President Barack Obama's firm determination that no more American combat forces will be introduced in the Middle East battlefield may well thwart his intention to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the new threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Many U.S. military experts, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, have suggested that eventually some such troops may be required to carry out that definitive order. They note particularly that on-the-ground forces to spot and guide targets for the air strikes already under way are essential for maximum success. Some others have proposed insertion of U.S. Special Forces onto the battlefield in contested parts of Iraq and Syria.
Republican hawks Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina also have argued that eventually American combat "boots on the ground" may be required to get the job done. Mr. Graham toward the end of the midterm election campaign said in North Carolina: "There is no way I can see to fix the problem in Iraq without ground troops. You need boots on the ground. ... The job of the commander-in-chief is to protect the country. I think most Americans understand that if we don't defeat [the Islamic State], if they survive our best shot, we're not as safe."
Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, said recently on CBS's "Face the Nation" that "when the president says, for instance, that [the Islamic State is a cancer and it must be eliminated, he's right. But you don't say, 'Well, we're only going to use the following tools in doing so.' You say, 'We're going to do whatever it takes,' and hopefully we'll be able to do that with other people's troops. But if it takes our own troops, you don't take that ... source of our strength from the battlefield."
House Speaker John Boehner also weighed in, saying on ABC News' "This Week" that "if the goal is to destroy [the Islamic State], as the president says it is, I don't believe the strategy that he outlined will accomplish that. At the end of the day, I think it is going to take more than air strikes to drive them out of there. At some point, somebody's boots have to be on the ground."
Mr. Boehner said during the midterm elections campaign that Mr. Obama had the legal authority to act, but if not he should call Congress back in session to debate the issue.
The speaker, noting that Mr. Obama "doesn't want to do that," added: "If I were the president, I probably wouldn't have talked about what I wouldn't do. And maybe we can get enough of these [Iraqi] forces trained to get them on the battlefield. Somebody's boots have to be there." If not. He said, "We have no choice. These are barbarians. They intend to kill us, and if we don't destroy them first, we're going to pay the price."
Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a strong Obama supporter, backing his plan to train up more indigenous troops, said "effective Iraqi military forces on the ground would actually be more effective than a short-term introduction of American forces. I think the most effective way to use the best aspects of both countries is our superior power in the air, our intelligence, and [making] sure to get the Iraqi forces up to speed so they can be effective on the ground."
However, previously U.S.-trained Iraqi forces crumbled in the face of insurgent troops in Anbar province and allowed them to capture and hold Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. That experience does not inspire great public confidence that this time around the training will stick.
Former Bush and Obama Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has predicted that "there will be [American] boots on the ground to have any hope of success in the strategy." In saying otherwise, he said, "the president in effect traps himself." Once again, a position of non-commitment, a resistance to the urge to draw red lines, would have served him better, and will in the future.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.