What Does James Foley’s Death Mean for U.S. Involvement in Iraq?

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Win McNamee/Getty Images

The United States intelligence agencies have authenticated the videotaped beheading of American journalist James Foley. “The U.S. intelligence community has analyzed the recently released video showing U.S. citizens James Foley and Steven Sotloff. We have reached the judgment that this video is authentic,” said Caitlin Hayden, National Security Council spokesperson, according to The New York Times. 

Foley’s journalistic contributions brought vital reporting to the world despite enormous personal risk in perilous locations. His mother, Diane Foley, said on the “Free James Foley” Facebook page that, “We have never been prouder of our son Jim. He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people. We implore the kidnappers to spare the lives of the remaining hostages … Please respect our privacy in the days ahead as we mourn and cherish Jim.”

As President Barack Obama said at a press conference midday Wednesday, “Jim was a journalist, a son, a brother, and a friend. He reported from difficult and dangerous places bearing witness to the lives of people a world away … Jim’s life stands in contrast to his killers.” Unfortunately, a tragedy as heart-wrenching and gruesome as this will still inevitably lead to questions on what his death means politically — for both journalists overseas and for American foreign policy.

The United States Won’t Negotiate, But Will It Deviate?

America is not Israel. By that I refer to the fact that Israel is far more likely to place importance on civilian life, such that it will negotiate with terrorists even at very high costs for the sake of one of its citizens, while the U.S. has historically stood by its “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” stance as a means to justify the ends. Yes, civilian lives will be lost, but the idea is that it deters the use of hostage-taking in conflict with the U.S.. I bring this up because there are, of course, other journalists captured, other hostages being held as Foley was.

Ultimately, though, this is a moot point. Even if the U.S. policy were more responsive to civilian casualties — if Bowe Bergdahl were the start to a new, more sympathetic policy — the death of James Foley did not open doors for negotiating, and Obama has not and will not be able to respond in any way to videos such as the one of Foley.

ISIL has no leverage under current U.S. policy, and the execution did nothing to increase leverage as negotiations with ISIL would be impossible. The only thing it did was perhaps whisper a little louder in the ears of those Americans who think airstrikes and involvement in Iraq, even minor, is a slippery slope bound to draw the ire of terrorists, and the increased involvement in Iraq involving more than just remote efforts — a poor choice on Obama’s part given the public climate.

Will It Change Obama’s Course?

At this point, that looks to be highly unlikely. In his most recent comment on events, he stated clearly that, “A group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century,” and later the National Security Council released a press release updating on further military strikes. “U.S. military forces continue to attack ISIL terrorists in support of Iraqi security force operations using fighter, remotely piloted, and attack aircraft to conduct 14 airstrikes in the vicinity of the Mosul Dam,” it read.

This seems to suggest, as did Obama’s most recent speech, that the U.S. would not be disengaging, but would continue more remote efforts to aid those on the ground. It was emphasized that this would be in support of — not in place of — efforts from Iraqi forces and that the U.S. would be accompanied by the “people of Iraq,” the “people of Syria,” and the “governments and people across the middle east” in a “common effort to extract the cancer so that it does not spread.” He stated that while “they may claim out of expediency that they are at war with the U.S. and the West, they terrorize their neighbors.”

Indications seemed to be that the U.S. is not backing down, but that it would also refrain from taking too aggressive a step forward when the United States is still in recovery. But the Associated Press has since released the following tweet:

Which has, of course, set of a litany of concern that Obama’s promise not to send more boots on the ground will be violated. Is this a slippery slope after all?

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