There is something to be said for having an aloof, unemotional intellectual as commander in chief. He is more likely to avoid the kind of trap that Ronald Reagan fell into when, deeply distressed by the fate of American hostages seized in Lebanon, he authorized what became known as an “arms for hostages” swap with Iran. (In fairness, Reagan probably convinced himself that’s not what he was doing–that he was actually undertaking a broader opening to Iran.) This deal did get a few hostages out of captivity, but Iran’s proxies in Lebanon promptly seized more hostages, thus showing for neither the first time nor the last time why it doesn’t make sense to deal with terrorists.
President Obama was not able to resist the temptation to make a deal in return for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl but he was right to do so–notwithstanding the tragic consequences–in the case of kidnapped American journalist James Foley. It is now emerging that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria wanted a ransom of more than $100 million for his release. European states routinely make such deals, turning them into al-Qaeda’s biggest financial supporters. (By one estimate Europeans have paid $125 million in ransom to al-Qaeda and its affiliates since 2008.) The problem is that while paying ransom may succeed in freeing one hostage or one group of hostages, it is almost certainly consigning more innocents to hellish captivity. The fact that the Obama administration refuses to pay up is to its credit; that Europeans are willing to deal with terrorists is to their ever-lasting shame.
And not only did Obama refuse to pay up, he ordered Delta Force to undertake a high-risk mission to free the hostages from a location in Syria deep in ISIS-controlled territory. That, too, was the right call. It shows, once again, that this is a president who is willing to pull the trigger on Special Operations missions that past presidents might have decided were too risky to authorize. Unfortunately that mission failed and James Foley wound up being barbarically murdered.
Obama was eloquent in denouncing this act of televised sadism, but he was unclear about what he will do in response. The most he would say was: “The people of Iraq, who with our support are taking the fight to ISIL, must continue coming together to expel these terrorists from their communities. The people of Syria, whose story Jim Foley told, do not deserve to live under the shadow of a tyrant or terrorists. They have our support in their pursuit of a future rooted in dignity.” Note how passive this paragraph is–Obama is deliberately putting the onus on Iraqis and Syrians to fight ISIS without committing the U.S. to that group’s destruction.
Secretary of State John Kerry also issued a strong statement of condemnation, which concluded: “ISIL and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed, and those responsible for this heinous, vicious atrocity will be held accountable.” Note again the curious sentence construction, which leaves unclear who exactly will “destroy” ISIS and who will hold Foley’s murderers “accountable.”
Unfortunately the president’s words and those of his aides don’t mean much in the world today–not after they have allowed red lines to be crossed with impunity from Syria to Ukraine. Strong action is needed and that action should be designed, as I have previously said, to annihilate ISIS.
General John Allen (USMC, ret.), Obama’s former commander in Afghanistan, gets it. He just wrote: “A comprehensive American and international response now — NOW — is vital to the destruction of this threat. The execution of James Foley is an act we should not forgive nor should we forget, it embodies and brings home to us all what this group represents. The Islamic State is an entity beyond the pale of humanity and it must be eradicated. If we delay now, we will pay later.”
I agree with General Allen, but does President Obama? It’s hard to tell. Alas, the longer we wait the more chance ISIS has to go to ground and thus withstand American military action. Already there are credible reports of ISIS “emirs” fleeing Iraq for Syria. But why should they find haven there? The Iraq-Syria border barely exists anymore. The U.S., working closely with local allies (Kurds, Sunni tribesmen, Iraqi security forces, Free Syrian Army fighters) must pursue ISIS wherever it hides and destroy it. It is far from clear, however, that President Obama will order any such action. It is a paradox that this president, so decisive in ordering Special Operations strikes, appears to be so hesitant and hand-wringing when it comes to larger decisions. The time for bureaucratic deliberation is fast disappearing; it is time, as General Allen says, for action now.