The new Republican position on President Obama’s strategy to destroy ISIS is that without actually pushing for ground troops in Iraq and Syria, we should not be taking ground troops off the table. The media is so invested in reporting that political conflict that they’ve completely missed the huge news that Major Garrett shook loose from the White House on Thursday. While the White House has steadily been signaling as much, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made it plain, at Thursday’s briefing, that American combat troops on the ground, in Syria and Iraq, have never really been off the table:
GARRETT: Just to follow up, one last one on Juliet’s question about Special Operations. Is that a permanent declaration — the president will not introduce Special Operations forces either into Iraq or Syria? Or just this particular recommendation was rejected and others can be proffered in the future?
JOSH EARNEST: Well, Major, you know that it has been publicly reported that earlier this summer there was an operation in Syria —
GARRETT: Sure, yes. We already know that. I’m talking about going forward.
EARNEST: Well, I think what that is an indication of is that the line the president is drawing is about a sustained combat operation — a ground war, if you will — in Iraq and Syria. The president will not allow the United States to be dragged back into a ground war. And that is why the president is not contemplating deploying additional combat troops on the ground in either Iraq or Syria.
GARRETT: But he remains open to mission-specific applications — Special Operations forces if the need arises?
EARNEST: I’m not willing to broadly take anything — to broadly take anything off the table.
GARRETT: So he’s open to it.
EARNEST: The president, I think, has been really clear about what his intentions are, and ruling out the kind of ground war in Iraq and Syria that involves American personnel that the president does not believe would be in the interest of our national security.
Of course, anyone who has been paying attention already knows that the president, and his administration, have steadily been defining upward the definition of where we won’t go regarding troop levels, but what Earnest is saying here, explicitly, is that U.S. ground troops (which is what Special Operators are) in Syria are not off the table, and never have been. In fact, according to the president’s latest declaration on the subject, the only thing that is off the table is “sending in 100,000 American troops.”
This news cuts in a number of different ways, depending on how you feel about U.S. military intervention against ISIS. The president has consistently projected a desire, an intention, not to embroil the U.S. in another lengthy ground war, but as commander-in-chief, nor is he also about to handcuff himself when it comes to strategic and tactical contingencies. Nothing is ever really off the table. What the president’s Republican critics are missing (among a great number of things) is the strategic and political utility of projecting an unwillingness to commit ground troops to this effort. We need international partners, particularly Muslims, in order to give our mission its best chance at success, and telegraphing a willingness to do it all ourselves is not the way to secure those partners.
Obama’s critics on the left, meanwhile, flail around in reflexive fear of another Iraq War, rather than also recognizing the reality that sometimes, war is necessary, and good judgment is more important than rigid predisposition to one strategy or another.
Update: MSNBC has actually outdone my newly favorite Kill Bill gag with its reaction to several administration figures using the “w” word, as if several weeks of airstrikes were just too subtle. Get the smelling salts: