The horrifying footage of the second beheading of an American journalist by ISIS, this time freelancer Steven Joel Sotloff, a 31-year-old from Florida who loved journalism, has again placed the president, and world leaders, in a terrible position. To be clear, the White House is studying the video. To be clear, no one is holding out much hope.
Faced with a group that personifies hatred and evil, a group so cruel and violent as to be widely described as far worse than al-Qaida, what do we do?
With Russia's Vladimir Putin, you can make threats, impose sanctions, create coalitions, and put pressure on his fellow oligarchs — familiar steps from the Cold War.
But what do you do with people who are committed to ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, using American weapons seized in Iraq to murder those who do not share their extremist religious views, and kidnapping, raping, and selling their wives and children? It is not just Americans they hate, and that is no comfort.
And in this morass, who will stop them?
The pressure now is on another of our enemies, Syria's brutal leader, Bashar al-Assad. He made the mistake of thinking, at first, that ISIS would be a distraction from his own troubles, that somehow he could ignore them and purport to be fighting terrorists.
We made the mistake, it appears in retrospect, of not realizing that our best hope might have been to arm the non-ISIS opposition, rather than allowing ISIS to assume control. Or maybe, as some of President Obama's supporters speculate, those weapons would have fallen into ISIS' hands, as well. Water under the bridge.
So, is the enemy of our enemy — the brutal Assad — now our friend because at least he doesn't behead American journalists?
Is this world so frightening that we have no choice but to unofficially ally ourselves with murderers to save ourselves from even more brutal murderers?
My Democratic friends ask me why Obama's ratings are so low when, in terms of bread-and-butter issues, there is more bread and butter on our tables than there was two years ago, when Obama was re-elected. After all, the usual rule is that, absent a major war, boots on the ground somewhere, we Americans tend to vote bread and butter, not war and peace.
Part of the answer, almost certainly, is the nature of midterm elections, the almost inevitable revolt every four years against whichever party holds the White House, which doesn't mean that party won't continue to hold the White House in two more years.
But the other part is the sheer terror of the world and the horrible sense that there is no plan, no strategy, no smart people in a room somewhere who have figured out how to keep our children safe.
Does Obama or Susan Rice or Samantha Power have a clue? This is not about who "spun" what on a Sunday show about Benghazi — the Republicans' favorite political game.
This is about public beheadings, broad-scale ethnic cleansing, news articles suggesting that maybe we somehow need to work with our enemy Assad, and the awful, unsettling feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you feel like there are no grownups in charge, that no one has a plan, much less an answer.
Or, to quote Obama himself, in his August 28 press conference, "We don't have a strategy yet." Clearly. And that is almost as terrifying as the video.
"Rooting out a cancer like ISIL won't be easy, and it won't be quick," the president told the American Legion. "But tyrants and murderers before them should recognize that kind of hateful vision ultimately is no match for the strength and hopes of people who stand together for the security and dignity and freedom that is the birthright of every human being."
Sorry, but that sounds like the usual highfalutin rhetoric to me. Maybe Putin knows what it means. But ISIS? I don't think they play by those rules.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.