The Obama administration signaled Thursday that the United States has begun a new war against the so-called Islamic State, and that group’s operatives will not be safe from America’s wrath in Iraq, in Syria, or wherever they can be tracked down.
Since U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed the authenticity of a video that showed the beheading of American journalist James Foley this week, the president and top cabinet officers have employed rhetoric about the jihadists of the Islamic State (also known as the “caliphate,” ISIS, or ISIL) that echoes the Bush administration in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Secretary of State John Kerry called ISIS “the face of evil” and vowed that America “will continue to confront [it] wherever it tries to spread its despicable hatred.” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the military’s response is to “take a cold, steely, hard look at” at ISIS and “get ready” for action.
While the Justice Department on Thursday announced that the FBI would be investigating the murder of Foley, Attorney General Eric Holder also left open the possibility that the United States may not wait for the verdict of a jury and judge. “We will not forget what happened and people will be held accountable one way or the other,” Holder said.
The most notable rhetorical tell came from Obama himself.
In the aftermath of the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Obama vowed to bring the attackers to justice. This week Obama struck a different tone, saying: “When people harm Americans, anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.”
The difference between bringing suspects to justice and seeing that justice is done is roughly the same as the difference between treating terrorism as a crime and as an act of war.
Even though special operations teams were dispatched to Libya after Benghazi to target the jihadists suspected of carrying it out, Obama chose to treat the attack, which cost the lives of four Americans, as a crime. It took until June of this year for the FBI in conjunction with U.S. special operations teams to capture one of the ringleaders of the attack and bring him to the United States to face trial.
A different fate likely awaits the leaders of ISIS. According to the Pentagon, U.S. aircraft already have conducted 90 strikes inside Iraq since President Obama ordered what was billed as a limited air war against ISIS this month. That number is significant because some of those strikes occurred after the release of the ISIS video, which showed the murder of Foley. In that video, the terrorists promise to murder a second American hostage if airstrikes continue.
On Wednesday the White House confirmed that it had ordered a rescue mission in July to try to save Foley and other American hostages held inside Syria. This was the first publicly confirmed operation by U.S. soldiers inside Syria since Obama took office.
Today, that mission appears to be a signal of things to come. Speaking to reporters Thursday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that ISIS had effectively erased the frontier between Iraq and Syria. “They will have to be addressed on both sides of what is at this point a nonexistent border,” he said. “That will come when we have a coalition that takes on the task of defeating ISIS over time.” But there is little question that if such a coalition is to take shape, the United States will have to lead it.
The last time Obama proposed airstrikes inside Syria, nearly a year ago in response to the gassing of rebel forces and civilians near Damascus, many Republicans opposed the action. This time, the early criticism from the GOP was about who was responsible for the initial leak the administration said forced its hand to go public with the information about its operation in Syria.
On Thursday, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the disclosure of the mission “puts our troops at risk, reduces the likelihood that future missions will succeed, and risks the lives of hostages and informants alike.” Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Republican serving on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, called on Obama to go even further than he has already. “The president’s current path of action has been far too limited to make a difference,” he said. “We must do what is necessary to eliminate ISIS, protect the innocent, and keep Americans safe.”
But it will be hard for the Republicans to sound more hawkish than the president, whose tone and evident intentions are strikingly different today than they were only a few weeks ago.
In June, when ISIS first took Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, Obama was careful to emphasize the limited scope of the U.S. mission, declining to authorize airstrikes. When Obama finally did approve bombing missions this month in response to the ISIS march on the Kurdish city of Erbil, he stressed the they would only be to break the siege of Mount Sinjar, where thousands of Yazidis were trapped without food and water, and to protect American personnel and assets.
Today, as Obama finds his country facing an utterly barbaric enemy, and after weeks and months of delaying action, he appears ready to mount a war with the ambitious goal of actually winning.