This will not be an attempt to interpret Trump’s statement, except to note that “watch” is a passive activity. Even presidents who have communicated in the most direct manner have seldom accurately predicted the implications of their own statements. The influence of senior Republicans is growing. But whatever the intended future is, it is subject to the winds and currents of Iraq, now discussed.
The long term base of U.S. operations is in western Iraq, a Sunni region, disconnected in religion, culture, and national feeling, from the south and east. This increases the viability of a U.S. presence, but not indefinitely.
Trump’s concern about Iranian domination of Iraq is something I’ve written about. In Is Iraq Headed for Another Civil War?, I wrote about changes likely to occur with the passing of Iraq’s senior and very elderly Ayatollah Sistani:
The Shiite Iraq that follows the passing of Sistani will not be a permissive setting for American operations. Other parts of it, such as the Kurdish area, might be. But the kinds of cultural shift and political combinations that would make a viable rump state are prohibited by the strange-to-us cultural animosities. Iran, a unified and disciplined state, would steamroller it.
Widespread failure of government to provide services is the catalyst, most apparent in Basra. Hence, Speculation: Iran Takes Over Basra; What to Watch For.
On 9/29/2027, in The Kurd Referendum; Implications for U.S. Policy, I wrote,
Unless Brinton’s sequence can be averted, the U.S. position will become untenable. The nature of extremists could make resolution impossible. The curtain on this conflict rises perhaps a year, or a bit more, from now.
Ayatollah Sistani is hanging on, but the reasoning remains valid. The logic is hard for the Westerner to understand; how could the passing of an elderly religious figure be so pivotal? It shouldn’t feel so strange, since this country is stocked with minor religious figures, each of whom exercise sway over their adherents with frequent Constitutional friction. In Iraq, which, as a colonial creation, lacks a national myth, these allegiances fill a vacuum.
This is the level of Iran’s intent. It is also the root of Iraq’s Shiite insurgency, which glows like a banked fire. Iran can stir the coals at will. That this option can be held up by an old man in a robe results from the regional concept of legitimacy. But Iran, the empire of the mind, is patient enough to watch paint dry.
The title of Michael Axworthy’s book, A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, clues us in. The ancient regional cultures spend great effort weaving and maintaining intricate theological skeins. This is their alternative to Western thought, which has come to be dominated by logical positivism, and its simple prescriptions.
Western coverage of the Iraqi reaction to bases is thin, though (NY Times) Angered at Trump’s Visit, Some Iraqi Lawmakers Want U.S. Troops Out mentions some of the actors. Quoting,
The most strident denunciations came from politicians affiliated with Moktada al-Sadr, the nationalist Shiite cleric whose supporters won the largest share of votes in parliamentary elections last May. Mr. Sadr has been an outspoken opponent of all foreign forces in Iraq.
Hamad Allah al-Rikabi, the official spokesman of the pro-Sadr bloc in Parliament, said Mr. Trump’s visit reflected “the recklessness of the United States of America in its dealing with others.”
The best quotes of Iraqi reactions to the bases, which I prefer not to cite, are offered by Russian propaganda organs, motivated by their natural adversarial inclinations. The usual searches that includes “RT” and “Presstv” brings them up.
With the possible exception of Basra, an Iran takeover would not be a tanks-across-the-border affair. It would stoke the banked fires via the means implied by Axworthy’s title. This might be an occasion to review the question of Muqtada al-Sadr, Iranian Mole? His distance from earlier Iranian ties is unconvincing. When Soviet agents were recruited from the Communist Party of the USA, they were instructed to resign their party memberships.
Recent human interest stories suggest national feeling transcending the tribes. But samplings from an urban, capitol region do not present a true picture. The persistence of ISIS provides a clue, about the Iraq that can’t quite finish it off.
ISIS is not Iran, but the Iraq response towards ISIS illuminates the fractured political structure that Iran would dissolve, dominate, and replace. Conveniently, the idea to dissolve Iraq is promoted by a Kurdish professor; (Basnews) Dissolving Iraq Helps Middle East Relief: Research. The Iranians didn’t have to invent it. Neither did I, in Is Iraq Headed for Another Civil War?
The inability of groups fractured by tribal allegiances to cooperate, and lack of national feeling combine to provide ISIS with sanctuary in the boundary areas between ethnic groups. See (Wilson) U.S. Update on ISIS in Iraq in Syria.
“Watch Iran” sounds a little ambiguous. It invites us to fill in the blank purpose of bases in western and far western Anbar:
- Prevent coordination between ISIS in Syria with ISIS in Iraq.
- Help the Sunni majority of Anbar cohere as a political unit.
- Enable pro U.S. rump states if Iran takes the southern part.
- Sitting astride the Damascus-Baghdad road, impede Iran’s projection into the Levant.
- Serve as a base for reentry to Iraq through Saudi Arabia. In the 1991 Gulf War, a western bypass (though not as far west as Anbar) was used by the “left hook” of VII Corps under Fred Franks. H.R. McMaster had a dramatic role in the Battle of 73 Easting.
The far west locations of the bases provide some insulation against sectarian strife. But how Iraq will fall apart is as hard as predicting how a goblet will shatter when dropped.
- For a clean break into a few large pieces, the bases are an asset.
- Bases are useful if there is enough coherence to request U.S. assistance, but the U.S. response would have to be massive.
- With total shattering, and many sharp pieces, the bases become “Mortarvilles”, exposed to grinding attrition.
Watching a country dissolve could be interesting. Watch Iran? I’d rather watch paint dry.