‘Sorry, I’ve got to go–bye’ seems to be the mindset of the Obama administration regarding using ground troops to fight ISIS. The aversion to redeploying troops in Iraq isn’t new. But as airstrikes have shown to be ineffective in curbing the Islamic State’s expansion, a small contingent of troops should at least be on the table. Nevertheless, President Obama’s goal appears to be not letting that question become too intense, hoping to “run out the clock” on him being forced to decide on that option in the remaining months of his presidency. At the same time, that mindset shows–at least on some level–that the administration knows that some ground forces might be needed; they just don’t want to be in office when that time comes.
Another reason for Obama not wanting ground troops: it would force the president to move a “win” (getting troops out of Iraq) into the defeat column. Iraqi withdrawal also served as the foundation for his 2008 candidacy (via National Journal):
In a detailed interview with The Atlantic, Obama made his view clear. "If they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them," he said, but added that he's committed to training Iraqis over a "multi-year" period.
How many, exactly, is "multi?" State Department official and ISIS expert Brett McGurk laid that out on NPR: "It's a three-year campaign to degrade the organization."
Three years marked from mid-2014, of course, falls after Jan. 20, 2017, the date Obama leaves office.
Translation: The strategy is to avoid sending ground troops for the remainder of his term. So stop asking.
This is a legacy issue for Obama, an actual red line. Iraq is already in the win column and only becomes a loss if he listens to Republican advice and orders combat troops to return, the White House thinking goes.
The chances of Obama coming around to that point of view, though, are slim. Ending the U.S. occupation there was a driving force behind his candidacy in 2007—his clearest and most advantageous area of contrast from then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.
While Clinton had voted to authorize President Bush's invasion, Obama, then an Illinois state legislator, had vocally opposed it. That view helped elect him to the U.S. Senate in 2004, and was key to his subsequent presidential campaign. "I will end this war in Iraq responsibly," he said at the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver.
Obama brought the 150,000 troops in Iraq home by the end of 2011, as called for in the treaty signed by Bush in late 2008. Four years later, that achievement ranks alongside the Affordable Care Act and bringing the economy back from the recession on Obama's list of promises made and kept.
"Six years ago, nearly 180,000 American troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, fewer than 15,000 remain," Obama said in his State of the Union speech this year.
At a Feb. 6 town hall in Indianapolis about "middle-class economics," Obama noted in a response to a question about veterans' care: "We've now ended both the Iraq War and the Afghan War."
At a Democratic Party fundraiser in Portland, Oregon last month, as he spoke wistfully about trading in his title of "president" for one of "citizen" in another year and a half, Obama reminded donors: "We have ended two wars."
And last month at Arlington National Cemetery, Obama said: "Today is the first Memorial Day in 14 years that the United States is not engaged in a major ground war."
Regarding ground troops, the American public seems to swing back and forth. A February CBS News poll showed 57 percent of Americans supported using this option to fight ISIS. A February-March YouGov had 53 percent of Americans supporting ground troops, but now; that level of support has dropped to 47 percent. This will surely be a question in the upcoming election since the Obama administration is deploying evasive maneuvers.
"In 2017, there will be a new commander in chief and someone else who will have a responsibility to evaluate the situation on the ground and determine what steps are necessary to continue to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, using the administration's acronym for the Islamic State. "That's something that we'll leave to the next president."