U.S. Ground Troops Back in Iraq? General Hints Broader Military Effort May Be Needed to Fight ISIS

September 17, 2014
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A week after President Obama vowed not to send ground troops into Iraq to fight the Islamic State, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted ground troops may be needed. “If there are threats to the U.S., I would of course go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces,” Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. President Obama is expected to visit U.S. Central Command headquarters in Florida today to discuss his strategy to confront the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, Congress is voting this week on a request from Obama for authorization to arm and train Syrian rebels. We speak to Rep. Jim McDermott, Democrat from Washington state.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the latest on U.S. plans to expand its attack on militants from the self-described Islamic State.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As I’ve said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission. We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama speaking a week ago, vowing not to send ground troops into Iraq to fight the Islamic State. On Tuesday, the most senior U.S. military officer revealed ground troops may be needed. General Martin Dempsey, chair of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the Senate.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Our military advisers will help the Iraqis conduct campaign planning, arrange for enabler and logistic support, and coordinate our coalition activities. If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraq troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I’ll recommend that to the president. As I said in my statement, however, this—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, then I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.

AMY GOODMAN: General Martin Dempsey, chair of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. President Obama is expected to visit U.S. Central Command headquarters in Florida today to discuss strategy in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, Congress is voting this week on a request from Obama for authorization to arm and train Syrian rebels. The House is expected to vote on the issue today.

We go now to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Congressman Jim McDermott, Democrat from Washington state. In 1991, he voted against the Persian Gulf War. In 2002, he voted against a bill to authorize President George W. Bush to use force against Iraq. He traveled to Iraq in both ’91 and 2002.

Congressman McDermott, welcome back to Democracy Now! So, what say you today? What are your plans? How will you vote on arming Syrian rebels?

REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Well, let’s put this in perspective, Amy. George Bush ripped the top off Pandora’s box of problems in the Middle East, and the president has been trying his best to stuff the problems back into the box and get them solved. And he has tried it in Iraq, he’s tried it in Afghanistan. This situation, which has evolved from that original decision by Bush way back in 2001, is one that is very complicated. It’s not black and white. It’s very difficult. The president has shown what George Bush failed to show, which is remarkable reserve in how quickly he jumped to a decision.

Now, what he’s doing, I have serious doubts about whether—there are a lot of questions you can raise about it. I don’t think it’s because he hasn’t thought about it, thought about all the complexities of it. And I probably will not be supportive of it, because, to me, we’re doing only one part. We’re doing a Syria part—let’s arm a few Syrian rebels—but that doesn’t say what’s going to happen on the 11th of December, when that expires and the Congress is back in a lame-duck session and we have to face this whole issue in one bite. I think that the real problem was, they’re trying to rush something through here to get us out so we can run for home for re-election. And that’s not the way to conduct public policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Who are these rebels that President Obama wants to arm?

REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Well, that’s one of my questions. I think it’s very difficult to tell. We’ve had people come over to the United States and say, "I’m the Free Syrian Army," or "I represent the Free Syrian Army." We saw the same sort of people coming, telling us—Chalabi came over here and told us he was the Free Iraqi Army and that they were going to just take over, and if we just came and gave him a little help, why, they could throw out Saddam. So, I don’t know who they are. And that’s going to be one of the questions, is: How do they vet who you hand arms to? Because we’ve handed arms to people in other places, and suddenly those arms are turned around and used against us. So, one of my real concerns is: How do you vet the people that you’re going to give arms to?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what kind of answers has the president given you? You are a Democrat. You’re in the same party as the president. But it looks like right now what we’re seeing in Congress in today’s vote is there are many progressive Democrats, like you, who are asking President Obama some serious questions. How is the White House responding?

REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Well, they’ve tried to respond to this, but, as I said, Amy, it is—this is not black and white. It is about 90 shades of grey, and it’s very hard for the president to say exactly. He says intelligence people have helped him, and they’re—they know which groups are where and so forth. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I have to trust his judgment that he’s doing what he thinks is best for the American people. I don’t have any question about whether the president is doing his absolute best at doing this. I just think it’s a very, very difficult thing to do. And he’s tried.

AMY GOODMAN: At the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire questioned General Dempsey. She expressed doubt the U.S. can defeat the Islamic State without deploying ground forces.

SEN. KELLY AYOTTE: I’m not confident how this is going to happen without the assistance of our trained special operators on the ground here. But I appreciate that you’ve said that you have not ruled this out.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: I have not, in terms of recommendations.

SEN. KELLY AYOTTE: Thank you. Has the president ruled it out?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Well, at this point, his stated policy is that we will not have U.S. ground forces in direct combat, so yes.

SEN. KELLY AYOTTE: Including operators in JTAC and embedded on the ground.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: That’s correct. But he has told me, as well, to come back to him on a case-by-case basis.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s General Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Congressmember McDermott, your response?

REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Well, there clearly is a need for some troops on the ground. One of the president’s goals has been to get his allies, our allies, to come forward and commit. And one of the things that’s troubling, again, is that the Turks and the Jordanians and everyone who you might think would want to put some—even the Brits are still sort of sitting back on their hands. And so, it is hard to know where these folks are going to come from. Now, I don’t—you can do a lot from 30,000 feet, but you ultimately have to have people on the ground. We found that out in Iraq. Rumsfeld said we could get it done with 95,000 people, and we couldn’t. Shinseki was right: It would have have taken 300,000 Americans on the ground to control the situation in Iraq.

So, if you make a misjudgment on this, you’re going to wind up with some really bad situations that I—I think General Dempsey is being very honest. Again, he’s a military man. And if you say, "Is it possible?" he has to say, "Yes, it is possible." But the president’s position at this point is there will be no troops on the ground. Now, if the president wants to come back to the American people and say, "I believe that our national interests are at stake here, and we should put troops on the ground," that is something that clearly he could do at some point. But at this point, his position is we can do it without that.

And I think you have to at least respect the fact that he’s trying his best to keep us out of a third war. I mean, we’ve had Afghanistan, we’ve had Iraq, and now we’re sort of back into Iraq, and now Syria is opening up. And you have to ask yourself: At what point do the Americans admit that there are some things we cannot solve by military power? That’s the real issue here.

AMY GOODMAN: Which goes to a question about Saudi Arabia. I mean, if it’s not solved militarily, if that wasn’t the option of first recourse, what could be done? And what about the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and its role in arming groups like the Islamic State?

REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Well, one of the things you have to ask yourself as you look at this situation is: How is it being funded? Now, one of the places there appears to be a source of money for ISIS is the oil fields of northern Syria, where the ISI is selling their oil, or they’re smuggling oil, into Turkey, and Turkey is paying them for that. That’s one source of money. There’s also some questions about whether money is coming from the Saudis or the Kuwaitis or the Emirates or whatever, so that there’s the real—is a question. Our allies could turn off the money, and that would make this thing become very, very difficult for ISIS. They would have no way to pay the salaries of their soldiers and pay for weapons and all the things that they’re now paying for, if the money was shut off. So, there is some real question about whether or not Turkey could help tomorrow by stopping the smuggling of oil. Now, that would mean that the price of oil in southern Turkey would go up about two-thirds, because they’re getting it for about a third of the cost. So, there’s a real—there’s a lot of questions here. The Turks have 47 people held hostage by the ISIS, so they’re worried about having the same thing happen that happened to our journalists and the British journalist. Those kind of images are very powerful and very upsetting. No political leader wants to bring that down on his house or her house.

AMY GOODMAN: So is this an outright failure of diplomacy? I mean, you have a large military-industrial complex in the United States. When the military is galvanized, and, you know, we know what direction the U.S. goes, but is it a failure of diplomacy? Could a lot more be done on that front, on pressuring U.S. allies?

REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Well, I think that the diplomacy question, if you were to pick a place where I think there should have been a change, Maliki should have been gone a long time ago. The United States government, from time to time, picks the wrong person to be the leader of a country and involves themselves in the election and the whole selection process. And Maliki was our selection. We backed him all the way, even when the Sunnis were telling us, "He is tied to Iran, and we’re not going to be in a government with a guy who’s tied to Iran." There’s long—and we’re dealing with 3,000 years of history here. And they are not going to get into a government where they feel that the Iranians hold the strong hand. But we stuck with Maliki way too far into this process. We should have brought about—if we’re going to use our power diplomatically, we should have brought about our power to help get him out of office a long time ago. We’ve now got a government that’s less than a week old. They have—or about a week old. It hasn’t got a defense minister, it doesn’t have an interior minister, which are the two most important ministries. So, when we talk about we’re going to go in and use them as our ground troops, it may be possible, it may work, but at this point it has lots of questions on the table.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a recent opinion piece by Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman in The New York Times, the article headlined "Obama’s Betrayal of the Constitution." In it, Ackerman writes that some senators and representatives would, quote, "prefer to let the president plunge ahead and blame him later if things go wrong. But this is precisely why the War Powers Resolution sets up its 60-day deadline: It rightly insists that unless Congress is willing to stand up and be counted, the war is not worth fighting in the name of the American people." Your response to this, Congressmember McDermott, and what President Obama says about going to Congress?

REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Well, I disagree with the president on that. When George Bush was hurtling toward Iraq and saying he had all the power to do it because he was commander-in-chief and all that stuff, we ultimately brought him to the point where he called for a vote in the House. Now, I didn’t like the way the vote came out, but from a democratic standpoint, from a democracy standpoint, it was absolutely what must happen. The Congress must say, "Yes, Mr. President, we back you when you go into Iraq." And I think that the president, President Obama, is in that same situation here. He is running on very thin ice if he says that he can go and do whatever he wants and not have us ultimately take a vote. It may not be that he’ll get—he won’t get 100 percent, I’m sure, but he ought to be willing to stand up and say to the Congress, "This is what I need. I want you to vote to support me," and then let the chips fall where they may. That’s what a democracy is. I mean, this program is Democracy Now! That’s the essence of democracy. We do not have a king. We have somebody who comes to the people’s representatives. I’m one of them. I represent 700,000 people in Seattle. And all of us represent them. And we have a right to have our voice heard on this issue. Whether we disagree or agree is another issue. But it must—you must have the process work; otherwise, we’re essentially running a one-man government. I don’t like that. I hate that idea.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Ackerman also wrote, "Nothing attempted by his predecessor, George W. Bush, remotely compares in imperial hubris." Do you share that view, Congressman McDermott?

REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Oh, let’s not talk about Abu Ghraib and a whole bunch of things that—I mean, George Bush and the people in the White House surrounding him wrote him memos that made it possible for him to do things that I am—abhor, as an American, that we were torturing people and that we had these secret prisons all over the place and that we were waterboarding and all of that—and to no effect. I mean, did he end the war? No, he didn’t end the war. He had almost eight years of George Bush doing it. And it didn’t work. And so, when you look at it, you’ve got to say—or, excuse me, we had about four years of George Bush. We had that period, and he was doing pretty much whatever he wanted after he got the agreement from us that he could go into Iraq. And I think that the president has to think very carefully about acting without the support of the people, the Congress. We are the people’s representatives, and that’s what he has to keep in mind at every instant.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember McDermott, I wanted to ask you about veterans, something that’s certainly fallen off the front pages of the newspapers, and the terrible care, the long waits, that many of them have gotten, or not gotten, throughout the United States at the VA hospitals. Can you talk about legislation you’re introducing? I mean, here we’re talking about possible boots on the ground. What about soldiers who have come home here?

REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Well, I was a psychiatrist in the Vietnam War, and I saw casualties, which is why I have been very reluctant to go to war unless there’s a real reason to do it, because I know what happens to people when they come home. And we do all kinds of planning—we plan for bullets and meals and uniforms and tanks and everything else—but we never plan for what happens to people when they come home. And the question of how we receive back the people who have served us bravely is a real tragedy, because we knew that we were going to have all these people coming back. We could have anticipated all the post-traumatic stress disorder, all the suicides. We could have anticipated that, if we had been willing to think about it. But when you’re going to war, nobody wants to think that there’s going to be any problem when they come home. And those of us who know that realize.

So I think there needs to be a national commission established in which the president calls together not only military people, but civilian people, about how do we bring our troops home. The Native American tribes, all kinds of other cultures on the face of the Earth, have had ceremonies in which they bring their soldiers home and reintegrate them into the society in which they live. You cannot take some ordinary kid from the streets of Chicago or Buffalo or anywhere else and train them to be a soldier, to go out and be a killer, and then bring him back, and in 20 minutes he lands in New York or lands at one of the airports, and suddenly his mind has got to be flipped back to being normal again. That’s not possible. Other cultures knew that. We have not done very well at that. And we need to think about that.

The other thing is about having enough physicians. We have ROTC programs. We prepare for how many officers we’re going to need. But we don’t think about how many doctors we’re going to need to take care of them. That’s why I proposed something called "RDOCS." I want to give free scholarships to doctors who will be willing to practice for five years in the Veterans Administration. We would then have the primary care physicians we need for this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking as a true physician, Jim McDermott is a psychiatrist.

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