WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump defended his decision to withdraw troops from Syria during a surprise visit to Iraq on Wednesday to meet with U.S. troops, his first encounter with soldiers serving under his command in a combat zone.
Trump’s journey, cloaked in secrecy during a government shutdown, comes as he weighs a major reduction in forces in the 17-year-old conflict in Afghanistan. He ordered the withdrawal of roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria and is overseeing a shakeup in the top rungs of military leadership.
“The United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world,” Trump said. “We don’t want to be taken advantage of anymore by countries that use us and use our incredible military to protect them.”
Trump and first lady Melania Trump left the Washington region late Christmas night. Air Force One flew overnight and landed under the cover of darkness Wednesday at Al Asad Air Base, west of Baghdad. Trump spent about three hours on the ground in Iraq, meeting with soldiers in a dining hall and addressing a large group of troops in a hangar.
“We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” Trump told the troops, according to the Associated Press. “We’re respected again as a nation.”
On his return trip to Washington, Trump touched down at Ramstein Air Base in Germany where he met with troops stationed there.
Trump and Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi spoke by phone as the president flew to Germany instead of meeting in person in Iraq. Sanders said Trump invited the prime minister to visit the White House and that he accepted.
President Donald Trump takes a photo with a U.S. service member during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on Dec. 26, 2018.Saul Loeb, AFP
President Barack Obama traveled to Iraq shortly after taking office, and President George W. Bush visited Baghdad in 2003, months after the Iraq War began. Trump has repeatedly faced questions in interviews, including on Fox News Sunday in November, for why he had not yet visited U.S. troops in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“Two years in, Trump was going to get flak for going or not going,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East negotiator for Republican and Democratic presidents. “And clearly those troops who will hear him will be glad he came.”
The president’s visit followed bipartisan alarms over a series of abrupt decisions upending U.S. foreign policy. Trump announced last week that he would withdraw troops from Syria, then parted ways with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis days later.
Trump is considering a significant reduction in forces in Afghanistan, USA TODAY and other outlets reported last week. The moves in Syria and Afghanistan were consistent with promises Trump made during his campaign, but they unsettled some lawmakers.
Trump described how he gave military leaders several “extensions” to finish their work in Syria.
“They said again recently, ‘Could we have more time?’ I said, ‘Nope. You can’t have any more time. You’ve got enough time,’ ” Trump said.
“We’ve knocked them out,” Trump said of the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria. “We’ve knocked them silly.”
There are about 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, advising Iraqi forces fighting Islamic State militants who nearly overran the country in 2014. The Iraqi army fled its posts during that onslaught. Sustained pressure from airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition helped Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces turn the militants back.
Small remnants of Islamic State units remain in Iraq, and the U.S troops there assist American units in Syria battling the terrorist group, also known as ISIS.
The force in Iraq is a fraction of the 170,000 American forces that fought a countrywide insurgency there in 2007. The withdrawal of U.S. troops was accelerated during the Obama administration, only to be returned to current levels after the rise of ISIS.
Trump maintained that he opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but his own statements before the war contradict that.
In November, Trump said, “I’m going to a war zone,” a declaration that followed a decision to skip a pair of military-themed events.
While traveling in Paris, Trump canceled a trip to an American cemetery about 50 miles away for an event that marked the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended fighting in World War I. Aides said weather made a helicopter trip too dangerous.
Trump returned to Washington two days later but did not make a visit to Arlington National Cemetery for a traditional Veterans Day event. Trump told Fox News, “I should have done that,” and he made an unscheduled stop at the cemetery Dec. 15.
Vice President Mike Pence made a surprise visit to Afghanistan last year.
Mattis announced last week he was stepping down as defense secretary at the end of February over disagreements with Trump, ranging from Syria to global alliances.
Trump said Sunday that Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan will take over sooner than expected. He is to become acting defense secretary Jan. 1. Trump named Army Gen. Mark Milley as a replacement for Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In Germany, Trump met with Air Force leaders and then greeted hundreds of service members in a hangar. “Hello folks,” the president said, stretching out his arms.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks to troops in a hangar at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP) ORG XMIT: WX538Mandel Ngan, APPublished 9:23 PM EST Dec 26, 2018