Obama Considering Boots on the Ground in Iraq

Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community look for clothes to wear among items provided by a charity organization at the Nowruz camp in Syria. Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community look for clothes to wear among items provided by a charity organization at the Nowruz camp in Syria. Khalid Mohammed/AP

The Obama administration has consistently said that there will be no combat troops on the ground as part of its ongoing operation in northern Iraq to push back ISIS and bring humanitarian aid to thousands of under-siege Yazidi civilians. Now, it's sounding like the U.S. may come close.

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, told reporters on Wednesday that the U.S. is considering sending ground troops into Iraq to help the humanitarian mission to rescue the Yazidis. Military advisers will give their recommendations on the use of troops to the White House in the next few days, following an assessment from about 130 Marines and special-operations forces now in Iraq.

The distinction here is that these would not be combat troops, as much as ground forces with the specific mission of helping rescue Yazidi refugees. Ground combat with ISIS would not be part of the plan. Whether the humanitarian troops would be forced into combat scenarios is another question entirely, and Rhodes admitted that best laid plans don't always work out. "There are dangers involved in any military operation," Rhodes said.

As Obama said himself on Saturday, when discussing a hypothetical military outcome in Iraq, having troops on the ground during any mission makes them "vulnerable." "However many troops we had, we would have to now be reinforcing, I'd have to be protecting them, and we'd have a much bigger job," Obama said.

But Rhodes told reporters Wednesday that Obama is "confident that we can have a limited military objective."

Rhodes tried to make the distinction between what the White House is considering—the introduction of humanitarian troops—and what the president and others in his administration have already ruled out. "What he's ruled out is reintroducing U.S. forces into combat on the ground in Iraq," Rhodes said from Martha's Vineyard. A rescue operation, he maintains, is "different than reintroducing U.S. forces in a combat role to take the fight to ISIL."

The Obama administration has stressed over recent weeks that combat troops would not be returning to Iraq. As the president said explicitly in a statement Saturday: "American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq." When pressed on the possibility of new American forces entering Iraq during a press conference just a day earlier, press secretary Josh Earnest emphasized 11 times that troops would not return to the country "in a combat role."

When Obama announced that he had authorized limited strikes on ISIS to go along with humanitarian aid drops last Thursday, he said: "American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there's no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq." Obama repeated that "there's no American military solution" in a statement Monday.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been a bit less obtuse. "There will be no boots on the ground in Iraq," he told Marines on Tuesday. "As the president has made very clear, we're not going back to Iraq in any of the same combat dimensions we were once in," he said.

Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that "there will be no reintroduction of American combat forces into Iraq."

Obama's insistence on keeping combat troops out of Iraq goes back to even before the current operation. "We will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq," Obama said from the White House in mid-June.

Any ground troops in Iraq, combat or otherwise, could lead to political opposition. Already Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is calling on Obama to turn to Congress:

And it's not just Republicans. On Tuesday, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., called on Obama to ask for congressional approval "for the current air campaign" against ISIS. And last week, after Obama authorized strikes, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said that while he had been assured by the White House that no American ground troops will be committed to fighting ISIS, he still had "concerns." Expect those concerns to get much louder if the White House decides to send in troops. Of any kind.

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