President Obama insists that he has no plans to deploy U.S. combat forces in Iraq, even as he has promised to "degrade and eventually destroy" Islamic State. The White House sees no contradiction between these two commitments, but Americans are understandably anxious given the incremental escalation of U.S. involvement in the war against the group.
Last week Obama announced that he was sending an additional 450 military personnel to "train, advise and assist" Iraqi forces at a military base in eastern Anbar province. That deployment will increase the U.S. military presence to 3,550.
"This decision does not represent a change in mission," Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said. That's true if one dates the U.S. mission to Obama's announcement in September that he was launching a "comprehensive and sustained" effort to defeat Islamic State. Earlier, however, Obama had portrayed airstrikes in Iraq as a temporary measure designed to protect U.S. personnel and alleviate a humanitarian crisis.
The Times has supported the administration's more assertive policy with two provisos: that Obama abide by his promise not to deploy U.S. ground troops, and that he secure explicit congressional authorization. Obama has asked for such authority, but he has undermined the urgency of that request by insisting that he can legally prosecute a war against Islamic State under the congressional resolutions passed more than a decade ago to authorize force against the planners of 9/11 and the regime of Saddam Hussein. It's vital that Congress enact a new Authorization for Use of Military Force tailored to Islamic State, one that explicitly rules out the deployment of U.S. ground forces.
If defeating Islamic State is such a high priority, some might ask, why should the U.S. refuse to commit ground troops and instead rely on dispirited and disorganized Iraqi forces? The best answer to that is a sobering statistic: the nearly 4,500 Americans who lost their lives in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the protracted conflict that followed George W. Bush's disastrous decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The American people are understandably disinclined to see more fatalities on that scale in a conflict in which the interests of the U.S. are not directly threatened and in a region where our previous efforts have been so disappointing.
Obama is right both to try to defeat Islamic State and to do it without putting U.S. troops on the front lines. As he said in September: "This is not our fight alone. American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region." Nothing that has happened since then has changed that fundamental reality.