Just days after awarding the Purple Heart to 12 wounded U.S. soldiers, President Obama is preparing to deliver a final speech on the success of his “no combat” counterterrorism strategy in the Middle East.
The White House said Mr. Obama will travel on Tuesday to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, the same military base where he declared in 2014 that U.S. troops deploying to Iraq as military advisers would have no combat role against Islamic State extremists.
“We will train and equip our partners. We will advise them and we will assist them,” Mr. Obama told troops at the time. “As your commander-in-chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our Armed Forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.”
Since then, Mr. Obama has steadily increased the deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq, where about 5,000 soldiers are now serving as Iraqi forces wage a six-week-old offensive to recapture Mosul, the last Islamic State stronghold in the country.
U.S. casualties in Iraq are just a small fraction of the casualty levels during the peak of the war, when 904 American soldiers died in 2007. Seventeen U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq this year, eight by hostile fire.
But the announcement that Mr. Obama will deliver a speech to U.S. Special Forces to confirm the wisdom of his counterterrorism strategy looks like validation of an effort that is far from settled.
The scheduling of Mr. Obama’s “final” speech on terrorism also comes as the president is set to meet with his top foreign policy advisers on Friday to consider their military and other options in Syria, as Syrian and Russian aircraft continue to pummel Aleppo and other targets. Reuters reported that some top U.S. officials are pushing for the administration to act more forcefully in Syria or risk losing what influence it still has over moderate rebels and its Arab, Kurdish and Turkish allies in the fight against Islamic State.
Mr. Obama has deployed more than 300 U.S. Special Forces in Syria to advise local fighters in the battle against Islamic State extremists. The U.S. suffered its first combat death in Syria last week when a service member was killed in the northern part of the country.
Against that backdrop of low-profile but indisputably growing military involvement, Mr. Obama visited wounded soldiers Tuesday at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. During the trip that he performs four times a year, aides said Mr. Obama met with 13 wounded service members and awarded the Purple Heart to 12 of them.
Neither the White House nor the Pentagon provided information Thursday on the soldiers’ identities, nor the theaters of operation in which they were wounded.
Asked how U.S. troops could be injured or killed by hostile fire if they are not in combat situations, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said their mission ordered by Mr. Obama “is one that’s dangerous and, in some cases, requires them to pay the ultimate sacrifice.”
But he again drew a distinction between Mr. Obama’s strategy and the large-scale ground invasion ordered by President George W. Bush in 2003.
“That strategy didn’t work,” he said. “And we’re still to this day dealing with the consequences of that poor strategy.”
MacDill Air Force Base is the home of the U.S. Special Operations Command and the U.S. Central Command. While at the base on Tuesday, the president will meet with uniformed leadership from both commands, and with some of the special forces who have been central to the administration’s strategy against the Islamic State.
“The president will offer his personal gratitude and that of the nation for the professionalism, skill, and sacrifice of those American patriots,” Mr. Earnest said.
He said Mr. Obama’s speech will focus on “our strategy and the gains we have made, while staying true to the values that have always been at America’s core.”
“This speech will be a final opportunity for him to discuss at length how he has effectively, durably, and successfully implemented reforms to keep us safe,” Mr. Earnest said.
The preview strongly hinted that Mr. Obama will defend his counterterrorism strategy, which has been sharply criticized by President-elect Donald Trump and congressional Republicans, as the correct path forward for the incoming administration.