Cue the partisan finger-pointing on Iraq: The left will say the unfolding disaster in Iraq is George W. Bush’s fault. The right will blame President Obama. Who’s correct?
A storm of religious fanaticism, sectarian fury and terrorist brutality has blown into Iraq. As the ultra-radicals from the ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, sweep across the country encountering a retreating Iraqi army, the possible outcomes are perilous.
Iraq could unravel at the seams, breaking into unstable, competing and explosive fragments. The country could become a new base for attacks against the West and against other Middle Eastern regimes. Iran, which has already gone on alert, could move in to support the threatened forces of its protégé, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Washington and London are trying to figure what they should do, and the rest of the Middle East is watching nervously as ISIS issues threats to topple regimes across the region.
The situation brings to mind a reverse version of John F. Kennedy’s famous maxim, “Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.” In this case, it is the failure in Iraq that has multiple credible claims to its paternity.
First of all, the failure lies in Iraq, and on Maliki. He has governed as a sectarian bully, seeking vengeance on Sunnis and dividing an already fragmented country. It is no surprise that his demoralized soldiers shed their uniforms and refused to fight for their country when ISIS fighters moved into Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
ISIS, by the way, is a group of such brutality that even al Qaida decided to sever ties, partly because it disapproved of its methods. At one time it was called al Qaida in Iraq. It seeks to impose an Islamic caliphate and has threatened Jordan, Israel and others.
Beyond the failure of Iraqis to reconcile with each other, there is no question whatsoever that the storm in Syria is tearing up the region.
But let’s look at America’s role.
ISIS is the offspring of a group started by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian jihadist who fought against Americans during the occupation of Iraq.
Without the American intervention launched by Bush, the group might not exist. That is not to say there would be no killings and no sectarianism. Nobody killed more Iraqis than Saddam Hussein. But the current state of affairs is part of the U.S. invasion’s aftermath.
Still, this crisis is also Obama’s child. The extremist group was all but destroyed when U.S forces left Iraq in 2011. Americans killed Zarqawi in 2006. The country had regained a measure of stability. Then the war in Syria started and the militants, renamed ISIS, moved across the border.
Moderate groups, which have implored Washington to give them material support, were overrun by extremists. ISIS conquered a swath of Syrian territory. It opened Islamic courts and schools. It executed civilians and imposed the strictest form of Sharia law.
The strongest fighting forces in Syria are extremists in the anti-Assad opposition and the Syrian regime backed by Iran. The players whose ideology is closest to America are comparatively weak, which makes them less able to recruit and gain support from their own population. ISIS governs parts of Syria. It can train, plan and launch an operation across the border into Iraq as it builds an Islamist state.
In Iraq, Maliki behaved exactly as many experts feared when Americans left. Sectarian fighting intensified, just as predicted. America wanted to leave a residual military force in Iraq after the bulk of U.S. troops withdrew. Some, including military commanders, argued for leaving about 10,000 Americans to put down extremist threats and to prevent Maliki from unwinding the hard-fought gains made after the surge, before Obama came to office.
Obama, who had opposed the war and was eager to end it, wanted a smaller force, no more than 3,000. But negotiations with the Iraqi government over legal protections failed, and no Americans remained.
Between the failure to support moderates in Syria and the inability of the Obama administration to persuade Baghdad to leave some stabilizing ballast in Iraq, the stage was set for the current situation.
Point a finger at the Iraqis, at the Iranians, at the Syrian regime, and by all means at both Bush and Obama. As a brutal terrorist group conquers expanses of the Middle East, however, the blaming does nothing to diminish the scale of this disaster.