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Will Obama punish ISIS for James Foley's murder?

A peshmerga fighter.
A peshmerga fighter.
Spencer Platt

When the Washington Post asked how the administration would respond to the murder of American journalist James Foley, one official gave the Post a simple answer: the "only question is if we do more."

The Islamic State (ISIS), Foley's killers, claims that they'll execute another American journalist unless Obama ceases its bombing campaign against ISIS. Clearly, that's not in the cards. But Obama's choice between the status quo and escalation isn't easy. There are powerful arguments on both sides: call one "hit them harder" and the other "don't take the bait."

Obama's Wednesday afternoon statement on Foley's murder, while moving, gave little indication about which way he's leaning. Regardless, it's a tough choice. Here's why.

Hit them harder

James Foley (Nicole Tung via freejamesfoley.org)

The case for escalation is very simple. US bombing has been hurting ISIS, bombing them more could hurt them more, and ISIS needs to be deterred from kidnapping any more Americans. Or from killing the other American journalist they claim to have captured, Steven Sotloff.

The recent retaking of the Mosul dam is a case in point. The US smashed ISIS checkpoints and vehicles on the open road, paving the way for Kurdish and Iraqi forces to seize the critical facility from weakened ISIS forces. In theory, the US could hit other open road targets, such as ISIS supply convoys to and from Syria, where is also operates. Given how spread out the group is, a stepped-up US air campaign along those lines could theoretically hurt ISIS quite a bit.

Moreover, the US needs to send a signal that terrorist groups like ISIS can't extract concessions by kidnapping Americans. Some European countries have a quiet policy of paying hostage ransoms. An amazing report by the New York Times' Rukmini Callimachi exposing this policy suggests it has created a huge incentive to kidnap Europeans, and become a major source of funding for al-Qaeda. Statistical research on kidnapping by international terrorist groups confirms that paying a ransom makes future kidnappings more likely. So, rather than encouraging terrorists with ransoms, the thinking would be to discourage them with bombs.

Interestingly, that same research suggests that punishing hostage takers can actually deter them. One paper, by UT-Dallas' Todd Sandler and Charlinda Santifort, found that hostage-taking terrorist organizations that sustain casualties during rescue attempts are 27.4 percent more likely to give in without extracting a ransom or other concession from the government. So it's possible that hitting ISIS will convince it to back off from targeting Americans.

Don't take the bait

A US soldier with an Iraqi child in Baghdad, 2008. Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images

A US soldier with an Iraqi child in Baghdad, 2008. Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images

The case against escalating the bombing campaign, however, is also strong. An unthinking and unstrategic American escalation could actually play into ISIS' hands. In fact, it may be exactly what ISIS wants.

The basic problem is that the US can't destroy ISIS from the air. ISIS' strength comes from (1) support from the Sunni population in northern Iraq and (2) well-equipped, battle-trained ground forces that can be based in cities or Syrian bases. These aren't problems any US bombing campaign can solve, which is why Obama has tried strenuously to keep the American intervention limited.

Any ad-hoc escalation after Foley's murder risks degrading this American restraint. The Mosul dam campaign was already a major escalation, as it shifted the mission from supporting only Kurdish troops to supporting the national Iraqi army, which is fighting ISIS around the country. If Obama expands the campaign further, he risks embroiling the US in a wider war. Given how unpopular the US remains among Iraq's Sunnis after the 2003 war, an ill-targeted US campaign could bolster ISIS' most critical base of support.

That may actually be ISIS strategy. Al-Qaeda's longstanding strategy has been to provoke the United States into costly overreactions to their attacks. The invasion of Iraq, which created ISIS, was the ultimate proof of concept. It's possible al-Qaeda's horrifically brutal killing of Foley, and demand that the US stopped, is designed to do just that.

It's not clear which one Obama is leaning towards

Obama at an August 18 presser. Alex Wong/Getty Image

Obama at an August 18 presser. Alex Wong/Getty Image

Obama's Wednesday statement was two things: an emotional tribute to James Foley's life, and a furious condemnation of ISIS and its goals. "Jim Foley's life stands in stark contrast to his killers," the president said. "[ISIS] has no ideology of any value to human beings. their ideology is bankrupt."

What the presser wasn't, however, was a policy address. Saying "the United States will continue to do what we must do to protect our people," as Obama did, doesn't say much about the choice between "hit them harder" and "don't take the bait," or any other clear US action or lack thereof. The American policy response is still just unclear.

Regardless of what the US ends up doing, it should be clear that this isn't an easy call for Obama. Sadly, it's much harder to destroy ISIS than it is to condemn the atrocities they commit.