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Trump's New Year's crisis

Iraqi protestors outside U.S. embassy
Photos: Getty Images

The storming of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad has launched one of the biggest foreign policy crises of the Trump presidency.

Driving the news: Trump tweeted on Tuesday afternoon, "Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!"

Catch up quick: Outside the embassy, "thousands of protesters and militia fighters [were] chanting 'Death to America,' throwing rocks, covering the walls with graffiti and demanding that the United States withdraw" from Iraq, the N.Y. Times reports. "[M]any were members of Kataib Hezbollah," which is backed by Iran.

  • 120 Marines were rushed to Baghdad today, the most since ISIS was at its peak.
  • Trump tweeted: "To those many millions of people in Iraq who want freedom and who don’t want to be dominated and controlled by Iran, this is your time!"

Why it matters: President Trump may feel compelled to do something because the world’s cameras are trained on scenes of American weakness.

  • Trump has privately talked about the weakness that he believes President Carter showed in response to the Iranian hostage crisis.
  • On the other hand, Trump has, until his recent retaliatory air strikes, been reluctant to fight a proxy war against Iran inside Iraq.
  • When Iran shot down a U.S. drone earlier this year, Trump was prepared to strike several Iranian targets, but at the last minute his more dovish instincts kicked in. It was only when Iranian proxies killed a U.S. contractor recently that Trump felt he had no choice but to strike back.

Between the lines: Unlike most of his national security team, Trump sees very little value in an American presence in Iraq — full stop.

  • Some of his more dovish outside advisers have warned him that an escalating conflict with Iranian proxies could quickly blow out into a dangerous new war.
  • The first theater could be Iraq, over which Iran wields extraordinary power. Iranian militias are well positioned to attack the roughly 5,000 U.S. military personnel still inside Iraq.
  • The Iraqi security forces have shown themselves to be incompetent and cannot be relied upon to protect American troops in Iraq.

The big picture: If Trump strikes back hard against Iran, he may get a new Middle East war he never wanted. If he does nothing, he may show the Carter-esque weakness he has long derided.

  • But there's another possibility that cannot be entirely dismissed. In an "Axios on HBO" interview two months ago in Baghdad, Iraqi President Barham Salih admitted this question was on his mind: what if Trump made a flip decision and totally withdrew American forces from Iraq?
  • I asked Salih if he was prepared to wake up one day and read a tweet from Trump saying he was pulling out of Iraq. Salih said he of course had to prepare for that scenario.

The bottom line: Trump has long wanted out of Iraq and believes the American presence in Iraq is an unmitigated disaster that was the worst mistake in U.S. history.

  • He said America should have taken Iraq’s oil — which would be illegal — and gotten the hell out.

Go deeper: Israel hopes U.S. airstrikes signal hawkish shift on Iran proxies