Beheading Alters US Policy in Iraq

On Aug. 19, the Islamic State posted a video on social media showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley in a chilling spectacle that has sparked international outrage. It was the first time that the Islamic State had made public the killing of an American citizen, much less a journalist, and is an extreme provocation. Obama condemned the filmed execution as an act of violence, saying that it had shocked the conscience of the entire world and that the U.S. would remain vigilant and relentlessly strike back at the threat presented by Islamic extremists.

However, the president made no mention regarding possible next steps for the U.S. military in Iraq. Judging by the present disposition of international affairs and U.S. global strategy, the fact is that there is little possibility that Obama will significantly accelerate the pace of operations in Iraq. One piece of evidence pointing to this is that it has taken a full two months for Obama to authorize the U.S. military to issue “targeted” air strikes against religious extremist forces in northern Iraq. Moreover, in the end the decision was made only because Iraqi government troops performed far worse than anticipated, and the Islamic State encroachment into greater swathes of territory had begun to threaten the security of U.S. personnel and installations within Iraq.

As a result, although the terrorist acts of the Islamic State will certainly increase support among Americans for broadening U.S. military operations in Iraq, such action does not adhere to Obama’s global calculus, where the strategic nucleus remains in rebalancing Asia and the Pacific. Additionally, the situation in Ukraine has led to deterioration in relations between Russia and the West, a crucial point that Obama must address. The conflict came as a surprise to many, and as it has escalated, Western sanctions toward Russia have quickly expanded from targeting various individuals and firms to Russian agricultural products, finances and energy. Russia’s retaliatory sanctions and hardline posture have only spiraled events further out of control. And while the U.S. has largely not suffered from this, the impact on the EU and Russia grows greater by the day. There are currently no signs of a détente, nor is a workable solution in sight, and it is yet unknown when a window of opportunity will appear for both sides to return to the negotiating table.

Obama’s speech at the West Point graduation ceremony at the end of May may provide some insights: “When issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States … or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us – then the threshold for military action must be higher.”

With this in mind, the prospect that Obama will send ground forces into Iraq is rather more doubtful. However, in responding to domestic opinion, U.S. tactical military action against the Islamic State will unquestionably begin to ramp up. It is a difficult decision, as the grim video footage suggested that another American freelance journalist, Steven Sotloff, also faces the danger of execution. At the same time, if the Islamic State terrorist activity increases, the U.S. will likely give serious consideration to a French proposal for cooperative action by the international community against this “soon-to-be terrorist state.”

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