'Boots on the ground' in Iraq: Are Obama and Pentagon really at odds?

President Obama and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey seem to be at odds over possible use of US ground troops in Iraq to fight Islamic State militants. But this is just how civil-military relations are supposed to work, says one analyst.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama greets members of the military after speaking at US Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., Wednesday.

There’s a long history of US presidents taking issue with their top generals (and vice versa).

During the Civil War, President Lincoln asked of a foot-dragging Gen. George B. McClellan, "If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time." Eventually, Lincoln relieved McClellan of command.

During the Korean War, President Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had publicly argued for an expansion of the war in Asia, which bordered on insubordination.

President Obama pushed Gen. Stanley McChrystal, top US commander in Afghanistan, into retirement over unflattering remarks Mr. McChrystal and his aides had made about administration officials.

Today, much is being made of what some see as a difference between Mr. Obama and some Pentagon brass over the role of US forces in Iraq as the fight against Islamic State militants escalates.

Although he has ordered some 1,600 US forces to Iraq to help “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, Obama has made a point of insisting that this does not mean “boots on the ground” with its sharp imagery of US soldiers engaged in firefights.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey made news this week when he acknowledged that circumstances may lead him to recommend US ground forces in the future.

In answer to a hypothetical question, General Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday, "To be clear, if we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president.”

Was Dempsey going beyond what Obama himself had asserted about “boots on the ground”?

As if to anticipate any kerfuffle that might ensue from Dempsey’s comments to the senators, his spokesman quickly issued a statement after the hearing:

…Dempsey, as he said in testimony today, believes the current strategy to counter ISIL is appropriate…. While we have advisers on the ground in Iraq today, the Chairman doesn’t believe there is a military requirement for our advisers to accompany Iraqi forces into combat…. The context of this discussion was focused on how our forces best and most appropriately advise the Iraqis and was not a broader discussion of employing US ground combat units in Iraq.

But that didn’t keep some commentators from reading White House-Pentagon disagreement into Dempsey’s apparent acknowledgement that US ground forces might be necessary.

One headline on a Daily Beast piece Wednesday asked, “Can Obama Keep His Generals in Check in the War Against ISIS?”

Much of the debate has to do with perceived meanings, especially in any partisan context.

From US military advisers in secure training facilities to American target spotters for airstrikes to Special Ops Forces accompanying local ground troops who may engage with the enemy – all can be seen as inevitably pointing to “boots on the ground.” The phrase is highly symbolic and could imply combat and perhaps an escalation of the type that began with a few thousand US military advisers in Vietnam.

Speaking at US Central Command headquarters in Florida Wednesday, Obama sought to head off such speculation.

"The American forces do not and will not have a combat mission," Obama told troops at MacDill Air Force Base.

Obama said US troops "will support Iraqi forces on the ground as they fight for their own country against these terrorists." But, he added, "As your commander in chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq."

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine online, Peter Feaver writes of the back and forth between Obama and Dempsey over the possibility of US ground troops in Iraq:

“Gen. Dempsey was telling the Senators (and by extension the public and, of course, the rest of the Obama administration), that he would exercise proper military professionalism and adjust his advice as circumstances warranted even if it meant telling the president something he did not want to hear. He also made clear that the president would be free to choose otherwise, if Obama so determined.”

“That is not a civil-military crisis,” Mr. Feaver writes. “That is just how civil-military relations is supposed to work.”

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