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Stoddard: We cannot be lukewarm on ISIS

Imagine allies and leaders across the ocean trying to match the statement to the statesman: “We know that if we are joined by the international community we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities, to the point where it’s a manageable problem,” said one. “They should know we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice because hell is where they will reside,” said another.

Everyone knows the passive statement came from our commander in chief, and the passionate one from his deputy, Vice President Biden. Why do Biden and British Prime Minister David Cameron seem more upset about the danger of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (the more expansive title Obama is fond of for the group) and willing to engage the American public in urgency than the leader of the free world? 

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Now that a second American journalist has been executed on videotape, as a masked figure once again issues direct threats to President Obama, Americans are so panicked about how to stop the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that even Democrats in Congress are demanding a new military operation in Syria. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has criticized the president’s “caution,” while former House Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Jane Harman (D-Calif.) said it was “sad” that Obama left for Europe without commenting on Steven Sotloff’s death — and that it was “time for him to say and do more.”

Obama has yet to be definitive about ISIS. In his first remarks after Sotloff’s beheading, he warned in a subdued monotone that the United States would not be intimidated and that ISIS’s “horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to fight against these terrorists.” Those remarks were well suited, but within minutes the president went off the rails, wavering from aims to “degrade and destroy ISIL” so it wouldn’t threaten the region or the United States to declaring the goal was to make the loathsome terror group aiming to take over the entire world a “manageable” problem, “degraded to the point where it is no longer the kind of factor that we’ve seen it being over the last several months.”

As with recent statements Obama has made — about not having a strategy yet for dealing with ISIS and how social media has merely magnified dangers that have always existed and were far worse decades ago — staff rushed to “clarify” the president’s remarks immediately after he made them.

Obama’s equivocating seemed even more bizarre when, just hours later, he gave an unwavering defense of NATO’s Article 5 responsibilities to the Baltic states to an audience in Estonia, promising that any threat to their sovereignty would mean war (against Russia) by a united front that includes the military might of the United States. Clearly, Obama issued a strong threat here because he feels confident he will never be at war with Russia, but not confident he can avoid war against ISIS.

Any frightened American waiting to gauge whether ISIS is a “cancer,” as Obama has called it, can be managed or is actually a threat to the homeland had to be confused by what the president said. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat in a tight reelection campaign in New Hampshire, appeared unconfused, tweeting: “do not believe ISIS is ‘manageable,’ agreed these terrorists must be chased to the ‘gates of hell.’ ”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who warned two weeks ago that ISIS poses an unprecedented threat, did not waver on CNN Wednesday, calling the terror group a “growing danger.” He knows about the intelligence Obama has seen each day for a year in his daily briefings, which show ISIS has been becoming stronger and stronger.

President Obama may not have his sights set on the gates of hell yet, but he needs to find the stomach to tell it like it is, without any clarification. 

 

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.