WASHINGTON -- White House press secretary Josh Earnest displayed some incredible verbal gymnastics on Friday trying to explain President Barack Obama's strategy behind deploying U.S. special operations forces to Syria.
During his daily briefing, Earnest confirmed reports that Obama will send roughly 50 troops to help local Syrian forces fight the Islamic State (ISIL) -- the first time American special forces will be stationed there after a year of U.S.-led airstrikes. The news flies in the face of the president's 2013 vow not to put any "American boots on the ground in Syria." But the White House spokesman insisted Obama hasn't broken any promises and that this is not a case of mission creep.
Earnest said the president's goal hasn't necessarily been to avoid putting any troops on the ground, but to prevent the U.S. from engaging in "a large-scale, long-term ground combat operation" akin to what President George W. Bush did in Iraq in 2003.
"That was his policy in the beginning of our counter-ISIL strategy," he said, "and it's our strategy today."
The White House spokesman emphasized that the special forces heading to Syria don't have a combat mission. Instead, they are there to "train, advise and assist" the local forces. If they are attacked, though, they are prepared to engage in combat.
Earnest fielded questions about how long the U.S. special forces will be in Syria, whether more troops will be deployed and just how dangerous it is for Americans serving in a "train and assist" role. He couldn't say much on any of those points, aside from saying the fight against the Islamic State is not "a short-term proposition."
As for fears of mission creep, he said the troop deployments simply represent "the intensification of those elements of our strategy that have shown some promise."
Democratic lawmakers fumed at the news of U.S. troops heading to Syria.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said the move marks "a serious new commitment" by the U.S. and "has the potential of escalating America's role in the war." Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said there's no reason to think troop deployments will be limited in scope or duration, given the Islamic State's control of northern Syria. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) called it "a mistake."
"Imagine the scenario in which American forces are deployed alongside Syrian opposition forces and come into combat with ISIL, who are also being targeted by Russian and Syrian military forces via land and air," Heinrich wrote in a letter to the president. "The margin for error diminishes considerably, and the consequences of either accidental or intentional fire on our ground forces -- or Russian and Syrian forces -- expand greatly."
"The resulting desire or need to retaliate against the other would be inevitable," he added. "The 'fog of war' in this situation appears too great and the risks significantly outweigh the potential benefits."
There's another piece to this that infuriates some lawmakers: the fact that Congress still hasn't authorized the war itself. Obama is relying on a sweeping 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force as his legal justification for taking military action against the Islamic State. The Constitution requires Congress to declare wars, but lawmakers, reluctant to have their fingerprints on a war that could go awry, have shown little interest in passing a new AUMF for the Islamic State. (Typically, they would pass one that puts parameters on the duration, costs and scope of the military campaign.)
That leaves Obama -- and future presidents -- with the ability to make major military decisions about the Islamic State without congressional sign-off.
"As this war intensifies and broadens, Congress has sat on its hands and failed to perform one of its most fundamental constitutional duties: to debate and vote on an authorization for the president’s use of military force," Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine (D) said.
"The framers of the Constitution understood then, as now, that the decision of whether to place citizens in harm’s way in defense of this nation -- to declare war -- must be made by the people through their elected representatives," he said.
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