NEW: House approves Obama's request to train and arm Syrian rebels to fight ISIS
Kerry tells Senate committee that no countries have agreed to put boots on the ground
Report: Iraq's PM says foreign troops are "put of the question"
President: It's more effective for the United States to support partners on the ground
The U.S. is not returning combat troops to Iraq, President Barack Obama insisted again Wednesday, despite the suggestion by his top general that option is something the Pentagon could consider.
Speaking at U.S. Central Command in Florida, Obama said again that U.S. troops “do not and will not have a combat mission” in Iraq against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“After a decade of massive ground deployments, it is more effective to use our unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground so they can secure their own countries’ futures,” he said. “And that’s the only solution that will succeed over the long term.”
“As your commander in chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” Obama told troops at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Rather, the U.S. forces will support Iraqi forces on the ground as the Iraqis fight ISIS, he said.
“When we do things alone and the countries – the people of those countries – aren’t doing it for themselves, as soon as we leave, we start getting the same problems,” Obama said.
Kerry: ‘We will have enough allies’
Obama’s position was reiterated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the administration’s plan to defeat ISIS, the terror group that refers to itself as the Islamic State.
Kerry also told the senators that a number of countries have agreed to contribute to the fight against the militants.
Asked whether any of the nations agreed to put boots on the ground to fight ISIS, Kerry said no. However, Kerry confirmed that some of the countries have committed to carrying out airstrikes. He did not publicly identify the countries.
“We will have enough allies” for the military action needed to fight ISIS, he said.
Kerry’s testimony before the Senate committee came at the same time the House approved Obama’s request to arm and train Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. The vote was 273 -156, with significant opposition to the proposal in both parties.
The proposal would authorize the Pentagon to provide assistance to “appropriately vetted” members of the Syrian opposition and require the administration to give Congress a detailed plan for helping the rebels before that assistance could begin.
The Senate vote on the proposal could come as early as Thursday.
During the sometimes contentious Senate committee hearing, which broke mainly on partisan lines, Kerry defended the U.S. policy, saying he did not want to “rehash” debates about the Gulf War and the Iraq War.
“The issue that confronts us today is one which (all should) be able to agree – ISIL must be defeated. Period. End of Story,” he said. ISIS is also known as ISIL.
What that fight will look like is still in question.
Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told The Associated Press on Wednesday that foreign troops are “out of the question.”
“The only contribution the American forces or the international coalition is going to help us with is from the sky,” al-Abadi told The AP. “We are not giving any blank check to the international coalition to hit any target in Iraq.”
Gen. Martin Dempsey’s recommendation
The Prime Minister’s remarks came a day after Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told members of Congress he hasn’t ruled out recommending U.S. ground forces deploy to attack ISIS targets if the current air campaign in Iraq fails.
“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,” Dempsey said.
The hypothetical remark, which sources say was vetted by the White House beforehand, managed to undercut what Obama and his aides have been promising for weeks: that combat troops were out of the question for Iraq.
The crossed wires come after a concerted White House effort to spell out a plan against ISIS terrorists, which itself was a response to the President’s frank admission late last month that he lacked a “strategy” for dealing with ISIS in Syria.
The vow to keep U.S. troops out of combat extends as far back as Obama’s presidential campaigns, which were run first on the promise to end the Iraq War, and four years later on the assurance that that era of American warfare was over.
While three-quarters of Americans support airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, a majority still oppose any combat “boots-on-the-ground” scenario.
Obama: training and intelligence-gathering only
When Obama addressed the nation last week, he made clear the American military advisers being deployed in Iraq “will not have a combat mission” and would act in a training and intelligence-gathering capacity only.
“We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq,” he said in the remarks on September 10.
Officials are adamant that possibility remains out of the question and say Dempsey’s suggestion was using a hypothetical situation – a practice rarely seen at the message-driven White House.
While Dempsey could recommend deploying U.S. combat forces to Obama, the President will ultimately make military decisions himself.
“It’s the responsibility of the President’s military advisers to plan and consider all the wide range of contingencies,” press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday. “It’s also the responsibility of the commander in chief to set out a clear policy. And the President has been clear about what that policy is.”
A spokesman for Dempsey, Col. Ed Thomas, said the Joint Chiefs 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 advise the Iraqis and was not a discussion of employing US ground combat units in Iraq,” he wrote in a statement.
Tuesday isn’t the first time the White House’s aim for clarity has fallen short. Obama’s frank admission late last month the United States lacked a “strategy” for combating ISIS in Syria drew sharp criticism, leading to his eventual prime-time address announcing the potential for airstrikes in the country.
The goals cited by the administration in battling ISIS have similarly drawn some confusion, going from reducing the force to a “manageable problem” to “degrading and ultimately destroying” the terrorists.
Opponents of the President quickly accused the administration of muddying the message.
“First of all, the President is just flat not telling the truth,” Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, said on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper.”
“We already have boots on the ground there. He knows we have to have boots on the ground. Let’s admit we’re in a war.”