Tuesday was an devastating day: American journalist James Foley was graphically executed on video by the Islamic terrorist organization ISIS (also known as ISIL, or simply IS, the "Islamic State"). By now you've probably heard about it, and for the love of God, don't watch the video. Beyond giving Foley's executioners precisely what they want, it's utterly gruesome and horrifying. And he's not their only hostage — ISIS also has journalist Steven Sotloff held hostage, and as revealed at the end of Foley's execution video, they're threatening to kill him, too. So, what's going to happen? That is to say, what might the U.S. do in response?
Sotloff went missing just over a year ago, believed to have been kidnapped while reporting in Aleppo, Syria, a city heavily torn apart by the bloody Syrian civil war. It now appears he's being held by ISIS, and with his appearance at the end of Foley's execution video, has now become a pawn in their bloody efforts.
The ISIS executioner, who spoke in fluent English with a British accent, warned that Sotloff's life depended on President Obama's "next decision." Which raises the obvious question: what decisions are open to him? Here are a few possibilities.
Try to Assemble International Support Against ISIS
This, based on President Obama's statement about Foley's death Wednesday, seems like what he'd like to do independent of whatever military outcomes might arise from it. While Obama initially framed Foley's killing in simple and stark terms — he went so far as to say "no just God would stand for what they did," and insisted they weren't reflective of the Islamic faith — he followed up by emphasizing the involvement of governments native to the region.
And we act against ISIL standing alongside others. The people of Iraq who, with our support, are taking the fight to ISIL, must continue coming together to expel these terrorists from their communities. The people of Syria, whose story Jim Foley told, do not deserve to live under the shadow of a tyrant or terrorists. They have our support in their pursuit of a future rooted in dignity.
It's a tricky and imprudent business trying to predict a course of action from a presidential statement to the nation, but if Obama had wanted to declare that the U.S. was going to avenge Foley militarily, he probably won't find a better moment to do so than he had. Rather, he appealed to humanity's distaste for their tactics, and tried to globalize opposition.
Also, he didn't even mention Sotloff, but that isn't surprising — it might be ceding leverage to ISIS for Obama to discuss Sotloff's situation publicly.
Ease Off American Air Strikes Against ISIS
This is theoretically one of the options for President Obama, but it's about as unlikely he'd go this way as anything, at least insofar as trying to save Sotloff would be concerned. That's because it'd be easily interpreted as a violation of that age-old American standard of not negotiating with terrorists.
Any easing off of the pressure on ISIS could indicate to the terrorist group that Foley's killing, and the subsequent threat against Sotloff had the desired effect. Which, in a way, could be as dangerous an outcome as any for him — ISIS' propensity for violence being what it is, it's unlikely that there's any concession that could actually make them free Sotloff.
Intensify Operations Against ISIS, Unilaterally If Necessary
This is the "more combat" option, and however you feel about the prospect of yet more warring by American forces in the Middle East, it's hard not to imagine that this is the most likely outcome. Force tends to breed more force, after all, and seeing as the U.S. has already intervened recently, striking against ISIS at Iraq's Mount Sanjar and the Mosul Dam, things were escalating to begin with.
Whether this would mean anything positive for Sotloff, however, is impossible to say. ISIS' stated reasoning for killing Foley was those aforementioned U.S. strikes, so engaging in more would likely only provoke another violent response.
But that's just the sad, grisly reality of all this, and why none of the options seem so hot — no matter how you look at it, ISIS has leverage here, and they could easily have other hostages to threaten if they decided to kill Sotloff.
Images: Getty Images (2); The White House