In today’s exceedingly partisan environment, right-wing pundits are quick to blame President Obama for the current situation in Iraq and the subsequent rise of the Islamic State. Purveyors of this opinion are eager to point out that when President Bush left office, he left behind a stable and functioning Iraqi state. In truth, what Bush left behind was a quasi-Iraqi state, led by Iraqis hand-picked by his administration, funded by American tax dollars.
Bush’s long term goal for Iraq was for American military advisors to remain in the country until its new coalition government was capable of functioning and maintaining security on its own. Then came President Obama, whose foremost campaign promise was to end the war in Iraq. Obama capitalized on the widespread frustration with US involvement in Iraq, presenting himself as an alternative to John McCain, who was widely perceived as someone who would continue on the path of Bush-era foreign policy.
Six years after he left office, is it still fair to blame President Bush for the current situation in Iraq? In short, absolutely. Is this to say that President Obama hasn’t made his fair share of foreign policy blunders, with many more to come? Absolutely not. Critics of Obama insist that his 2011 deadline for the withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq was premature, and that the coalition government was not yet ready to take full responsibility. This is certainly true, but so is the reality that no amount of time, money, or effort could have created a lasting Iraqi government.
To understand the current situation, we have to look back at the politics that led up to this point. The result of the 2003 US-led invasion was the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the ruling Ba’ath party. The Ba’ath party, while entirely comprised of Sunni Muslims, was a secular government. However, Saddam and members of his regime were responsible for the brutal persecution of Shias and extermination of entire Kurdish communities. This brutality only worsened the centuries-old hostility between the two branches of Islam, and would later cause Shias to retaliate.
After Saddam’s government was overthrown, the US instated a Shiite government under the leadership of Nouri al-Maliki. A witch hunt took place to identify and prevent all those who had been involved in Saddam’s regime or associated with the prior government from having a position in the new government. This effectively put hundreds of thousands of Sunni soldiers, administrators, and local government employees out of work. This was arguably the most reckless policy of the Bush Administration. In the years after the ousting of Saddam, the US invested over $60 billion dollars in grants to rebuild Iraq, with $25 billion going directly towards the formation of a new Iraqi military.
What have we to show for this? The incompetence of the Iraqi government is staggering. The Iraqi people are impoverished, and there are so many suicide and car bombings throughout the country on a daily basis that many news outlets have stopped reporting them. Over the summer, the Iraqi army came under intense scrutiny after entire divisions deserted their posts when confronted by ISIS militants. Iraqi soldiers stripped off their uniforms and fled, leaving behind advanced weaponry, along with scores of tanks, trucks, and armored personnel carriers all supplied by the US government. In many cases, the soldiers’ efforts were futile. Islamic State militants moved with astonishing speed and often captured and massacred the fleeing troops.
In mid-September, Congress authorized President Obama’s initiative to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels in an effort to combat ISIS. One would hope that Obama and those in Congress might have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors, primarily of Ronald Reagan and George H.W Bush. During the 1980’s, the Reagan Administration directed the CIA to train and arm the Afghan mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet Union. President Reagan referred to these men as “the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers”. Not long after their meeting at the White House, these men would take their American training and arms and become the founding fathers of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. After Reagan came President George H.W Bush, who supplied Saddam Hussein, of all people, with billions of dollars in economic aid, an enormous stockpile of chemical and traditional weapons, and invaluable military intelligence to use in his fight against Iran. Many of these weapons would later be used by Saddam to exterminate Kurdish and Shiite communities, which is one of the factors that led George W. Bush to advocate for Saddam’s removal.
President Bush accused Saddam of being “a homicidal dictator who is addicted to weapons of mass destruction.” Why did Saddam only become a homicidal dictator when he started gassing a few thousand Kurds in Halabja, when he’d been gassing tens of thousands of Iranian troops for years? The irony is incredible when you consider the fact that it was President Bush’s own father who enabled Saddam and fed his addiction.
There’s a saying that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t force it to drink. When Arab nations are forced into freedom, they have a habit of turning to religion instead of democracy and secularism. Sunnis will vote for Sunnis, and Shiites will vote for Shiites. This is something we’ve seen over and over in recent years, from Egypt to Gaza to Libya. What many Americans fail to understand is that elections do not necessarily engender democracy, a concept which is foreign in many Arab nations. This is the fundamental flaw in our perceived understanding of Arab culture, and certainly President Bush’s most consequential oversight regarding his foreign policy. It is because of this actuality that in most cases, Arab nations are better off under a secular dictator than a democratically elected leader. No one is arguing that Saddam Hussein was a moral, upstanding citizen, but it is difficult to assert that Iraq and its neighbors are better off without him.
The sudden and abrupt rise of ISIS in Iraq came as a shock to many in the West, but who’s to blame Sunnis for jumping at this opportunity after a decade of hardship and oppression at the hands of Shias? In hindsight, we should have predicted this. To some, Obama looks bad because he isn’t winning. This is the result of an inherent lack of understanding of the situation as a whole.
Some liken our relationship with the Middle East to a double edged sword, saying that we can’t win either way. For those purveyors of Greek mythology, a more accurate comparison would be the Hydra. For every head chopped off, two more grow back, each more violent and uncontrollable than the last. For every innocent civilian killed at the hands of American forces, an entire community becomes filled with anti-American sentiment. There have undoubtedly been presidents and particular policies that have inflamed the situation more than others, but what we have to come to terms with is that there is no winning this game.
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