As a Marine deployed to the first Gulf War in 1991 and now a member of the House Armed Services Committee, Republican Rep. Steven Palazzo of Mississippi has a deep interest in how the United States contends with the radical Islamists rampaging across much of western Iraq.
He’s no fan of President Barack Obama’s approach and isn’t shy about saying so.
Palazzo said he and some of his fellow Republicans applauded the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, for testifying to the committee last week that U.S. combat troops eventually may be needed to defeat the so-called Islamic State.
“I thought it was bold that he actually told members of Congress what his professional opinion was on how to deal with the threat,” Palazzo said of Dempsey, who seemed to depart for a second time from the White House’s position. “It might not have been exactly what the administration’s talking points are, but that’s his job as the top military commander in our nation – to provide honest answers on what he’s thinking could be possible scenarios on how to deal with a real and imminent threat.”
Administration officials were quick to tamp down Dempsey’s remarks, which came just days after Obama doubled to nearly 3,000 the number of U.S. military advisers dispatched to Iraq to train an Iraqi force to fight the extremists. Administration officials contend that U.S. aerial bombings of the Islamic State, in combination with Iraqi forces, can contain and ultimately defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.
Palazzo asked Dempsey whether the administration was succeeding in cutting off funding for the radical group and was told he could learn more in a classified setting. His comments suggest that Obama could face growing pressure from conservative hawks over his handling of the conflict in Iraq when Republicans control Congress in next year.
Palazzo criticized Obama for vowing not to reintroduce U.S. combat troops to the war-torn country, saying that he shouldn’t be “telling our enemies what we’re gonna do and what we’re not gonna do.”
In a news conference Sunday in Australia at the end of his trip to Asia, the president sounded more circumspect in addressing the issue. “Yes, there’s always a circumstance in which the United States needs to deploy ground troops,” Obama said, and suggested a hypothetical scenario such as the Islamic State obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Palazzo, who attended the Reagan National Defense Forum in California over the weekend, said he is not personally calling for the immediate deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq.
In criticizing Obama over Iraq and neighboring Syria, however, the southern Mississippi congressman and other Republicans are tiptoeing into politically risky territory. It was former President George W. Bush who launched the Iraq war in 2003, citing flawed evidence that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction.
While Saddam was captured, convicted of war crimes and executed, critics of the 2003 invasion argue that the war set off years of chaos, leaving the Persian Gulf nation vulnerable to the sudden rise of the Islamic State.
Nearly 4,500 U.S. troops died and more than 32,000 were wounded in the war. Iraqi military casualties totaled more than 10,000, and more than 50,000 Iraqi civilians were killed, according to iCasualties.org, an independent website that track deaths during the war.
Since Saddam’s fall, the country has been ravaged by a civil war between Shiite Muslims, who dominated the elected government of Hussein’s successor, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, and disenfranchised Sunnis. By the time Maliki succumbed to pressure and resigned in August in favor of a more inclusive government, many Sunnis had joined the Islamic State.
On Sunday, the terrorist group for the third time aired a video showing a beheaded American captive. This time, it was former Army Ranger Peter Kassig, who had converted to Islam, changed his name and become a humanitarian worker.
Palazzo dodged a question about whether he agreed with Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003.
“You know, I’m not going that far back,” he said. “The thing is, we went in, we liberated Iraq, we stabilized the country. . . . We won. It was a success. The surge was a success, and we turned it over to the country. And if we’d have listened to our generals, we’d have kept a security force there, and the region would be much more stable. I don’t think we would be having people being beheaded and religious minorities being persecuted.”
“We have to have a coherent strategy,” Palazzo said, “because we’ve also got to look at the men and women in uniform. We want them, in whatever they do engage in, to be successful and come home to their loved ones.”