Recent exchanges between Washington and Baghdad have thrown the future of the U.S. military presence in Iraq into confusion and uncertainty. Following through on an Iraqi parliament vote, acting Prime Minister Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi last week asked the Trump administration to begin talks on a withdrawal of the roughly 5,000 U.S. troops in the country. The administration bluntly refused, saying U.S. troops must stay to fend off a potential resurgence of the Islamic State.
The Trump administration is making a dire mistake in maintaining U.S. forces in Iraq against the government’s will and should reverse its stance, working with the Iraqi government on an orderly end to the U.S. military presence. Open government opposition to a U.S. military mission plus explicit threats by Iran to drive U.S. troops from Iraq make the situation too difficult and dangerous for U.S. forces to operate effectively. The fighting ability and political leverage the U.S. military had in Iraq is all but gone in the wake of the U.S. assassination of Iranian Quds Force General Qassem Soleimani, and the only way to regain a semblance of U.S. influence in the country is to pull U.S. forces out.
Even before Soleimani’s death, calls for a U.S. withdrawal had been mounting within Iraq for some time. With the Islamic State at bay, a fighting alliance that put Shiite militia groups backed by Iran on the same side as the United States foundered, and leading Shiite political figures renewed longstanding calls for a U.S. departure. Pressure built, and other political leaders followed. Meanwhile, a major shift in Iraqi political attitudes unrelated to the fight against the Islamic State took shape the reinforced political pressure on the United States to go. Iraqis came away from the national elections in 2018 distrustful of the process, perceiving it to be heavily manipulated by Iran and the United States. U.S. efforts at influencing Iraqi politics had long been fairly obvious in the minds of Iraqis. But Iran’s activities came into view for Iraqis in a more vivid way during this election, largely due to increasing numbers of Iraqis engaging with social media. In 2014, less than 40 percent of Iraqis had internet access, according to data by Iraqi pollster Munqith Dagher. The figure is now almost 80 percent, and around 90 percent of young Iraqis use some type of social media.
The net result of the increased public scrutiny on the most recent elections was a sharply negative shift in attitudes among Iraqis toward the Iraqi government and Iran. This groundswell of sentiment among Iraqis gave rise to a series of anti-government protests, which turned deadly. Iraqi security forces have been cracking down on demonstrators forcefully, with many Iraqis blaming Iran for that too. This was not a trivial political mood swing. The moment represented the first real possibility for Iraq to check Iranian influence in the country since 2003 and perhaps establish a more independent footing.
This was and remains a key U.S. policy aim in Iraq, but prospects for reduced Iranian influence in Iraq vanished in the aftermath of the drone strike that killed Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. In a stroke, the White House realigned Iraq and Iran, cutting short a possible loosening of ties. And as long as U.S. forces stay in Iraq, Baghdad and Tehran have a reason to stay close. Iran will seek to deepen its influence out of understandable security fears, and Iraq will turn to Iran for resources and political leverage against the United States as it seeks an end to the American military presence. Threats of sanctions like President Trump recently leveled just tightens the link between Baghdad and Tehran, and actual sanctions would put Iraq in Iran’s care economically and politically even more so.
The formal request by Iraq to begin a U.S. withdrawal marks a high point in Iraqi resistance to the American military presence, but this is hardly a new desire on the part of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Shiite establishment more broadly. Official opposition to the U.S. presence was on open display in 2006, when the United States deployed some 30,000 additional U.S. troops to quell sectarian violence and again in the negotiations over the eventual 2011 withdrawal. The situation is far more perilous now, however. In the past, the Iraqi government had been more subtle in voicing its opposition to the U.S. presence and had a less formalized relationship with Shiite militias, who attacked U.S. troops so frequently and ferociously that they became for a time a bigger threat than al-Qaida in Iraq. These same Shiite militias now form the backbone of Iraqi security forces, with Iran having established considerable control over a number of Iraqi institutions. That means U.S. forces are now not simply a target for attack. They are likely in for their worst attacks yet.
This is an unworkable situation for U.S. forces hoping to confront remnants of the Islamic State in Iraq. American troops cannot operate by themselves in Iraq, nor should they. And now they cannot work alongside government security forces or Shiite militias, whose efforts remain critical in the fight against the Islamic State. The likelihood of U.S. forces being betrayed or attacked by the very Iraqi forces they seek to aid is extremely high, opening the way for a familiar dilemma from the occupation days. At times, the very Iraqi government U.S. troops worked to support in turn conspired with Iran to kill them. Moreover, if U.S. forces stay and endure this risk, the utility is fairly low in terms of making an impact on the Islamic State. Local actors are the most effective instrument against extremists. This was true when bands of Sunni tribesmen joined the U.S. cause against al-Qaida in Iraq during the occupation, and it proved true again with Iraqi militias turning out to be an effective ground force against the Islamic State. Put plainly, the risk is not worth the gain, especially considering all the risks U.S. servicemen and women have already endured in Iraq.
None of this means Iraq has a hopeful future if U.S. forces depart. Even a thoughtfully planned U.S. withdrawal, which would likely take up to a year, is likely to open the door to an increase in violence. Iraq seems certain to remain a weak state for the foreseeable future, struggling to deal with internal security, a crisis of political legitimacy for its government and encroachment by Iran. But the U.S. military cannot solve these problems for Iraq. The presence of U.S. troops in fact only worsens those problems and undermines overarching U.S. policy aims. And as long as U.S. forces remain, prospects for a direct conflict between the United States and Iran only increase, leaving the United States drifting into yet another Middle East war. Perhaps, in time, the United States can be an honest international partner to Iraq and provide a counterbalance to Iranian influence by providing various forms of support from afar. But that cannot happen so long as U.S. forces stay on the ground in a country where their presence is so openly opposed.
Mark Kukis is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Quincy Institute and Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at the Minerva Schools, where he teaches government. Kukis spent a decade as a journalist before joining academia, including three years covering the American occupation of Iraq for Time magazine from 2006 to 2009. Kukis also covered the early phase of the American intervention in Afghanistan as a freelance journalist and served as a White House correspondent for United Press International. His writings have also appeared in The New Republic and Aeon, among other places. He is the author of Voices from Iraq: A People's History, 2003-2009 (2011), an oral history of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq as told entirely by Iraqis. Kukis grew up in the Dallas area and attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied journalism and government as an undergraduate. Kukis did his doctoral work at Boston University, where he studied U.S. foreign policy and political history under Prof. Andrew Bacevich. Kukis has been an invited speaker at RAND, Princeton University and Boston University and done numerous television and radio interviews discussing the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He currently lives in the Boston area with his wife and daughter.
Kuwaiti soldiers look on as the last U.S. convoy crosses the border into Kuwait from Iraq, Dec. 18, 2011. Photo: U.S. Army
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
Confiscating Russia’s sovereign assets is an act of economic war. Seizing and transferring these assets to Ukraine may make Washington feel virtuous, but it will not bring peace. Passage of this bill will only reinforce the view of hardliners in Moscow that Russia’s war lies not just with Ukraine, but really with the United States and the West. Any hope that the United States and Russia could work toward stabilizing or improving relations will subsequently be destroyed.
There is no justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but enacting this bill will make peace less likely. Ukrainians have courageously defended their country for nearly two years, but even Ukraine’s former top military commander General Valery Zaluzhny admits the war is now a stalemate.
Russia’s frozen assets could be used as a bargaining chip during negotiations, but once Congress provides the president the authority to seize Russian assets, there will be immense political pressure on him to carry out the policy to avoid looking weak. President Biden was recently pilloried by the media and members of my party for returning frozen Iranian assets in exchange for five American hostages. He is unlikely to make that decision again.
Confiscation will only convince Moscow that there is no negotiated settlement to be had with Ukraine. The result will be a destroyed Ukraine. More Ukrainian soldiers and civilians will die, and more cities and towns will be turned to rubble.
History is replete with examples of economic warfare turning into violent hostilities. Many historians believe the U.S. embargo of 1807, which was intended to punish France and England for their aggressions at sea, led to the War of 1812. Likewise, FDR’s decision to freeze Japan’s sovereign assets and implement an embargo on oil and gasoline exports led to Tokyo’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor.
The past teaches us the folly of embracing every proposed act of revenge. U.S. senators are duty-bound to ask whether our actions will ensure American security and prosperity. In regard to the REPO Act, the Russians already answered that question for us. Moscow says they will retaliate in kind against the United States and our allies, with some estimates claiming upward of $288 billion in Western assets that Moscow could confiscate.
Nicholas Mulder, an assistant professor of history at Cornell University, highlights the danger of the “destabilizing precedent that western countries would set by seizing assets to end a war they are not openly involved in.” Professor Mulder states that such an action “would broaden the coercive actions that states could take for disputes to which they are not a direct party.”
Confiscating Russia’s assets will also certainly convince other countries, including China, that the United States can no longer be trusted as the guarantor of the global economy. They will seek to move away from the dollar and hold their reserves in other currencies. This process of de-dollarization will be an unmitigated disaster as it will degrade America’s financial strength and ensure the prosperity Americans have come to expect is no longer attainable.
In addition, this bill will hand the Russians another tool to fuel resentment against the United States. American leaders speak of a “rules-based international order” but the theory that the United States can confiscate the assets of another country we are not at war with is legally dubious.
Professor Mulder argues that “economic reprisals are the prerogative of injured states, not of third parties.” Rather than compel respect for international law, our actions will demonstrate to our adversaries that we are flouting it. This bill will be used by the Kremlin to show the world that while Washington demands that others follow the rules, we are happy to break them whenever we see fit.
In a multipolar world, Washington can no longer expect to act with impunity, particularly when dealing with a nuclear power. We understood the serious dangers our country faced during the Cold War. But three decades of repeated foreign policy disasters proves that Washington’s foreign policy establishment is badly broken.
A good way to start on the road to fixing that broken foreign policy is rejecting this disastrous bill.
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Prabowo Subianto, running for president, in Bandung, Indonesia. (Shutterstock/Dhodi Syailendra)
(JAKARTA, INDONESIA) — Soon after voting ended in the world’s fourth-largest country and third-largest democracy, Prabowo Subianto is claiming a knock-out blow winning more than half the vote and the necessary number of provinces to eliminate both his challengers.
According to unofficial tallies, which have been historically accurate, Prabowo has garnered 58% of the vote in today's contest. The official count will not be announced until mid-March and his opponents have yet to concede defeat.
Nevertheless, highly popular incumbent president Joko Widodo (Jokowi)’s backing for the former special forces commander, and active undermining of his own party’s candidate Ganjar Pranowo, is a big reason for the ostensibly lopsided result. But the famously temperamental Prabowo’s clever rebranding as a cute and cuddly grandpa seems to have helped quite a bit, too.
Arriving in Jakarta just as the three-day “quiet period” was beginning spared me all the raucousness of the election campaigning. But the billboards of the three candidates — Anies Baswedan, Ganjar Pranowo, and Prabowo — were prominently plastered across the city. The few everyday folk I spoke to seemed to favor the former general. A young hotel housekeeper told me she voted for Prabowo (as did almost all her friends and family) as he was “a strong leader, and honest.” Reports here speak of the youth vote as being a big factor in the result.
Much of the U.S. commentary has pointed out that Prabowo was once banned from entering the U.S. for his links to a military unit accused of human rights atrocities. To that the feisty general might say: get over it. After all, the United States was forced to lift the ban on his entry after Jokowi — after beating Prabowo in a bitterly-fought election in 2019 — invited him to become his defense minister.
Now that Prabowo is likely to become president, such musings are chiefly academic. While my interlocutors in town seemed worried about democratic backsliding in the country (and this has been apparently underway for a couple of years), relatively few voters appear swayed by this concern. And in an increasingly multipolar world, Washington is less able to influence how other countries choose their leaders, and tell them how they should govern.
For his part, as president Jokowi has focused relentlessly on economic growth and domestic issues, though he also skillfully steered Indonesia’s G20 presidency in the turbulent wake of the Ukraine war. Under him Indonesia has not only prospered, but also put into place a tough industrial policy, including limiting or banning the export of certain valuable natural resources, such as nickel. This encourages these resources to be processed in-country, which helps grow and sustain economically valuable industries that require these resources, such as electric vehicle parts, thereby diversifying and strengthening the Indonesian economy.
The European Union has responded by taking him to the WTO, and the United States has not been exactly enthusiastic on these “downstreaming” policies. But China has played ball, building ore-processing plants in the country. Beijing has also built shiny new infrastructure, most prominently a new “Whoosh” bullet train from Jakarta to Bandung.
Meanwhile, Jakarta has not expressly taken sides in the U..S-China tussle. This is hardly surprising. Non-alignment (or bebas dan aktif — free and active — as the Indonesians call it in Bahasa) is a core Indonesian grand strategy principle. Indonesia was a foundational contributor to the idea of non-alignment in the Global South, with the famous 1955 Bandung conference being held there.
Even under the authoritarian leader Suharto, who tilted toward the United States, Indonesia maintained strong relations with arch-communist Vietnam. Though China was shunned by Suharto — and the Chinese-Indonesian minority treated poorly — it all seems in the rear-view mirror in today’s Indonesia. China is Indonesia’s biggest trade partner and among its biggest investors. Hoardings commemorating the Chinese new year are visible in parts of the city and the community is much better integrated than in the past.
Furthermore, when it comes to Russia, Indonesian social media has been rife with sympathy with Moscow on the Ukraine war.
What will Prabowo’s foreign policy be like? His past record indicates that the ex-general is much more a strong-willed, if volatile, pragmatist than an ideologue. Today, this means a continuation of Jokowi’s policy record of economic growth and the development of domestic industry and infrastructure. Thus business-friendly relations with Beijing, as also attempts to attract more American investment and trade, will continue.
Prabowo is also far more exposed in his youth to the world than was Jokowi when he was sworn in. The former general has lived in Europe and Singapore and was trained by the U.S. military. Which means that Indonesia under him could be somewhat more vocal on regional and international issues than it has been. Recall Prabowo’s bold play on a Ukraine peace plan at the United Nations last year.
Nevertheless, unless Washington makes a big deal of past human rights issues (unlikely), there are opportunities for incremental strengthening of ties. Military exercises between the two have been on an upswing lately. Indonesia has also softened its earlier opposition to AUKUS and refrained from joining BRICS, partly keeping relations with Washington in mind.
Trade relations are something to watch however, with Washington’s new focus on imposing labor standards on its major trading partners. This is not always welcome in Global South capitals which see lower labor costs as a comparative advantage. Unlike the United States these days, Indonesia is also very comfortable with trade integration. It was the most important ASEAN member leading the RCEP process and continues to lead in shaping the implementation of the world’s largest trade agreement.
Should there be a Republican in the White House next year, issues such as trade deficits could loom large. Indonesia also seeks a critical minerals agreement with the United States and hopes to benefit from the Inflation Reduction Act’s clean energy subsidies, but it will be a long haul to get there.
As long as Washington understands that Indonesia is committed to a non-aligned rise, there is much scope to deepen ties. Indonesians see their relations with other major powers as being defined on their own merits and not as a byproduct of any other relationship. That ought to be a good basis for moving forward.