President Obama, seeking to counter pressure for a military escalation in response to terrorist attacks, told news columnists this week that sending significant ground forces back to the Middle East could conceivably result in the deaths of 100 U.S. soldiers every month.
WASHINGTON — President Obama, seeking to counter pressure for a military escalation in response to terrorist attacks, told a group of news columnists this week that sending significant ground forces back to the Middle East could conceivably result in the deaths of 100 U.S. soldiers every month.
In a private session at the White House, Obama explained that his refusal to redeploy large numbers of troops to the region was rooted in the grim assumption that the casualties and costs would rival the worst of the Iraq war. Such a renewed commitment, he said, could require up to $10 billion a month and leave as many as 500 troops injured every month in addition to those killed, a toll he deemed not commensurate to the threat.
Obama said that if he did send troops to Syria, as some Republicans have urged, he feared a slippery slope that would eventually require similar deployments to other terrorist strongholds like Libya and Yemen, effectively putting him in charge of governing much of the region. He told the columnists that he envisioned sending significant ground forces to the Middle East only in the case of a catastrophic terrorist attack that disrupted the normal functioning of the United States.
But Obama said he now realizes that he was slow to respond to public fears after terrorist attacks in Paris and California, acknowledging that his low-key approach led Americans to worry that he was not doing enough to keep the country safe. He has engaged in a blitz of public events lately to try to convince them otherwise, including a visit Thursday to the National Counterterrorism Center.
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The session with columnists was off the record, but the president’s remarks were recounted Thursday by several people in the room after one of the writers, David Ignatius of The Washington Post, described some of the president’s thinking in a column without attributing it directly to Obama.
Obama’s defense of his approach came as Republican presidential candidates have been branding him as weak and competing in their calls for more robust action to combat the Islamic State extremist group in Syria and Iraq. In Tuesday night’s Republican debate, Donald Trump said even the families of terrorists should be killed, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas proposed to “carpet bomb” Islamic State group holdouts despite the risk of civilian casualties, and Ben Carson argued for sending ground troops.
Obama made his comments during a nearly two-hour meeting with the columnists and other opinion writers Tuesday afternoon, about 10 in all, just hours before the debate and when his frustration with Republican criticism was evident. He appeared especially exasperated with Trump, who has called for a temporary ban on Muslims’ entering the United States. Obama said that Trump’s comments on Muslims did not make him an outlier in the presidential field, but instead represented the culmination of many years of a Republican strategy of division and fearmongering.
The people in the room who described the president’s comments asked for anonymity because of the ground rules of the meeting. Among those attending the session in the Roosevelt Room of the White House were an opinion columnist and an editorial writer for The New York Times, but they were not sources for this article.
Obama is struggling to fashion a message that reassures Americans that he is serious about battling the threat of the Islamic State group while also avoiding what he considers the alarmism voiced by some Republican presidential candidates. Polls suggest that many Americans believe he is not taking the threat from the Islamic State group seriously enough.
To counter that, Obama visited the National Counterterrorism Center on Thursday, after a similar trip to the Pentagon earlier in the week and an Oval Office address to the nation last week. He is trying to make the case that his administration is succeeding in its fight against terrorism and the Islamic State group, but even some members of his own party are grumbling that he needs a new strategy.
Obama said that it was “understandable” that Americans were concerned, but that they should be reassured.
“Here’s what I want every American to know — since 9/11 we’ve taken extraordinary steps to strengthen our homeland security,” he said.
Obama emphasized again that vigilance against terrorism should not lead Americans to sacrifice values that define the nation — a direct response to remarks from Republicans.
“We have to remind ourselves that when we stay true to our values, nothing can defeat us,” Obama said, adding: “We’ve prevailed over much greater threats than this. We will prevail again.”
In a briefing at the counterterrorism center, nearly all of Obama’s top military, intelligence and security officials were in attendance, including Vice President Joe Biden; Secretary of State John Kerry; Attorney General Loretta Lynch; James Comey, the director of the FBI; and James Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence. The president generally receives such updates in the Situation Room in the White House but wanted to send a message by visiting the counterterrorism center.
Obama said that presently there is no “specific and credible information about an attack on the homeland,” although he added that Americans should remain vigilant.
Obama is set to leave Friday for two weeks in Hawaii and will stop on the way in San Bernardino, Calif., to meet privately with the families of the 14 victims of the attack there on Dec. 2. In Obama’s absence, White House officials are concerned by the void that is likely to be filled by his critics and by what they call the overheated claims of Republicans who can afford to be bellicose without the responsibilities of the commander-in-chief.
Cruz, for example, has said that the United States should “carpet bomb ISIS into oblivion,” testing whether “sand can glow in the dark.” In this week’s debate, he explained that he did not intend for civilians to be targeted in carpet bombing, a rarely used strategy of extensive and indiscriminate strikes that can lead to mass civilian casualties.
Military experts argue about the ethics and legality of carpet-bombing, but the notion of doing so with precision, as Cruz suggests, is widely seen as paradoxical. But he repeated Thursday his vow to destroy the Islamic State group if elected president.
“We will have a commander-in-chief who makes clear that the object is not to weaken, it’s not to degrade, it is to utterly destroy,” he told supporters in Las Vegas.
Obama argued that while there were potentially threats that would merit the kind of investment of lives and money equivalent to that made in the Iraq war, the Islamic State group does not pose an existential threat to the United States and, therefore, the response should be measured. The United States needs to take on the group, in part, to defend allies in the region, he said, but it should not be an all-out war.
Moreover, he added, part of the group’s strategy is to draw the United States into a broader military entanglement in the region. A sustained but limited campaign may be slow and politically unsatisfying, but ultimately will be more successful, he contended.
He also expressed pique at Republicans. For all of the attention paid to Trump, he said, the ideas that the Republican candidates are promoting have been part of a longer-term strategy of the party. And they have been successful to a point, Obama added, noting that many Americans believe he is a Muslim who was not born in the United States.