For the second time in two weeks, the Islamic State has released a video purporting to show the beheading of an American journalist, in this case freelance reporter Steven Sotloff.
By mid-afternoon Monday, the US intelligence community had not confirmed the authenticity of the latest video, but other experts on jihadist web postings had. Regardless, the news presents more bad optics for President Obama, already beleaguered by crises in the Middle East and Ukraine.
“The second beheading is a brutal act, and it’s also a political act,” says Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “And it’s clearly meant to send a signal that Obama’s not in control, that the airstrikes that have taken place are not really doing anything, and that [Islamic State] will continue to act aggressively and to kill.”
Mr. Obama invited fresh criticism last week when he said at a press conference that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for airstrikes against Islamic State (also known as or ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. With just two months to go before November’s midterm elections, Obama is fighting a narrative that he is ineffectual and floundering in the face of profound threats abroad – threats that could also reach American soil.
The 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the US – and the second anniversary of the attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya – comes in nine days, an annual marker that will only heighten the attention to terrorist threats against Americans.
Obama appears to be in a no-win situation. After the release Aug. 19 of a video showing the beheading of journalist James Foley, he interrupted his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard and made a public statement, apparently in an effort to show that he was not oblivious to events. (Then he went and played golf, creating a new optics problem, this one of his own making.) But now with a second beheading, the president can hardly come out before the cameras again, as that might make it appear ISIS is calling the shots on his schedule.
And the drip, drip of gruesome videos may not be over. ISIS is holding more foreign captives, including an American aid worker, a British aid worker, and seven more journalists, none American. The group is apparently prepared to keep killing. The video that depicts the beheading of Mr. Sotloff ends with a threat to kill British aid worker David Cawthorne Haines next.
Were that to happen, British public support for joining airstrikes in Iraq and Syria could grow, the British paper The Independent suggests. As of now, the British public does not favor joining the air strikes.
Obama would no doubt welcome the help from an ally, but the way forward appears murky regardless.
“The question about President Obama’s resumption of war in Iraq is not whether it can be justified but where it will lead,” writes Steve Coll in The New Yorker. “Air strikes against a well-resourced guerrilla army will do little if they are not accompanied by action on the ground. It would be a catastrophic error for the United States to take on that role.”
In Syria, Mr. Coll adds, “the options are worse.”
For now, Americans are not enamored of Obama’s handling of IS. Only 10 percent give him an A and 21 percent a B, while 16 percent give the president a D and 27 percent an F, according to the latest TIPP poll for the Monitor, released last Friday.