It's rare to hear a U.S. president take military action off the table, as Barack Obama did Sunday. "This is not going to be an announcement about U.S. ground troops," he told Chuck Todd of Meet the Press. Those are assuring words for Americans worn weary by post-911 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But what about ISIS? It might be good to know the limits of the world's greatest military power. The sprawling, blood-thirsty Islamic State paid nothing for this priceless intelligence. Why did Obama give it away?
I am not advocating the deployment of ground troops. Also, I know that Obama could make an exception for the deployment of special operations forces or CIA operatives to target airstrikes on behalf of Kurdish fighters, Iraqi troops, or Sunni tribes.
But I wonder: Is the no-troops-on-the-ground pledge an effort to satiate antiwar Democrats in the run-up to congressional elections in November, when control of the Senate is at stake? Or is less-cynical thinking afoot?
Obama's motive is important, because it goes to the durability of his promise. This should concern doves as much as hawks. If a factor as wispy as politics is driving the president's thinking now, it stands to reason that Obama could, one day, consider the promise pliable. What happens if his fledgling coalition doesn't stop ISIS? What if public opinion shifts a bit? This is how slippery slopes are built.
Thankfully, Todd asked Obama about ground troops. "I'm curious—have you only ruled them out simply for domestic political reason? Or is there another reason you've ruled out American boots on the ground? Because your own, your own guys have said, 'You can't defeat ISIS with air strikes alone.' "
OBAMA: Well, they're absolutely right about that. But you also cannot, over the long term or even the medium term, deal with this problem by having the United States serially occupy various countries all around the Middle East. We don't have the resources. It puts enormous strains on our military. And at some point, we leave. And then things blow up again. So we—
TODD: That's what happened with Iraq.
OBAMA: So—so, we've got to have a more sustainable strategy, which means the boots on the ground have to be Iraqi.
TODD: What about Syria—
OBAMA: And in Syria, the boots on the ground have to be Syrian. And that's why—
CHUCK TODD: Who?
OBAMA: Well we have a Free Syrian Army and a moderate opposition that we have steadily been working with but we have vetted. They have been on the defensive, not just from ISIL, but also from the Assad regime. And what—you know, if you recall, at the West Point speech that I gave, I said, we need to put more resources into the moderate opposition, in part because unless we have people we can work with who are Sunni in these Sunni regions, then we're going to continue to have these problems.
And so the "¦ strategy both for Iraq and for Syria is that we will hunt down ISIL members and assets wherever they are. I will reserve the right to always protect the American people and go after folks who are trying to hurt us wherever they are.
But in terms of controlling territory, we're going to have to develop a moderate Sunni opposition that can control territory and that we can work with. The notion that the United States should be putting boots on the ground, I think would be a profound mistake. And I want to be very clear and very explicit about that.
Yes, the president has been clear about his unwillingness to commit ground troops. His motive, not so much. So I asked readers what they thought. Democratic operative Jonathan Prince offered a plausible explanation that presumably channeled his friends at the White House:
Another reader, a conservative who requested anonymity, made the point that Obama is cutting resources to the Pentagon at the same time he's using the lack of resources to justify his no-boots-on-the-ground promise. "Every day I talk with service members who have been forced to retire or separate prematurely because we're downsizing the military everywhere," the reader emails. "You cannot, as commander in chief, downsize the military and then use that downsizing as an excuse to take the threat of troops off the table."
At the White House, I found two senior officials who, when promised anonymity, acknowledged that politics plays at least a part in the president's no-ground-troops pledge. It's not a matter of midterm strategy, they insisted, but rather a reflection of the public's aversion to war. "Any presidential historian will tell you," one official told me, "that you can't get ahead of the public when it comes to war."
A couple of problems with that rationale. First, there is no shortage of examples of presidents who led once-reluctant Americans to war. Second, while the comment might explain why Obama has decided not to commit ground troops, it doesn't justify why he made that decision public.
The second official essentially concurred with Prince. Obama is signaling to potential allies in the region that it's finally time for them to start spilling blood, because the United States won't. That's exactly the posture Obama should take, in my opinion, but why couldn't he make the point privately?
Perhaps the president believes that Islamic extremists are setting a trap; there's nothing they'd like more than U.S. forces on the ground, which they know would spur recruitment, and which they believe could be defeated. Obama may be telling the Islamic State leadership, loudly, "We're not falling for that. We're going to get you another way." If that's his motive, he needs to be more clear.
Barring a better answer from the president or his people, it appears that the no-boots pledge is, at least in part, a response to domestic politics. While I applaud Obama's aversion to another ground war, I would abhor a White House political strategy that, even in only the smallest way, might help the enemy.