President Trump made a surprise visit Wednesday to a U.S. air base in Iraq to meet with American troops and commanders, and to dispel growing complaints that he had never visited a war zone in his first two years in office.
Trump, accompanied by his wife, Melania, left a partially shuttered government in Washington just after midnight, flew all day and landed in the dark at the joint U.S.-Iraqi Asad Air Base west of Baghdad about 7 p.m. local time.
Asked why he came, Trump told reporters before a meeting with military leaders on base: “It’s a place I have been talking about for many years — many, many years. I was talking about it as a civilian.”
He spent about 3½ hours at the heavily guarded base before getting back on Air Force One. He then stopped in Ramstein, Germany, to visit troops stationed there before heading back to Washington, where his national security policy appears to be in growing turmoil.
Last week, Trump blindsided allies and overrode his top Pentagon advisors and military commanders when he abruptly decided to order the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from neighboring Syria.
Defense Secretary James N. Mattis resigned in protest and issued a scathing letter that all but accused Trump of endangering U.S. security by undermining alliances and abandoning allies. In response, Trump fired Mattis rather than let him quit.
Trump defended his decision on Syria while in Iraq, and suggested he may order other withdrawals. Aides indicated last week that Trump was preparing to draw down half of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
In comments to about 100 troops, Trump made clear his dim view of America’s military commitments and alliances around the globe, emphasizing the “America first” policy he has espoused since the 2016 campaign.
“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.”
“We are spread out all over the world,” Trump added. “We are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous.”
Trump also boasted to the troops that he had delivered them “one of the biggest pay raises you've ever received” — stating, incorrectly, that he had authorized the first military pay increase in a decade.
“You haven't gotten one in more than 10 years,” Trump said. “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, in fact, has risen every year for three decades. It was raised 2.4% in 2018 and will rise by another 2.6% in 2019, due to the National Defense Authorization Act.
Inside a khaki-colored tent, Trump, who was accompanied by his national security advisor, John Bolton, was briefed by U.S. military commanders. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Douglas Silliman, also took part.
Trump then shook hands and posed for selfies with troops. The troops, clad in desert camouflage, applauded and cheered the president and his wife. A few held red “Make America Great Again” hats for him to autograph. At one point he signed an embroidered patch that read “TRUMP 2020.”
A scheduled meeting with Iraq’s prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, was canceled. The White House did not give a reason.
Trump repeatedly mentioned the heavy security required to get him safely in and out of Iraq.
“I had concerns about 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 in the darkened plane with all windows closed with no light anywhere. Pitch-black. I’ve been on many airplanes. All types and shapes and sizes.”
“So did I have a concern? Yes, I had a concern,” he said.
Trump indicated that he had lost patience with the Pentagon because senior officials there would not devise a plan to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria as he wanted.
“Our presence in Syria was not open-ended and it was never intended to be permanent," he added.
He praised Saudi Arabia for pledging to help rebuild Syria as it enters what could be the final stages of a brutal civil war, and applauded Turkey, a NATO ally, for working with U.S. forces near its border with Syria.
Congress recently overwhelmingly passed a resolution to censure Saudi Arabia for its role in killing a Saudi journalist, and lawmakers have sought to constrain the Trump administration from providing further support to Riyadh’s military campaign in Yemen.
U.S. relations with Turkey have been strained for years, and Mattis and other critics have warned that Ankara will use the U.S. withdrawal from Syria to target Syrian Kurds, who fought as a U.S. proxy force against Islamic State.
Trump had been criticized for failing to visit active-duty American troops in a combat zone, a gesture that presidents routinely perform around holidays.
The jibes mounted after the White House scrubbed a planned visit to a U.S. military cemetery in France because of rain and after he did not go to Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day, as most presidents have done. He made a surprise visit to Arlington several weeks later.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003 in an effort to seize and destroy supposed weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Hussein’s regime. The intelligence was disastrously wrong, however, and no such weapons were found.
The U.S. occupation quickly went sour as a bitter sectarian civil war broke out. President Obama, who campaigned on a promise to end America’s endless wars, pulled most combat troops out in 2011 — only to rush some back in 2014 to fight Islamic State. About 5,000 U.S. troops are still deployed in Iraq.
Trump said last week that Islamic State had been defeated, a boast that most counter-terrorism experts sharply disputed. The top U.S. diplomat in the battle, Brett McGurk, resigned in protest and warned that thousands of the militants remain and that the group could rebuild itself quickly.
“We’ve knocked them out. We’ve knocked them silly,” Trump said of Islamic State on Wednesday, repeating his claim at the air base in Iraq. He said other countries must pay more in the aftermath of the war.
"The nations of the region must step up and take more responsibility for their future," Trump said.
“And others will do it too. Because we are in their region. They should be sharing the burden of costs and they’re not.”
For Trump, the visit to U.S. combat troops could help him regain some positive headlines after the political losses of the midterm election and weeks of turmoil, including the government shutdown and a roller coaster in the stock markets.
Trump’s foreign policy remains muddled and sometimes contradictory, especially in the Middle East. Challenging Iran and supporting Israel are among his most consistent goals. Yet the Syria pull-out benefits Iran and potentially endangers Israel.
His withdrawal from Syria has further muddied prospects for peace in the region, including Iraq.
The Iraqi government now controls all the country's cities, towns and villages after fighting its last urban battles against Islamic State militants in December 2017.
But Iraq’s political, military and economic situation remains tenuous, and Baghdad and other cities still experience sporadic bombings, kidnappings and assassinations.
Mattis’ departure and the recent firing of White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly were deeply unsettling to national security officials who counted on the two retired Marine generals to help check an impulsive president.