To hear the White House tell it, not all “boots on the ground” are created equal.
The White House on Wednesday acknowledged that ground troops could be used in a humanitarian mission in Iraq to help Yazidi refugees surrounded by militants.
Considering that President Obama had repeatedly pledged to avoid an extended ground campaign in Iraq, some accused the president of flip-flopping on the issue. But Obama has made a critical distinction on ground troops, the White House said in defending the possible action Wednesday.
“What he’s ruled out is reintroducing U.S. forces into combat on the ground in Iraq,” explained Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
The White House recently has framed the use of troops in the way described by Rhodes.
"American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there's no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq,” Obama said last week, when announcing he had authorized airstrikes in Iraq.
“I think we always have to guard against mission creep, so let me repeat what I’ve said in the past: American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again,” Obama said in June, responding to a question about gains made by the Islamic State in Iraq.
“The president has been very clear that we will not be sending troops back in in combat roles. That’s the key phrase,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf on Wednesday. “They’re assessing. They’re not there in combat roles. They are U.S. military personnel, but they are operating out of a consulate and they are an assessment team, essentially. So they’re not performing combat roles.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest used similar language last week.
“That would include no combat boots being put on the ground in Iraq,” Earnest said. “The president has been clear about that, and that principle continues to hold.”
But administration officials haven’t always made the distinction between combat troops and U.S. forces on the ground.
“I think the president’s comments made very clear he has a broad range of options, and I was just making clear that doesn’t include boots on the ground,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in June.
And former White House press secretary Jay Carney gave a similar answer around the same time as Psaki.
“We’re not contemplating boots on the ground," he said, adding, “We’re not considering boots on the ground."