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Trump's Iraq visit alone won't undo damage he did last week

Perhaps the president has realized that his administration has some hard work to do if there is any hope of keeping his latest determinations from dramatically strengthening Iran.

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump greet members of the military as they arrive for a hanger rally at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. In a surprise trip to Iraq, President Donald Trump on Wednesday defended his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria where they have been helping battle Islamic State militants. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Photo Credit: AP/Andrew Harnik

The move of President Donald Trump to visit Baghdad on Wednesday is a small, good one, amid a week of calamitous decisions. The press will understandably highlight the time that Trump spends with U.S. troops. Yet a key objective of the trip will have been to shore up the new Iraqi government's confidence in the U.S., as Iraqi officials must be high on the list of those shocked by the president's recent decisions to rapidly withdraw U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan. Perhaps the president has realized that his administration has some hard work to do if there is any hope of keeping his latest determinations from dramatically strengthening Iran.

The Middle East is a complicated place, where generations of American presidents and policymakers have struggled to prioritize competing interests, balance delicate relationships and manage inevitable trade-offs. Yet Trump's actions and words - at least until last week - made it clear that his highest priority was on containing and punishing Iran in an effort to get Tehran to the negotiating table to reach a new, sweeping agreement on both its nuclear program and its other destabilizing behavior in the region.

Other priorities in U.S. Middle East policy have suffered to some extent as a result of this near-myopic focus on Iran. The desire to have Saudi Arabia as a strong partner in containing Iran has been an important part of shaping Trump's calculus toward Riyadh - which has involved a near pass on behaviors that would normally be seen as unacceptable, such the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its conduct in the war on Yemen (until Congress recently stepped in).

Moreover, the focus on Iran has put the new government in Baghdad in unnecessary and challenging situations, at a time when Washington should be making every investment in its success. The Trump administration has only grudgingly granted two 45-day waivers to Iraq for its continued importation of Iranian natural gas (opposed to the 180 days others received). The Iraqi government has placed valuable time and political capital into facing the choice between being subject to U.S. sanctions or losing the energy source that powers nearly a third of Iraq's electricity.

Nevertheless, while one might not have agreed on the wisdom of making Iran so central to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, at least the above tradeoffs could be debated around policy views and threat assessments. Serious professionals could disagree. This is no longer the case. Trump, in his recent announcement to draw down troops from Syria and Afghanistan, is taking steps that work against all of his professed goals with Iran - for no apparent gain elsewhere.

First, an American withdrawal from Syria will remove a curb on nefarious Iranian activity in the region and open up new opportunities for Iran to embed itself in various countries there. The U.S. presence in Syria, although small, has helped curb the activities of Iran and its ally Hezbollah. It has also helped frustrate Iran's ability to establish a land bridge connecting Iran to the Mediterranean and, as a result, has limited Iranian regional interventions. With the U.S. vacating Syria, Iran will now be well positioned to compete for territory currently held by U.S. partners, and Hezbollah will be able to make a stronger stand near Israel.

Second, the withdrawal will make achieving the administration's declared goal of a tougher, more comprehensive agreement with Tehran all but unimaginable. Getting Tehran to meet a fraction of Secretary of State Michael Pompeo's "12 demands" - including a full withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria - was always going to be tough. But American diplomats will be particularly challenged to produce Iranian concessions in a situation where the United States has even less leverage due to the withdrawal of its troops.

American influence in the region will also be weakened, and Iran's enhanced, by the probable outcome in Afghanistan. In any negotiation with the Taliban, America's greatest leverage is its troop presence, given the Taliban's intense focus on getting the U.S. troops to leave. However, now, the president has begun to meet the Taliban's main demand before any real talks get underway. A return to civil war is, sadly, not out of the question. While Iran would not welcome such chaos, it will cheer the departure of U.S. troops from its eastern flank, having long complained about the "encirclement" it has felt since 9/11.

Iran, nevertheless, has plenty of reasons to go through the motions of dialogue. If Trump is willing to jeopardize U.S. interests to change the news cycle, perhaps a country with diplomats as clever and far-sighted as those in Iran can manipulate the president to agree to arrangements that actually serve Iran's long-term interests in the region? Iran would have nothing to lose in exploring this possibility and could gain short-term sanctions relief from the process.

The tragedy of Trump's withdrawal announcements goes far beyond U.S. strategy with Iran, to affect the security of America's allies and partners in Europe and the Middle East, the lives of millions on the ground, and American standing globally. What can be done to mitigate this disaster?

It seems likely that the broad contours of the U.S. withdrawal are not negotiable; departing Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS, would have not resigned had they thought the withdrawal could be reversed. However, in the implementation there is always a significant opportunity to shave the edges off a misguided strategy.

For instance, those responsible for drawing down troops in Afghanistan and Syria could seek to define withdrawals as boots on the ground, as opposed to all military support. This might enable the U.S. to continue to play the absolutely vital role of air power to those we support in both Syria and Afghanistan - and could help keep the forces of other countries such as the U.K. and France involved.

In addition, the timeline for troop withdrawal could be broken into phases and extended, and potentially could involve some conditions-based benchmarks.

Crucially, in the run-up to any withdrawal, the U.S. should seek to secure agreements from countries like Turkey to stay engaged in the fight against the remnants of ISIS, so they do not shift priorities entirely.

Finally, the U.S. must clarify its relationship with Baghdad and underscore its willingness to leave a U.S. troop presence there longer; while it will be hard to convince Baghdad that Trump will not wake up one day and decide to withdraw from Iraq, every effort should be made to embed the American presence there as the last foothold in a region where ISIS's defeat is still far from certain and stabilization remains a long-term goal.

Trump's words, as he stood in Baghdad on Wednesday, seemed geared to at least begin to chip away at this list. If only the words of the American president held the weight they once did.

- - - O'Sullivan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School, and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She served on the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007.

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