When President Obama announced last week that he had authorized "limited airstrikes" in Iraq, he went out of his way to try to reassure those who were worried that the missiong would eventually lead to a lengthy, indefinite engagement and American troops once again fighting a ground war:
I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq, even limited strikes like these. I understand that. I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that's what we've done. As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq. And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there's no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.
In summary, the mission would be short-term, and narrowly targeted. The airstrikes had been authorized, but hadn't even happened. Maybe they wouldn't even be necessary.
To almost everyone's genuine puzzlement and surprise, however, it's not working out quite that way. Airstrikes began less than a day after they were authorized.
Less than a week has passed since the initial announcement, and it has already been updated and clarified. The mission's limits now seem less limiting. "I don't think we're going to solve this problem in weeks," Obama said on Sunday. "This is going to be a long-term project."
And now it looks like it's going to be a long-term project that may involve ground troops. Via The New York Times:
A senior White House official said on Wednesday that the United States would consider using American ground troops to assist Iraqis in rescuing Yazidi refugees if recommended by military advisers assessing the situation.
Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, told reporters on Martha's Vineyard that President Obama would probably receive recommendations in the next several days about how to mount a rescue operation to help the refugees, who are stranded on a mountaintop surrounded by Sunni militants. He said those recommendations could include the use of American ground troops.
The gimmick here is that these ground troops, should they be deployed, would not be in a "combat role." They'll just be there…to not engage in combat, or something.
"What he's ruled out is reintroducing U.S. forces into combat on the ground in Iraq," Mr. Rhodes said. He added, using an alternative name for the militant group, that the deployment of ground troops to assist a rescue was "different than reintroducing U.S. forces in a combat role to take the fight to ISIL."
He acknowledged that any ground troops in Iraq would face dangers, even if they were there to help the refugees find a safe way off the mountain. He said that like American forces anywhere, the troops would have the ability to defend themselves if they came under fire.
So to clarify: American troops won't be in Iraq in a combat role. They just might happen to engage in combat, if circumstances require.
This is all very reassuring.