Mission Creep in Iraq? Not.

General Martin Dempsey's job is tactics.

U.S. forces in Iraq "do not and will not have a combat mission," President Barack Obama said today, repeating what he said a few days ago, and a few days before that. Which would be unremarkable except for Army General Martin Dempsey's comments to senators yesterday that U.S. advisers would "accompany Iraqi troops on attacks" if necessary.

There is less to this apparent conflict than meets the eye, however, and citing the remarks by Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as proof of mission creep is a misreading of what he had to say. Obama -- and the U.S. military -- have every reason to avoid another open-ended Middle Eastern war fought by U.S. troops; the two most recent ones, in Iraq and Afghanistan, produced minimal gains at unacceptable human and financial cost. At the same time, Obama's strategy of working through allies to "degrade and ultimately destroy" Islamic State will probably require the kinds of involvement Dempsey describes.

The difference in their remarks can be attributed to the difference between strategy and tactics. Dempsey made two comments on ground forces. The first stated the obvious: If he thinks American advisers embedded with Iraqi soldiers should accompany them on combat missions against specific targets, he'll give that order.

Yet such deployment should not be regarded as mission creep. Dempsey was merely stating how the U.S. will provide advice and air power. To limit how the U.S. troops carry out their tasks would be self-defeating.

For those concerned that Dempsey doesn't understand this distinction, listen to what he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday: "Combat operations in Iraq and Syria will be carried out by Iraqis and Syrians with the support of a broad international coalition. That is the better approach, because in this part of the world the use of military force by Western nations can be counterproductive."

In his second comment on ground forces, Dempsey said if he later concludes that the strategy of using a coalition to fight Islamic State is failing, then he "of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces." Dempsey deserves praise for being upfront about this. After all, it's the general's job to recommend to the president what he considers the most effective military tactics. Dempsey's openness about a possible future expansion of the mission makes quiet mission creep less likely. And he doesn't necessarily disagree with Obama's strategy.

Neither the president nor the U.S. military command is itching to get involved in an ever-expanding war. What Dempsey had to say was no more than common sense.

--Editors: Marc Champion, Michael Newman

To contact the editors on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net