Former Obama Defense Secretary Bob Gates accused the White House of engaging in political “backflips” to avoid describing U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria as engaged in a combat mission.

Hours later, President Obama’s spokesman performed more verbal gymnastics on the subject, saying troops are sometimes in a combat “situation” but not a combat mission.

Mr. Gates, a Republican who served as Mr. Obama’s first Defense secretary from 2009 to 2011, said it’s a “disservice” that the White House can’t bring itself to say that U.S. troops are in combat against the Islamic State.

“I think that it is incredibly unfortunate not to speak openly about what’s going on,” Mr. Gates said on MSNBC. “American troops are in action, they are being killed, they are in combat. And these semantic backflips to avoid using the term combat is a disservice to those who are out there putting their lives on the line.”