For weeks, the White House has been trying to explain to the media that while ground combat troops in Iraq and Syria are not on the table, they actually are on the table, and on Thursday, someone else finally noticed. The gold star goes to ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl, who got White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest to explain that, while there will be no ground troops in Iraq with combat as their primary responsibility, there are already "combat-ready" troops in Iraq, and they might end up being "forward deployed."
As happens from time to time, this all started with a crummy question. Karl asked Earnest why the president doesn't "use the word war" to describe U.S. operations in Iraq and Syria. Earnest delivered a very good answer to that question, essentially explaining that the president doesn't want to freak people out by making them think of the last Iraq War.
"We do not envision a scenario where there is a long column of American tanks rolling across the Iraqi border with the goal of taking and occupying significant swaths of Iraqi territory."
If that sounds familiar, it's because it is. President Obama made a similar distinction a few weeks ago in his big interview with Chuck Todd.
This led Karl to ask about the distinction that the White House has been clearly making for weeks, as it regards ground troops. Earnest replied that columns of tanks are "certainly" among the things being ruled out, but also that there are a lot of ways that ground troops can be deployed, without being considered to have a "combat role." Earnest also pointed out that the 1,500 troops who have already been deployed to Iraq are "combat ready, that they are armed for combat, because they need to protect themselves."
"There might also be a scenario where American military personnel, again in an advisory capacity, could be forward deployed with Iraqi security forces, they would be forward deployed to offer some tactical advice, maybe call in some airstrikes, but again, they would not be in a position where their specific responsibility was to personally or directly engage the enemy in combat."
Now, if you take Earnest's rather obvious point that U.S. troops need to be able to protect themselves, and apply it to the first few weeks of airstrikes, many of which were defensive in name only, the sort of wiggle room that exists between "no ground troops" and "long columns of tanks" begins to expand.
Karl asked, one more time, how it is that these troops, who are combat-ready and forward-deployed, aren't combat troops.
"We're certainly not talking about 140 or 150,000 of them, and we're not talking about their principal responsibility being to directly and personally engage the enemy in combat."
The White House is sincere in wishing to avoid anything resembling the quagmire that was the last Iraq War, and they've been very honest about what it is they're doing. There have already been ground troops in combat in Syria, and the White House keeps reminding reporters about it, and reminding them that the president believes he has the authority to order such missions without Congressional approval. The answer to Karl's question is, essentially, that they just don't count as combat troops because we're not going to call them that.