WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Obama has said there would be no “boots on the ground” in the fight to stamp out ISIL in Iraq and Syria, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that he would recommend sending military advisers, already deployed to Iraq, into combat if necessary.
“At this juncture, our advisers are intended to help the Iraqis develop a mindset for the offensive and the actions to match it,” Gen. Martin Dempsey said in his opening statement. “Our military advisers will help the Iraqis conduct campaign planning, arrange for enabler and logistics support, and coordinate coalition contributions. 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’s argument, which he made several times under questioning, contradicts Obama’s promise that the campaign to defeat and destroy the terrorist group that calls itself the “Islamic State” would not include American “boots on the ground.” The contradiction will probably force the White House to answer a central question: How is serving as “close combat advisers” — in Dempsey’s words — not a combat role?
In another sign of a possible disconnect among administration officials, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who was seated next to Dempsey at the hearing, repeated the President’s promise.
“As the President said last week, American forces will not have a combat mission,” he said.
Asked about the chairman’s comments, a senior administration official told CNN the President’s speech last week — laying out the administration’s ISIS strategy — stands.
“No U.S. troops engaging in combat,” the official said, referring reporters to the Department of Defense regarding Dempsey’s remarks.
Tuesday’s hearing comes as the House prepares to vote to give the President authorization to arm and train moderate Syrian rebel groups that have been vetted. A Senate vote on the measure would follow. Still, several members of Congress from both parties and both chambers have said they want to see a fuller debate on a new authorization of use of military force, authority that would go further than the limited mission to train and equip fighters, but any such discussion would almost certainly be put off until after November’s midterm elections.
Several senators on the committee expressed concerns about the administration’s plan to train some 5,000 Syrian fighters over the next year, with Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain calling it an “inadequate response.”
While the debate over American “boots on the ground” took center stage at the hearing, some members of Congress have been arguing for days that this discussion is mere semantics. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, pressed Dempsey on the issue at one point in the hearing, asking if pilots dropping bombs in Iraq were part of a combat mission and if the U.S. would rescue any pilots shot down. Dempsey responded “Yes and yes.”
The Obama administration has, however, ruled out putting U.S. military advisers on the ground in Syria.
Early in his testimony, Dempsey also seemed to lay out a new version of the administration’s mission, saying it was to “destroy” ISIS in Iraq and to “disrupt” it in Syria.
The hearing was interrupted several times by anti-war protesters from the groups Code Pink and Popular Resistance, each of whom chanted and held up signs until they were ejected.
“There is no military solution,” one woman chanted. “America does not want war.”
The latest CNN/ORC poll shows the American public is worried about the threat of ISIS, with 87% saying they are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about the group. About three-quarters of Americans support U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and in Syria, and 38% even support putting U.S. ground troops in Iraq or Syria.