SHAFAQNA- Donald Trump portrays himself as a gung-ho supporter of the US military, but over a year and a half into his tenure the president has yet to visit American troops in a war zone.
Since Trump took office, about 60 American service members have died while deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, according to Pentagon statistics, including both “hostile” and “nonhostile” deaths.
Trump has sent thousands of troops to the border with Mexico in anticipation of a Central American migrant caravan in what his critics labeled a preelection stunt designed to shore up anti-immigration sentiment within his base. Mattis has described the mission as good training and necessary support for the Department of Homeland Security.
But Trump has yet to visit Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, among other places where US troops are putting their lives on the line to execute his orders.
This is arguably out-of-step for a president who’s filled his Cabinet with generals, boasted about making the US military stronger than ever, called for an expensive (and recently canceled) military parade in the US capital, and accused NFL players of disrespecting the troops by kneeling during the national anthem before games.
The vast majority of Trump’s predecessors dating back to World War II visited troops in war zones. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama met with US troops in combat zones soon into their first terms.
Bush, for example, met with ground troops in Baghdad within 10 months of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. While in office, Bush made four trips to Iraq and two to Afghanistan.
Obama visited troops in Iraq in 2008 while he was still a senator and made another visit within his first three months as president. He made four trips to Afghanistan as president, business insider reported.
The president has faced criticism from some in the military community for not visiting troops overseas, which has previously been a tradition for American presidents, the hill mentioned.
Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday slammed Trump for not visiting troops in a war zone this far into his presidency.
Hagel told CNN by not making such a visit Trump was not giving “recognition” to the fact US troops were fighting and dying in multiple countries, including Afghanistan.
“I think it’s bigger than just a misstep — I think it’s a failure of an obligation, of a basic obligation of a commander in chief,” Hagel said. “He’s commander in chief of our forces, and not to go to a war zone where we have men and women dying, that’s just wrong.”
Pressure for Trump to make such a visit has been building for months. Eliot Cohen, a former George W. Bush administration official and Trump critic, has raised the issue regularly in public.
“The point is American servicemen and women are on the ground in these places,” Cohen said in an interview. “They are getting killed. I think any good leader would want to see something for themselves. And they would want to do something for the troops other than using them as props.”
Questioned last week about why he has not visited American troops deployed in overseas conflicts, Trump indicated during a Fox News interview that a trip was in the works.
“I think you will see that happen,” Trump said in the interview with Chris Wallace. “There are things that are being planned. We don’t want to talk about it because of security reasons and everything else.”
Trump has fears over risks to his own life
Trump has spoken privately about his fears over risks to his own life, according to a former senior White House official, who has discussed the issue with the president and spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about Trump’s concerns.
“He’s never been interested in going,” the official said of Trump visiting troops in a combat zone, citing conversations with the president. “He’s afraid of those situations. He’s afraid people want to kill him.”
Plans for a visit by Trump aren’t firm, several advisers said, and the president has only begun saying in recent weeks that it may need to happen. A White House spokesman declined to comment on presidential visits, citing security concerns.
The president has come under increasing scrutiny for his behavior toward the military in recent weeks. He attacked the former head of U.S. Special Operations Command, retired Adm. William H. McRaven, on Sunday for his role in catching and killing Osama bin Laden, calling him a supporter of Hillary Clinton and saying that the al-Qaeda leader should have been caught sooner in Pakistan. McRaven responded in a statement saying he did not endorse Clinton during the 2016 presidential election.
Trump’s advisers say his lack of a visit does not represent a lack of interest in or disrespect for the military. There are military figures in his administration that he admires, his advisers say: Gen. Mark Milley, the chief of staff of the Army, and retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, a former White House adviser who now works for Vice President Pence.
Trump frequently touts the strength of the U.S. military at his political rallies, having signed off on a $716 billion budget for the Pentagon this year that included the largest base budget in adjusted terms since World War II.
Trump’s trip to Iraq or Afghanistan would have carried real security challenges
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 former 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.
For most of Trump’s tenure, a trip to Iraq or Afghanistan would have carried real security challenges and political complications, U.S. officials said.
Iraq was heading into elections during the president’s first year in office, and a visit by Trump around the time of the controversy over Trump’s travel ban affecting Muslim-majority countries could have further complicated efforts by the U.S.-backed prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to secure reelection in May.
In Afghanistan, the security situation has deteriorated. In September 2017, Mattis was the target of a failed rocket attack at Kabul airport. A month later, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a secret visit to Afghanistan but didn’t leave Bagram air base, in part owing to security concerns.
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, politico told.
Still, if the president wanted to visit American troops deployed to one of the countries, U.S. military officials would find a way to organize the trip as they have done in the past, according to officials familiar with the matter. He could easily stop at Bagram for a few hours as Tillerson did, they said, Washington Post reported.