Trump has taken a necessary step toward boosting his own credibility here.
Yet, it also helps that the president’s choice of base to visit, Al-Asad, is an airbase along the Iraqi Euphrates river. The base is dead center in the Sunni heartlands (a place of key historic and strategic concern vis-a-vis mitigating ISIS control) and has been instrumental in the fight against the Islamic State. I hope the locale of this visit signals the U.S. will continue to use its military leverage constructively. Namely, to effect security and political developments in western Iraq and eastern-northern Syria. These developments are crucial to American security.
Trump’s Iraq visit serves another important purpose: an opportunity to meet the new Iraqi prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi. With the Trump administration’s support, the prime minister is leveraging Iraqi politics towards a more moderate realism. This matters greatly in balancing multisectarian interests in Iraq away from Shia sectarianism, Kurdish separatism, and Sunni alienation (a driving force behind ISIS’ rise). As Trump continues withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, continued U.S. influence in Iraq will become increasingly important. So as long as Trump stays away from his unhelpful standing demand that the U.S. be given Iraqi oil, this visit can only be a good thing.