Donald Trump addresses US troops in Iraq, December 26, 2018

Amid growing criticism of his sudden actions and the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Donald Trump makes a quickly-arranged visit to US troops in Iraq.

The three-hour stay at an American base, in Anbar Province in western Iraq, was Trump’s first to US forces in a combat zone since he became President.

It appeared to have been arranged quickly after Mattis’s resignation last Thursday and Trump’s order — following the former four-star general’s implied criticism in his resignation letter — that the Defense Secretary leave on December 31 rather than February 28. The Iraqi Government apparently was not informed, and the trip was shrouded in secrecy until Trump was returning to the US.

Mattis quit over Trump’s impulsive decision, made during a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to withdraw all 2,000 US personnel from Syria. Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, quit a day later. Officials have pointed to the US abandonment of Kurdish forces who have pushed back ISIS since October 2015, and who may now be attacked by a Turkish-Syrian rebel alliance and/or pro-Assad units.

But Trump — who did not consult military and civilian advisors and who resisted their entreaties to reverse course before his December 19 announcement — told the troops on Wednesday, “We’re no longer the suckers, folks. Our presence in Syria was not open-ended, and it was never intended to be permanent. Eight years ago, we went there for three months, and we never left.”

The statement repeated Trump’s falsehoods about Syria: US special forces were not in Syria before 2012 at the earliest, and there was never a three-month time limit on the American deployment.

But Trump persisted. He referred to military commanders arguing against withdrawal, having checked Trump from the move this spring, saying that they asked for a six-month period before any departure:

I said, “Nope. Nope.” I said, “I gave you a lot of six months. And now we’re doing it a different way.”…

We are spread out all over the world. We are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous.

Politics on the Frontline

Defying injunctions against partisan political displays by the military, Trump signed red “Make America Great Again” caps for some of the 100 troops whom he met for 15 minutes. He broke rules of operational security by tweeting a video with a clip of him posing with special forces of Navy Seal Team Five.

Trump offered no observations about the situation in Syria or Iraq, where US troops have been present since the 2003 war that removed Saddam Hussein from power — only for the country to devolve into insurgency, civil war, sectarian conflict, and the fight with the Islamic State.

Instead, he told reporters that he chose Iraq for his first visit to combat troops overseas because “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.”

As Trump maintained, “There will be a strong, deliberate and orderly withdrawal of US forces from Syria”, he asserted that troops in Iraq would “prevent an ISIS resurgence”: “We can hit them so fast and so hard, they really won’t know what the hell happened.”

Ignoring — or unaware of — Turkey’s priority in “erasing the terrorists” of the Syrian Kurdish militia, backed by the US, Trump said:

I’ve had some very good talks with President Erdogan, who wants to knock [ISIS] out also and he’ll do it. And others will do it, too. Because we are in their region. They should be sharing the burden of costs and they’re not.

Trump made other abrupt comments. In response to Israel’s reported discontent over the US withdrawal from Syria, he said, “I told Bibi [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu], you know we give Israel 4.5 billion dollars a year. And they are doing very well at defending themselves.”

And though abroad, he maintained pursuit of his domestic agenda. Repeating lies that “terrorists” are among migrants seeking to enter the US, he said he would get his Wall with Mexico.

The Federal Government shut down last Friday at midnight because of Trump’s insistence on $5.7 billion for The Wall in a continuing resolution that would have maintained government operations.

The military is exempt from the closure because, after two brief shutdowns early this year, it was assured funding through 2020.

Trump’s Pay Rise Lie

Speaking to the troops, Trump repeated the lie that he gave them their first pay raise in more than 10 years.

You protect us. We are always going to protect you. And you just saw that, ’cause you just got one of the biggest pay raises you’ve ever received….You haven’t gotten one in more than 10 years. More than 10 years. And we got you a big one. I got you a big one. I got you a big one.

Military pay has increased every year for more than three decades. It rose 2.4% in 2018 and then 2.6% in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.

But Trump added to the lie by saying the increase was far greater:

They had plenty of people that came up, they said, “You know, we could make it smaller. We could make it 3%, we could make it 2%, we could make it 4%.”

I said, “No. Make it 10%. Make it more than 10%.”