By Justin Sink - 08/22/14 05:17 PM EDT
The Obama administration has elevated the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to enemy No. 1 following the brutal murder of the American journalist James Foley.
Top administration officials in recent days have denounced that the group in the strongest possible terms while warning it poses an imminent threat to American interests.
Officials have hinted that the U.S. might consider expanding the scope and intensity of airstrikes to take on ISIS, potentially by moving the bombing campaign in Iraq across the border into Syria.
But whether the administration’s rhetorical shift will be matched by action remains to be seen.
The president’s own aides on Friday acknowledged that it would take “a long time” to fully defeat ISIS, and President Obama was elected in no small part due to his opposition to the war in Iraq and skepticism toward costly international entanglements.
“The American people understand that this president is very deliberate about the use of force," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.
But the strident language emanating from top administration officials indicates they are readying an aggressive response to Foley’s death.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned that ISIS militants were an "imminent threat to every interest we have."
"They are as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They're beyond just a terrorist group," the Pentagon chief said, calling the group “beyond anything we’ve seen.”
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey echoed Hagel’s concern, and raised the specter of expanding the scope of the anti-ISIS military mission into Syria.
"This is an organization that has an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated," Dempsey said. "Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria? The answer is no."
Their comments came a day after Obama declared the group a “cancer” on the world and said the U.S. would seek “justice” against those responsible for Foley’s execution. Secretary of State John Kerry took to Twitter to vow that ISIS “must be destroyed” and “will be crushed.”
The White House on Friday avoided ruling out airstrikes against ISIS operatives in Syria, a step it has so far avoided against President Bashar Assad, who has slaughtered thousands in that country’s civil war.
"We’re actively considering what’s going to be necessary to deal with that threat, and we’re not going to be restricted by borders," Rhodes told reporters on Martha's Vineyard.
The chorus of concern — and determination — from the president and his top security officials represented a clear break from when Obama famously dismissed ISIS as a “jayvee team” in a New Yorker interview earlier this year.
“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama told the magazine following the fall of Fallujah.
Still, it’s not clear that the U.S. is readying an accelerated military response.
“They let the rhetoric run away from them,” said Ken Pollack, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “They say very provocative, very definitive things. They sometimes say it in lieu of an actual strategy to do something else.”
Pollack doubts the administration’s tough language “presages any dramatic shift in the administration’s strategy,” saying that time and again, Obama officials have made such declarations without ordering military action to back it up.
“They say these things and there’s no follow through,” Pollack said.
On Friday, the Pentagon announced it had conducted three additional airstrikes against ISIS targets in northern Iraq, destroying two armed vehicles and a machine gun encampment.
But of the 93 airstrikes conducted so far, 60 have been in support of the mission to retake the Mosul Dam.
That the retaking of a single site has required such a sustained bombing campaign suggests that any effective campaign to eradicate ISIS from Iraq would require thousands of airstrikes and far better coordination between Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
The administration also remains handcuffed by the president’s repeated promise that he will not put boots on the ground in Iraq.
While the White House has always maintained it has the right to launch airstrikes into Syria, efforts to earn congressional approval to do so against Assad proved an embarrassing failure last year.
Unlike Iraq, where the U.S. is operating at the invitation of the central government, any action the president takes in Syria would be either limited in scope or require a vote from skittish lawmakers locked in tough reelection battles. Proponents of the bombing would also need to overcome the president’s inclination against using the U.S. military as the world’s police.
Moreover, any efforts to target ISIS in Syria would likely bolster Assad, whom the administration has said must be removed from power.
The administration does appear to be ramping up its international outreach, which is among the president’s preferred methods for handling an international crisis.
U.S. diplomats are working furiously to goad allies in the region who are most immediately threatened by ISIS to help stem the flow of arms and funding to the group.
“We have talked to a number of partners who understand how serious a threat [ISIS] is, not just to Syria and Iraq but to their countries as well, and countries in the region are very, very concerned about this,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.
“We’ve worked with them on working to cut off financing, working to cut off the flow of foreign fighters so we can start to deprive [ISIS] of the oxygen that it’s had and has really allowed it to flourish.”
Those efforts are likely to intensify next month, with Obama set to personally chair a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York, according to administration officials.
The session, slated for the week of Sept. 22 in New York, will focus on "the acute threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters," and is likely to devote substantial time to ISIS operations.
Obama has also personally discussed the situation with foreign leaders, including those of the U.K., France, Canada, Turkey and Italy during his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.
But even as the administration was ringing alarm bells, officials continued to preach patience.
“When you talk about an objective like he ultimate defeat of ISIL, it’s going to take time to dislodge a group that has been operating in this part of the world for better part of a decade in an insurgency,” Rhodes said.