No, Trump is not like Obama on Middle East policy

On Jan. 6, National Security Advisor John Bolton walked back President Donald Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would quickly withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, saying that such a withdrawal might actually take months or years.

Trump’s announcement came more than two weeks earlier. Soon after, Trump also directed the Pentagon to halve the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Whatever the fate of either order, pundits and politicians are having a field day comparing Trump’s Middle East policy to that of Barack Obama.

“On this issue…there is more continuity between Trump and Obama than would make either administration comfortable,” Richard N. Haas, president of The Council on Foreign Relations, told The New York Times in an article headlined “A Strategy of Retreat in Syria, with Echoes of Obama.”

The next day, The Hill repeated the sentiment in an article whose headline holds nothing back: “Trump’s Middle East Policy Looks a lot Like Obama’s – That’s not a Good Thing.”

Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), whose support for Trump is matched only by his disdain for Obama’s Middle East policy, called Trump’s plan “an Obama-like mistake.”

As someone who has studied and written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, this comparison immediately struck me as wrong.

While both presidents have advocated decreasing America’s footprint in the region, I believe their policies are comparable only on the most superficial level. Understanding why enables us to see the fundamental flaw underlying the current policy.

Trump vs. Obama: Afghanistan

Obama and Trump have taken contrasting approaches to the Afghanistan war, America’s longest. Both favored troop withdrawal – but with different intentions.

President Barack Obama, center, is briefed by Marine General Joseph Dunford, commander of the US-led International Security Assistance Force, right, and US Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham, May 25, 2014, Afghanistan. AP Photo/ Evan Vucci
In June 2011, Obama announced a multi-year timetable for a withdrawal, after an initial surge. His goal was to let the Afghan government know that the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan was not open-ended. The Afghans had to get their house in order, then take over the fight before the U.S. left for good.

It was, in effect, an announcement of the “Afghanistanization” of the war, similar in intent to Richard Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization.” In 1969, Nixon proposed replacing U.S. combat troops with South Vietnamese troops in order to extricate the United States from a seemingly endless war. This was Obama’s goal in Afghanistan as well. By the end of his second term, however, circumstances there persuaded him to slow the withdrawal.

When Trump announced his policy toward Afghanistan during the first year of his presidency, he mocked Obama’s plan. According to Trump, “Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on.”

And instead of “Afghanistanization,” Trump originally supported increasing the use of force to compel the Taliban, whom the U.S. and its allies are fighting in Afghanistan, to come to the bargaining table.

The Taliban had other ideas.

Rather than being backed into a corner, the Taliban recently made battlefield gains and is defying U.S. efforts to negotiate a settlement. It was in this context that Trump decided that “conditions on the ground” were ripe for a partial U.S. withdrawal.