Mission creep is, or at least should be, a concern for any policymaker considering military action. Failure to consider this possibility is how countries waging very limited military campaigns can become embroiled in all-out war, with the Vietnam war being the best known American example. And while it's too early to make such a charge against the U.S. with respect to its airstrikes against ISIS, a top U.S. general raised eyebrows on Tuesday during his congressional testimony by discussing the possibility of sending ground forces.
It was the first time a member of the Obama administration seriously raised the prospect of American combats troops on the ground to fight ISIS. Despite Obama's pledge last week in a nationally televised addressed that he would not deploy ground forces to Iraq and possibly Syria to fight the Islamic militants, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, said he may recommend them to the president.
Testifying with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Dempsey gave his take on the situation:
“My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward. I believe that will prove true,” he said. “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.”
Dempsey noted that although the president's current policy is to fight ISIS without using U.S. ground troops, Obama "has told me as well to come back to him on a case-by-case basis."
This is unexpected considering it was just last week the president told the country he would not authorize U.S. ground forces:
“But I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground."
It's not clear whether Dempsey botched this part of his testimony by directly contradicting what Obama said last week, or if this is a trial balloon being floated to gauge the appetite Americans would have for possible boots on the ground. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted before Obama's speech last week, 34% of Americans would support the U.S. of ground forces in addition to airstrikes to fight ISIS, while 40% supported airstrikes only.
Dempsey's comments are troubling to say the least. The idea of U.S. combat troops being sent back into Iraq to take on radical Islamists who are hellbent on establishing a caliphate and who aspire to martyrdom could prove to be a nightmare. ISIS is a subnational actor on a mission from Allah, and they would rather die fighting for him than surrender to infidels. If U.S. ground forces are deployed, one shudders to consider the prospect of yet more Americans being captured by ISIS and doing to them what they've already done to James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
The coalition that Obama ends up building should involve viable ground forces that aren't American. ISIS is much more of a problem for states in the region than the U.S. because ISIS has explicit aspirations to conquer as much territory in the Muslim world as possible. Whatever deals and necessary negotiating evils the president can take to rout ISIS without using American ground forces should be taken.