President Trump greeted U.S. troops on an unannounced trip Wednesday to Iraq, where he defended his decision to withdraw forces from neighboring Syria and declared that the Islamic State is “very nearly defeated” while making his first visit to a conflict zone as commander in chief.
The president used his visit to al-Asad Air Base to amplify his call to draw down the U.S. presence in foreign wars and assert his personal influence over the military at a moment of tremendous turmoil at the Pentagon.
After months of public pressure for him to spend time with troops deployed to conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia, Trump touched down at the joint U.S.-Iraqi base west of Baghdad after a secret flight from Washington.
Accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, the president sounded a triumphant note as he addressed U.S. service members on the day after Christmas. “We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” he said. And he warned that he was committed to withdrawing troops from foreign wars even when his administration’s experts object.
“The United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world,” Trump said. “It’s not fair when the burden is all on us, the United States.”
After a briefing with military and diplomatic leaders on the ground, Trump strongly defended his decision to pull out of Syria. But he said he had no plans to withdraw American forces from Iraq, which he said the United States could use as a staging ground in the heart of the Middle East from which to combat Iran, or someday reenter Syria.
“If we see something happening with ISIS that we don’t like, we can hit them so fast and so hard . . . they really won’t know what the hell happened,” Trump said. “But it’s time to get our soldiers out.”
Trump told reporters traveling with him that he would deny any request from generals to extend the U.S. operation in Syria, where roughly 2,000 troops are deployed.
“They said again, recently, ‘Can we have more time?’ ” Trump said of U.S. generals. “I said: ‘Nope. You can’t have any more time. You’ve had enough time.’ We’ve knocked them out. We’ve knocked them silly.”
Trump’s sudden decision last week to withdraw troops from Syria led Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the global coalition fighting the Islamic State, to resign in protest.
Trump, who spent the holiday at the White House amid a partial federal government shutdown, departed Joint Base Andrews near Washington aboard Air Force One at 12:06 a.m. Wednesday. He flew in the dark of night in an attempt to preserve operational security.
Trump’s cover risked being blown by eagle-eyed social media users. A Twitter user in Germany posted that he had tracked an aircraft that could be Air Force One, while a British-based Flickr user later posted a photo of a plane bearing the presidential aircraft’s blue-and-white color scheme flying through clear skies over Yorkshire.
After an 11-hour flight, the president and first lady landed at al-Asad Air Base at 7:16 p.m. local time. Trump was scheduled to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, but a face-to-face meeting was canceled for security and logistical reasons, so the two men spoke by phone, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.
Trump traveled with a small group of journalists, who were ordered for security reasons not to report that he was in Iraq until he had finished delivering his remarks to the troops, roughly three hours into his visit to the base.
Asked why he decided to visit Iraq, Trump told reporters: “It’s a place that I’ve been talking about for many years. And many, many years, before it started, I was talking about it, as a civilian.”
The president added, “I want to come and pay my respects, most importantly, to the great soldiers, great troopers we have here.”
Although Trump initially supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he later criticized the effort. He was also critical of President Barack Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, saying the move created the Islamic State.
The unannounced visit continues a holiday tradition followed by past presidents.
Obama visited Afghanistan four times as president, most recently in 2014, and made a trip to Iraq shortly after his 2009 inauguration.
George W. Bush made a surprise Thanksgiving visit to troops in Iraq after the invasion in 2003 and traveled back three times as president. Bill Clinton visited troops in Bosnia in 1996 and spent Thanksgiving with troops in Kosovo in 1999, while George H.W. Bush spent Thanksgiving with service members in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield in 1990 and New Year’s with troops in Somalia in 1993.
Although Trump had previously addressed U.S. troops stationed overseas, including in Italy, Japan and South Korea, he had drawn criticism for not having visited those deployed to combat zones.
Vice President Pence visited Afghanistan on Dec. 22, 2017, to address troops and meet with commanders at Bagram air base near Kabul.
Al-Asad Air Base is northwest of Ramadi, a city that the Islamic State captured before U.S.-backed Iraqi forces retook the area.
Trump said he considered the safety risks in making his first trip to a war zone.
“I had concerns for the institution of the presidency,” he told reporters. “Not for myself, personally. I had concerns for the first lady, I will tell you. But if you would have seen what we had to go through, with the darkened plane, with all windows closed, with no lights on whatsoever, anywhere — pitch black. I’ve never seen it. I’ve been in many airplanes — all types and shapes and sizes. I’ve never seen anything like it.”.Washingtonpost has more