Dempsey says boots on ground possible

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Tuesday suggested American troops could be ordered into combat against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), seemingly undercutting President Obama’s pledge that there will be no “boots on the ground.”

Gen. Martin Dempsey, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, stressed that he believes Obama’s plan for attacking ISIS through airstrikes will succeed.

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But the chairman said he wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the use of combat troops if they were needed to defeat the militants, or if circumstances on the ground warranted a more forceful response.

“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, using an alternate acronym for the terrorist group.

He said Obama is prepared to consider the use of ground forces on a “case-by-case basis.”

The mere suggestion of ground troops in Iraq sent shockwaves across Washington, with major news sites plastering the remarks across the top of their pages.

The White House and its allies on Capitol Hill quickly sprang into action, fearing the testimony could change the calculus for lawmakers facing a tough vote Wednesday on whether to authorize increased U.S. involvement in Syria — a step some liberals have equated to a “march to war.”

Press secretary Josh Earnest said the president has been “very specific and precise” about not using ground troops in Iraq or Syria, and downplayed Dempsey’s remarks as pertaining only to a “hypothetical scenario.”

“I am confident if you asked General Dempsey if he is on the same page as the commander in chief, he would say he is.” 

Sen. Carl LevinCarl LevinPresident Trump, listen to candidate Trump and keep Volcker Rule Republicans can learn from John McCain’s heroism Trump and GOP wise to keep tax reform and infrastructure separate MORE (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the choice of whether to use ground troops is the president’s and the president’s alone.

“Every military leader’s gonna say if there’s a change in circumstances he’s going to be open to a different recommendation,” Levin said in remarks captured by CNN. 

But Dempsey’s remarks clearly raised eyebrows among lawmakers, given that many are skeptical of Obama’s claim that more than 1,600 troops already inside Iraq are acting as security for diplomatic personnel and property and mere “advisers” in the battle against ISIS.

And while the White House dismissed ground troops as a hypothetical scenario, Dempsey gave lawmakers a concrete mission that didn’t appear so far-fetched: joining a coordinated campaign to run ISIS out of Mosul.

“If the Iraqi security forces and the [Kurdish Peshmerga] were at some point ready to retake Mosul, a mission that I would find to be extraordinarily complex, it could very well be part of that particular mission to provide close combat advising or accompanying for that mission,” he said. 

Later Tuesday, a spokesman for Dempsey issued a statement backing Obama’s strategy and stressing that the fight against ISIS is Iraq’s.

“While we have advisors on the ground in Iraq today, the Chairman doesn’t believe there is a military requirement for our advisors to accompany Iraqi forces into combat,” said Col. Ed Thomas, Dempsey’s spokesman.  

Thomas said the Mosul Dam example involved “Joint Terminal Air Controllers calling in airstrikes” and said the comments were “not a broader discussion of employing US ground combat units in Iraq.”

Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Raymond ReedTop general says Iran complying with nuclear deal Top general: Transgender troops shouldn't be separated from military Dems ask FEC to create new rules in response to Russian Facebook ads MORE (D-R.I.) backed that interpretation, saying Dempsey was suggesting that U.S. advisers at a very high level would move down “not to the front lines, but to the command level, giving command advice.”

But some Democrats said the remarks gave them pause, especially given that Obama has not yet come to Congress for an explicit authorization of military force.

“I’m very concerned by mission creep and by an open-ended commitment that would conceivably result in Americans having a combat role,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said.

“I want to know how that role would be limited, and what constraints there would be on the mission of American troops there, and how that recommendation would be made if the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff thinks that it’s necessary,” he said.  

“It needs to be clarified,” said Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinOvernight Cybersecurity: Equifax CEO faces outraged lawmakers | Dem presses voting machine makers on cyber defense | Yahoo says 3 billion accounts affected by 2013 breach Key Dem: Did Kushner use private emails to talk with foreign governments? Dem senator pitches ideas for gun control after shooting MORE (D-Md.) of Dempsey’s remark. 

Dempsey made the comments one day before a difficult House vote on arming and training rebel forces in Syria. The so-called Title 10 authority would be attached to a temporary government funding measure that is needed to avoid a shutdown on Oct. 1.

Even before Dempsey’s remarks, House Democrats were wracked with anxiety about the Syria vote. With many liberals expressing opposition to the plan, House Republicans suggested they might need a substantial number of Democratic votes to get the measure over the top.

“There’s a lot of apprehension about moving forward as the president has planned,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said.

— This story was posted at 10:43 a.m. and updated at 2:24 p.m. and 8:35 p.m.