Rex Tillerson is out of his depth

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Wikimedia Commons photo)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Monday the United States would stay in Iraq to fight Islamic State (IS, sometimes referred to as ISIS or ISIL) whether the Iraqi government authorizes the troop presence or not.

Tillerson testified with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee amid scrutiny over the death of four U.S. soldiers in Niger earlier this month.

Sen. Tom Udall asked, “If U.S. forces are told to leave, will we depart Iraq or will we stay uninvited as our forces are doing in Syria, and under what legal authority will they remain?”

Tillerson replied, “We will remain in Iraq until ISIS is defeated and we are confident that ISIS has been defeated.”

The implication that the U.S. would keep its military in Iraq despite being unwanted is not only the definition of imperialism, but it would be the biggest foreign policy blunder since the 2003 invasion.

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PMU celebrates a victor over IS (Wikimedia Commons photo)

Iraqi militias already weary of U.S. presence

Tillerson’s position is ironic considering he called for Iranian-backed militias in Iraq to “go home” last week. “Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home. The foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control,” he said.

In Baghdad, the Iranian influence is noticeable. In the square where U.S. soldiers in 2003 famously removed a statue of Saddam Hussein, hoisted an American flag, and then quickly took it down, a billboard advertises Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) with photos of Khomeinei and Khamenei.

At the moment, the Iraqi government welcomes both U.S. and Iranian forces and has heavily depended on both to fight IS. But should the U.S. stay as a foreign occupier after being told to leave, the fight against IS would expand to include defending itself against local militias fighting what they consider an invading force.

This month a U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb identified as an explosively formed penetrator (EFP). This type of bomb is not an improvised explosive device (IED) as it requires considerable manufacturing effort to create.

EFPs were used to kill many American service members during Operation Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn and are linked to Iran. Notably, no evidence of IS use of EFPs has been recorded.

The idea that Shiite militias in Iraq would be targeting U.S. forces again is not unsound. In March, a PMU commander threatened U.S. troops should they stay after IS is gone.

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A U.S. Marine fires an M777-A2 Howitzer in Syria, June 1, 2017 (DoD photo)

U.S. unilateralism in Syria untenable 

Resistance to the U.S. presence by militias also fighting IS is not contained only to Iraq. In Syria, Free Syrian Army fighters surrounded a small detachment of U.S. special operations forces last winter and chanted “Pigs! Crusaders!”

Since then, U.S. special operations bases have been limited to Kurdish-controlled areas and their locations closely guarded secrets (until Turkey announced the location of 10 bases this year).

Depending on the protection of non-state actors while ignoring the wishes of the host nation’s government — but not actively fighting them — has become the norm in Syria, but obviously is not the ideal operating environment.

The precarious position of U.S. troops in Syria was highlighted recently. In September, U.S. troops were forced to abandon a small base in the Syrian desert and withdraw closer to the Iraqi border.

The U.S. position in Syria post-IS is currently untenable. Turkey continues to consider the YPG, a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia, a terrorist organization and existential threat. As the IS buffer diminishes, Russia and Iran-backed fighters grow bolder in opposing U.S. forces. Last month, Russia threatened to bomb U.S. troops.

Diplomat needed

That Tillerson would suggest he is comfortable with the same situation in Iraq shows how out of his depth he is in the position to which he was appointed. On the Middle East, Tillerson recently admitted that he was lost. “Maybe we leave it to the next generation to try. I don’t know. I’m not a diplomat,” he admitted.

It should go without saying that the top U.S. diplomat should probably be a diplomat. It should also go without saying that the top U.S. diplomat should not endorse imperialism as viable foreign policy.

Since President Trump was elected, a lot of things that used to go without saying need saying.

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