Conflict & Justice

Decoding Obama's 'relentless' quest for justice against the Islamic State


A soldier protects his face from helicopter dust during a joint raid by Iraqi and US forces in Kirkuk in December 2010.


Marwan Ibrahim

Barack Obama was firm and succinct on Wednesday as he expressed anger at the brutal murder of American journalist James Foley.

“The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people,” the president said in Martha’s Vineyard, where he’s vacationing. “We will be vigilant and we will be relentless. When people harm Americans anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.”

The gruesome death of Foley, a GlobalPost colleague, has stunned the world.

His killer spoke with a British accent — sending chills throughout the international community and prompting a feverish search for clues in Britain.

British Prime Minister David Cameron raced home from his own holiday to chair meetings on Iraq and Syria, fueling speculation that he might be considering more robust involvement in defeating the Islamic extremists who control large areas in both those embattled countries.

As time passes, pressure is mounting on Western leaders to turn emotion and rhetoric into actions to see, as Obama vowed, that justice is done. The question now is what does justice entail?

Some are calling for the US to ramp up the military campaign Obama began when on Aug. 7 he authorized airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State (IS; also known as ISIS or ISIL).

More from GlobalPost: Why is the Islamic State still so strong?

Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an unapologetic cheerleader for aggressive US military power abroad, wrote: “Time to annihilate ISIS; here’s how.”

His outline might raise some eyebrows.

“In brief, it will require a commitment of some 10,000 US advisers and special operators, along with enhanced air power, to work with moderate elements in both Iraq and Syria — meaning not only the peshmerga but also the Sunni tribes, elements of the Iraqi Security Forces, and the Free Syrian Army — to stage a major offensive to rout ISIS out of its newly conquered strongholds. The fact that Nouri al-Maliki is leaving power in Baghdad clears away a major obstacle to such a campaign.”

Brian Fishman, a fellow at the New America Foundation, has one word for this approach: “bullshit.”

In a piece published Wednesday by the national security website “War on the Rocks,” Fishman argues those like Boot are vastly underestimating what it might take to try and roll back IS.

In his piece titled “Don’t BS the American people about Iraq, Syria, and ISIL,” Fishman calls for a more open discussion of policy options:

“If destroying ISIL becomes the near-term policy goal … then 10,000-15,000 troops vastly understates the true commitment, which will actually require years, direct military action on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border, tens (if not hundreds) of billions of dollars, and many more than 15,000 troops. ISIL is an inherently resilient organization — look how far they have come since getting ‘rolled back’ during the Surge in 2007 when 150,000 American troops were occupying the country.”

In other words, the US would be getting into exactly the kind of conflict its leader, and most of its citizens, seem intent on avoiding.

Obama came into office in 2009 as the president who would end wars, not start them. Former US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley says the president is still intent on that legacy.

“Mr. Obama may have hoped at the end of 2014 to declare a formal end not just to the war in Afghanistan, but the broader war on terror as well,” Crowley wrote for the BBC on Wednesday. “The Islamic State's emergence as the leading extremist actor in the Middle East — supplanting rival Al Qaeda — probably renders that prospect as moot.”

Still, the White House will not go it alone.

“From governments and peoples across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread,” Obama said Wednesday.

This, Crowley says, is in keeping with the administration’s strategy.

“The US will help with direct action, support and training as partners improve their security capabilities, but [Obama’s] intent is ultimately to avoid a perpetual US-led ‘war’ … America is not re-engaging in the war in Iraq it waged between 2003-11.”

But as Stephen Biddle, a George Washington University professor who’s served on US military assessment teams in Afghanistan and Iraq, points out, that may be a technicality.

"The administration can call it whatever they want, but semantics aside, they're now waging war," he told Foreign Policy magazine.

Kurdish fighters inspect the remains of a car, bearing an Islamic State (IS) image, after it was targeted by a US airstrike in the village of Baqufa, north of Mosul, on Aug. 18. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

This could mean playing right into the hands of the militants, according to some experts.

Thomas Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) in Oslo, says the Islamic State is doing its best to drag the US into direct confrontation.

“ISIS has done a lot of things in quick succession,” he said in a phone interview with GlobalPost. “There has been the attack on the Yazidis, the raid into Kurdistan, and now the execution. This is slightly unusual for them. Why now? It made me think they are doing it deliberately to provoke a reaction.”

This is certainly borne out by the militants’ own rhetoric: They are positively gloating at the prospect of a full-out war with the US, for the bump in recruitment it might give.

“The stronger the war against the States gets, the better this will help hesitant brothers to join us. America will send its rockets, and we will send our bombs. Our land will not be attacked while their land is safe,” one fighter told Reuters.

It would also boost IS’ legitimacy in the world of militant Islamism, Hegghammer says.

“They can say, ‘See, ISIS is so important that the US comes after it,’” he said. “This makes it the group to join for those who are upset with the West.”

More from GlobalPost: Foley execution boosts European support for intervention in Iraq

IS wants a relatively small intervention, he insists, not something that could do it major damage.

And this may be exactly what it gets. Any action that would result in real damage to the extremist group is unlikely at present, according to Hegghammer.

“The US cannot do it on its own,” he said. “If the willingness to pay the price were high enough, they probably could, but we’re not there now.”

The Islamic State has threatened to kill another hostage, US journalist Steven Sotloff, if Obama does not stop the air war.

Washington’s answer was swift and direct: On Wednesday it ordered additional airstrikes against IS targets.

The US has a strict policy of not negotiating with terrorists; this can be difficult at times for those being held, writes David Rohde of Reuters, who was himself held hostage for seven months in Afghanistan.

“There are no easy answers in kidnapping cases,” he wrote. “The United States cannot allow terrorist groups to control its foreign policy.”

But even less can it afford to engage in a war that may ultimately prove fruitless, if not counterproductive.

Owen Jones, columnist for the Guardian newspaper, voiced a widespread frustration:

“Foley’s murder will inevitably intensify calls for further Western military involvement. Those agitating for such a course of action have a number of questions to answer. The ‘war on terror’ began 13 years ago. It has involved bombs raining down on Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. And with what success? Jihadism is stronger than ever; ISIS is not only more extreme than Al Qaeda, but what it has achieved surely exceeds Osama bin Laden’s wildest ambitions. Who can deny that the West has served as a recruiting sergeant for Islamic extremism, that it effectively helped hand large swathes of Iraq and Libya over to such elements?”

Good questions. Unfortunately, there are no answers. Not yet, at least.