Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill on Sept. 16, 2014 in Washington.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

We’ve seen this dreaded movie before. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before a Senate committee on Tuesday and said that, under certain circumstances, he might recommend that President Obama send U.S. ground forces to help fight ISIS, the terrorist group known as Islamic State.

The front-page headlines were predictable, as was the New York Times editorial fuming, “There is no way to read this other than as a reversal from the firm commitment Mr. Obama made not to immerse the country in another endless ground war in the Middle East,” adding that “the Obama administration has turned on a dime in record time.”

This is overblown. First, “the Obama administration” hasn’t turned on anything. As a rule, the White House doesn’t review congressional testimony by the JCS chairman. The Times editors are simply wrong when they write, “It’s impossible to believe that General Dempsey was speaking just for himself.” It’s in fact quite likely that he was.

Second, Dempsey was careful to say that he thought Obama’s current approach—U.S. air power supporting Iraqi ground troops—would work, noting only that if he turned out to be wrong about this, he “would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.” Even then, he said, the idea would be for American advisers to accompany Iraqi soldiers onto the battlefield but not to engage in the fighting directly. That is what the JCS chairman is supposed to do: give the president his military advice on what’s needed to complete a mission. It’s up to the president to accept or reject that advice on the basis of his own broader strategic goals (or for whatever reason he chooses).

That said, the Times editors do have a point; their worries are well in line, and anyone with a sense of history would be daft to disagree. The dreadful movie we’ve seen before is, of course, the Vietnam War, and while Vietnam parallels are often stretched beyond reason, the similarities here are worth noting.

America’s involvement in that war began when President Dwight Eisenhower sent U.S. weapons and advisers to help the South Vietnamese army stave off the Viet Cong guerrillas. In 1959, after eight of these Americans were shot in their dining hall while watching a movie (two of the men were killed), Eisenhower ordered the advisers, who now numbered in the thousands, to accompany their trainees onto the battlefield. The advisers were not to engage with the Viet Cong directly, though “rules of engagement” let them in self-defense fire back if fired upon.

President John F. Kennedy continued this policy, dispatched more advisers, and created an elite counterinsurgency force—the Green Berets—to fight these “shadow wars” against Communists in remote jungles. But he resisted his generals’ urgings to send in “combat forces.” The distinction between advisers and combat forces had blurred by this point, but it helped him keep a lid on the pressures to escalate.

President Obama is hardly a dove, but, like Kennedy, he’s leery of military optimism, having had a sour taste of it in Afghanistan (just as Kennedy had in Laos, Berlin, and Cuba), and he’s very cautious about stepping into dark rooms without first looking for the exit signs.

Dempsey’s remarks aren’t so worrisome in the short run. Even if the current strategy on ISIS doesn’t work—and there’s a good chance it won’t—Obama doesn’t seem likely to take the general’s bait and step deeper into the darkness.

What’s worth a shudder is thinking about what his successor might do. Obama has said that the fight against ISIS will extend beyond his own presidency. I will probably vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 (if just for the lack of anyone better), but it is worth noting that, during her tenure as Obama’s secretary of state, she sided with the generals in nearly every debate, including the one on escalation in Afghanistan. The only disagreement between them was over Libya: The generals didn’t much want to send in military forces, but she very much did. She has also criticized Obama in recent weeks over his decision not to send arms to the Syrian rebels in 2011, and she derided his cautiousness, saying, “ ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ ”—which Obama once pronounced as his prime directive in foreign policy—“is not an organizing principle.” She may be right, but it’s not a bad starting point and shouldn’t be laughed off by someone who, as a senator, voted to authorize George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

There’s one more cause for concern in Dempsey’s statement about sending in U.S. ground forces: It was a statement, not an offhand remark. That is, he read the line aloud as part of his written opening testimony. This was unusual. When a general wants to go a bit off script, the standard drill is to wait for a senator to ask a question that begins, “General, in your professional military judgment … ” (Sometimes, a general’s staff plants such a question ahead of time.) That way, if his political masters raise a stink afterward, the general can say that, under the circumstances, he was duty-bound to reply honestly. The most famous case of this was when Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, was asked, shortly before the invasion of Iraq, how many troops would be needed to restore order afterward. He hemmed and hawed before saying “several hundred thousand”—angering his civilian bosses in the Pentagon, who had been assuring Congress of much lower numbers.

Was Dempsey sending a signal, either to the president or to Congress? Some of the military’s strongest supporters on the Hill have said that defeating ISIS will require at least a few thousand U.S. special operations forces, and that the combination of American bombs and Iraqi troops won’t be enough. It’s likely that some active-duty officers in the Pentagon feel the same way. If Obama’s approach doesn’t do the trick, these officers will want it known that they’re not to blame—that they had a Plan B, and it’s not their fault if the president didn’t want to play it.

In his May 28 West Point speech, Obama told the graduating cadets that America’s costliest mistakes have stemmed from rushing into armed adventures “without thinking through the consequences” and “without leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required.”

Whatever Dempsey’s intentions, his testimony should set the occasion for a more serious debate. Do the generals think that the current approach toward ISIS can succeed? What are the odds? If it doesn’t succeed, how many U.S. advisers would be needed on the ground, in the fray of battle, to give the Iraqi army a good chance of winning? What is the likelihood, in this scenario, that some of those advisers would have to take on “combat” roles? If other analysts, in the White House or elsewhere, dispute these appraisals, why? (This isn’t to say that the military’s judgment is always right; often, it’s not. The point is that this sort of commitment warrants a debate, which hasn’t happened.)

Some of these questions might have been tossed around in Obama’s meeting on Wednesday with the senior officers of U.S. Central Command at their headquarters in Tampa. (In a speech to the CentCom troops, Obama reaffirmed his stance: “American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission,” he said. “I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.”) The evolving logic of this military campaign—its scope, aims, and limits—should be shared with the American people, at least in broad terms, so we know “the sacrifice required” before burrowing in any deeper.