Taking ground combat troops off the table in the fight against the Islamic State could be hurting President Obama’s efforts to build an international coalition because it leaves questions about the U.S. commitment, the former commander who oversaw military efforts in the Middle East said Thursday.
Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis said it also wasn’t a good idea to put time restrictions on whatever commitment the U.S. makes, saying the key to building the coalition of Muslim nations that Mr. Obama wants is to let them know the U.S. is also willing to put itself on the line.
“We have allies out there,” the retired general told the House intelligence committee. “It’s a matter of whether we will lead and put ourselves on the line alongside them.”
Mr. Obama has repeatedly said he will not allow U.S. troops to engage in offensive ground combat. He even delivered a soft public rebuke to his top uniformed officer, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who on Tuesday had testified to Congress about situations when troops may be needed.
But Gen. Mattis said the U.S. should not take that option off the table, saying it sends the wrong signals to both the Islamic State militants and to potential U.S. allies.
“Once you go into it, you don’t tell your adversary in advance what you’re not going to do,” the retired general said.
He replaced Gen. David Petraeus as head of Central Command in 2010, and held the post until last year.
The House voted on Wednesday to authorize training of a Syrian rebel army, which is one of the tactics Mr. Obama has laid out in his plans to confront the Islamic State. House lawmakers, however, imposed some tight reporting requirements and only allowed the authority to run through December, giving a firm deadline for the president to lay out a broader strategy.