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It's Significant That Trump Didn't Meet With Iraqi Leaders, Schake Says


President Trump is back in the U.S. this morning after a surprise visit to Iraq, where he addressed U.S. troops.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's because of your sacrifice that America's families can celebrate in safety and in peace and we're doing great back at home.

KING: Now, the U.S. still has some 5,000 troops in Iraq. They're stationed there to help Iraqi forces stabilize the country after its years-long battle against ISIS. There's been a lot of movement in the past few weeks when it comes to America's presence in the Middle East. And with us to discuss this is Kori Schake. She served on President George W. Bush's National Security Council and has also held policy roles in the Pentagon and at the State Department.

Good morning, Ms. Schake.

KORI SCHAKE: Good morning.

KING: So President Trump was supposed to meet Iraq's prime minister while he was there, but that meeting was canceled. And the specifics of exactly why it was canceled seem to differ depending on who you ask. Is it significant that President Trump did not meet with Iraqi leaders?

SCHAKE: Yeah, it actually is because the erratic nature of President Trump's decision to write off our involvement in Syria has made the Afghan government and the Iraqi government incredibly nervous because the rationale the president uses could apply equally to Iraq and to Afghanistan. And that the decision was made with no consultation with allies has everybody jittery. So he really missed an opportunity to explain to the government of Iraq what our plans are and why they can rely on us despite the decision about Syria.

KING: Maybe calm some people down.

During the visit, the president talked about ISIS. And he said, quote, "we've knocked them out." And he again reiterated that it is time for the U.S. to get out of Syria. Do you think that's the right strategy?

SCHAKE: No, I don't, for several reasons. First, because the president now owns the consequences of writing this off - so if ISIS should reemerge, which it has tended to do in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere when you don't assist in the stabilization and improvements in governance, you know, the president's going to own those consequences. The second reason it's a bad idea is that the president said that we are suckers to help countries stabilize themselves after a civil war and after a conflict. George Marshall would be turning over in his grave to hear that. That really is a refutation of what has been a successful American strategy for the last 70 years.

And the third thing that's wrong with the president's approach to writing off Syria is you would think, listening to him, that we were the only country involved in trying to defeat ISIS, when in fact there are a coalition of 74 countries contributing in one way or another. And the president in no way acknowledged or appreciated the contributions that others are making to share this burden and to fight alongside us. All three of those are really big strategic errors.

KING: The big question, when we learned that the president had gone to Iraq, was - was he going to make an announcement and say the U.S. is going to pull its troops out of Iraq, as well? He did not say that. He says he wants to keep them there. What are those troops in Iraq doing, and what do you think the president's calculus is in Iraq?

SCHAKE: American troops in Iraq, alongside our NATO allies and other countries, are helping to train and support Iraqi troops who are fighting ISIS, stabilizing the country, establishing the rule of law, helping assist NGOs and other reconstruction efforts in places where ISIS ravaged the country. And in northern Iraq, in the Kurdish areas, President Trump's decision to write off Kurdish militia who have been helping fight ISIS alongside us is really destabilizing - and not just in Syria but also in the domestic politics in Turkey and in the domestic politics in Iraq. President Trump's announcement that, you know, Turkey said they're going to take care of this, is not a reassuring prospect for Kurds in Turkey, in Syria, in northern Iraq or in Iran.

KING: Who have their own internal conflicts. At the same time, ISIS is severely weakened. But they are still active. The group claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack in northern Iraq on Christmas Day. Do you think there's a risk that ISIS will regroup if the U.S. military doesn't have a presence in the region - or has less of a presence in the region?

SCHAKE: Yes, I do. We saw that happen with al-Qaida in Iraq. We saw it happen with the rise of ISIS in Iraq and in Syria. So the lesson of the last 17 years ought to be - if you do not help improve the rule of law, governance and security in countries that have been ravaged by terrorism or civil war, you are allowing the regrouping, planning and carrying out of additional violence by those groups.

KING: Now, this is all happening while the president's secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, is resigning. He'll be out in a couple of days. Here's what the president had to say about the search for a replacement for Mattis.


TRUMP: Everybody wants that position - everybody. Everybody - so many people want to be - who wouldn't want to be secretary of defense?

KING: OK. So let me put that question the president poses to you. Who wouldn't want to be secretary of defense?

SCHAKE: (Laughter) Well, Jim Mattis, evidently. I think one of the reasons that the president is trying to put so much topspin on the ball and suggest that everyone's clamoring into his administration is that his personnel choices and his policy choices over the last two years have driven out or forced out people who are voices of sensibility and restraint and surrounded the president by people who will echo and cheer his reckless choices.

KING: You...

SCHAKE: And if you just look at the way the president, yesterday, talking to American troops in Iraq, violated longstanding norms of civil military discourse by having a political rally, talking about blaming the Democrats for the shutdown - that's a very bad way to politicize the role of the American military.

KING: Kori Schake, deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Thank you so much.

SCHAKE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.