The Obama administration has struck to a strict script when it comes to the military effort against the Islamic State in the Middle East. "No boots on the ground" is the refrain, stated by the president and echoed by his deputies. Just Wednesday afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "no country has been asked to put boots on the ground and no country is talking of it."
On Tuesday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that if the ground situation called for it, he might suggest that American combat troops get involved. "If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific [ISIS] targets, I'll recommend that to the president," Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
On Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden, during a trip to Des Moines, Iowa, that included a photo opp with a group of nuns, was asked to respond to Dempsey's comment. And in doing so, he broke slightly from the administration's no-boots-on-the-ground script. Here's his exchange with a reporter at an Iowa diner, according to a pool report:
"Mr. Vice President, do you agree with General Dempsy's assessment about using ground troops if necessary if our mission fails?" the reporter asked.
"He said that if in fact he concluded that was needed he would request it from the president. His conclusion is that it is not needed now," Mr. Biden answered.
"Determined based on?" the reporter asked.
"We'll determine that based on how the effort goes," Mr. Biden said.
The press was then escorted out of the diner as the vice president slipped a blue credit card to the waitress. He returned to the table with the nuns.
How much weight should we put into an offhand comment at a diner, in between a meet-and-greet with nuns? If we are to take Biden's response at the same value as remarks made during an official press conference, perhaps the Obama administration has more wiggle room left in its strategy against ISIS than the current script suggests.
Meanwhile, President Obama stayed on message. "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 said during a speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on Wednesday.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.