American Talk

Don't blame Obama for Islamic State

Islamic State

Islamic State fighters in Anbar Province, Iraq. (Wikimedia)

This week marked one year since the Islamic State’s blitz takeover of Mosul, Iraq's second largest town. Since then, a Republican foreign-policy consensus has emerged in Washington, which blames the breakdown in Iraqi security and the rise of Sunni jihadists on one person: Barack Obama.

From presidential candidates to conservative pundits to centre-right think tanks, the argument goes like this: when George W. Bush left office in 2009, Iraq was largely at peace. But the “premature” withdrawal of all American troops in December 2011 enabled all the region's sectarian rivalries to rise to the surface.

Subsequently, al Qaida’s successor Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, ruthlessly exploited a security vacuum in north-west Iraq a year ago.

America’s disengagement, we are told, also allowed the then Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to push his aggressive Shiite sectarian leadership, which disenfranchised many Sunnis from the political process. Many of those Sunnis, including former Iraqi military officers under Saddam Hussein, are now converts to Islamic State. Others are torn between the Sunni jihadists and the regime of Maliki’s Shiite successor Haider al-Abadi.

In retrospect, it’s a plausible argument that may haunt Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state at the time of the withdrawal, at next year’s presidential election.

But foreign policy, like life, is not conducted in hindsight. Nor is America an empire; it's a republic. Moreover, the story of America’s withdrawal from Iraq, including the explanation for the rise of Islamic State, is more complicated than the prevailing wisdom suggests.

What is often overlooked is that US troops left Iraq according to the timetable Bush himself had negotiated with Maliki. In late 2008, Bush had signed a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government that set a deadline for the removal of all US troops by the end of 2011. By keeping a residual military force for three years following his election, Obama honoured Bush’s commitment.

Remember, too, that Obama won the Democratic presidential nomination largely because he opposed what had become a widely unpopular war, which Hillary Clinton had supported in 2002. According to Gallup in August 2007, 81 per cent of Democratic voters said the war was a mistake.

Obama also won the presidential election against John McCain largely because he promised to end the war that two-thirds of Americans, according to a March 2008 Washington Post–ABC News poll, said was not worth fighting.

Moreover, Obama’s decision to withdraw troops from Iraq met overwhelming approval among the American people. In October 29–30 2011, Gallup showed 75 per cent support.

The US withdrawal was popular in Iraq, too. Although Washington was prepared to leave some 3,000 trainers, the various figures in Maliki’s ruling coalition — such as Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr — firmly rejected the offer to extend the mandate. Baghdad also refused to grant any US trainers the legal immunity from local prosecution that usually defines Status of Forces agreements in nations where US forces are based.

It is disingenuous to say, as many neoconservatives contend, Iran’s strategic advance in Iraq is simply due to the President’s failure to deploy ground troops to fight Sunni jihadists during the past year.

The truth is Tehran’s presence in Baghdad was already evident before the US pull-out in 2011. General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Brigade, spearheaded Iran’s political and military involvement in Iraq a decade ago. Tehran also helped secure Maliki’s presidency in 2006.

Iran’s strengthened hand in Iraq has less to do with Obama’s withdrawal and more to do with what preceded his presidency. After all, it was the invasion in 2003 and subsequent democratic elections that allowed the majority Shiites, long repressed by Sunni leaders, to gain power for the first time in Arab history.

The Shiite-run regime in Baghdad, egged on by Tehran’s Mullahs, has been more interested in seeking revenge on the Sunni rivals than in building a nation.

Not surprisingly, many marginalised Sunnis, resenting their loss of power and influence in the post–Saddam Hussein era, believed their only recourse was first an insurgency against the US-led occupation and then jihad against the Shia regime in Baghdad.

There have been no Nelson Mandelas in Mesopotamia. Nor has Iraq been a viable nation state since it slid into chaos, violence, and sectarian war after the downfall of Saddam's dictatorship.

Obama’s critics are right to say the US troop surge in 2007 managed to slow the pace of Iraq’s disintegration by creating a semblance of peace between Sunni tribes and Shiite-led government.

It is also true the withdrawal in 2011 removed all that was holding Iraq’s rival Sunni and Shiite groups in check.

What the President’s critics can’t acknowledge, however, is the taproot of the crisis: the invasion of Iraq, which unleashed all those age-old sectarian hatreds that continue to haunt the region.