The drumbeat for (more) ground troops in the war with ISIS has resulted in some strange bedfellows, and on Monday morning, some even stranger criticism out of a leading Republican hawk. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Scarborough were explaining how President Obama is just the worst, when McCain relayed some comments that the "leader of a Middle Eastern country" made to him last week regarding the United States' strategy against ISIS:
"He said 'I've been here in the United States. I'm going back and I'm telling the other Arab countries we have to develop our own plans. We cannot depend on the United States.' That's pretty rough. Pretty tough."
To be clear, McCain is saying that Middle Eastern countries taking a greater role in fighting ISIS is a bad thing. At Monday's White House daily briefing, I read out McCain's comments to Press Secretary Josh Earnest, and asked if McCain is right, if having the Middle East depend on the United States to fight ISIS is one of our strategic goals. Earnest responded with some boilerplate about building a broad international coalition.
When I followed up, though, he offered several examples of ground forces succeeding in the fight against ISIS:
The president does believe that part of our strategy, at least when it comes to Iraq, is building up the capacity of Iraq's security forces and Kurdish security forces, to take this fight on their own, and to take responsibility for the security situation in their own country.
Fox News' Ed Henry then followed up by making sure that Earnest had not just greenlit a nuclear arms race in the region, as he clearly must have been doing:
Ed Henry: In your answers to Tommy, were you suggesting the White House is okay with a potential nuclear arms race in the Mideast?
Josh Earnest: No, Ed, in fact I've indicated that that's one of our objectives here, to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Whew! That was close!
As I've written in this space many times, though, this is the entire point of President Obama's reluctance to escalate a ground war with ISIS (which he hasn't really even ruled out). What the president has done is project an overall strategy that does not include another endless ground war, which he hopes to avoid by getting Muslim countries to carry that load. So far, ISIS is doing a pretty good job of helping him. They are trying to draw more people into the fight. The surest way to keep that from happening, though, would be for President Obama to say “Well, if it comes to it, we’ll use a ground force,” because the neighboring countries would then make sure it came to it.
The fact that so many people, not just McCain, are willing to abandon core principles in order to scare themselves into another endless ground war is a scary prospect, allayed only somewhat by the president's determination not to allow it. He won't be the president forever.