President Obama’s efforts to assure the American public that no American troops would fight in Iraq have put him at public odds with the Pentagon while giving ISIS an extraordinarily clear picture of how the U.S. military will fight the group.
Since the president announced airstrikes against the group this summer, he’s taken great pains to tell the war-weary public that this will not be a repeat of George W. Bush’s Iraq War.
“We will be your partners, but we are not going to do it for you. We’re not sending a bunch of U.S. troops back on the ground to keep a lid on things,” Obama said in an interview with The New York Times in August.
He’s repeated this on numerous occasions since then. However, testifying on Capitol Hill yesterday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, apparently didn’t get the memo. Both refused to rule out the use of American troops to fight ISIS.
“If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president,” Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee, using an alternative name for the group.
Army chief Ray Odierno echoed these comments. Speaking in Germany, Odierno said that airstrikes alone would not be enough to take out the group.
“You've got to have ground forces that are capable of going after them and rooting them out," he said. “As we go down the road, if we think the way to [defeat and destroy the group] might have to be the use of ground forces—then we'll recommend that.”
While no DOD official explicit said that U.S. troops would be used in combat, their statements were provocative enough to garner a harsh response from the White House.
“The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission," Obama said yesterday.
Tensions between the Pentagon and the White House have been simmering for years. However, the tit-for-tat yesterday was one of the first times that DOD brass has so publicly disagreed with a White House policy.
“Dempsey has been a ‘yes’ man for a lot of this stuff. That was one of his first shows of independent thought,” said Steven Bucci, a national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “To have that slapped down so roundly … tells you there is a lot of potential disagreement among the decision makers.”
“In this case, the general is being realistic and truthful. We don’t know what the situation is going to be,” Bucci added.
The quick rebuke by the Obama administration also shows that it is aware of the politics of boots on the ground. Polls show the American public believes ISIS is a threat; they also show that the public does not want American troops on the ground to confront this threat and they don’t trust Obama to handle it.
According to Bucci, the White House is not alone is taking hard stances on ISIS ahead of November’s midterms. Congress also does not want to commit to an unpopular plan that would turn off voters. “Congress’ natural inclination is to support the president, especially when they all agree that these guys are really bad guys,” Bucci said. Because of the upcoming elections, everyone is afraid to commit, he added.
One lawmaker who has shown no reluctance to criticize the president’s plan is Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). In a blistering critique of the president’s ISIS strategy delivered on the Senate floor today, Paul called the plan by Congress to give the president the authority to bomb Syria “illegal” and “unconstitutional.”
“There are already those in both parties who insist that we must have American GIs on the ground. I’m not sending any American soldiers. I’m not sending your son, your daughter or mine over to the middle of that chaos. The people who live there need to stand up and fight,” Paul said.
The statement by Paul, a presumed 2016 GOP presidential contender, reflects his libertarian foreign policy. But it’s also a reflection of the political realities of the crisis in Iraq: Obama has to be very specific in his plans to confront ISIS to placate the American public. At the same time, he’s tipping his hand to the enemy. By arguing against intervention, Paul is betting that the plan will fail.
“The plan [Obama’s] given is so minimalist that it has a strong possibility of failing or at best succeeding two or three years from now,” Bucci said. “The whole time ISIS grows stronger and becomes a beacon for disaffected young Muslims to be drawn to the banner. Those are all bad things.”
“I can see high fives going all around the ISIS camps tonight,” he added.
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