The ISIS Dilemma Confronting Obama
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The Fiscal Times
August 22, 2014

The brutal beheading of American journalist James Foley by a member of the so-called Islamic State this week generated outrage and calls for action against the radical group that has surged across the Syrian border into Iraq, killing untold numbers of innocents in its wake.

President Obama forcefully denounced the group in a speech Wednesday, and Secretary of State John Kerry took to Twitter to announce that ISIS “must be destroyed/will be crushed.” Rep. Peter King (R-NY) characterized the execution of Foley as effectively “a declaration of war” that demands a U.S. military response.

Related: Perry Calls for More U.S. Troops, Airstrikes in Iraq

The administration and many members of Congress share a growing alarm about the threat posed by ISIS. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and other Senate Republican leaders were pressing Obama to take “urgent action” even before the killing of Foley.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a leading congressional hawk, on Thursday told Fox News, “We have to defeat ISIS, and we have to do whatever is necessary,” including expanding the current U.S. fighter jet attacks on ISIS forces beyond Iraq and into Syria.

He said that ISIS already has “obliterated the boundary between Iraq and Syria,” and that “we have to go in” and do more than merely “pinprick airstrikes.” 

Related: Failure to Rescue Foley Shows Special Ops Limitations  

But exactly what the U.S. and its allies can do to thwart ISIS is a complicated question. So far, the president has authorized limited airstrikes against ISIS personnel and equipment in Northern Iraq, mainly to protect civilians and to support Iraqi and Kurdish troops who are defending the key city of Erbil and attempting to reclaim some of the territory the extremists have taken over.

ISIS, a hardline Sunni group, is currently fighting on multiple fronts. In Syria, it is battling the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, a man whose military has indiscriminately slaughtered hundreds of thousands of his own citizens. There is little question that attacking ISIS in Syria would have the effect of helping cement the position of a man viewed by much of the world as an egregious war criminal. 

Then there is the question of Iran. A Shia-dominated society, Iran is staunchly opposed to the Sunni worldview of ISIS, which sees Shi’ites as apostates deserving death. Iranian fighters are currently fighting ISIS in northern Iraq. However, Iran is hardly an ally of the United States, and is an avowed enemy of U.S. ally Israel.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Iran has sent soldiers and materiel to Syria to support Assad, and has also brought in fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist organization. 

Related: Obama’s Use of ISIL, Not ISIS, Tells Another Story

So, if the U.S. starts dropping bombs on ISIS in Syria – it will also, in effect, have allied itself with terrorists. 

Worse, according to experts, is that there is no way to – in Kerry’s words – assure that ISIS is “crushed” without sending ground troops into Syria.

“Clearly, [ISIS], which has a long history and has an origin dating back to al Qaeda in Iraq, has gained capacity as they advanced across Iraq and gained heavy weaponry,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters Friday on Martha’s Vineyard.

“They pose a greater threat today than they did six months ago,” he said, according to the Washington Examiner. “We’re going to do what’s necessary to deal with this counter-terrorism challenge.”

In a press conference yesterday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey described ISIS as “an organization that has an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated.”

However, he said, the current regime of airstrikes, even if expanded well beyond the current scope, would not be enough to destroy ISIS. “Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria? The answer is no,” said Dempsey.

Related: Obama’s 3 Options for Bringing Foley’s Killer to Justice

Though he did not come right out and say it, Dempsey’s message was that dealing with ISIS will require soldiers on the ground in Iraq and Syria actively pursuing and attacking its fighters. President Obama has categorically refused to send U.S. combat troops back to Iraq. 

Dempsey, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who appeared with him at the press conference at the Pentagon, both said they were not suggesting that increased U.S. involvement is imminent, or even likely. This leaves open the question of whether – or even if – significant action will be taken.

While the price of a broad attack against ISIS would be high, the political costs of inaction are also becoming apparent.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, seen as a potential contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, criticized the Obama administration’s response to ISIS in a speech yesterday. Perry suggested that ISIS is likely to send some of its members who hold Western passports to attack the United States, and called for an increased air campaign and more U.S. personnel on the ground. (On Friday, the Pentagon pushed back against Perry, saying there was no indication ISIS fighters had entered the U.S.) 

Related: Reporter’s Execution Could Unleash U.S. Against ISIS

With Congress on vacation, it is difficult to gauge the extent of sentiment on Capitol Hill for a far more aggressive strategy that potentially could result in a return of U.S. troops to Iraq and an expansion of air attacks into Syria.

The New York Times reported yesterday that “a wider conflict could put lawmakers, particularly Democrats, in a difficult position, since most deeply oppose any new war in the Middle East.”

“Most Democrats and Republicans are extraordinarily wary of being sucked into a large occupation, both because it will kill a lot of Americans and because we saw in Iraq the last time that it didn’t work,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told The Times

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A longtime reporter on the intersection of the federal government and the private sector, Rob Garver is National Correspondent, based in Washington, D.C. He has written for ProPublica, The New York Times and other publications.