Even before President Barack Obama announced a limited escalation of America’s military role in battling al-Qaida-inspired extremists in Iraq, one of his top allies in Congress openly worried that the U.S. involvement could spiral out of control.
“You have to be careful sending special forces, because it's a number that has a tendency to grow,” Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters.
Pelosi, one of four top congressional leaders who heard Obama’s Iraq plans on Wednesday at the White House, said, “I'd like to see the context, purpose, timeline and all the rest for anything like that.” She added, “I would say let's proceed cautiously in that regard, without thinking that a hundred is a hundred.”
Obama, who has built much of his presidency on American war-weariness, acknowledged those concerns a few hours later in the White House briefing room as he unveiled plans to send up to 300 elite U.S. troops to Iraq as “advisers.”
“We always have to guard against mission creep,” he said. “So let me repeat what I've said in the past: American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again. We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq.”
And, he underlined, “ultimately this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis.”
In the meantime, Obama said, “we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”
That was widely read as a threat to use airstrikes — either from airplanes or drones — against ISIS, which has drawn many of its battle-hardened fighters from the killing fields of Syria’s civil war. (ISIS, which refers to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is also known as ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.)
Will American strikes against ISIS be confined to Iraq or could they reach into Syria, a reporter asked on a conference call with three senior administration officials after Obama's news conference.
"The president is focused, again, on a number of potential contingencies that may demand U.S. direct military action. One of those is the threat from ISIL and the threat that that could pose, again, not simply to Iraqi stability but to U.S. personnel and to U.S. interests more broadly, certainly including our homeland," one official said.
"In that respect, we don't restrict potential U.S. action to a specific geographic space," the official continued. "The president has made clear time and again that we will take action as necessary including direct U.S. military action if it's necessary to defend the United States against an imminent threat.
"Clearly, we're focused on Iraq," the official underlined. "But the group ISIL, again, operates broadly, and we would not restrict our ability to take action that is necessary to protect the United States."
In other words: The United States might take its war against ISIS into Syria.
There’s nothing imminent, another official said.
“We're not at the stage where we're preparing for airstrikes, obviously. The president hasn't asked us to do that,” the official said.
Obama famously opted not to strike Syria after it became clear he couldn’t get congressional permission — but this is not quite the same situation. In that debate, the president was weighing whether to target forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. In the current crisis, American firepower would rain down on extremists that Obama says pose a direct threat to American interest and even might be plotting attacks on American soil. (Yahoo News reported on that possibility in February.)
Assad has shown no reluctance to slaughter rebels by the thousands, but there’s no credible public evidence that he’d ever target the United States.
Still, it raises an unsettling prospect. ISIS has been fighting to topple Assad. Should the U.S. go after the group in Syria, American power could end up being used in a way that helps the Syrian strongman Obama has said must go.