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Damage control for Obama, Biden's tough response on ISIS as Congress plans war

The news of the beheading of another American journalist by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) commenced a new round of responses from President Barack Obama and his administration and differing levels of how to militarily respond to the act. A video was discovered on the internet on Tuesday evening, Sept. 2, 2014 depicting the beheading of a second American journalist, Steven Joel Sotloff, 31. After confirming the authenticity of the video on Wednesday morning, Sept. 3 President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Vice President Joe Biden officially responded to the act of terrorism. President Obama's response was tepid in comparison to those from other senior members of his administration and sparked criticism from the media and from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

 Vice President Joe Biden did damage control for President Barack Obama after weak remarks about attacking ISIS after the beheading Steven Sotloff, Sept. 3, 2014
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

The sharpest rebuke and condemnation came from Vice President Biden when he gave a speech at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire. There Biden expressed the strongest level of commitment to a military intervention that would stop ISIS terror attacks, stating that the administration "follow them to the gates of hell." Biden's complete statement about a formal response to the second beheading was; "[W]hen people harm Americans, we don't retreat. We don't forget. We take care of those who are grieving, and when that's finished, they should know, we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice. Because hell is where they will reside. Hell is where they will reside."

Secretary of State Kerry was also forceful in his remarks, not as colorful as Biden's, but clearly indicate the administration intends to react strongly. The Secretary of State delivered his statement as ABC News noted, "while nominating a new Special Representative for Muslim Communities." Kerry signified that the United States views ISIS as a terrorist organization; "Let me be really clear…The real face of Islam is not what we saw yesterday, when the world bore witness again to the unfathomable brutality of ISIL terrorist murderers. For so many who worked so long to bring Steven and other Americans home safely, this obviously was not how the story was meant to end. It's a punch to the gut."

Kerry continued stating that ISIS will be dealt with in a similar way as America previously dealt with Al-Qaida; "We have taken the fight to this kind of savagery and evil before, and believe me, we will take it again. We're doing it today, and when terrorists anywhere around the world have murdered our citizens, the United States held them accountable, no matter how long it took. And those who have murdered James Foley and Steven Sotloff in Syria need to know that the United States will hold them accountable too, no matter how long it takes."

Secretary of Defense Hagel was also more determined to eradicate ISIS in his remarks during an appearance on CNN, stating; "Threats don't work in little neat boxes…They're something we've never seen before. You've got to destroy [ISIS]. Because if we don't destroy it, it will get worse." Hagel was trying to do "damage control" and clarify President Obama's earlier statements.

Considering the criticism over Obama's mild response Kerry, Hagel and Biden's strong comments were necessary in order to allay concerns about President Obama's own weak remarks earlier in the day while speaking at a joint press conference with Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. In his prepared statement Obama implied he would get justice for the two journalist who died by ISIS's brutal hands. The president expressed in his remarks that; "Whatever these murderers think they'll achieve by killing innocent Americans like Steven, they have already failed. They have failed because, like people around the world, Americans are repulsed by their barbarism. We will not be intimidated. Their horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight against these terrorists. And those who make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget, and that our reach is long and that justice will be served."

As he continued, responding to questions from the press President Obama's remarks became vaguer and indicated that there will be far less military action and that the objective would not be to rid the world of this terror group. First Obama stated; " The bottom line is this: Our objective is clear. That is to degrade and destroy ISIL (ISIS) so it's no longer a threat. We can accomplish that. It's going to take some time, it's going to take some effort." Then the president downgraded his remarks even more, and he "backtracked" on his earlier comments stating the goal is ultimately to make ISIS just a "manageable problem" not eradicate their existence as a terror group. Obama stated; "We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL's sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its military capability to the point where it is a manageable problem." The president plans to look for Congress' approval for any military incursion or action with Syria.

Obama made these comments after he was asked by the media to clarify his remarks from a press conference on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014. Then Obama was asked if he "needs Congress' approval" for military action to rid Syria of ISIS, to which he responded at the time; "The options that I'm asking for from the Joint Chiefs focuses primarily on making sure that ISIL is not overrunning Iraq…I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet...Some of the news reports suggests that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we're at than we currently are."

Last week Obama admitted his administration does not have a strategy and the only certainty from the president was that a military plan to deal with ISIS is necessary; "We've been putting together a strategy that was designed to do a number of things. ... What we have to make sure is we have a regional strategy in place." However, on Wednesday, Sept. 3 Obama vowed; "the United States will continue to lead a regional and international effort against the kind of barbaric and ultimately empty vision that ISIL represents. And that's going to take some time, but we're going to get it done. I'm very confident of it."

Republicans are criticizing President Obama's response to terrorist organizations and their actions, and the inconsistencies in the administration's remarks and objectives regarding ISIS. Rep. Michael Turner, R-OH and a member of the House Armed Services Committee told Newsmax; "These blatant inconsistencies further underscore this administration's admitted failure to have a coordinated plan or stated objective to combat ISIS." Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX and a potential candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination sharply criticized President Obama while at the University of Houston saying, that "We shouldn't be trying to contain or manage ISIS. We should be using overwhelming airstrikes to take them out now, while they're vulnerable, while they're extended…. Now is the time, and what is missing is what's been missing for six years: presidential leadership."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke to Fox Business Network and for once praised the Obama Administration, particularly Biden's strong response, saying; "I think the vice president's got it right. The two beheadings of American journalists, in case we had any doubts, ought to convince us they want to kill us. They're already killing us. And they have to be stopped."

Peter "Pete" Hoekstra, a former Republican Representative from Michigan and former Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee also praised Biden's response during an interview with Newsmax; "Biden does have the experience of living through 9/11 in Washington and through some of the other horrendous actions, while the president was not in Washington. It's a difference of background, experiences and style that I think is what generates this disconnect. When you speak with the kind of clarity of the vice president, and the language he is using, it's easier to get other people to follow and align with you."

Even as a Republican Hoekstra understands that Obama has constraints in what he can do with such limited time left in his presidency. Hoekstra explained; "With the president saying 'manageable,' what he's maybe doing is being a little more realistic in saying 'we can do whatever we want, but to eliminate this, this is going to last well beyond my presidency. I can't eliminate this in the next 28 months, but I can sure put us on the path to confronting it and containing it.'

Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate both see eye-to-eye one issue attacking ISIS in Syria and they are planning legislation to authorize Obama to use military force against ISIS in Syria. In the Senate Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL will introduce a bill when it resumes on Sept. 8, while Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-VA will do the same in the House. Speaker of the House John Boehner emphasized the importance of such legislation telling Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt; "If he's going after ISIS, he would have, I think he would have to provide a War Powers notification to the Congress. And then it would be up to the House to make a decision about whether we dealt with the issue or not."

Sotloff's gruesome murder comes only two weeks after the beheading of freelance journalist James (Jim) Foley on Aug. 19, 2014. The video and execution was similar to that of Foley's and is presumably done by the same British accented black clothed militant member of ISIS, and Sotloff in an orange prison jumpsuit on his knees. The militant speaking into the camera stated, "I'm sure you know exactly who I am by now and why I am appearing." Speaking directly to President Obama the masked militant continued; "Just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people." As with Foley, Sotloff was made to give a statement telling the president, "Obama, your foreign policy of intervention in Iraq was supposed to be for preservation of American lives and interests, so why is it that I am paying the price of your interference with my life." After the act, the video concluded with a warning about the next target a British journalist David Haines.

Sotloff was taken as a hostage by ISIS when he crossed the border from Turkey into Syria in August 2013, he is originally from South Florida, but moved to Israel in 2005 and was working as a journalist covering the Arab Spring and various revolutions in the Middle East as a freelancer. Sotloff and his family and officials in the U.S. and Israel kept his Jewish religion and Israeli citizenship a secret as to not let ISIS know about it in case they would react more harshly towards him as a result. The U.S. has been engaged in limited airstrikes against ISIS in Northern and Central Iraq since Aug. 8. ISIS claims the beheading are in retaliation against those airstrikes. In the Foley video, they had promised they would do the same to Sotloff if the strikes continued. Unfortunately they stayed to true to threat, and will continue unless President Obama takes a strong arm and stops ISIS cold in their tracks with military might and Congress' blessing.


Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She covers US, Canadian & Israeli politics, with a particular focus on the Obama presidency, Congress, domestic policy, and elections.

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