WASHINGTON — The U.S. is not returning combat troops to Iraq, President Barack Obama insisted again Wednesday, despite the suggestion by his top general that option is something the Pentagon could consider.
Speaking at U.S. Central Command in Florida, Obama said again that U.S. troops “do not and will not have a combat mission” in Iraq against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“After a decade of massive ground deployments, it is more effective to use our unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground so they can secure their own countries’ futures,” he said. “And that’s the only solution that will succeed over the long term.”
“As your commander in chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” Obama told troops at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Rather, the U.S. forces will support Iraqi forces on the ground as the Iraqis fight ISIS, he said.
“When we do things alone and the countries — the people of those countries — aren’t doing it for themselves, as soon as we leave, we start getting the same problems,” Obama said.
Gen. Martin Dempsey’s recommendation
Not sending U.S. combat troops back into Iraq has been the one tenet of Obama’s ISIS strategy that’s remained ironclad — at least until Tuesday, when Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told members of Congress he hasn’t ruled out recommending U.S. ground forces deploy to attack ISIS targets if the current air campaign in Iraq fails.
“To be clear, 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 said.
The hypothetical remark, which sources say was vetted by the White House beforehand, managed to undercut what Obama and his aides have been promising for weeks: that combat troops were out of the question for Iraq.
The crossed wires come after a concerted White House effort to spell out a plan against ISIS terrorists, which itself was a response to the President’s frank admission late last month that he lacked a “strategy” for dealing with ISIS in Syria.
The vow to keep U.S. troops out of combat extends as far back as Obama’s presidential campaigns, which were run first on the promise to end the Iraq War, and four years later on the assurance that that era of American warfare was over.
While three-quarters of Americans support airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, a majority still oppose any combat “boots-on-the-ground” scenario.
Obama: training and intelligence-gathering only
When Obama addressed the nation last week, he made clear the American military advisers being deployed in Iraq “will not have a combat mission” and would act in a training and intelligence-gathering capacity only.
“We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq,” he said in the remarks on September 10.
Officials are adamant that possibility remains out of the question and say Dempsey’s suggestion was using a hypothetical situation — a practice rarely seen at the message-driven White House.
While Dempsey could recommend deploying U.S. combat forces to Obama, the President will ultimately make military decisions himself.
“It’s the responsibility of the President’s military advisers to plan and consider all the wide range of contingencies,” press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday. “It’s also the responsibility of the commander in chief to set out a clear policy. And the President has been clear about what that policy is.”
A spokesman for Dempsey, Col. Ed Thomas, said the Joint Chiefs chairman “doesn’t believe there is a military requirement for our advisers to accompany Iraqi forces into combat.”
“The context of this discussion was focused on how our forces advise the Iraqis and was not a discussion of employing US ground combat units in Iraq,” he wrote in a statement.
Tuesday isn’t the first time the White House’s aim for clarity has fallen short. Obama’s frank admission late last month the United States lacked a “strategy” for combating ISIS in Syria drew sharp criticism, leading to his eventual prime-time address announcing the potential for airstrikes in the country.
The goals cited by the administration in battling ISIS have similarly drawn some confusion, going from reducing the force to a “manageable problem” to “degrading and ultimately destroying” the terrorists.
Opponents of the President quickly accused the administration of muddying the message.
“First of all, the President is just flat not telling the truth,” Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, said on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper.”
“We already have boots on the ground there. He knows we have to have boots on the ground. Let’s admit we’re in a war.”