December 15, 2015
Where ISIS came from
Had Congress not authorized President George W. Bush the authority to illegally invade a country on the far side of the world that was no threat to us, and to fund the occupation and bloody counter-insurgency war that followed, the reign of terror ISIS has imposed upon large swathes of Syria and Iraq and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, the Sinai, San Bernardino and elsewhere would never have happened.
Among the many scholars, diplomats, and political figures who warned of such consequences was a then-Illinois state senator named Barack Obama, who noted that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would "only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda" and other like-minded extremists.
It is ironic, then, that most of those who went ahead and supported the invasion of Iraq anyway are now trying to blame him for the rise of ISIS. These include Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, who was among the minority of Congressional Democrats to vote for war authorization. In an August 2014 interview in The Atlantic, she claimed that Obama's refusal to get the United States more heavily involved in the Syrian civil war "left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled."
There are serious questions as to whether providing additional military support to some of the motley and disorganized local Syrian militias labeled "moderates" by Washington could have done much to prevent the takeover of parts of Syria by ISIS. It is a powerful organized force led by experienced veterans of the former Iraqi Army under Saddam Hussein and flush with advanced American weaponry captured from the new U.S.-organized army.
In addition to the military leadership, the political leadership of ISIS is also primarily Iraqi, many of whom were radicalized by internment and torture in U.S.-operated prisons. These include the ISIS "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a one-time Sufi-turned-Salafist extremist. As the New York Times observed, "At every turn, Mr. Baghdadi's rise has been shaped by the United States' involvement in Iraq -- most of the political changes that fueled his fight, or led to his promotion, were born directly from some American action."
Recent research by an Oxford scholar based on interviews with ISIS prisoners in Iraq noted how the younger recruits were drawn not by religious zealotry but by bitterness over how they and their families had suffered under U.S. occupation and the corrupt and repressive US-backed government in Baghdad.
Under U.S. occupation, Iraq's two major bastions of secular nationalism -- the armed forces and the civil service -- were effectively abolished, only to be replaced by partisans of sectarian Shia parties and factions, some of which were closely allied to Iran. Sunni extremists, believing Iraqi Shias had betrayed their country to Persians and Westerners, began targeting Shia civilian neighborhoods with terrorist attacks. The Iraqi regime and allied militia then began systematically kidnapping and murdering thousands of Sunni men. The so-called "sectarian" conflict that emerged 10 years ago, then, was not simply a continuation of a centuries-old internecine struggle -- indeed, mixed neighborhoods, shared mosques, and intermarriage was widespread prior to the U.S. invasion. It was instead a direct consequence of U.S. policies.