Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday delivered an emotional response to the beheading of two US journalists by the brutal group Islamic State, saying that the US will follow those responsible “to the gates of hell” in the name of justice.
“The American people are so much stronger, so much more resolved than any enemy can fully understand,” said Vice President Biden at a previously scheduled appearance at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. “As a nation, we’re united. And when people harm Americans, we don’t retreat, we don’t forget.”
The IS released a video on Tuesday showing the murder of freelance writer Steven Sotloff. It followed by two weeks the dissemination of a similar video of journalist James Foley’s death.
“We take care of those who are grieving and when that’s finished [those responsible for the killings] they should know we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice. Because hell is where they’ll reside,” said Biden.
Does he really mean this? In a narrow sense, he probably does.
The US devoted massive resources over two presidential administrations to hunting down Osama bin Laden, and American intelligence and Special Forces ultimately cornered and killed him in hiding. Similarly, the particular individuals involved in the Foley and Sotloff killings, as far as they can be identified from video clues or other intelligence, are marked men.
The Obama administration has carried out an extensive campaign of targeting killings via drones in the Middle East – too extensive, according to some critics on the left. IS leaders now should probably fear such a strike at any moment – perhaps for the rest of their lives.
But if Biden meant his words to be a threat to eradicate the whole IS army from the face of the earth, that’s an exaggeration.
Thus, some critics hit the floridity of Biden’s rhetoric at a time when IS fighters, in conjunction with elements of the old Iraqi Sunni elite from the days of Saddam Hussein, have moved out of their Syrian stronghold to capture a large swath of Iraq.
“Biden’s ‘follow ISIS to the gates of hell’ quote is embarrassing. This isn’t a Bruce Willis movie and we have no policy,” tweeted Max Fisher, a foreign affairs expert and content director at Vox.com.
“Joe Biden is basically the hype man for this administration’s foreign policy,” tweeted Aaron Blake of The Fix blog at the Washington Post.
In this instance, however, Biden may have felt hype was required. (Or he may just have been following his natural instincts, but that’s another story.)
President Obama, after all, has been criticized for being too restrained when talking about IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL. In a speech in Estonia at a NATO summit on Tuesday, Obama talked about the need to “shrink” IS until it becomes a “manageable problem.” This drew scorn from some on the right.
At Hot Air, Noah Rothman compared it to the way Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush talked about US enemies.
“It is difficult to envision the circumstances that would have led Roosevelt to suggest that the Empire of Japan, or Reagan the Soviets, or Bush al-Qaeda, must be shrunken and made manageable,” Rothman writes.
Perhaps the IS is not as large a threat to the United States. But the fact is that American citizens like their political leaders to talk like heroes – as if, in fact, they were in a Bruce Willis movie.
That’s what Boise State political scientist Justin Vaughn and Texas A&M political scientist Jennifer Mercieca argue in their book “The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency.”
“The heroic expectations of the American presidency, despite its myriad burdens, do not allow acknowledgement of impotence nor does it tolerate expressions of doubt, indifference, or defeat. Even when heroism does not appear in the cards, American presidents must play as if their hand was full of nothing but aces,” the pair wrote in on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage political science blog earlier this year.
That’s why Obama and Biden – speaking as a presidential stand-in – may find it hard to strike the proper tone on the war against IS. Americans want their leaders to speak as if they are the sheriff in a Western.
But neither in this case would Americans likely support the reintroduction of the substantial number of US ground troops necessary to militarily crush the threat in short order.