President Barack Obama on Wednesday at MacDill Air Force Base promised a gymnasium packed with men and women in camouflage that America and its allies will destroy Islamic terrorists in Iraq and Syria — but it won't require another ground war in Iraq.
"Whether in Iraq or in Syria, these terrorists will learn the same thing that the leaders of al-Qaida already know: We mean what we say. Our reach is long. If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven. We will find you eventually," Obama said, drawing cheers from roughly 1,200 uniformed men and women.
The crowd quieted as the president continued, stressing that it would not be America's fight alone: "I want to be clear: The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission. They will support Iraqi forces on the ground as they fight for their own country against these terrorists. As your commander-in-chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq."
The president's remarks followed a briefing with top military and national security advisers at MacDill's U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations throughout the Middle East. And they came a day after the Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, told U.S. senators that he ultimately could recommend sending ground forces to combat Islamic terrorists if airstrikes prove insufficient.
The White House stressed that Dempsey was merely talking about all contingencies and that the administration has been clear that American troops will not be put back into a combat role.
"If Gen. Dempsey determines that it may be necessary to forward-deploy some of the American advisers, then he will bring that option to the president, and the president said he would consider it on a case-by-case basis," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. "But what he would not consider is a combat role for our troops. That's not something the president was willing to consider, and it's not a prospect that Gen. Dempsey raised."
The president has flown in and out of MacDill Air Force Base before, but Wednesday marked his first full visit there. He thanked the service men and women for the unique and difficult role they have played in the war on terror since Sept. 11, 2001.
"As home to both Central Command and Special Operations Command, you have shouldered some of the heaviest responsibilities in dealing with the challenges of this new century," Obama said. "When the decision was made to go into Iraq, you were there. When we refocused the fight back to Afghanistan, you were there. You have served with skill, and honor, and commitment, and professionalism. And some of you carry the wounds of these wars. I know some of you lost friends. Today, we remember all who have given their lives in these wars. And we stand with their families, who've given more than most Americans can ever imagine."
Before the president climbed back aboard Air Force One, his motorcade took a detour on the base to Tinker Elementary and briefly visited two first-grade classes. He passed out White House M&M's with his signature, told the children how much he appreciated their parents and them, and solicited questions.
One of the kids asked if Obama fought in the Civil War.
"No, I was born in 1961," he said.
A little boy raised his hand and then, when the president called on him, couldn't remember what he was going to say. "That happens to me all the time," Obama said. "I think I have a good point, and then . . . the press makes fun of me."
Obama began the rainy day at MacDill by receiving a briefing from Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, CentCom's commander, who returned from the region for the visit, and his top commanders at CentCom who have been implementing the campaign against the Islamic State group. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was there, too, along with National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Lisa Monaco, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism.
The president also met with representatives from the nations under Central Command's scope of responsibility. Many of them are expected to participate in the international coalition the administration is assembling.
Obama, who won the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 largely because of his opposition to the Iraq War, now finds himself pulled back into escalating military action overseas while leading a war-weary nation. He faces Republican critics accusing him of not being aggressive enough and Democrats fretting that the country could be pulled into another prolonged conflict.
Repeatedly in his 15-minute speech Wednesday, the president spoke of America's unique place in the world. America, he said, can't escape its leadership role in tackling global threats, from the Ebola health crisis to jihadist terrorism.
"When the world is threatened, when the world needs help, it calls on America," he told the packed gymnasium at MacDill. "Even the countries that complain about America, when they need help, who do they call? They call us, and then America calls on you."
He noted that many of the service members listening intently or snapping cell phone photos came of age during the past 13 difficult years defined by war and recession.
"I want you to know, as I stand here with you today, I'm as confident as I have ever been that this century, just like the last century, will be led by America. It will be, and is, an American century," he told them.
"This is a moment of American leadership, and thanks to you, it is a moment that we are going to meet."
Contact Adam C. Smith at email@example.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.