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Obama’s top general says we might need 'boots on the ground' in Iraq after all

A US soldier in Baghdad in 2008.
A US soldier in Baghdad in 2008.
(Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

In a hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said he's open to sending US ground troops into combat against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

This is a gigantic deal: General Martin Dempsey, the nation's top military official, is openly contradicting the president's stated policy on keeping American troops out of combat operations in Iraq and Syria.

Here's exactly what Dempsey said, as per the Guardian's Spencer Ackerman:

If we reach the point where I believe our advisors should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific [ISIS] targets, I will recommend that to the President.

Dempsey clarified that he doesn't envision a US combat presence to be necessary for "day-to-day" military operations right now. He, did however, say that he could see Americans on the front lines in an Iraqi effort to retake Mosul, the country's second largest city, from ISIS. As he put it, somewhat bloodlessly: "If the Iraqi security forces were ready to retake Mosul, it could very well be part of that particular mission to provide close combat advising or accompanying for that mission."

There are at least three important takeaways from Dempsey's comments. Two are notes of caution. One is a note of panic.

First, some caution. It's not clear what "accompanying" Iraqi troops near Mosul or "close combat advising" means. Would US soldiers actually be exchanging rifle and artillery fire with ISIS troops? Would they be directing US airstrikes from the front lines — as some reports suggest they already are? Or does Dempsey envision some other mission entirely? It's not clear from his comments. That means it's beyond premature to say American troops are definitively about to go to the front lines.

A US soldier with an Iraqi child in Baghdad, 2008. Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images

A US soldier with an Iraqi child in Baghdad, 2008. (Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images)

Second dose of caution: though Obama's policy has moved in a consistently more interventionist direction since ISIS seized Mosul in its June 10 offensive, the one thing he's been consistent about is ruling out an American ground combat mission. "I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," the president said in his September 10 address to the nation on ISIS. "It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil."

Obama has final say on America's Iraq policy and is free to reject Dempsey's "recommendation" to send troops into combat. Given the president's wariness about ground wars after George W. Bush's Iraq War and Afghanistan, and his own consistent promise to the American public, he might reject any plan to send US troops into a direct combat mission.

But here's the third thing: this war is escalating quickly. We went from a targeted mission to protect American citizens in Kurdistan and save Iraqi Yazidis from genocide to a full-scale mission to destroy ISIS in both Iraq and Syria in the span of, roughly, a month. Despite his promises, Obama did indeed consider sending ground troops into combat to rescue Yazidis trapped on a mountain.

Internal pressure from leading advisers like Dempsey could very well push the president towards even larger escalations. So, too, could the internal logic of war. Now that the US has declared its intention to destroy ISIS "wherever" it is, targeted ground missions might start to seem helpful in doing that. And while each mission — like helping retake Mosul — might make sense in tactical terms, they can cumulatively result in the United States taking on a much larger combat role than it might have expected.

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