It was a day late to qualify as the kind of iconic holiday trip to celebrate with U.S. troops that George W. Bush pulled off on Thanksgiving Day in 2003. And it was also too late in his presidency to preempt questions about his refusal up until now to appear in a war zone (in contrast to earlier presidents from Madison to Obama) — questions that turned up rumors that the commander-in-chief was fearful for his personal safety.
But President Trump did get the monkey off his back today with a “secret” trip to Iraq (the first lady in tow). The timing was interesting in several respects, as the New York Times notes:
President Trump visited American military forces in Iraq on Wednesday, a surprise trip and the first visit to troops stationed abroad in a combat zone by a commander in chief who has made withdrawing the United States from foreign wars a signature issue.
The trip, shrouded in secrecy, came in the midst of a government shutdown and less than a week after Mr. Trump disrupted America’s military status quo and infuriated even some of his staunchest political allies by announcing plans to withdraw troops from Syria and about half of those stationed in Afghanistan. That decision on Syria, made over the objections of American military generals and civilian advisers, led to the resignation of Mr. Trump’s defense secretary, Jim Mattis, and fueled tensions within the national security establishment.
It probably made sense, then, that Trump flew to Iraq, the locale of his alleged victory over ISIS, and a country where he is not presently demanding a total drawdown of U.S. troops. Au contraire, in fact, as USA Today reports:
Trump told troops that he has “no plans at all” to withdraw from Iraq, despite a decision this month to pull U.S. troops out Syria and consider doing so in Afghanistan.
If it aided troop morale, there was no harm in this gesture other than its cost and the continuation of a long tradition of political exploitation of the U.S. military. But the circumstances do highlight the difficulty facing Trump as a president who wants virtually unlimited defense spending harnessed to a belligerent nationalism — but doesn’t much care for deploying U.S. military power unless it can kill everything in sight. No wonder he longs for big military parades, which display all the color and drama the armed forces can provide without the risks of unpleasantness.