Tony Blinken, President Obama’s deputy national security advisor, was outlining administration policy in the Middle East. “We’re not going to fall into their trap of sending hundreds of thousands of Americans back,” he told Fox News. “That’s exactly what they want us to do. They want to bog us down.”

The question hanging over Washington now is: How can that trap be avoided?

The president has set out two clear principles. The first is to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL,” the extreme jihadist movement also known as ISIS and Islamic State that now occupies large swaths of Iraq and Syria. The second is to accomplish that goal without deploying American combat troops.

“As your commander in chief,” he told soldiers based in Tampa, Fla., “I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.”

But what if those two principles are not compatible? What if the resources Obama is prepared to commit - American airpower and advisers, working with local military assets - are not sufficient to accomplish the mission of crippling ISIL? Then what?

The situation on the ground is highly fluid and uncertain, but one fact is clear. As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters, “No one is under any illusions ... that airstrikes alone will destroy ISIL.”

That means ground troops will have to be part of the mission. But which troops?

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, says that “the ideal (ground) force, in fact the only truly effective force that will actually be able to reject ISIL from within its own population, is a force comprised of Iraqis and Kurds and moderate Syrian opposition” fighters.

He’s right about that, but there’s very little evidence that the force he describes can actually accomplish the mission he defines. The Iraqi army has repeatedly fled in the face of ISIL advances. Even the president says that “moderate Syrian” fighters have been a huge disappointment. The Kurds are good soldiers, but they’re far more interested in defending their home area than driving ISIL out of captured territory.

This obvious weakness in military capacity threatens to undermine the whole plan. If airstrikes are not sufficient, if ground troops are essential, if the surrogate forces we are training and equipping fail to fight effectively, then pressures on Obama to change his strategy will escalate sharply. In fact, they’re already mounting.

Dempsey made that very clear when he said: “The president gave me a mission - destroy ISIL - and I will recommend to him what it takes to destroy ISIL.”

Speaker John Boehner went even further, saying on ABC’s “This Week” that American ground forces will probably be needed: “We have no choice. These are barbarians. They intend to kill us. And if we don’t destroy them first, we’re going to pay the price.”

The comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam are unnerving but unavoidable, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has drawn them directly. In both cases, he told David Ignatius of the Washington Post, “What we didn’t do was predict the will to fight ... We underestimated the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese and overestimated the will of the South Vietnamese. In this case we underestimated ISIL and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army.”

The basic scenario Clapper describes is uncomfortably similar in both war zones: Faulty intelligence (plus domestic dissent) leading to the deployment of insufficient resources to accomplish a stated mission. Vietnam resulted in the worst of both worlds: a rising commitment of assets that was never enough to win.

There are important distinctions here. Defeating ISIL is clearly in America’s national interest, whereas the Viet Cong never vowed to “kill us” directly. Extreme jihadists have repeatedly demonstrated both the will and the capacity to threaten our homeland. And continuing turmoil stirred up by ISIL could spill over porous borders and destabilize such key allies as Turkey, Jordan and Israel.

Still, there are a lot of unanswered questions. When Steve Kroft on “60 Minutes” asked the president to describe an endgame in the battle against ISIL, Obama declined. “I’m not going to speculate on failure at the moment,” he said. “We’re just getting started. Let’s see how they do. I think that right now, we’ve got a campaign plan that has a strong chance for success in Iraq. I think Syria is a more challenging situation.”

Fair enough. We hope he’s right. But what if he’s wrong? Has the trap the president desperately wants to avoid already been set?

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at

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