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Obama on ISIS: Tough words, but will it lead to more action?

When President Obama condemned the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) for beheading American journalist James Foley, his words carried more anger and force than most remarks of his presidential career.

ISIS "speaks for no religion. Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents," the president saidWednesday on Martha's Vineyard, where he's vacationing. "No just God would stand for what they did yesterday, and for what they do every single day. [ISIS] has no ideology of any value to human beings."

It's a powerful condemnation of a terrorist group: one that is likely to serve as a wake up call to the U.S. and its allies, experts say, but does it signal achange in policy?

"What Mr. Foley's death should have brought home to every American is this is our fight," James Jeffrey, a former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq under President George W. Bush, told CBS News. "We have to lead from the front. Containment is defeat for us and we need to work with the Iraqis to help them form a government that can provide troops that will go after these guys."

The speech's deep emotional resonance stemmed from the significance of losing the first American to ISIS - the group's "first terrorist attack against the United States," said Michael Morell, the former deputy director of the CIA who is now a national security analyst for CBS News.

But as the president listed the traits that make ISIS so brutal - their kidnapping, torture and killing of innocent civilians, the murders of thousands of Muslims, the targeting and murder of religious minorities - he wasn't telling the American people anything that wasn't known about ISIS. What it did was make the fight deeply personal.

Brian Katulis, a national security and international policy expert at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said Mr. Obama's move to disavow ISIS was consistent with his administration's national security posture from the start.

He pointed to a speech Mr. Obama delivered in 2009 in Cairo aimed at the Muslim world.

"America is not - and never will be - at war with Islam. We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security," the president said at the time.

"A big part of their strategy overall when it comes to national security and counterterrorism has been to drive a wedge between ordinary Muslims and those radicals and extremists who claim to speak for them and their actions," Katulis said. The tone was notable, and merited, given the grotesque murder ISIS had carried out, but not a departure from Mr. Obama's previous position.

With the administration already carrying out airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, aiding Iraqi and Kurdish troops engaging ISIS on the ground and seeing progress on the formation of the new Iraqi government American leaders had called for, there isn't much more Mr. Obama can do in Iraq, experts say, other than keeping up the airstrikes, or even increasing the number of strikes.

"When it comes down to American strategic interests, when it comes down to the behavior of ISIS in the region, when it comes down to the interests of our allies in the region, the strategic rationale for American action was clear before all of these events took place," Anthony Cordesman, a security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CBS News.

Morell said that ISIS is trying to intimidate the U.S. into backing off from the airstrikes, but that the U.S. should not respond that way.

"In fact we should pick up the pace here," he said.

Even Jeffrey, who was also a deputy national security adviser under Bush, said Mr. Obama has "a pretty good strategy" in Iraq that he should maintain. If anything needs to change, it is his tone - which is what he did Wednesday.

"This is somebody who's angry. He should be angry. We all should be angry. We need to change our tone more than our politics because people will only follow - and it's all about us leading - if they believe that we believe in our cause."

Cordesman echoed that idea, saying that the president's speech will "reinforce" the belief of America's allies that the United States is committed to defeating ISIS in Iraq.

The president may even gain more leeway with the strategy he has laid out, Katulis said, because it becomes harder for critics of the current American intervention there to argue against U.S. involvement.

"Those who were skeptical of going after the Islamic state, it puts them sort of - it isolates them in a sense, because this was such a visceral, ugly scene that sticks with people," he said.

But, he said, "as devastating as theses images were and this incident is I don't see this substantially shifting our strategy. I see it more as a wakeup call that we need to stay focused."

As for those who might call for more aggressive American action in light of Foley's death, Cordesman said inserting American troops into the conflict on the ground makes little strategic sense.

"We're going to send combat troops on the ground in the middle of fighting between Sunnis and Shiites without a stable relationship between the Iraqi central government and the Kurds? We're going to magically put them forward without organization, training support or simply the practical problems of how do we move them and give them the equipment and ammunition that we need?" he questioned. "I am a great fan of the magic wand theory of strategy if you can actually implement it. I am somewhat less supportive if you can't."

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.