WASHINGTON — The president calls off a missile strike on a Middle Eastern country at the last minute, overruling his national security advisers, confusing allies and adversaries, and provoking criticism from hawks in his own party, who warn that his vacillation could erode America’s credibility in a dangerous world.
The parallels between Mr. Trump’s cancellation of a missile strike on Iran and Mr. Obama’s decision to shelve a strike on President Bashar al-Assad of Syria are so tantalizing that some Republicans lost no time in highlighting them.
“I think it’s important that people recognize that the United States is going to keep its word and not go down the path that President Obama went down,” Representative Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming and a daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, said on Friday to a reporter for CNN.
But Ms. Cheney’s criticism, which has been picked up by other right-wing commentators, overlooks important differences between Mr. Trump’s decision and that of his predecessor — differences that underscore how Mr. Trump’s foreign policy still remains, to some extent, the antithesis of Mr. Obama’s.
Mr. Obama abruptly pulled back from his planned missile strike on Syria in August 2013 to seek congressional approval for military action, which he believed he would need for potential later operations, perhaps including against Iran. He watched with alarm as an ally, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, went down to defeat in Parliament when he put the operation to a vote.
The Trump administration and its allies have offered varying explanations for why the president blinked, none of which hinge on getting buy-in from the legislative branch. Mr. Trump himself said he called off the strike after one of his generals told him that even a limited missile strike could kill 150 people — a disproportionate response to Iran’s shooting down of an unmanned American drone.
Jack Keane, a retired Army general with close ties to the president, said the White House had intelligence that Iran’s leaders viewed the attack on the drone as a mistake. While that was not the main reason Mr. Trump canceled the attack, it contributed to his view that a military response would be an error.
“Mistakes get made,” Mr. Keane said. “The Iranians are frustrated and furious with what happened.”
Given that, the better historic analogy for Mr. Trump’s decision might be President Bill Clinton’s last-minute decision in November 1998 to halt a missile strike on Iraq to punish it for refusing to cooperate with United Nations’ weapons inspectors. Mr. Clinton acted after receiving letters from Iraqi officials, assuring him that Iraq would reverse itself and cooperate with the inspectors.
“Clinton backed down because of several reasons, including his deep personal aversion to the use of force,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a member of Mr. Clinton’s National Security Council. “Vice President Gore was furious with Clinton and told him so in an N.S.C. meeting.”
Even the language used in the Clinton and Trump episodes was similar. In 1998, administration officials said Mr. Clinton had not called off the strike entirely that Friday evening, but paused it and “recocked the gun,” so that the Pentagon could carry out the operation over the weekend if the White House judged that the Iraqi assurances were inadequate.
Mr. Trump said on Twitter on Friday that the United States was “cocked & loaded” to retaliate against Iran for the drone attack until “I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General.”
“The two incidents are alike in that Clinton and Trump don’t want a war on their watch,” Mr. Riedel said. “But Iran is a much more dangerous adversary than Saddam’s Iraq was by 1998.”
Mr. Obama, his former advisers pointed out, never issued an order to strike Syria, even though it was widely expected by his staff and allies, including the French, who had fueled their own planes.
Another key difference is that the Syrians crossed Mr. Obama’s “red line” by using chemical weapons against their own people. The Iranians did not cross the red line drawn by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which he defined as the death of even a single American service member, either by Iran or one of its proxies.
Syria’s use of chemical weapons violated international norms, while Iran’s actions were rooted in Mr. Trump’s decision in May 2018 to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and impose sanctions on Iran, driving down its oil exports and throttling its economy.
It is, to a great extent, a crisis Mr. Trump manufactured.
How well he weathers the crisis depends on how Iran responds. In Mr. Obama’s case, the dismay over his failure to enforce his red line was mitigated when Russia subsequently proposed another way to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, by handing them over to an outside authority. This allowed Mr. Obama to withdraw his request for congressional backing of a military strike.
“It’s doubtful that Trump will draw some benefit in terms of Iranian behavior from backing down,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel. “But if he does — for example, if it produces negotiations — then this difference turns into a parallel.”
Defenders of Mr. Trump dismissed the comparison to Syria, saying that Mr. Obama sought congressional authorization, knowing full well that it would never be granted. His calculation, they said, was driven by a risk aversion that grew out of his bitter experience with the American-led intervention in Libya. Mr. Trump, they noted, ordered two missile strikes on Syria after it used chemical weapons.
“Trump is not risk averse,” said James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow who advised Mr. Trump during the transition. “He is perfectly willing to use force. He is not afraid about getting into an escalatory conflict, but his use of force is calculated, and he predetermines he is not going to get on escalatory path.”
Still, one thing Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama share is a conviction that the United States has blundered into too many foreign conflicts. For all his bluster — and his methodical dismantling of his predecessor’s legacy — Mr. Trump has so far avoided being drawn into a major military entanglement.
Jake Sullivan, a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., said that Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama both seemed driven by the “common concern about what more they would be buying in the way of military engagement, beyond a one-off retaliatory strike.”