Commentary Magazine


Why the Passive Voice on Confronting ISIS?

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.

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5 Responses to “Why the Passive Voice on Confronting ISIS?”


    It’s not a passive voice. It’s an indifferent voice. To make his voice strident strident as it should be, or to label it as it is would mean connecting the right definition to the appropriate solution. And, that means war!


    Give the guy a break. Expect nothing more from him than what god has given him. He is a victim of white guilt. Action driven by guilt, never ends well. There is a gross unfairness consequent to all such ill considered action. How fair is it to put a community organizer into the presidency? Unfair, by any measure. With all that pressure, the great burden of so much power, and to have vaulted past all contemporaries who have endured a lifetime of preparation, it is remarkable he has not had a breakdown by now. And for all those who lack empathy and dare to criticize the frequency of his vacations, have a little compassion. He needs the rest. We should be thankful that our president refuses to rush in where fools fear to tread.

    • MANUEL LAZEROV says:

      To label the president as incompetent would be a grave mistake. It would be giving him a pass and seriously underestimating him, and distracts from the severity of what he is achieving. He knows exactly what he is doing and has surrounded himself with competent subordinates.

      • JAMES BILEZIKIAN says:

        I never called the pres incompetent. That would be unfair, and incorrect. The country was obviously suffering from too much, too much of everything. His policies have gone far to address that plethora.


    Last year there was a meeting to be held on Syria attended by all active participants, arranging for Assad to step down. America insisted that Iran be present, which the others reluctantly agreed to. This, of course, empowered Assad, and now the fighting continues.

    After America made so many mistakes in Iraq, elections had taken place, Maliki, who depended on Bush’s support and advice had won the election, and Iraq was miraculously heading in the right direction. Obama took over, we left Iraq on a technicality, and ISIS and fighting and terrorism followed.

    Under Obama, America is not at war, but everyone else is.

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