President Donald Trump wants a parade of tanks and warplanes, promises a huge defense buildup and rarely misses a chance to praise “our great military” and veterans — but he has yet to visit American troops fighting in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
Trump's absence from the war zones more than a year into this presidency stands in contrast to his immediate predecessor: Former President Barack Obama made his first of four presidential trips to the front lines three months after taking office and he went to Afghanistan twice in 2010, including one visit just months after he announced a surge of forces against the Taliban. Meanwhile, former President George W. Bush went half a dozen times, including his surprise visit to troops in Baghdad on Thanksgiving Day in 2003, eight months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Many former diplomats, Pentagon officials and retired military officers believe Trump too should visit the countries where American troops are in harm's way. They say it would give him an unvarnished, outside-the-Beltway perspective on the the stepped-up fight against the Islamic State and his own decision to dispatch additional troops to beat back a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan — plus it would boost morale.
“It’s still important, I think, to the troops that are out there to know the president supports them and is willing to come out and take some risks and see them face to face,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.
But some experts warn that the potential pitfalls, political and otherwise, are substantial.
Visits to war-torn countries present inherent security risks, especially when the presence of U.S. troops in both regions is far less than the hundreds of thousands of men and women who were there during Obama and Bush’s time in office.
“In Afghanistan he’d just have to stay on the base,” said Michele Flournoy, who served as the Pentagon policy undersecretary during the Obama years. “I’m not sure the Secret Service would approve of anything in Iraq or Syria at this point because we don’t have the presence we had before.”
Indeed, Vice President Mike Pence made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan in December — but only to fortified Bagram Airfield. And instead of visiting Iraq or Syria, he dropped by a military base in neighboring Jordan where troops were supporting the fight against the Islamic State.
A presidential visit could also place an undue burden on the military commands, particularly in Afghanistan, where Trump's new strategy is just being implemented.
“Periods of change in military activity are also periods of very intense business on the ground for our military leaders,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, who was responsible for overseeing both wars on the Bush and Obama administrations' National Security Council. In the early months after a shift like the one Trump approved last year, “effects probably haven’t been seen yet, and the commanders are also exceedingly busy.”
“There are times when a president says, 'I’m going to wait until we’ve made more progress rather than distract them,' and then I’ll go,'" agreed Flournoy.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on why Trump has not yet visited the troops in Iraq or Afghanistan or if he is considering such a visit.
Previous presidential trips took months of planning and secrecy.
While Bush’s first war zone visit was to Iraq in November 2003, he held off on visiting Afghanistan until March 2006, well into his second term and after American troops had been fighting in the country for over four years.
For Bush, the deterioration of security in Iraq during his second term, and the surge he ordered in an effort to turn things around, accelerated his visits. After visiting Baghdad to meet with Iraq’s new prime minister in June 2006, he next visited in September 2007 — at the peak of the surge he ordered that January, and just ahead of congressional testimony from his commander on the ground about its progress.
He then visited both war zones again at the end of his presidency in December 2008.
Obama visited Iraq, site of the war he pledged to end, just three months into his presidency and never returned. He first visited Afghanistan in March 2010, just a few months after he announced a troop surge in a speech at West Point. He visited again in December of that year.
After that, Obama visited Afghanistan two more times as troop levels there came down, in 2012 and 2014.
Both former presidents faced complications and distractions.
On Bush's farewell visit to Iraq in 2008, an Iraqi journalist threw both his shoes at the president during a press conference, in a traditional Muslim insult.
And visits can have unintended consequences in the countries themselves, said David Sedney, who served with the State Department in Afghanistan during the Bush administration and was a senior Pentagon official in the Obama administration.
"When Obama visited Afghanistan’s sprawling Bagram air base at the height of the surge in 2010, dust storms grounded his helicopter flight to nearby Kabul — a cancellation that was seen as a real insult to President Karzai and a message that Karzai was irrelevant to the U.S. military effort," recalled Sedney. “That may not have been the message it was intended to send, but it did.”
Such visits “are a way for the president to signal support for the war effort,” he added, but bring “huge burdens and risks, as well. They distract from the military effort while they are happening, they consume resources, and they provide targets to the enemy, so you have to balance all that against the political benefits.”
Trump's personality may pose a particular challenge, in the view of some.
“There’s always the risk in these trips that the president will do something wrong or create a diplomatic row with an ally," said Philip Carter, a retired Army officer who served in Iraq and is now at the Center for a New American Security. "And we’ve seen that before with this president and others. So it may be the case that the Pentagon really doesn’t want this trip to happen because they’re very carefully managing the situations.”
“There are complexities in these places that can get lost in a tweet," he added.
Many agree Trump need not rush such a visit and argue it would be better for him to wait until the new Afghanistan approach he authorized last summer is further along.
“There’s lots of way to express appreciation and interest for the military,” said House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas). “And … a president, or even us, have to be aware of the cost — and I don’t just mean economic costs — involved in getting into a place that’s somewhat dangerous."
Thornberry believes Trump has shown his support for the troops in other, less symbolic ways.
Since taking office Trump has presided over gains in the war against ISIS with a strategy similar to that employed by Obama. Trump has ratcheted up military tactics, however, by dropping more bombs on ISIS and delegating more authority to military commanders to approve air strikes and other military operations.
Trump also committed more troops to war in Afghanistan, reversing his earlier skepticism of U.S. involvement there, without a specific timeline.
The Pentagon is also on track to achieve its largest budget in years after Trump signed into law a budget agreement that lifts defense spending caps by $165 billion over two years, teeing up an eye-popping $716 billion in military spending for the coming fiscal year.
Still, many in the defense establishment see the personal involvement of the commander-in-chief as crucial.
"My hope is ... he understands that there has to be a human element here that can't be replaced by hiding out in the Oval Office," said Leon Panetta, Obama's secretary of defense. “It's fine to approve budgets for stronger defense. It's fine to go to various ceremonies. But nothing really substitutes for a president's actually going to the war zone and touching people there, because they want to know that a commander-in-chief is not isolated from the sacrifices they're making.”