As the first reconnaissance drones cross the Syrian border, the United States is moving into open conflict with ISIS on its home turf. The U.S. was already increasing military engagement with the group and, given the fanatical aims of ISIS, war may have been inevitable from the start, but it is troubling that the filmed murder of an American hostage is what galvanized action.
There are more American hostages held by ISIS and the government should do everything within its power to secure their release. But if they are killed it will likely be to exploit their suffering to influence public opinion in America. Knowing that, we should not let their deaths set the course for U.S. policy.
Before last week, the White House was stressing the limited nature of the mission in Iraq and its aversion to a widening military commitment. That changed when ISIS released a video showing the murder of an American photojournalist James Foley, along with the warning from a British jihadist that more American hostages would be killed unless the U.S. called off its airstrikes.
Since Foley’s execution the rhetoric coming from the White House and Pentagon has steadily intensified. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called ISIS an “imminent threat to every interest we have.” Secretary of State John Kerry called the group, “ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic, valueless evil.” He’s right except for inexplicable—it’s ugly and savage but still explicable. It’s hard to argue with either Kerry or Hagel’s descriptions but ISIS has always been ugly and savage. James Foley’s killing didn’t prove the group’s evil, it packaged it and spread it across screens and newsstands for an American audience.
Every war, even those reluctantly entered, may need some passion-provoking incident to force action. But Foley’s death came after some 190,000 people had been slaughtered in Syria’s civil war, a killing floor on which ISIS rose. And it came after the group’s long history of eagerly massacring civilians in Iraq. The killing of James Foley was sickening but it didn’t reveal anything new about ISIS’s power or brutality, it only tested the group’s ability to provoke a reaction.
That reaction, in the week after Foley’s death, has centered on developing new military options to confront the group.
The current limited military campaign in northern Iraq could expand soon to include airstrikes inside Syria. Reconnaissance flights over Syria, approved Tuesday by the White House, are widely seen as gathering intelligence for future strikes against ISIS targets, though officially the president is still weighing the possibility. The Obama administration has so far rejected the idea of sending troops into Syria, but The Washington Post has endorsed the idea and it may gain traction if hostilities escalate.
Any entry into Syria will mean reckoning with the Assad regime, which has been every bit as murderous as ISIS during the country’s civil war. President Obama has ruled out cooperation with the Syrian government but even unilateral airstrikes run the risk of benefiting Assad by weakening his enemy.
The administration’s policy is still taking shape, but the strategic calculus and risks involved in expanding the war to Syria are no different now than they were two weeks ago before James Foley was killed. And the administration’s ultimate goals, beyond attacking ISIS, are still coming into focus. While the president considers airstrikes in Syria it is unclear what they would be used to accomplish. If their aim is to weaken and contain ISIS, stopping the group’s advance, what would the measure of success be? And once achieved, how long would the U.S. use force to contain ISIS before deciding more resources were needed to destroy the group?
ISIS is not invulnerable. American airstrikes have already weakened the group in Iraq, causing it to lose territory and chasing some of its leaders out of the country.
In Iraq and Syria, facing weaker enemies in collapsed states, ISIS has dominated in battle. But against America, lacking easy targets within reach, ISIS reverts to terrorist tactics, using ritualized violence to sell its message and export fear. If the group were strong enough to attack the U.S. directly it would do so instead of killing journalists and filming threats.
The purpose of the ISIS threats are less straightforward than they may seem. Using a lurid murder to frame its warning against airstrikes was, at least, a form of psychological warfare. It may actually be an attempt to bait the U.S. into sending troops to the Middle East drawing Americans back within striking range, and into a battle that would increase their recruitment and prestige among fellow jihadis.
J.M. Berger, a researcher and expert on extremism and jihadist terrorism, has written that “everything about [ISIS’s] strategy over the last two months, particularly its media strategy, points to its desire to draw the U.S. into a military confrontation on the ground.”
If ISIS is seeking to draw the U.S. back into the Middle East it could find that a campaign of airstrikes offers it heavy losses and few American targets. At that point, if they can’t reach Americans on the battlefield, ISIS may believe that making another video is its most powerful weapon.
This isn’t an entirely abstract subject for me. In July, I did a brief stint reporting in Iraq: two weeks in Baghdad, a weekend getaway compared to Foley’s experiences. Traveling with my Iraqi fixers, whom I’d just met, to meet with militia leaders and ISIS supporters, I thought a lot about what would happen if I were captured. I hoped the U.S. government would break down every door in Baghdad to get me back. I thought about who would miss me and how I would be remembered but I never considered that the outcome of my killing would be an argument for or against war.
ISIS and other jihadists should know that killing Americans brings consequences. But when the killing of a single hostage causes convulsions around the strategy towards a group the Pentagon calls “beyond anything that we’ve seen” there may be problems in its foundation.
Our policy towards ISIS needs to come from a hard look at the threat they pose and what it will cost us to confront it, not in reaction to their deliberate provocations.