Ever since President Obama pulled forces out of Iraq, he has been unequivocal in his statements about "boots on the ground" in that country. As recently as August 7, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that the "President has also made clear that American military action in Iraq would not include combat boots on the ground. That is a principle that the President laid out at the beginning and that continues to be true today."
However, in remarks Wednesday to U.S. troops in Guam, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work twice qualified the president's words with "right now," saying "Do I think we're going to have boots on the ground[?] The president's been very clear, right now, no," and a short time later, "So right now, the president's been very clear, no boots on the ground."
Work was responding to a question about ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and Iraq from a soldier in the audience at an event at Apra Harbor, Guam. The following are excerpts from Work's reply [emphasis added]:
Well, all I can say on this is this is the biggest debate that's going on inside Washington D.C. right now. Okay, everybody knows that ISIL is -- these are about the worst guys that we've come up against. I mean, they're so bad that Al Qaeda you know, said, we don't like these guys anymore. You know if Al Qaeda says (Inaudible).
So not only are they terrorists, but they're pretty good light infantry. They know how to do combined arms. They -- one of the things that makes them so effective is they have a lot of equipment that they've gotten from the Iraqi army, they've captured from the Iraqi army and the Syrian army. They're very, very fast. They've got a very flat command and control structure, and they have good combined arms.
And so they move quickly, and they're very bold. I mean, they're quite effective with their tactical -- at the tactical level...
In the end though, we're going to have to confront ISIL. Do I think we're going to have boots on the ground. The president's been very clear, right now, no. And if we can find good partners, having the government of Iraq, having (inaudible), who's stepped down, having a new unity government. That's going to be a big deal, because the president as said when we have a good partner we will consider doing more in support of them.
KRG forces, the Peshmerga, they've already proved to be quite capable on the battlefield as long as they have the weapons. They can stand up to ISIL. But we can talk with Turkey. We can talk with Jordan. We can talk to Saudi Arabia. We can talk to a lot of different partners, and we have to address this as a regional issue.
So right now, the president's been very clear, no boots on the ground. But we've already started to support our government of Iraq, our partners, using airpower.
When asked, based on Work's comments, under what conditions the U.S. might put boots on the ground in Iraq, William Speaks of the defense department's Public Affairs office responded via email, "We would not speculate on something like that."
President Obama did not specifically address future actions by the U.S. military in Iraq in his remarks Wednesday regarding the murder of photojournalist James Foley by ISIL, saying only that the United States "will continue to do what we must do to protect our people. We will be vigilant and we will be relentless."
Following the president's remarks, the Wire reported that the National Security Council announced more airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq. White House pool reports said that the president himself went golfing.