Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Finding Fault

“First of all, we waited too long. We let the Islamic state build up its money, capability and strength and weapons while it was still in Syria. Then when [ISIS] moved into Iraq, the Sunni Muslims didn’t object to their being there and about a third of the territory in Iraq was abandoned.”
—Former President Jimmy Carter, October 7 in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
There is a refrain that I am hearing repeated more and more. It is the notion that the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, was virtually created whole-cloth by blundering American foreign and military policy.

To be sure, this is now a standard Democratic talking point. It is trotted out as a defense whenever Republicans criticize the Obama administration as being weak and feckless in the Middle East. And, of course, Republicans have their own contrasting talking point—that ISIS flourished in (if was not actually spawned by) a vacuum created by President Obama’s rush to get out of Iraq.

But it is not just political hacks who keep repeating the line about ISIS being a virtual creation of the Bush administration. It is a common theme among journalists and analysts in the UK and Ireland and undoubtedly many other countries. And also among many U.S. writers. Journalist/author Robin Wright could be heard on NPR’s Fresh Air a couple of weeks ago saying that the invasion of Iraq was the worst foreign policy blunder in U.S. history. In his book Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick (as one book review sums up) “blames the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 as the single most pivotal factor in the organization’s creation.” Warrick’s narrative focuses largely on Jordanian Abu Musab al Zarqawi who, he says, founded (before the Iraq invasion, by the way) the group that would evolve into ISIS.

The idea that really bad actors and bad events in the Middle East are the direct result of American (or, more generally, Western) actions has a long history. For generations academics and many journalists have laid the blame for this conflict or that war at the feet of imperial legacy. And of course historical events like the crusades and colonization cannot help but have had a major impact on the history of region. (Interestingly, however, westerners who lecture guiltily about the crusades never seem to bring up the fact that in the eighth century Muslims conquered all of Europe’s Iberian Peninsula and advanced into France as far as Poitiers and Tours.)

The mindset that every major thing that happens in the Middle East is caused by Western interloping seems somehow, well, western-centric and dismissive of other peoples as having a hand in their own destinies. Saying ISIS was “created” by America frankly makes it sound like some sort of comic book super-villain who starts out as a perfectly normal guy but suddenly turns evil because he fell into a vat of chemicals.

The most interesting take I have seen so far on the genesis of ISIS was in a Washington Post piece last April by Liz Sly, the paper’s Beirut bureau chief. Her sources were telling her that, while ISIS’s fighting and dying is done by recruits from many countries, the organization is run by Iraqis who are former Baathist military officers. In the end, her thrust was the same as Wright’s and Warrick’s—that the U.S. is at fault. But, according to Sly, the fault was specifically in disbanding Saddam Hussein’s army and turning all those armed men loose with no prospects in the new Shi’ite-run Iraq. This analysis is actually pretty hard to refute. Even people who defend the invasion of Iraq concede that the occupation was not well handled. But while many critics insisted that the very act of occupation was the cardinal sin, does it not seem that the problem of ISIS was caused by not having a more effective occupation? The Shi’ite majority had no interest in integrating the Sunni minority that had ruled over them under the brutal Saddam. If the U.S. had exerted more of its authority as the occupying power (instead of leaving Nouri al-Maliki and Jalal Talabani to their own devices) to ensure a more inclusive system of government, might it not have helped? In other words, perhaps the problem was not U.S. meddling but, rather, not enough U.S. meddling. After all, Iraq was largely peaceful (at least relative to its recent history) when Barack Obama took office in 2009. In fact, it is was so much so that (and it’s hard to remember this now) the president and Vice-President Joe Biden, in talking about the U.S. withdrawal, both touted Iraq as an American achievement.

What is interesting about Sly’s article is her description of how seamlessly Baathism mutated into a radical Islamic movement. “By the time U.S. troops invaded in 2003,” she wrote, “Hussein had begun to tilt toward a more religious approach to governance, making the transition from Baathist to Islamist ideology less improbable for some of the disenfranchised Iraqi officers.” She also noted that the regime brutality was ever increasing, thus presaging ISIS’s savagery. “In the last two years of Hussein’s rule,” she noted, “a campaign of beheadings, mainly targeting women suspected of prostitution and carried out by his elite Fedayeen unit, killed more than 200 people, human rights groups reported at the time.”

While this isn’t the point Sly was making, her article gives the unmistakable impression that Baathism under Saddam was quite possibly on track to evolve into something like the Islamic State even without American interference. After all, well before the invasion of Iraq, Saddam had invaded and fought wars with neighboring countries and had committed atrocities (including the use of weapons of mass destruction) on his own people. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the situation in the region would be hunky-dory today if the U.S. had kept all its troops at home during the past decade and a half. And you cannot even be sure that the region’s bad actors would have left the West alone absent the Iraq invasion. After all, the 9/11 attacks happened before the Iraq invasion.

Of course, there is no way we can ever know what might have (or might not have) occurred if things had happened differently. And that, ultimately, is the problem with the easy dismissal of complicated developments abroad as being entirely the result of the actions of just one of many actors in a complex world.

No comments:

Post a Comment