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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Presidential mushiness on ISIS attacks

An undated image posted by the Raqqa Media Center of the Islamic State group shows a fighter waving their flag from inside a captured government fighter jet in Syria.

AP/File

An undated image posted by the Raqqa Media Center of the Islamic State group shows a fighter waving their flag from inside a captured government fighter jet in Syria.

It’s getting very personal between President Obama and the Islamic State militant group that beheaded a second US hostage — and for that, Obama has no one to blame but himself.

“I’m back, Obama, and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State,” said the masked fighter with the British accent, who stars in the gruesome video showing the beheading of journalist Steven J. Sotloff and appears to be the same person who also beheaded journalist James Foley.

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In response to Sotloff’s murder, Obama vowed to punish the militants behind it. “Our objective is clear, and that is: degrade and destroy,” he said before the start of a NATO summit in Wales.

It’s doubtful any jihadists are overly intimidated by Obama’s latest remarks, given all the presidential mushiness that preceded them. Instead, they will use his threats to strengthen their own position, for they no doubt agree with the late Osama bin Laden’s doctrine of power: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.”

However, some of us prefer a smart horse, which was once Obama’s claim to fame.

RELATED: What is the Islamic State militant group?

We do not need empty swagger from a president, or knee-jerk military action. Calmness and thoughtfulness are admirable qualities in crises. But if that’s what Obama is trying to communicate, he has been missing the mark. He has badly mismanaged the image of how he is dealing with the brutal group called ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) — from the much-maligned round of golf he played right after decrying Foley’s death to last week’s presidential declaration that “we don’t have a strategy yet” to deal with ISIS.

Obama also took deserved heat for a statement from an earlier New Yorker interview during which the president was asked to assess the potential capabilities of ISIS.

Somewhere between Bush’s cowboy machismo and Obama’s above-it-all posturing is that quality called leadership.

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“I think the analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said then. Asked recently about the analogy, a White House spokesman said the president’s JV remark “was not singling out” ISIS. However, David Remnick, the interviewer, specifically refers to the takeover of Fallujah, which was spearheaded by ISIS. A Washington Post “Fact Checker” report, which deconstructs the New Yorker interview, notes that Remnick described Obama’s response as “an uncharacteristically flip analogy,” and it does seem flip for a president to trash talk terrorists as if they were NBA players he might someday meet on a playoff court.

It’s not the first time a president has been criticized for employing the wrong tone with terrorists — or the first time it has gotten personal between them. It happened after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when President George W. Bush said of bin Laden, “I want justice. And there’s an old poster out West, I recall, that says, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’ ” After that statement, bin Laden issued a videotaped message mocking the “infidel” Bush.

RELATED: Is ISIS an army of nihilists? Just the opposite

Somewhere between Bush’s cowboy machismo and Obama’s above-it-all posturing is that quality called leadership. It may not stop terrorists from carrying out their agenda, but it reassures American citizens in uncertain times. What’s lacking now is what Obama has been able to project in the past, the sense that he’s the grown-up in the room. Instead, there’s a feeling that when it comes to ISIS, he’s the one suiting up a JV team up against varsity-level butchery.

The deaths of Foley and Sotloff are horrible, but the president shouldn’t be pushed into misguided response. Obama’s message is important, but in the end, implementing the right strategy is more important. Obama has shown the killer instinct before — bin Laden’s demise is proof of that, along with America’s unrepentant drone strategy.

US airstrikes are weakening ISIS in Iraq, said Obama. Now the issue is whether the United States will be pushed to take the fight to Syria. Obama is holding back on that, seeking a broad coalition of international support.

Meanwhile, the masked man with a knife at the throat of a helpless victim is goading a US president. He wants to make it personal, but Obama should let him know by his words and actions that it’s bigger than that.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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