The president certainly sounded decisive. This week (Monday Sept. 15), White House press secretary Josh Earnest swore that the president had definitively "ruled out" U.S. boots on the ground "engaged in a combat role in Iraq and in Syria."
Yet, the very next day, polemical decisiveness and definitiveness dissolved to cognitive dissonance.
Let's stipulate that in his Sept. 16 Senate testimony, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey discussed a hypothetical scenario -- a potential future. He acknowledged he could indeed envision a "what if" circumstance where U.S. ground combat forces deployed to fight the Islamic State: if President Obama's anti-Islamic State international coalition proved to be ineffective.
"Ineffective" strikes me as a euphemism for "incapable of defeating and destroying the enemy." Obama said his strategic goal was defeating and destroying the Islamic State. He said that ... last week.
Obama's administration sees creating an effective international coalition to defeat the Islamic State as an essential diplomatic operation. Nothing wrong with that -- it is the savvy way to proceed. In the two weeks following Saddam Hussein's Aug. 2, 1990 Kuwait invasion, President George H. W. Bush fashioned a resilient military and political coalition. So did George W. Bush for combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, from roughly 2004 to 2011, a leftist hate-mail eruption occurred virtually every time I discussed George W. Bush's Iraq coalition. Though I served on active duty in Iraq in 2004 and saw the coalition in action, my on-the-ground experience that challenged hate-mailer narratives was dismissed as a lie. This week, Washington Post editors noted that "Though derided by some as a 'unilateral' U.S. action, the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq was supported by troops from 39 countries, nine of which deployed more than 1,000 soldiers." The Post described Obama's efforts, so far, as "meager" in comparison.
Gen. Dempsey commanded a division in Iraq. He understands the advantages and risks of coalition warfare. "My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward," Dempsey testified. "I believe that will prove true, but if it fails to be true and if there are threats to the U.S., then I, of course, would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces."
Back at the White House: After Dempsey's testimony, the important Mr. Earnest spun ... earnestly. The press secretary claimed the president believes deploying ground troops is not in the national interest and the overall policy remains the same.
Dempsey's testimony addressed a genuine military and diplomatic contingency. His honest answer, however, also serves as a political hedge. "Ineffective" is an iffy term and gives the Obama administration rhetorical space to deploy Army and Marine ground forces to Iraq and Syria after the November elections. At that point, ticking off Democratic peaceniks won't distract from his golf game.
Grievous U.S. diplomatic failure would be the predicate for Dempsey's "ground war" hypothetical. The predicate for U.S. diplomatic failure would be leadership failure. Obama visibly riles when questioned about his botched "red line," which barred the Assad regime from killing Syrian civilians with chemical weapons. Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph and leader of the Islamic State noticed his failure to follow through.
A leader who can create and lead an effective international coalition must back words with action, and he must lead from the front, not from behind.