How Washington Wrecked Iraq and Created the Islamic State

Chaos is spreading from the Middle East outward as hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees pour into Europe. Over the last decade millions of Iraqis and Syrians have fled their homes. Western governments are proving far better at assigning blame than finding solutions.

The Republican Party meme is that every problem, including in the Middle East, is Barack Obama’s fault. According to the GOP, George W. Bush left America and the world secure. The feckless Obama administration allowed the collapse of Iraq and rise of the Islamic State.

These claims are self-serving, a political fantasy. The George W. Bush administration created many of today’s worst geopolitical problems.

First, President Bush used a terrorist attack conducted by Saudi citizens trained in Afghanistan as an excuse to invade Iraq, a long-time objective of neoconservatives as part of their plan to reorder the Middle East. Administration officials justified preventive war based on the claims of a dishonest informant provided by a crooked émigré hoping to rule Iraq.

War advocates planned to establish a liberal government aligned with the West, governed by an American puppet, and home to bases for U.S. military operations against its neighbors. These deluded plans came to naught.

Second, after ousting the Sunni dictator whose authoritarian rule held the nation together, the administration mishandled the occupation at every turn. The administration established a sectarian regime in Iraq as conflict flared and Iraq disintegrated. The administration underwrote the “Sunni Awakening,” through which Sunni tribes turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq, but Washington failed to achieve its objective of sectarian reconciliation.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq survived, mutating into the Islamic State. The Bush administration then became one of the Islamic State’s chief armorers when Iraqi soldiers fled before ISIS forces, abandoning their expensive, high-tech weapons which U.S. aircraft had to destroy last year.

Third, President Bush failed to win Iraqi approval of a continuing U.S. military presence and governing Status of Forces Agreement. Retired Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno explained: “us leaving at the end of 2011 … was always the plan, we had promised them that we would respect their sovereignty.” Attempting to stay would have been much worse.

Washington would have had leverage only by threatening to withdraw its garrison. U.S. troops would have had little impact on Iraqi political developments, unless augmented and deployed in anti-insurgency operations, which Americans did not support. And a continuing military occupation would have provided radicals from every sectarian viewpoint with a target.

The Obama administration has played a malign, but secondary, role. For instance, President Obama continued to back Iraq’s Maliki government despite the latter’s sectarian excesses. In Syria Washington inadvertently discouraged a negotiated compromise between Bashar al-Assad and the peaceful opposition by insisting on the former’s departure. Then, according to former Finnish president Martti Ahtisarri, the administration rejected a Russian initiative to ease Assad out of power.

The Obama administration turned Libya into another fulcrum of conflict.  Murderous Islamic State acolytes recently filled the void.

President Obama also put U.S. credibility on the line by making ISIS’s sectarian war in Iraq and Syria America’s own. The Obama administration became a source of weapons for the Islamic State after “moderate” insurgents backed by Washington repeatedly surrendered both personnel and arms to more radical forces.

Unfortunately, inadvertently promoting war rather than peace did not begin with the George W. Bush administration. In 1992 Washington torpedoed the Lisbon Agreement, negotiated by Britain’s Lord Peter Carrington and Portugal’s European Commission mediator Jose Cutileiro to end Bosnia’s civil war by providing extensive regional autonomy.

It is impossible to ignore the tragedy now overwhelming the Middle East. As I pointed out in National Interest online: “Washington bears substantial responsibility for the catastrophic conflict. George W. Bush made the most important decisions leading to the destruction of Iraq and rise of ISIL. No candidate unable or unwilling to learn from their disastrous mistakes is qualified to sit in the Oval Office.”