Most pundits predicted it would take a miracle to unsnarl partisan gridlock in DC. Maybe it will take something very non-miraculous, like the beheadings of two American journalists by Islamic radicals.
As Congress wanders back to the nation's capital, pressure is building on President Obama to take action against what is viewed as the fast emerging threat posed by ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The threat is fresh enough, there is even disagreement over what to call it. Obama and others refer to the group as ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Whatever you call it, the Sunni jihadist group has grabbed the attention of average Americans with its videotaped beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The beheadings have universally been denounced, even by groups we call terrorists, as "barbaric."
The executions were accompanied by warnings to stop bombing raids aimed at blunting the ISIS advance in northern Iraq and parts of Syria, where it has established a caliphate and imposed a strict form of Islamic law, along with a visceral intolerance of anyone, Muslim or otherwise, who disagrees. The bombing raids haven't stopped, but the hackles of Americans have been raised.
Predictably, war hawks such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham wrote a New York Times op-ed calling for a forceful response. Less predictably, they said Congress would unite behind Obama if he put up a forceful response.
Polls still reflect an America weary of war and entanglement in a Middle East with plots and subplots that defy the 27-minute American sitcom mentality. Polls do show slumping levels of support for Obama's handling of foreign policy. Watching someone beheaded on television can do a lot to elevate your political blood sugar level.
Reluctantly or not, Obama has stepped up targeted military action, helping the Kurds fend off ISIS, supporting the Iraqis in recapturing a major dam and killing the top al-Shabab leader in Somalia. The President hasn't seemed eager to rush in with "boots on the ground," but he may find military engagement as a paradoxical path to unify international allies as well as quarreling political factions at home.
The latest ISIS beheading, combined with confirmed reports of mass atrocities against people with divergent religious views, may leave Obama with little choice. Obama's "inartful" comment about lacking a strategy to deal with ISIS may have been intended to reference a suite of bad choices he faces, but it also helped to galvanize a bipartisan chorus demanding a strategy with some teeth, even if it is a strategy with strange bedfellows such as Iran and the Assad regime in Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is pushing the envelope with his meddling in Ukraine and Israel has thrown caution to the wind in its effort to undermine Hamas in Gaza. Columnist David Brooks speculated that Putin and ISIS (and maybe Israel) are trying to the change the rules of engagement. Invading territory, purging populations and bombing buildings that include schools and hospitals are tactics viewed as over the line now, but maybe not for long.
Obama and other international leaders may feel a little like British redcoats who couldn't fathom fighting when someone shot at them from behind a tree instead of facing them on a field. We may be in a similar deer-in-the-headlight moment. Then again, killing terrorists with missiles fired from drones operated by soldiers a continent away may have signaled that old norms have been discarded and we are entering a whole new chapter of warfare.