President Donald Trump made his first visit to a conflict zone as commander in chief this week, visiting troops at Al Asad Airbase in western Iraq on Wednesday. The unannounced journey took place just days after announcing that he planned to remove U.S. troops from Syria and saw his own defense secretary resign in response.
In April 2009, Trump’s predecessor in the Oval Office, President Barack Obama, made his own trip to Iraq to visit U.S. military personnel. Again, it was his first visit as commander in chief, though he had also visited Iraq in July 2008 as a U.S. senator while campaigning for president.
The contrast between the two trips is sometimes stark – not just because of the timing, but also because of the very different tone they put on display. This itself is a reflection of the different personalities of the two men as commanders in chief, as well as the dramatic changes that have taken place in the Middle East in the past nine years.
Despite frequent praise for the U.S. military and the appointment of military leaders to Cabinet positions, it took Trump almost half of his first term as president to visit American soldiers in a conflict zone.
In contrast, Obama’s trip to Iraq took place less than three months after he was inaugurated. He would go on to visit another conflict zone, Afghanistan, twice in his second year in office. Obama’s own predecessor, President George W. Bush, had also visited Iraq less than a year after the U.S.-led invasion of the country began in March 2003.
Like Obama’s visit, Trump’s trip to Iraq was not announced publicly beforehand – a reflection of the security concerns that have not abated much between 2009 and now. Both visited American troops in the country, with Obama meeting them inside a palace built by Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, while Trump visited an air base. Neither president spent more than a few hours inside Iraq.
However, Obama met with Iraq’s leader at the time, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, at Camp Victory while he was in Iraq. Trump did not meet Iraq’s current leader, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi: Iraqi lawmakers said that there was a disagreement over whether to meet at the air base, as the American side wished.
Some Iraqi politicians have criticized Trump’s visit to Iraq and described it as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. “The U.S. occupation of Iraq is over,” Sabah al Saadi, the leader of the Islah parliamentary bloc, said in a statement.
Certainly, the Iraq that Trump is visiting is in a very different neighborhood than the one that Obama visited in 2009. In 2009, there were no U.S. troops in Syria to withdraw – indeed, that country had not yet started on the path of the civil war that has killed over half a million people since 2011. Obama himself had not yet helped reach the nuclear deal between Iraq’s neighbor Iran and other world powers in 2015, while Saudi Arabia had not begun the complicated series of changes that were kicked off by King Abdullah’s death in 2015.
When Obama visited in 2009, the United States still had a huge military presence in Iraq itself: there were roughly 157,800 U.S. military personnel in the country during the 2008 fiscal year. During his visit, Obama reiterated his intention to remove to all U.S. troops from the country.
“Under enormous strain and under enormous sacrifice, through controversy and difficulty and politics, you’ve kept your eyes focused on just doing your jobs,” Obama told the troops in 2009. “You have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country.”
“They need to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty,” Obama said of the Iraqi government.
Obama followed through on his pledges in 2011, withdrawing American soldiers from Iraq. However, U.S. troops returned in 2014 in response to a request from the Iraqi government to help in the fight against the Islamic State, an extremist group which had previously been called al-Qaida in Iraq and was known as the Islamic State of Iraq when Obama visited in 2009.
The year after Obama visited Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was installed as its leader. He would go on to lead the extremist group to expand into Syria, eventually leading the U.S. to send troops to that country, where they have been working with local forces since 2015.
Last week, Trump announced that these soldiers would be coming home as the Islamic State was now defeated. “Our boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back and they’re coming back now. We won,” Trump said in a video message on Twitter. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced his resignation soon afterward.
But as he visited Iraq on Wednesday, Trump had a very different message – again, a real contrast to Obama’s message nine years before – to the roughly 5,200 U.S. troops currently deployed in Iraq. The message was that this time, there was no immediate plan to withdraw American soldiers from Iraq. “In fact, we could use this as the base if we wanted to do something in Syria,” the American leader added.