Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced it would be sending an additional 1,500 troops to Iraq in the fight against ISIS. According to a statement from the Pentagon as reported by Business Insider, “The commander-in-chief has authorized Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to deploy to Iraq up to 1,500 additional US personnel over the coming months, in a non-combat role, to expand our advise and assist mission and initiate a comprehensive training effort for Iraqi forces.”
Once again, it is clear that the Obama administration wants to be firm in it emphasis that these troops are in a “non-combat” role, simply advising and training Iraqi and Kurdish forces. We’ve seen this emphasis before, including in President Obama’s September speech on ISIS in which he announced U.S. airstrikes and made clear that this campaign was most definitely not a continuation of Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, according to Kurdish intelligence sources, American special operation soldiers have been fighting on the ground in Iraq as early as September 2 this year. This, if true, is not a bad thing. If President Obama is aware of American forces fighting with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, then announcing it to the nation–as well as to the enemy–is not the best strategy. When it comes to foreign policy and national security, there are circumstances that warrant government secrecy in order to find success. However, the more I hear the phrase “non-combat role” uttered by the administration, the more I question its meaning. What exactly does it mean to be non-combative in a war zone among men who disseminate videos of decapitating civilians?
Who remembers when President Obama assured the nation that no troops would be sent to Iraq? I do. Yet just this past Sunday that same president, who may or may not be a Justin Bieber fan, claimed he would “never say never” to the option of sending American troops to fight ISIS. To be fair, circumstances will always change, especially when dealing with something as delicate as a terrorist organization taking over a major region. However, the president is not the only one who seems to be realizing that this ISIS “JV team” may need more force than military advisers and airstrikes. Darrell Issa, the Republican congressman from California who claimed mass media attention throughout the IRS hearings over the summer, recently stated that not only is he in favor of the additional 1,500 troops, but he believes the Iraqi government to be “delusional” in believing they can handle ISIS on their own, and that American soldiers, in large numbers, will have to eventually return to Mesopotamia to continue the fight.
Is congressman Issa correct? If the US continues to send solely “non-combat” soldiers to Iraq and leave the burden of destroying ISIS to Iraqi forces, will a new Iraq war be the result? I think so, and based on his “never say never” statement, I think President Obama believes that as well.
This idea of the slow but sure escalation of troops in Iraq becoming American “mission creep” is not new. Back in September, upon the president’s announcement of the airstrikes, those opposed argued that such a strategy would continue until there was no differentiation between “advising and training” and an all out war. The Obama administration vehemently denied such charges, stating that there is simply no American military solution to the problems and crises in Iraq.
“Never say never” is as far as President Obama will ever go when speaking of American combat troops in Iraq. Why? Because no matter how bad the situation may get, and no matter how clear it may eventually be that sending large numbers of combat troops is a necessity, President Obama will always be more worried about politics. James Freeman Clarke, a 19th Century Christian theologian, once said, “A politician looks to the next election, the statesman to the next generation.” While Obama does not have any more future elections to look to (which makes this all the more scary), he is most definitely the former. His 2008 campaign railed on the fact that he voted against the Iraq war to begin with, and his 2012 campaign stressed his intention of removing all soldiers from the region. If a time came when announcing a new campaign in Iraq was completely necessary, without being able to emphasize his beloved “non-combat role,” President Obama would have to put politics aside and do what is best for both the country and for global justice. To do so would equate to admitting that President Bush, as well as Senator McCain and Governor Romney, were correct in their longer-term prediction for Iraq.
The phrase “non-combat role” is President Obama’s way of saving face. He knows how bad things are in the Middle East, and he knows that if this strategy is continued, large-scale conventional forces will have to be sent back to Iraq. Despite that fact, he will do what is necessary to keep his name off the same history pages as President Bush, regardless of the consequences. We will continue to see the White House use phrasing that downplays America’s actions and responsibilities in the Middle East simply so that President Obama can be remembered by the public for ending Bush’s wars.