The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Bill Clinton said Monday that he disagrees with President Obama's decision to say publicly that he won't send U.S. ground troops to fight the Islamic State.
"What's lacking here, what's very worrisome, is that we say we might win this without boots on the ground, and I think limiting ourselves in that matter sends the wrong signal to the enemy," said Henry Shelton, who served from 1997 to 2001 under Clinton, and briefly under President George W. Bush.
"If we're not going to put boots on the ground, are we really serious about winning the war?" he said on C-SPAN.
"Saying right up front, we're not going to have to use ground troops, or not American troops, is telling him that, you know, you're not going to face America, so go ahead and pursue this, go ahead and keep going," he added. "I think it sends the wrong signal."
Shelton argued that the American people realize that the U.S. military can have a strategy without announcing every part of it. He picked out another example that has led to criticism of Obama — his decision to set firm dates to exiting Iraq.
"For example, an exit strategy should not include a precise date attached to it," Shelton said. "That plays right into the hands of the enemy."
Shelton said that when the Clinton administration entered the Kosovo war in 1998, it was an open question about whether the U.S. would ultimately send ground troops. But Shelton said the U.S. never telegraphed its intentions.
"When we went into Kosovo, the president understood very well, right up front, President Clinton, that air power might not be able to win that war," he said. "We thought it could, but we were not convinced that we could win it without ground troops."
Shelton said the U.S. will have a much tougher time against the Islamic State because there is no capital to attack, and the terrorist group can move its headquarters inside civilian buildings. "Our air power going after them has to kill a tremendous number of innocent civilians and destroy things like mosques and schools and hospitals in order to kill them," he said.
Obama's firm opposition to the use of ground troops seems rooted in his campaign promise to bring home all overseas U.S. troops, but it is under increasing criticism from Republicans and others who say his plan is not enough to actually defeat the Islamic State. Current Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey said last week that ground troops may be needed if things change, and Shelton said he agreed with Dempsey's comments.
"I would submit that Marty is right on track," he said. "I think that Marty is doing what any good chairman and a military adviser would do, and that is, he's giving the president his best recommendation based on what the military sees as the right answer."
Last week, retired General James Mattis delivered largely the same message to Congress.
"We have the most skillful, the fiercest and certainly the most ethical ground forces in the world," he said. "And I don't think we should reassure the enemy in advance that they'll never face them."