President Obama on Wednesday promised to "take the fight" to the terrorist organization that beheaded two American journalists and "degrade and destroy" it. Yet Obama has not approved U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State forces in Syria and remains opposed to the redeployment of U.S. combat troops in Iraq (although he has ordered airstrikes in that country and has increased the number of U.S. troops guarding U.S. facilities there).
Is there a mismatch between the president's words and deeds? Not if you read the fine print of what he has been saying about Islamic State. For example, in a news conference last week Obama said the organization "poses an immediate threat to the people of Iraq and to people throughout the region." But he went on to outline a "broader, comprehensive strategy" that included regional partnerships and efforts to press Iraq to form an inclusive government that would reach out to disaffected Sunnis who have embraced Islamic State. And while he acknowledged that the Pentagon was preparing a "range of options" — presumably including airstrikes in Syria — Obama indicated that he was still weighing which, if any, to embrace.
Given the gravity of direct U.S. involvement in Syria's many-sided civil war, such careful deliberation is responsible. Unfortunately, Obama expressed himself inartfully, saying, “We don't have a strategy yet.” He was actually referring to specific tactical decisions that lie in the future, but it sounded as if he hadn't given any thought to the threat posed by Islamic State. The soundbite was a gift to his critics.
Mark Twain famously said that Richard Wagner's music was “better than it sounds.” The same is true of Obama's policy toward Islamic State. But if the line about lacking a strategy created one misimpression — that the administration was clueless about what should happen in the region — Obama's comments Wednesday in response to the beheading of freelance reporter Steven Sotloff could foster another: that the U.S. is about to wage total war on the organization.
The beheadings of Sotloff and fellow journalist James Foley were barbaric acts that have rightly made wanted men of the perpetrators. But there is a difference between avenging their deaths — or using air power to rescue trapped refugees, as the U.S. did last month — and undertaking a military operation to “degrade and destroy” a group that might be neutralized without such a commitment.
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