Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis said Thursday it would be a mistake to rule out the use of U.S. ground combat forces if the fight against the Islamic State.
"We didn't look for this fight," Mattis said, "But once you go into it, you don't tell your adversary in advance what you're not going to do."
The U.S. had "the fiercest and most ethical ground forces in the world," Mattis said.
"I don't think we should reassure our enemy in advance that they'll never face them. You just don't take anything off the table up front, which it appears the administration has tried to do," he said.
In a rare open hearing of the House Intelligence Committee, Mattis and Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, said they backed Obama's plan to build a coalition of Arab states against ISIL, use airstrikes and advisers to shore up Iraq's military, and provide $500 million in funding to train and equip the Free Syrian Army.
Mattis singled out for praise Obama's appointment of retired Marine Gen. John Allen to serve as a special envoy in rallying Arab states to join the fight against ISIL.
However, Crocker said it was a poor choice by Obama to liken the campaign against ISIL to the counter-terrorism efforts against Al Qaeda offshoots in Yemen and Somalia.
"Clearly, we have degraded their capabilities," Crocker said, "but by no means have we defeated them, not in Yemen, not in Somalia."
Crocker noted that Obama's stated goal was to "degrade and defeat" ISIL. "If our aim is to defeat, then I would not consider Somalia and Yemen satisfactory end states," Crocker said.
In their questioning and comments, several of the Representatives pointed to the apparent friction on the so-called "boots on the ground" issue between Obama and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs Chairman, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command.
On Tuesday, in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dempsey said that if the current strategy failed, he might recommend the use of ground forces – at least as forward controllers in calling in airstrikes. On Wednesday, Obama again ruled out ground forces.
Mattis said that ruling out "boots on the ground" ignored the positive effect the presence of U.S. troops would have on the Iraqi army, the Syrian opposition fighters, and potential military partners among the Arab states.
"I realize Americans are weary, or weary to some degree of what we're doing," Mattis said, but "when American troops show up in a unit, everybody realizes the varsity is here. With the Americans here, we mean business."
"Specifically, if this threat to our nation is determined to be as significant as I believe it is, we may not wish to reassure our enemies in advance that they will not see American 'boots on the ground,' " Mattis said.
"If a brigade of our paratroopers or a Battalion Landing Team of our Marines would strengthen our allies at a key juncture and create havoc-humiliation for our adversaries, then we should do what is necessary with our forces that exist for that very purpose," Mattis said.
The beheadings in recent weeks of two American journalists and a British aid worker by ISIL were "a clarion call to get in there and stop them," Mattis said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com