To get a sense of how Trump’s apparent about-face stacks up in a historical context—and how the strike compares with early military actions taken by recent U.S. presidents—I spoke with Stephen Biddle, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Clare Foran: Are there previous examples of presidents who, early in their administrations, appeared to reverse positions they held before taking office about the use of force?
Stephen Biddle: The short answer would be yes. The clear example would be George W. Bush. He campaigned on the idea that the U.S. military was overstretched and we ought to do less. When he was running for office, he dismissed the notion that the United States should be involved in nation-building, and suggested he would not pursue military intervention to the extent that President [Bill] Clinton had.
But after 9/11, very shortly after taking office, Bush not only took the United States to war in Afghanistan, but in 2003 did so in Iraq as well. He famously, on the campaign trail, argued against long-term, grinding commitments to peacekeeping missions, and both of those early military interventions turned into long-term, grinding, stabilization commitments.
Foran: Do you think there’s a parallel with former President Barack Obama’s administration as well? After he won the New Hampshire primary in 2008, Obama vowed to “end this war in Iraq,” and he also said “we will finish the job against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.” But not long into his first term, in 2009, he announced that 17,0000 more American troops would be sent to Afghanistan.
Biddle: It’s a parallel in some ways, but not others. Obama campaigned on the idea that Iraq was a bad war, and one that he opposed in the first place, and he said that we should get out. But that’s not how he talked about Afghanistan. On the campaign trail, he talked about fighting al-Qaeda there, and argued that the United States needed more resources there and needed to reinforce that fight. So the Obama surge in Afghanistan wasn’t, strictly speaking, a reversal of something he had said on the campaign trail—it was a fulfillment of a campaign promise, in fact.
That said, Obama appears to have changed his mind on several use-of-force issues over the course of his presidency. He campaigned on the idea that Iraq was not in the U.S. interest—and that we ought to get out—but even after announcing that the war in Iraq would imminently come to an end in 2011, the administration sent American troops back to the region after the fall of Mosul in 2014.
Similarly, Obama campaigned on the idea that we should reinforce the fight in Afghanistan, and then ends up trying desperately to withdraw from Afghanistan by the time he leaves office, only to face difficulty in his attempts to do so.