Last week’s announcement that the United States would be sending roughly 50 Special Operations Forces to Syria to help fight ISIS—after President Barack Obama’s repeated promises not to put American “boots on the ground” there—commenced a delicate rhetorical minuet for White House spokesman Josh Earnest. Wasn’t it the case, wondered more than one reporter at his press briefing on October 30, that 50 special operators stationed on Syrian soil were indeed “boots on the ground”? And if so, hadn’t Obama broken his promise?
Q: [Obama has] consistently said he’s not going to put boots on the ground, Josh. You don’t deny that. He’s consistently said that that would not be a part of this strategy.
MR. EARNEST: … [T]he only quote that you’ve read to me is a quote from 2013 that was a direct question related to what we were prepared to do to ensure that our concerns about the Assad regime and the need for a regime change were implemented. And the fact is the president said we’re not going to implement a military strategy to take down [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad. What we want to do is we want to build the capacity of local forces to make sure that they can be focused on ISIL. And that’s the strategy that the president has been focused on here.
And when the president has talked about combat situations, the president has been quite clear that he does not contemplate a large-scale, long-term ground combat operation either in Iraq or in Syria. That was his policy at the beginning of our counter-ISIL operations and it’s our strategy today.
Earnest went on to detail how the president had been “quite clear” about situations “where combat boots have been on the ground inside of Syria,” including during a failed mission to rescue hostages in 2014, and a raid in May that killed an ISIS leader. In this sense, Obama’s initial statement in August 2013 regarding U.S. military action in Syria—“in no event are we considering any kind of military action that would involve boots on the ground”—was rendered inaccurate not by the upcoming deployment announced last week, but by previous actions revealed after the fact in recent months.
Obama referred to one of these earlier missions when NBC’s Lester Holt asked him on Tuesday whether he had “broken [his] promise about boots on the ground.” The president responded: “Keep in mind that we have run Special Ops already. … We have been opportunistic where necessary. And really, this is just an extension of what we were continuing to do. We are not putting U.S. troops on the frontlines fighting firefights with ISIL. … I’ve been consistent throughout that we are not going to be fighting like we did in Iraq, with battalions and occupations. That doesn’t solve the problem.”