09/11/2014 12:46 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

We Already Have Boots on the Ground in Iraq

In last night's speech on expanding U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Syria, President Obama continued the theme that he will not authorize "another ground war in Iraq." In other contexts, this has been described as a policy of no "boots on the ground" there. But we already have boots on the ground in Iraq -- roughly 1,600 after the additional 475 troops the president announced last night. Carrying out the president's new strategy of "destroying" ISIS (which now refers to itself as "Islamic State") could mean thousands more. Cartoonist Gary Varvel captured the absurdity of the administration's rhetoric best when he depicted two U.S. soldiers swapping their boots for golf shoes to adhere to the president's "no boots on the ground" policy.

Words matter when it comes to issues of war and peace. The war in Vietnam was not a "police action," and the invasion of Cambodia was not an "incursion," as the administrations of that era often claimed. And the Obama administration's "military action" or "military engagement" in Iraq and Syria is just war by another name. The mantra of "no boots on the ground" is a political marketing technique designed to mobilize a war-weary American public after over a decade of costly and disastrous fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It suggests that war, once begun, can be neatly limited. It cannot.

It's worth looking back at the administration's ever expanding rationales for being in Iraq. A brief timeline is in order. In June, there were over 500 troops sent to Iraq to either protect the embassy in Baghdad or begin training and providing intelligence for Iraqi forces. In August, the bombing began, but allegedly only to protect U.S. personnel in Iraq and stave off a humanitarian disaster. Additional troops were sent to assess the scope of the mission to break the ISIS blockade of Mt. Sinjar and free members of the Yazidi minority trapped there. A few days later, air strikes were expanded to support Kurdish and Iraqi forces seeking to wrest control of a dam in Mosul from ISIS. Along the way the U.S. and its allies began arming Kurdish forces to slow down the advance of ISIS while buying time to arm Kurdish forces and establish a less sectarian government in Baghdad. Now the administration has pledged to "degrade and destroy" Islamic State, in part by arming the non-extremist Syrian opposition forces and bombing ISIS sites within Syria, and in part by increasing arms and training for the Iraqi military.

As the president acknowledged last night, the new, expanded U.S. intervention in Iraq will result in the deployment of more troops, to serve as spotters for air strikes, to train and advise Iraqi forces, and to gather intelligence on ISIS movements. All of these activities will almost certainly result in increasing U.S. troop levels in Iraq beyond the 1,600 now authorized.

It's unlikely that this intervention will ever look like George W. Bush's war in Iraq, which peaked at over 160,000 troops and a comparable number of private contractors. But if the mission is truly an open-ended effort to "degrade and destroy" ISIS, it is virtually inevitable that more U.S. troops will be sent to Iraq, and that some of them will take on combat roles.

This is the moment when public opinion and citizen action are critical. A significant majority of Americans now support air strikes in Iraq, but nearly two-thirds oppose sending ground troops. But war is not so neat and predictable. Acquiescing in the current escalation of the war is likely to lead to the exact situation that nearly two-thirds of the public opposes -- a ground war in Iraq. The time to make that connection and speak out against the rapidly escalating war in Iraq and Syria is now.

Contrary to the discussion on Capitol Hill and in much of the media, there are alternatives to widening the war in Iraq and Syria. As an article in today's New York Times has noted, "Some officials and terrorism experts believe that the actual danger posed by ISIS has been distorted in hours of television punditry and alarmist statements by politicians," and that as a result "there has been little substantive debate about the unintended consequences of expanding American military action in the Middle East." Organizations like the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Peace Action and Win Without War have put forward alternative proposals for dealing with the ISIS threat. For example, Win Without War's plan focuses on cutting off ISIS funding sources, stemming the flow of arms and fighters into the region, addressing the underlying political grievances that have led some Sunni forces to form a tactical alliance with ISIS, providing adequate humanitarian aid to refugees from the wars in Syria and Iraq, and crafting a truly international solution. President Obama touched on several of these points in his address last night. The challenge will be to press for an emphasis on these non-military approaches over the option of more arms, bombs, and troops -- an approach that is likely to make matters worse.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.