At the beginning of the year, President Barack Obama compared the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to a "JV team" putting on Lakers uniforms.
But in the intervening months, the Islamic State has taken control of large swaths of central Iraq and parts of civil war-torn Syria. And in August, members of the group beheaded American journalist James Foley, daring the United States to respond.
Obama last week approved expanded U.S. reconnaissance flights over Iraq and Syria, following limited air strikes to aid Kurds in northern Iraq. Is that enough? Should the United States treat the Islamic State as the new al-Qaida? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.
JOEL MATHIS: Here's a sentence I never thought I'd write: The Islamic State militants who gruesomely beheaded James Foley should be killed. They should die hard, bloody, awful deaths.
Foley was a civilian — a journalist. His beheading is nothing less than an act of war against the United States by the Islamic State, and the America is justified to respond with pure hellfire.
But Americans should be eyes wide-open to the consequences of this act.
First, the Al Pacino problem. "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!" The United States, after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, was this close to finally being free of those commitments. It was always the case that violence would accompany our decision to leave age-old rivalries to sort themselves out. There are consequences to leaving, after all. But we'll be consigning ourselves to another generation of war in a region that defies peaceful solutions to its problems.
We're either in or we're out. It may be too late, after all, to decide we're out. Even if our continued involvement is justified, it will also be tragic.
The second, more immediate problem, is this: We know that the Islamic State is the "bad guy." Who is the "good guy?" In Syria, at least, it appears there are none with the strength to take power if the U.S. intervenes.
"From Somalia to Kosovo to Libya, the problem with America's humanitarian interventions has never been ascertaining the nastiness of the people we're fighting against. It's been ascertaining the efficacy and decency of the people we're fighting for," Atlantic writer Peter Beinart wrote last week. "That's a particular challenge in the case of ISIS (another name for the Islamic State) in Syria."
The Islamic State should not kill American civilians with impunity. Period. But exacting a price from the villains will come with a price of its own. This time, at least, let's recognize the likely price in advance.
BEN BOYCHUK: The Islamic State not only threatens American interests in the Middle East, it threatens American lives abroad and possibly here at home. The United States could cripple and kill the Islamic State — if we have the will to do the job. Do we?
Obama has allowed limited airstrikes and reconnaissance flights. The White House foolishly revealed a failed mission to rescue James Foley in Syria, so we can assume U.S. special forces are lurking about the area, too. But these are half-measures in an all-or-nothing conflict.
"To make war is to kill the spirit as well as the body of the enemy, so terribly as to make sure that it will not rise again, and that nobody will want to imitate it," writes Angelo Codevilla, a fellow of the Claremont Institute and author most recently of "To Make and Keep Peace."
Crippling and killing the Islamic State shouldn't require another "liberation" of Iraq. Whether or not the Iraqis or their neighbors to the west in Syria embrace our brand of democracy should matter little to us.
We could impose damaging economic sanctions on the nations supporting the Islamic State — including our "allies" in Turkey and Qatar. If it's true that an army marches on its stomach, then the Islamic State won't last long without a steady flow of money and material support.
We could draw in Iraq's neighbors into the fight — why should it just be American lives on the line? Iran has already sent tanks into the northern part of the country.
Doing nothing — or little more than nothing — carries risks. We forget that Osama bin Laden first declared war on the United States in 1996 and renewed his call to "kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military" in 1998. Few Americans noticed or cared.
We did little after al-Qaida attacked U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and bombed the USS Cole in Yemen in 1999. Only when Bin Laden's men carried out the horrific attacks of Sept. 11 did Americans finally pay attention. Let's not repeat that mistake.
Ben Boychuk (email@example.com) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Visit them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.
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