US President Trump does not understand foreign policy. As usual, he cannot fathom the links between his at-first-sight isolated decisions and the larger US foreign policy and security picture. Look no further than his recent Blackwater pardons for an illustration of this worrisome trend, which has characterized the last four years of the Trump presidency. President-elect Biden is only three weeks away from his inauguration, but that also means that Donald Trump is the President for three more weeks. A lot can happen in three weeks, especially looking at the damage which President Trump has been doing day after day over the past weeks.
Most notably, 3 January 2021 marks the death anniversary of Iranian General, Qasem Soleimani, killed by US strikes on 3 January 2020, after a decision authorized by President Trump. Naturally, there has been a lot of discussion about potential retaliation by Iran. There is one point, however, that President Trump and his White House team has missed and which has not been highlighted in this discussion, and that is the connection between the Blackwater pardons and potential retaliation on the occasion of Soleimani’s death anniversary. It is not surprising that the White House does not wish to draw attention to the potential impact of this decision on national security.
The pardoning of the Blackwater security contractors last week comes at the worst time. The Blackwater pardons are not just an isolated US justice event demonstrating Trump’s irresponsible conduct. Apart from reminding Americans of Iraq war crimes impunity, the pardoning gave rise to anger across Iraq, including among the families of the 17 civilians killed by the security contractors in 2007. Latent sentiments and suppressed resentment and hatred surfaced as a wave across Iraq and the rest of the Middle East – as analysts would reasonably expect on such an occasion, while equally realizing that Trump has missed that point and considers it irrelevant.
But the pardons have a connection to potential retaliation against the United States and Americans around the world on the occasion of Qasem Soleimani’s death anniversary, which is only days away. As usual, this link is most likely being overlooked by Trump and his team – as they have done in similar situations on previous occasions, which I have highlighted in the New York Times, Euronews and Modern Diplomacy.
US troops are supposed to withdraw from Iraq in January 2021. Let’s look at the current security situation in Bagdad.
Last week, two weeks ahead of Soleimani’s death anniversary, rockets hit near the US Embassy in Bagdad, after being intercepted midair by the embassy's C-RAM defense system. DW reported that the attacks were the third apparent violation of the truce agreed upon in October this year by Western and Iraqi authorities with hard-liner pro-Iran groups operating in Iraq. And here comes the rub.
The question is how pro-Iran proxy forces in Iraq will react, and not so much what the Iranian government itself will do. Anger over Iraqi killings impunity could stir things up, empowering pro-Iran, Iraq-based Shia paramilitary groups.
Last week, Iraqi Shia paramilitary group Kataeb Hezbollah, which itself has been accused of carrying out previous attacks, said that "bombing the (US) embassy of evil at this time is considered out of order."
But this position was before the Blackwater pardons by Trump, which came several days later. At this point, that should have ringed a bell for Trump.
The connection between Iraqi deaths caused by Blackwater and the pro-Iran militias operating inside Iraq became apparent already back in 2007, identified by Peter Singer. Singer submits that in the same week of the Blackwater massacre in 2007, radical Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr was planning the withdrawal of his coalition from the government, and instead of having to justify the act (which could have collapsed the government), al-Sadr was able to focus his propaganda and recruiting efforts on the Blackwater episode, describing it as “a cowardly attack committed by the so-called security company against our people without any justification.” Al-Sadr was blaming not only the security company, but America as a whole. And local Iraqis did not need additional convincing.
The Blackwater pardoning could serve now the same purpose for pro-Iran, hard-liner militias operating inside Iraq by giving their retaliation ideas the legitimacy, credibility and support they need within Iraq.
Fast-forward 13 years to 2020, and this link was also made by the Iranian government’s spokesperson in a statement on Monday. This is a trend and a pattern – but it is too far away from Trump’s basic understanding of foreign policy making, and decision-making, in general.
It should be recalled that back in 2016, Blackwater founder Erik Prince advocated for killing Soleimani in front of the Trump circle with a memo Prince presented to Steven Bannon which was then forwarded to Trump’s campaign manager Cory Lewandowski, as revealed by CNN this year. Iran and pro-Iranian forces in Iraq know that very well.
On Monday, during a press briefing in Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said that Iran won't let the death of General Qassem Soleimani go "unpunished,", which was not surprising. However, in the same statement, the Iranian government spokesperson called US President Donald Trump's pardon of the Blackwater contractors a "shameful thing" that manifested "one of the dark spots of US presence in Iraq."
The question now is how pro-Iran militias inside Iraq might use the Blackwater pardoning – as they have done in the past.
Joe Biden himself has been adamant on trying and convicting the Blackwater security contractors who became to be known as the “Biden four”. This new pardon development comes at a time of power transfer and it is a situation, which the Biden Administration will inherit at the worst possible time in January 2021.
As usual, US President Donald Trump doesn’t even see and is unconcerned about the links between his impulsive and corruption-driven decisions, on one hand, and US national security, on the other hand. This is serious business. It goes beyond Iraqi victims’ families’ disappointment and American citizens’ outrage, in general. Especially in this case, Trump’s seemingly unrelated Blackwater free pass will be stoking additional Iraqi anger and might directly affect the scale of the Soleimani anniversary retaliation, with potential loss of American lives, as a result, and potential effects on the US troops withdrawal from Iraq in January 2021. As usual, the Democrats will have to deal with the mess left behind.
Iveta Cherneva is an Amazon best-selling author, political commentator and human rights activist. Cherneva was among the very few go-to people for legal jurisdiction applying to security contractors back in 2007 in Washington DC. She is the co-author of Regulating the Global Security Industry (2009) and the author of “Trump, European security and Turkey” (2020). Cherneva’s career includes Congress, the UN and a Washington-bases association for an ethical code of conduct for the security industry. Cherneva was a top finalist for UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of speech in 2020. Her opinions appear in Euronews, the New York Times, Salon, The Guardian, Jurist, Modern Diplomacy, the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, LSE, Washington Examiner, Emerging Europe and EurActiv. Iveta appears on TV and radio for Euronews, DW, Voice of America and elsewhere.