Written by Annie Karni, Mark Landler and Thomas Gibbons-Neff
President Donald Trump visited US military forces Wednesday in Iraq, making his first trip to troops stationed in a combat zone only days after announcing his intention to withdraw the United States from foreign wars in Syria and Afghanistan.
The trip, shrouded in secrecy, came during a partial government shutdown and less than a week after Trump announced plans to withdraw all troops from Syria and about half from Afghanistan. The president’s decision on Syria led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 26, 2018
Speaking to troops at Al Asad Air Base, Trump defended his move in Syria.
“We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” the president said. “Our presence in Syria was not open-ended and was never intended to be permanent. Eight years ago, we went there for three months and we never left.”
Trump told reporters that the United States might base US commandos on the border in Iraq to launch raids and other missions into Syria. Such a move would reflect one of the strategies proposed by the Pentagon after he announced his decision to withdraw troops from that country.
On Wednesday, about 100 US servicemen and women, some of whom were wearing red “Make America Great Again” caps, greeted Trump with a standing ovation in the base’s dining facility. He and the first lady spent about 15 minutes there talking with the troops.
Trump ran for the presidency in 2016 on a platform of bringing the troops home from Afghanistan and Syria, part of a strategy of ending nearly two decades of US military interventions he criticized as costly, ineffective and at odds with his “America First” foreign policy.
Trump, who was also accompanied to Iraq by his national security adviser, John R. Bolton, and a small group of reporters, said “the United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world.”
“We are spread out all over the world,” the president said. “We are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous.”
Trump’s trip came at a moment of tension with some of his top military officials. Over the weekend, Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, accelerated his resignation, telling colleagues he could not in good conscience carry out Trump’s policy of withdrawing US troops from Syria.