Are We Headed Into Another Quagmire?

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a media conference after a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales, Sept. 5. AP PHOTO, JON SUPER

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a media conference after a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales, Sept. 5. AP PHOTO, JON SUPER

An American journalist on his knees, a hooded and masked ISIS butcher standing over him, knife in hand.

The American, in this instance, 31-year-old Steven J. Sotloff, speaks his lines: “Your foreign policy of intervention in Iraq was supposed to be about the preservation of American lives and interests. So why is it that I’m having to pay the price of your interference with my life?”

The masked knife-wielder, making his second appearance on world television and video screens, speaks in British-accented English: “I’m back, Obama, and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic state … just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.”

Sotloff is beheaded, and the New York Times reports that ISIS holds a half-dozen more British and American hostages.

The images shock, then sicken, making it difficult for any American to deal with them rationally. Revulsion melds into cries for vengeance: “Bomb ’em! Burn ’em! Whateva!”

A week earlier, after ISIS beheaded James Foley, President Obama admitted that he had yet to formulate a strategy for using military force against the militants in Syria. Critics on the political right, members of the media, even friendly Democrats pounced.

Said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, “ISIS says they want to go back and reject modernity … I think we should help them. We ought to bomb them back to the Stone Age.”

Even Democrat Dianne Feinstein, normally a friend of the Obama administration, chimed in.

“I think I’ve learned one thing about this president, and that is he’s very cautious,” she said. “Maybe in this instance, too cautious.”

Maybe. But “Bomb ’em! Burn ’em! Whateva!” does not a policy make. It will eliminate many ISIS butchers, but it will kill even more innocents in an already blood-drenched Syria.

And their deaths, in turn, may create even more radical Islamists, sufficiently radical to carry barbarism beyond even that of the recent beheadings.

Forty years ago, New York Times reporter David Halberstam, after a stint as the paper’s correspondent in Vietnam, wrote The Making of a Quagmire.

Vietnam was certainly that. It mingled decolonization, communist ideology and organization, religious tension, guerilla tactics and Cold War nostrums.

The mixture was thick and deep, so thick and deep that American bombs and napalm beyond measure couldn’t save us. We departed, less 58,000 Americans whose names built a wall on Washington’s National Mall.

The history of the Middle East, going as far back as the birth of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, offers a quagmire every bit as dangerous as Vietnam.

The past quarter century, in particular, has demonstrated that to the United States, from the seizing of 54 hostages from the American Embassy in Tehran to the bombing of the World Trade Center to 9/11 and two ensuing wars.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, “Bomb ’em! Burn ’em! Whateva!” pretty much defined American policy. In both countries, American troops surged behind enormous firepower, but firepower could not contain the tribalism and religious fundamentalism that swept across the region.

Bombs and missiles can only do so much, troops on the ground only a smidgen more.

And while both do what they can, the Americans’ revulsion at ISIS beheadings will turn once again to war weariness.

It’s a quagmire, and Obama knows it. Getting into one is easy. Getting out, not so much.