President Obama insisted Wednesday that he will not send U.S. troops into a “combat mission” on the ground in Iraq, a day after his top military adviser opened the door to that possibility during a Capitol Hill hearing.
The comments from Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stirred confusion about the administration’s policy and pointed to possible daylight between Obama’s long-term view of the fight against the Islamic State and that of his military team. It triggered complaints from the Iraqi government as well as Obama’s Democratic allies on the Hill.
The president, though, on Wednesday repeated his pledge not to put so-called boots on the ground, during remarks at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, after visiting U.S. Central Command.
“I will not commit you and the rest of our Armed Forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” Obama said, vowing that the U.S. forces currently deployed to Iraq to advise Iraqi forces “will not have a combat mission.” Instead, he said, they will continue to support Iraqi forces on the ground, through a combination of U.S. air power, training assistance and other means.
The president spoke as the House prepared to vote on a measure authorizing a mission to train and equip Syrian rebels to help in the fight against the Islamic State. Obama has claimed he already has the authority to pursue expanded airstrikes against the group, also known as ISIS, but repeatedly has insisted the fight will not involve U.S. troops entering a combat role on the ground.
Dempsey appeared to challenge that pledge when, during testimony before a Senate committee on Tuesday, he said he might recommend U.S. ground troops if Obama’s current strategy doesn’t work.
“My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward,” Dempsey said. “I believe that will prove true, but if it fails to be true and if there are threats to the United States, then I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”
Iraq’s new prime minister dismissed the notion that the struggle could lead to U.S. forces again fighting on the ground in his country.
“Not only is it not necessary, we don’t want them. We won’t allow them,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi also said that regardless of Wednesday’s House vote, Democrats “are not supporting combat troops.”
Obama’s more-limited approach seemed headed for approval, though the vote may be closer than the president would like.
“If we want to open a front against [Islamic State forces] in Syria, we have to open a front. And I don’t see any other way to do it than try to build an alternative force,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “No one’s excited about it but, you know, it’s the best from a series of bad options.”
While Obama faces pressure from his left flank not to open the door to ground troops, he also faces pressure from more hawkish officials to keep that option open.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told CBS News that “there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.