August 24
President Barack Obama arrives to speak about the murder of journalist James Foley during a press briefing at the press filing center at the Edgartown School in Edgartown, Martha's Vineyard, MA, USA, on 20 August 2014. The Islamic State (IS) militia released a video on 19 August 2014 purporting to show the decapitation of US photojournalist James Foley, who went missing in Syria in November 2012. EPA/Rick Friedman / POOL
President Obama addressing the killing of journalist James Foley by the Islamic State on Wednesday. (Rick Friedman / European Pressphoto Agency)

President Obama has been put on the spot over the Islamic State — but not by hawkish conservatives. His own people have placed him there.

Ignore, if you want, what Charles Krauthammer, Dick Cheney and John McCain have to say about the dangers posed by an Islamic State. Chalk up their calls for action, if you will, to opposition rhetoric.

But when the Islamic State is painted as a greater threat to the United States than al-Qaeda, and in public pronouncements, by the secretaries of state and defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the attorney general, Obama is left with little choice: Either he must confront this jihadist organization or be seen as turning his back on his most senior foreign policy and military advisers.

How can the president remain inert when Secretary of State John Kerry says that the Islamic State “and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed” and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel states that the group “is beyond anything that we’ve seen” and “poses a whole new dynamic and new paradigm of threats to this country”?

Can Obama afford to look the other way when Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey describes the Islamic State as a “trans-regional and global threat” which, should it achieve its vision of control of the eastern Mediterranean, “would create a security environment that would certainly threaten us in many ways”?

And what about Attorney General Eric Holder, who declared that reports of the group partnering with bombmakers in Yemen are “more frightening than anything I think I’ve seen as attorney general.”

Here is Obama’s national security team portraying the Islamic State as a direct threat to America. Where does that leave Obama but on the spot?

Surely Kerry, Hagel, Dempsey and Holder know that, by going public with their dire threat assessments, they are forcing their boss’s hand. Surely they aren’t jumping out there on their own without any attachment or deference to the president? Surely they aren’t freelancing?

Or — and here is where my cynicism built on years of Washington-watching kicks in — could it be that they are behaving the way Obama wants? That what we are seeing on display is the Obama administration laying the groundwork for a stepped-up military campaign that will take U.S. forces into Syria and places controlled by the Islamic State?

Are Kerry, Hagel, Dempsey and Holder getting the country ready for more war, much in the same way as Vice President Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and President George W. Bush used weapons of mass destruction as a predicate for invading Iraq?

If that is the case and the Obama administration has concluded that the Islamic State poses a direct threat to this country and U.S. interests abroad, then it should dispense with coy contrivances devised to spark demands from Congress and the public to take on the Islamists. It should be upfront about its plan and lay out the strategy to prevail.

If the Islamic State is a cancer that must not spread, as the president said last week in response to the beheading of James Foley, then it falls on Obama to say to the country how, where and when he will attack this malignant Middle Eastern disease.

No reluctant warrior portrayal. No commander in chief without conviction. No decision-making with carefully concealed outs: “Your fault, you made me do it, Congress.”

By accident or design, senior administration leaders have put the president on the spot. His response to this pressure will set America’s course, and his own for the next two years. And he can’t say the devil made him do it.