After the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) beheaded a second U.S. journalist, President Obama offered up this approach Wednesday for dealing militant group going forward: "Our objective is clear, and that is to degrade and destroy [ISIS] so that it's no longer a threat not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States."
For a U.S. president to threaten to "destroy" a group that has ruthlessly executed two American journalists and murdered scores of people inside Iraq andSyria is not surprising. After the first journalist was murdered two weeks ago, the president likened them to a "cancer" that needed to be extracted so it does not spread. But when he was pressed over whether he really intended to destroy the group, or merely contain them, he backed off of the term.
"Our objective is to make sure that [ISIS] is not an ongoing threat to the region," the president said. The group needs to be "degraded to the point where it is no longer the kind of factor that we've seen it being over the last several months," Mr. Obama elaborated, in one particularly circuitous explanation.
As ISIS has swept across northern Iraq, Mr. Obama has been clear he'll do whatever it takes to protect American personnel in the region. He has pledged to see justice done against the group. But in light of his omission last week that "we don't have a strategy yet" to deal with ISIS the president's rhetorical gymnastics are significant.
"The president is clearly grappling with not just what our strategy is but what our overall commitment will be to engaging this group," said CBS News National Security Analyst Juan Zarate. "If he commits fully to the destruction of this group, in many ways that would be a declaration of war yet again in the heart of the Middle East, something that this president's administration might find politically unpalatable and difficult to defend."
The variation in the language, Zarate said, is a reflection of Mr. Obama's own struggle to craft a response to ISIS.
But Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress told CBS News that the president's exact language matters far less than what he is doing to prepare for possible American action in the region.
"I don't know that it really tells you much about policy quite frankly," Katulis said. "I think right now they're in a pattern of trying to assemble some sort of formal coalition of the capable and reliable to help."
Katulis explained that as an analyst, he weighs how leaders are likely to act more heavily than their public statements.
"It seems quite likely that at some point in the next few weeks if not a little bit longer the U.S. will be taking some action," he said. "I don't see any fundamental shift at all in their posture and I think the tragedy of [the murdered journalists] has been a wake up call to people in Congress."
Zarate noted that the president is "trying not too far to get out in front of the ski tips given the implications of what full confrontation with ISIS means."
A full-throated attack on the group will likely involve U.S. action in Syria, which it has avoided for years because of the complexities of the ongoing civil war there. Furthermore, fully eradicating the group is something that would be nearly impossible to achieve, as the years of fighting the ever-persistent al-Qaeda has shown.
That threat "has festered and morphed and mitigated in ways that defy our direct military action," Katulis said.
Indeed, the president has stressed at every turn that the U.S. cannot take on the group alone. He has pushed for a comprehensive strategy that includes a stable government in Iraq, on-the-ground involvement from allies like the Iraqi Security Forces, Kurdish fighters and moderate Syrian rebels, as well as a broader rejection of ISIS and help from the Sunni states in the region.
"If those things are followed through on, and we are able to combine it with a sound military strategy, then I think we can be successful," the president said last week. "If we can't, then the idea that the United States or any outside power would perpetually defeat ISIS I think is unrealistic."