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Boehner backs ground troops against Islamic State 'barbarians' (+video)

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Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

(Read caption) House Speaker John Boehner speaks in Washington earlier this month. He was a guest on ABC's 'This Week' Sunday and spoke about the Islamic State.

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Did House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio just suggest that President Obama essentially start a new American land war in Iraq and Syria?

Mr. Boehner might not have gone quite that far in his conversation with ABC's "This Week," which aired Sunday, but he wasn't far off.

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With only 34 percent of Americans wanting to send ground troops to fight the Islamic State, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from three weeks ago, why would the speaker say that America might have "no choice" but to do just that?

First, he might just be plain speaking his mind.

Boehner prefaced his comments by saying he didn't believe the president's strategy against the Islamic State would work. That plan involves airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, as well as training moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State on the ground.

Given that the Islamic State has routed US-trained Iraqi forces and that moderate Syrian rebels are neither easy to find nor particularly cohesive, the president's plan has doubters beyond Boehner. Airstrikes simply soften up an enemy, the thinking goes. Someone on the ground has to take advantage.

Boehner doesn't buy that the Iraqi Army and US-trained Syrian rebels will be up to the task.

"Maybe we can get enough of these forces trained to get ‘em on the battlefield. But somebody's boots have to be there," Boehner said.

And what if no one else steps up, host George Stephanopoulos asked. Should the US step in?

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"We have no choice," he said. "These are barbarians. They intend to kill us. And if we don't destroy them first, we're gonna pay the price."

The statement, in many ways, brings the conversation back into the territory of a Bush foreign policy built on deep-seated fears. The lesson neoconservatives took from 9/11 was that they would rather play offense with the American military on Middle East soil than defense with US citizens on American soil.

War fatigue and the failure of another 9/11 to materialize saw the waning of those fears. But new polls suggest the videotaped beheadings of two American journalists by the Islamic States have rekindled them, and with them an apparent sense of inevitability about war.

In that context, Boehner's comments are firmly line with evolving American public opinion.

Another NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from earlier this month found that more Americans say the United States is less safe now than at any point since 9/11 – some 47 percent, compared with 20 percent in 2002. Last year, the figure was 28 percent.

Now, a third NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday suggests that 72 percent of Americans think Mr. Obama will use ground troops against the Islamic State despite his promises not to do so. The percentage of Americans who support ground troops has also risen to 45 percent, a plurality.

Though experts have argued over the threat that the Islamic State presents to the US homeland, they agree that its use of social media and propaganda has been effective.

"A whopping 94 percent of Americans say they have heard about the news of the beheaded journalists – higher than any other news event the NBC/WSJ poll has measured over the past five years," writes Mark Murray of NBC News.

"Terrorism ... works in similar fashion as good advertising and marketing work," writes Angi English, a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense & Security in a commentary on Medium.com. "When an effective social influence campaign is well designed and executed, the audience reacts as desired. Fear is what terrorists are selling...."

Between Boehner's worries that the US must do something decisive and the Obama administration's concern that, without better partners in the Arab world, nothing decisive can be done lies the persistent thorn of American foreign policy: What to do with the Middle East?