Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, caused quite a stir in Washington yesterday, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that if the next phase of the U.S. mission against Islamic State falls short, he might recommend deployment of American ground troops.
For many, this was seen as a hint of what’s to come: if the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is thinking about ground troops, the argument went, then maybe this is the course of action the Obama administration has in mind. There were, of course, a few problems with the assumptions. First, Dempsey was responding to a hypothetical, not making a prediction. Second, the decision ultimately isn’t in the hands of the Joint Chiefs anyway.
And finally, the one who would have to make the final call – the military’s civilian Commander in Chief – keeps saying the same thing: there won’t be a ground war for U.S. troops.
In an impassioned, pep rally-like speech to military personnel in Florida, President Obama insisted again on Wednesday that the U.S. will not send ground troops to fight ISIS.“I will not commit you and the rest of our forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” the commander-in-chief said at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. Earlier in the day, Obama was briefed on battle plans to strike ISIS in Iraq and possibly Syria by military commanders at U.S. Central Command.
Obama added, “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. And that’s the only solution that will succeed over the long term. “
There can be little doubt that the president has been consistent on this. There can be plenty of doubt, however, about whether conditions and specific circumstances will shift in unpredictable ways. If U.S. jets are targeting ISIS locations in Syria, for example, and American pilots are shot down, a mission that intended to stay off of Syrian soil can change quickly.
And then, of course, there’s the politics.
Despite polls showing no public appetite for a ground war, Dana Milbank highlighted “a sudden desire for a ground war” among congressional Republicans, even among some GOP lawmakers who argued the exact opposite a few months ago.
“It may be that Republicans embraced the boots-on-the-ground position because Obama rejected it,” Milbank noted. “Whatever the cause, the militancy is spreading – even though polls indicate that while Americans favor military action against the Islamic State, they aren’t keen on ground troops.”
All of this comes against the backdrop of an awkward legislative debate, with the U.S. House expected to tackle a measure today that would clear the way for support for anti-ISIS rebels in the region. The leadership of both parties endorsed the bill, which is generally expected to pass, though in this chamber, anything’s possible.
The Senate will vote tomorrow or Friday on the proposal, which has drawn sharp criticism from many in the upper chamber, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) today.
The larger debate over Congress authorizing force will almost certainly be delayed until after the midterm elections.