More ‘boots on the ground’

In this picture taken Thursday, April 14, 2016, a Syrian boy waits his family to loads their belongings onto a bus in the town of Palmyra in the central Homs province, Syria. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

President Barack Obama told the BBC on Sunday that he has ruled out sending U.S. ground troops to Syria “to overthrow the Assad regime.”

But the United States already has “boots on the ground” in Syria. And on Monday the president announced that he will send an additional 250 Special Forces troops to Syria, increasing their total strength there to 300.

At first glance this appears to be another case of White House double-talk. After promising that there would be no U.S. “boots on the ground” in Iraq, President Obama has built up the U.S. presence there over the past two years to around 5,000 troops. Then last week Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that another 200 troops would be going to Iraq soon, along with Apache attack helicopters.

That appears to contradict previous Obama administration promises that the U.S. troops are in that nation only there to train Iraqi soldiers.

The purpose of the American buildup is to support an attempt by Iraqi forces to retake Mosul from the Islamic State, which exploits the oil resources in that area as a major source of its income.

The Associated Press reports that the new U.S. troops for Iraq will be mostly from the Special Forces. The extra Special Forces troops going to Syria also will work with local fighters, such as the Syrian Kurds, helping direct U.S. air strikes against ISIS fighters.

President Obama particularly mentioned an effort to retake Raqqa, a Syrian city that is the center of Islamic State control in that country, and “to try to isolate those portions of [Syria] and lock down those portions of the country that are sending foreign fighters into Europe”.

The mission makes sense. And Americans can take pride in the skill with which the Pentagon is employing expertise, precision and high technology in the fight ISIS. The extraordinary bravery of the troops being sent to carry out these “non-combat” assignments also deserves our gratitude and admiration.

If successful, this operation certainly beats sending a half million U.S. troops to sort out the warring factions and impose peace. It also is preferable to the potentially counterproductive carpet-bombing of densely populated cities.

However, when the president makes a point of ruling out sending massive numbers of ground troops to overthrow the Syrian government, he’s indulging in a rhetorical evasion. The dodge presumes that such a huge commitment was — and is — the only logical alternative to his ineffective model of the too-hasty withdrawals that he has taken in Iraq.

In fairness to President Obama, he did inherit some difficult foreign policy challenges from President George W. Bush.

Then again, most presidents do leave such tasks for their successors. For instance, President Obama acknowledged in that BBC interview that ISIS will not be defeated on his two-term watch, which will end in less than nine months. So our next commander in chief will also inherit that major foreign policy mess — and others — from Mr. Obama.

And the futility of his overly tentative approach delivers a painful reminder that American retreat tends to embolden our enemies.