NEW YORK -– As the Obama administration weighs whether it should try to manage the Islamic State, destroy it or follow it to the “gates of Hell,” endless news coverage and non-stop cable chatter have focused on the possibility of expanding the fight from Iraq to Syria.
Many have argued that President Barack Obama needs to go beyond air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq -– there have been 124 strikes so far -– and begin targeting militants inside civil war-torn Syria. The notion that Obama isn't doing enough has been a common theme, regardless of party.
“I think it’s time for him to say more and do more,” former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday. The next day, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) told Blitzer he agreed with Harman and expressed support for targeting the Islamic State within Syria.
The New York Post, which famously mocked U.S. allies over a decade ago for not rushing to invade Iraq, ran a front-page photo Wednesday of journalist Steven Sotloff just before he was killed with the headline, “This won’t stop until WE STOP THEM.” The Daily News used another still image Wednesday from the horrific video of Sotloff's beheading and asked, “Do you have a strategy now, Mr. President?”
The tabloid covers, and much of the current media frenzy, suggest a high level of urgency -- that Obama needs to come up with a strategy and immediately carry it out. But does he?
The FBI and Homeland Security Department found the Islamic State has made no credible threats to the U.S. and the Defense Department expressed doubts about the organization’s “capability right now to conduct a major attack” on U.S. soil. Some politicians have raised the specter of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when urging further action against the group, but National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen said Wednesday that the organization is "not al Qaeda pre 9/11."
And while a number of politicians and pundits say Obama needs to act fast, two prominent Iraq war supporters are urging restraint, arguing he should be cautious about escalating the fight against the Islamic State.
“I feel the atmosphere today is, in some ways, similar to the atmosphere in 2003, when we thought there was less time to deal with Saddam [Hussein] than there was,” said Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, in an interview with The Huffington Post. “Yes, I understand ISIS poses a threat to the United States. It’s not clear it poses an imminent threat.”
Goldberg, who endorsed the 2003 invasion and describes himself as “dispositionally interventionist,” said, “We saw the consequences of an administration launching a war without a strategy in Iraq.” For that reason, he added, it’s better for Obama to admit “he doesn’t have a strategy than to lie that he has a strategy when he does not.”
On Twitter, Goldberg pushed back against calls by some prominent writers on foreign affairs -- The New Yorker's Jon Lee Anderson and Council of Foreign Relations fellow Max Boot –- for expanded military action against the Islamic State.
“If a full-scale attack on ISIS is going to end up with a long-term occupation of Syria and Iraq by the U.S., or the U.S. allying with [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s] regime or the Iranian regime," Goldberg said, "then I think we need to do more thinking.”
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, another supporter of the Iraq war, wrote Tuesday that “we were in a hurry, myself included, to change things after 9/11, and when you’re in a hurry you ignore complexities that come back to haunt you later.”
The U.S. military easily defeated the Iraqi army, but proved to have no serious post-war plan. The result was years of sectarian warfare, which further destabilized the country. That unraveling led to situation where a terrorist group like ISIS -- which counts former high-ranking Iraqi soldiers among its leaders -- seize large swaths of territory.
“There are no words to describe the vileness of the video beheadings of two American journalists by ISIS, but I have no doubt that they’re meant to get us to overreact, à la 9/11, and rush off again without a strategy,” Friedman wrote. “ISIS is awful, but it is not a threat to America’s homeland.”
Goldberg acknowledged that Obama’s rhetoric has been “uncertain and contradictory” and said the president’s decision not to strike the Syrian government a year ago, even after the Assad regime crossed his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, has helped fuel the narrative that he's overly deliberative.
Still, Goldberg said that press coverage has focused too much on Obama's "demeanor and the words he deploys, rather than actions he’s taking on the ground.” He suggested that more attention should be paid to the administration's continued efforts to hit terrorist targets worldwide, including this past week's drone strike aimed at the leader of the militant group al-Shabab in Somalia.
“Sometimes I do ask myself,” Goldberg said, “how many al-Shabab leaders have my fellow columnists killed lately?”