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Public Opinion Matches Partisan Divide Over U.S. Ground Troops In Syria

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Since the Paris attacks, President Obama has been under pressure to do more to destroy the Islamic State. Many Republicans and some Democrats want more U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq and Syria. The President recently sent up to 50 special operations commandos to Syria, and his critics say that's not enough. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: A few days after ISIS claimed responsibility for the slaughter in Paris, President Obama repeated what he's been saying for months, namely that sending a big contingent of U.S. ground forces to fight the Islamic State would be a mistake.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: Let's assuming that we were to send 50,000 troops into Syria. What happens when there's a terrorist attack generated from Yemen? Do we then send more troops into there - or Libya, perhaps?

WELNA: On that, the leading Democrat to succeed Obama agrees.

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HILLARY CLINTON: I think it would be a mistake.

WELNA: Hillary Clinton declared, in a foreign-policy speech last week, it should be local forces fighting ISIS on the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: Like President Obama, I do not believe that we should again have a hundred-thousand American troops in combat in the Middle East. That is just not the smart move to make here.

WELNA: Clinton's main rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, is even warier. He's warned against President Obama's decision to send 50 special operations troops to Syria. But for the Senate Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, that deployment which has yet to take place falls short of what's needed. California's Dianne Feinstein spoke earlier this week on CBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: We need a specific larger special operations plan. A group of 50 is fine for what they're doing so far, but it's not going to solve the problem.

WELNA: A Bloomberg Politics poll last week found nearly two-thirds of Democrats oppose using American ground forces to fight ISIS. A similar share of Republicans in the same poll support deploying ground troops. Perhaps no Republican in Congress has been more outspoken on this than John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

JOHN MCCAIN: We need to have an international force with Sunni Arabs. And hopefully some Arab countries, with the United States having about 10,000 troops, can go in and kill them.

WELNA: Most of the GOP's presidential contenders are also calling for more American ground forces. Here's Florida Republican senator and presidential hopeful Marco Rubio earlier this week on Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARCO RUBIO: We are talking about a significant force of special operators and others with specific missions that will have to be embedded alongside that Sunni Arab coalition that this president and the United States must put together if we are to defeat ISIS on the ground. It's the only way to do it.

WELNA: Rubio's fellow Floridian and rival for the GOP presidential nomination is also calling for more U.S. ground forces to fight ISIS. Jeb Bush did so in a speech last week at South Carolina's military college, The Citadel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEB BUSH: While airpower is essential, it cannot bring the results we seek. The United States, in conjunction with our NATO allies and more Arab partners, will need to increase our presence on the ground.

WELNA: Other Republican presidential hopefuls, though, say locals should do the ground fighting. Here's Texas Republican senator Ted Cruz earlier this month on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED CRUZ: There are some politicians who like to support boots on the ground in every conflict across the globe in an effort to lean forward and show how tough they are. I don't think this is a game of risk.

WELNA: And it would seem Donald Trump favors sending in more U.S. troops. Here's Trump last week in Worcester, Mass.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: We got to go, and we got to knock the [expletive] out of these people.

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: We got to do it.

WELNA: But talking with reporters just before that rally, Trump seemed to be hedging his bets. He said he'd back sending ground troops if need be, but he preferred that what he called other people send theirs. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.