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Obama Renews Pledge To Keep Combat Forces Out Of Iraq, Syria


The House of Representatives is about to vote to support President Obama's strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as the Islamic State. Today, at MacDill Air Force base in Florida, the president repeated his promise not to commit U.S. combat forces to that struggle. As NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports, meeting both those goals will require a delicate balancing act from the president, and some forbearance from the public.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Today, President Obama got a briefing about the ISIS strategy from his top military commanders. Afterwards, he told the troops that only America had the capacity to mobilize the world against terrorists like ISIS.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Whether in Iraq or in Syria, these terrorists will learn the same thing that the leaders of al-Qaida already know. We mean what we say. Our reach is long. If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven. We will find you eventually.


LIASSON: The president repeated the pledge he's made over and over. I want to be clear, he said, American forces do not and will not have a combat mission. They'll support the Iraqi military and the Syrian resistance, not do their fighting for them.


OBAMA: As your commander in chief, I will not commit you, and the rest of our Armed Forces, to fighting another ground war in Iraq.

LIASSON: The president appeared to be trying to correct impression left yesterday by General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who opened the door to the possibility that under certain circumstances he might recommend ground troops, or in his words, close combat advisors.


MARTIN DEMPSEY: My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward. I believe that will prove true. But if it fails to be true and if there are threats to the United States, than I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.

LIASSON: Those words set off a firestorm of speculation. Was this the beginning of a slippery stroke to another big U.S. in Iraq, as a New York Times editorial warned today. Defense analyst Michael O'Hanlon doesn't think so.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: What that tells you is that good military analyses can't prove the current plan will work, and that Dempsey's trying to be honest and trying to be rigorous and trying to prepare people for the possibility that more may be needed.

LIASSON: It's not clear how much more the public would support. But O'Hanlon predicts the current support for airstrikes will not evaporate, even if more close combat advisers are needed.

O'HANLON: The nation has a certain resilience for limited operations. Even if we expanded several-fold along the lines that General Dempsey was hinting at yesterday, I actually think the American public will tolerate it. And there's no reason to think that this should lead - or would lead - to tens of thousands of American forces.

LIASSON: The fear that the U.S. might send combat troops was also the focus of ISIS today. It released a slickly produced video, styled like a movie trailer and titled "Flames Of War." It warns that, quote, "the fighting has just begun," as it cuts from scary scenes of explosions and executions to the president's own words.


OBAMA: Combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq.

LIASSON: Right now the public supports the president's counterterrorism policy, while at the same time giving him low marks for foreign-policy leadership. And that probably won't change, as long as it looks like the world is on fire, says Aaron David Miller, a former diplomat who's written a new book called "The End Of Greatness: Why America Can't Have And Doesn't Want Another Great President."

AARON DAVID MILLER: Managing chaos and managing the perception of unruliness and disorderliness is part of being an effective president. And it's clear he's had an extremely difficult time doing that. And the less than 1000 days that remain in his presidency, I suspect the far from what he wanted, could well be a veritable roller coaster ride, certainly on the foreign-policy side.

LIASSON: President Obama's domestic agenda has been completely overshadowed by foreign policy, and it's not just ISIS. Yesterday the president announced a strategy to fight the Ebola virus, which will include sending 3,000 U.S. military personnel to Africa. Tomorrow he meets with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who is asking the West to help him fend off Russian aggression. Next week, Mr. Obama will be the U.S. president to chair a United Nations Security Council meeting. The topic - terrorism. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.