The release Tuesday of a shocking video showing the brutal beheading of American journalist James Foley by a representative of the Islamic State may wind up backfiring on the Islamic fundamentalist movement that has taken over much of Iraq in recent months.
The U.S. has undertaken limited bombing of IS targets in Iraq, which has helped the Iraqi Army and the fighters from the country’s autonomous Kurdish region, dislodge IS troops from some areas they had taken over, including the critically important Mosul Dam.
Foley, a talented young journalist who had spent years in conflict zones reporting on the human toll of war, was killed by a single member of IS, who appears on the video warning the U.S., in British-accented English, to stop attacking its troops.
“Obama authorized military operations against the Islamic State effectively placing America upon a slippery slope towards a new war against Muslims,” he said. The man, whose face was covered, also threatened to execute another American journalist, Steven Joel Sotloff, if the U.S. involvement in Iraq continues.
However, judging from the public outcry over Foley’s murder, it seems possible that support for President Obama’s limited efforts to impede the progress of IS, rather than being cooled, may be strengthened going forward.
The decision to recommit even limited American military assets to Iraq was criticized by politicians on the left and right. But an outpouring of disgust in both the traditional media and on social media Wednesday left little doubt that there is now a powerful strain of public opinion in favor of taking further action to rein in – and severely punish – the Islamic State.
To be sure, some warn that further U.S. engagement might be exactly what ISIS wants. But the idea that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, is sitting in the desert playing three-dimensional chess with the U.S. doesn’t hold much water.
What ISIS is trying to do, by all accounts, is establish an actual functioning Islamic state or Caliphate in the Middle East. It may be different from its neighbors in that its rulers intend to impose a centuries-old legal system designed to oppress millions of people. But it will not be different in its need for centralized institutions of government, transportation and energy infrastructure, and a more or less public set of leaders.
All these things are necessary for a functioning state. They are all, also, potential military targets if the U.S. were to decide to intervene against the establishment or the continued existence of the Islamic State.
The U.S. military has struggled with certain kinds of adversaries over the years. In living memory, the Viet Cong and Al Qaeda, for example, have been challenging foes particularly because they were less concerned about holding territory than they were with damaging American troops.
For the U.S. military, fighting established governments has been a very different story. Ask Saddam Hussein, or Mullah Omar. That doesn’t bode well for the future of ISIS.
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