- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Pentagon came as close as it has to date on Thursday to identifying a red line that would need to be crossed for the Obama administration to justify an aggressive U.S. military attack on the al Qaeda-inspired extremists who have declared a new Islamic state spanning the border between Syria and Iraq.

The Defense Department’s top uniformed official said the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has seized vast territory over the past month, would have to become a serious threat to the U.S. homeland before the administration alters its existing strategy of collecting intelligence and advising the Iraqi military.

“Assessing and advising and enabling are very different words than attacking, defeating and disrupting,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey told reporters at the Pentagon.

“We may get to that point if our national interests drive us there, if ISIL becomes such a threat to the homeland that the president of the United States with our advice decides that we have to take direct action,” Gen. Dempsey said. “I’m just suggesting to you we’re not there yet.”

His remarks follow significant hand-wringing by administration critics who argue the Pentagon lacks a clear strategy around what has, during recent weeks, become a slowly mounting deployment of U.S. military assets back to Iraq — more than 2 years since U.S. forces withdrew after an eight-year occupation.

Several lawmakers on Capitol Hill have taken issue with signals from the Obama administration that it may be willing to collaborate with Iran, despite the fact that the Islamic republic has been listed by the State Department as one of the world’s most active state sponsors of terrorism.

Gen. Dempsey, who appeared at the Pentagon on Thursday with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, seemed eager to confront such criticisms, offering his most comprehensive remarks to date on the contours of the U.S. military’s new role in the security crisis gripping Iraq.

“This is not 2003. It’s not 2006,” the general said. “This is a very different approach than we’ve taken in the past.”

With regard to Iran, he said U.S. military officials “do not intend at this time to coordinate [with] them,” but that it is “not impossible that in the future we would have reason to do so.”

In addition to roughly 750 troops now providing security at the U.S. embassy and the airport in Baghdad, Mr. Hagel said Thursday that some 200 U.S. military “advisers” are also now on the ground inside Iraq, establishing two “joint operations” centers with Iraqi military forces.

Mr. Hagel and Gen. Dempsey stressed that U.S. forces have no plans to directly engage in combat against ISIL. Their comments about the possibility of U.S. military engagement if ISIL becomes a significant threat to the U.S. homeland come after several counterterrorism experts and some U.S. lawmakers have argued that substantial evidence of such plots exists.

The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said last week that lawmakers were given intelligence briefings more than a year ago about how ISIL had access to a large number of Western passports and sought to carry out attacks against the U.S. and its allies in Europe.

Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican, slammed the Obama administration for ignoring the intelligence community assessments and said the president’s ambivalence toward the assessments resulted in “a policy failure.”

But officials at the Pentagon and within the wider U.S. intelligence community have been less than eager to verify Mr. Rogers’ claims. One senior intelligence official told The Times recently that strategic warnings about ISIL’s “growing strength in Iraq” during the past year have focused on the more local threat posed by the group, which has a “keen interest in targeting Baghdad.”