A day after the Islamic State released a video showing the beheading of another American, President Obama vowed to destroy the organization, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden pledged to follow the terrorists "to the gates of hell" — but neither man offered a strategy or was willing to say the U.S. is at war.
Meanwhile, frustrations on Capitol Hill have reached the boiling point. Lawmakers are pleading with the president to acknowledge that the U.S. is in a de facto state of war with the Islamic State group and must act accordingly.
Some lawmakers and counterterrorism analysts say war has either started or is inevitable.
"I believe ISIS has declared war on the United States by killing Americans — these two journalists," Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, told Fox News on Wednesday. "I do believe they're intent on striking the West, including Western Europe and the homeland."
Analysts say the Islamic State, with its capacity to capture and hold territory, ability to take high-profile hostages and desire to launch attacks against the West, could represent an even greater threat than al Qaeda in the days before Sept. 11, 2001.
For that reason, it's a virtual certainty that the U.S. eventually will have to declare war against the group, said Jens David Ohlin, a professor at Cornell University School of Law who specializes in counterterrorism.
"The U.S. has substantially degraded al Qaeda's military capacity, but now the danger posed by ISIS is even more acute. ISIS is trying — and succeeding — to carve out a permanent territory," he said. "This will allow them not only to implement the harshest form of Shariah law on the domestic population, but will also provide a safe haven from which to launch international attacks. War seems inevitable."
Speaking in Estonia on Wednesday, Mr. Obama said the U.S. objective is clear but offered no blueprint for meeting that objective, nor did he indicate that he is any closer to authorizing airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria.
"The bottom line is this: Our objective is clear. That is to degrade and destroy ISIL so that it is no longer a threat not just to Iraq but also to the region and to the United States," Mr. Obama said. "In order for us to accomplish that, the first phase has been to make sure we've got an Iraqi government in place and that we are blunting the momentum that ISIL was carrying out. And the airstrikes have done that. But now what we need to do is make sure we've got the regional strategy in place that can support an ongoing effort not just in the air but on the ground to move that forward."
Congressional Republicans and even some fellow Democrats have said the president's approach is too cautious and plan to initiate a debate when lawmakers return to Capitol Hill next month to authorize strikes against the Islamic State.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, said Wednesday that he would introduce legislation authorizing the use of military force against international terrorist groups.
Some Democrats said Mr. Obama is right to move slowly.
"The president is measured. He should be measured," Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, told MSNBC. "He's going to put a coalition together so that we don't have to put the boots on the ground in Syria. And in that coalition, we can go after these guys [and] we better do it now, because sooner or later we will have to deal with them."
The Islamist group, which controls a nation-size swath of territory in Iraq and Syria, released video Tuesday of the beheading of American reporter Steven Sotloff.
The video release of the gruesome slaying of a U.S. citizen was the second in less than a month. In August, Islamic State fighters showed the beheading of American photojournalist James Foley.
The terrorist group, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, promised more bloodshed in the coming weeks if Mr. Obama does not abandon U.S. airstrikes in Iraq designed to protect American diplomatic personnel and aid Iraqi and Kurdish security forces in their struggle with Islamic State fighters.
Administration officials, while not using the word "war,'' seem to have made the case for combat by painting the Islamic State as one of the most serious threats the nation has ever seen.
"ISIL poses a direct and significant threat to us and to Iraqi and Syrian civilians in the region and potentially to us here at home," Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said Wednesday.
"They have aspirations to hit Western targets. So while they pose certainly a regional threat inside Iraq and to the region, we also know that they have aspirations of going after Western targets, including potentially American targets," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told MSNBC on Wednesday.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden have changed their language since the brutal slayings of Mr. Foley and Mr. Sotloff and the ominous threat of more to come.
The president last week said he did not have a strategy for dealing with the Islamist group, but Mr. Biden hours later vowed justice for the killers.
"We take care of those who are grieving. And when that's finished, they should know we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice," he said in a New Hampshire speech.
Such rhetoric is of little use to those who believe the administration must launch strikes against Islamic State fighters in Syria and give greater military support to Iraqi and Kurdish fighters battling the terrorist group on the ground.
Some lawmakers are even suggesting that British Prime Minister David Cameron has become more effective than the U.S. president in leading the charge against the Islamic State.
"Are we going to contain ISIS or are we going to crush ISIS? And the president has not answered that. I think he's so hesitant to get involved with something," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican. "He's so hesitant to exercise American leadership, that you see somebody like Prime Minister David Cameron out exercising that kind of strength of leadership that I'm glad he's doing, but our president should be doing as well."
Mr. Cameron spoke at length this week about the threat posed by the Islamic State and announced measures designed to limit the fighters' ability to enter Britain.
Mr. Cameron met with Mr. Obama Wednesday evening ahead of Thursday's NATO summit in Wales.
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