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The Government's ISIS Talk Is Already a Political Train Wreck

The U.S. government's ISIS strategy is like quantum mechanics. If you think you understand it, you actually don't understand it.

The White House and congressional Republicans have inadvertently teamed up to make for one hell of a confusing week about what the government's policy is and what it should be vis-à-vis ISIS. The trouble began Tuesday morning when Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee along with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. At one point, Dempsey directly contradicted President Obama’s pledge from his televised address last week that the U.S. would not send combat troops to fight ISIS. Dempsey said that if airstrikes fail as part of the effort to eliminate the Islamic militants, he “would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”

Shortly thereafter during the White House daily briefing, Press Secretary Josh Earnest fielded questions about Dempsey’s flub/trial balloon. Asked if the president would be open to the general’s suggestion, Earnest threw cold water on the idea:

What [the president has] been very specific and precise about is that he will not deploy ground troops in a combat role into Iraq or Syria.

Dempsey, however, was just getting started giving his civilian superiors a headache. As the Senate hearing continued, the general had one particularly amusing exchange with a grandstanding Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in which he seemed genuinely annoyed at the screwed up nature of Middle East geopolitics:

Graham: So our national defense in terms of stopping ISIL from killing thousands or millions of Americans if they get the capability really comes down to whether or not we can convince the Arab world to go in there and defeat these guys?

Dempsey: It really comes down to building a coalition so that what the Arab-Muslim world sees is them rejecting ISIS, not us--

Graham: They already reject ISIL. Do you know any major Arab ally that embraces ISIL?

Dempsey:I know major Arab allies who fund them.

Graham: Yeah, but do they embrace them, do they fund them because the Free Syrian Army couldn't fight Assad? They were trying to beat Assad. I think they realize the folly of their ways. Let's don't [sic] taint the Mid East unfairly.

Putting aside the irony that Graham has become one of the nation's preeminent fear-mongers by tainting the Middle East unfairly, it's shocking how completely uninterested he was in Dempsey's incredible claim that major Arab allies fund ISIS. What's incredible about it isn't the claim itself, which is no doubt true, but rather that Dempsey said it at all. Graham simply assumed (or tried to play it off) that what Dempsey was saying was that U.S. allies in the region had funded ISIS hoping they would topple Assad, but now realize that was "folly." How a lawmaker could simply yawn in face of the nation's top general cryptically bashing U.S. allies for their support of ISIS and not press him about what he meant is beyond comprehension.

Of course, as Dana Milbank points out, it's Graham, along with several other Republicans who have gone from advocating airstrikes and arming anti-ISIS forces, to airstrikes, arming anti-ISIS forces, and deploying U.S. ground troops. As he said on Fox News Sunday, “This idea we’ll never have any boots on the ground to defeat them in Syria is fantasy.”

For his part House Majority Leader John Fleming (R-La.) said last week that it's an "insane strategy to go out there and depend on people that are proven undependable," speaking of the subnational forces the U.S. is planning to arm to help combat ISIS. Fleming said he favors "all-out war" against the group. Additionally, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Sen. Jeff Sessions, (R-Ala.), Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), and Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), among others have recently, to varying degrees, started to grumble about Obama ruling out of U.S. combat forces on the ground or even advocated for them outright.

At this point it's entirely fair to ask whether ground troops have been part of the plan of some Republicans all along. They began by putting pressure on the president by vaguely calling for the president to "do something" to stop ISIS. Now that that something has been done, they almost seem to be goading Obama into doing more, i.e., commit the country to a full scare war against ISIS. In this way, if Obama does deploy ground troops and it's a disaster, they can pin the blame on him for ultimately making that decision, or for not deploying enough troops or not deploying them in the right way. But if U.S. ground troops do get the job done, then the GOP can say that it's a good thing the president listened to them.

As Count Ciano once said, success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan... or it's the bastard child of Barack Obama.

Image credit: Department of Defense/Chad J. McNeeley