While America pats itself on the back for taking on Islamic militants in Iraq, it's worth remembering that it's fighting a monster of its own creation.
ISIS social media image of ISIS fighters parading with captured Iraq security forces vehicles
History seems to start just before every humanitarian intervention, the full and often compromising account of what led to the latest war in some place where they are always fighting—the record of who killed who with weapons from which government—lost amid the deafening roar of Western self-satisfaction, the world's ostensibly do-gooding imperial powers relishing the opportunity to be admired as simple concerned bystanders who could stand by no more. Whenever an altruistic set of airstrikes begins, the average news consumer—and I called my mother to check—is left with the impression that bombs are being dropped on bad people who are doing bad things (no one really knows why) by good people trying to do their best.
So it is with Iraq, where once again the dropping of explosive ordinance is being reported on in humanitarian terms with little in the way of historical context. “Obama authorizes airstrikes in Iraq to stop genocide,” reports a headline in USA Today, the newspaper you read when on vacation. The story provides some basic facts on the Islamic State, the Sunni extremist group that has taken over much of Northern Iraq and nearly all of Syria’s oil fields, but we learn little about its motivations, how it came to be and what role those who now want to bomb it may have played in its creation. What we learn, courtesy of President Barack Obama, is that “America is coming to help.”
It warms the heart, this altruistic offer of help from the leader of a nation-state motivated by rational self-interest, but what’s left out—what's always left out—is any real context. What led us to this particular moment in time? Was there anything that the benevolent governments in the West maybe did before, like perhaps kill a half-million or more people in Iraq, that would drive so many people to an Islamic militant group? To ask is to be anti-American, or at least a huge buzzkill, but the answer is unequivocal: yes, yes, at-least-half-a-million-times yes. The US absolutely created the problem it’s now courageously “coming to help” solve, and that it created that problem by dropping lots of bombs should trouble those who now argue that dropping some more is somehow a serious solution.
When I say the United States “created” the Islamic State (or “ISIS” as it's sometimes known), one may very well think I'm also about to tell you that jet fuel can't melt steel and that Bush knocked down the towers. But this is no convoluted conspiracy involving holograms and crisis actors. It’s quite simple and tragic: The United States invaded Iraq, killed an ungodly amount of people who had friends and family who loved them, unleashed a wave of terrorism across the Middle East—turns out, watching one's mother die in a US airstrike does not nurture moderation—then installed and armed a sectarian Shiite leader in Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, who proceeded to kill, torture, and generally alienate the Sunni population of Iraq, which is now, not coincidentally, lending support to the Islamic State’s vicious brand of Sunni extremism.
By arming Iraq's military, the United States also effectively armed ISIS, which captured much of Iraq's high-powered weaponry when it swept through the north of the country. The US also facilitated the shipment of weapons to a hodgepodge of rebel groups fighting in Syria, with some of those weapons no doubt finding their way into the hands of those whose commitment to liberal democracy is no stronger than dictator-for-life Bashar Assad’s. Add all that up and you have, as with the Taliban and al-Qaeda before, another instance of the United States arming a future foe and then creating the conditions necessary for them to thrive.
“What a mess,” said Peter Van Buren, a former State Department official who oversaw reconstruction efforts in Iraq (an experience that turned him into a whistle-blower). When I asked him if he agreed that the US government helped create ISIS, Van Buren was blunt: "Absolutely." The 2003 invasion turned Iraq into a training ground for radical Islamic groups—and gave legions of young men a reason to fight for them, a recipe for disaster compounded by US support for a sectarian strongman. “Maliki has been our man in Iraq, or at least we have believed that, since the US installed him in 2006,” he told me. "From day one, Maliki has alienated and persecuted the Sunnis,” so it should come as no surprise that many would prefer a Sunni extremist group to a repressive Shia state.
Photo via WhiteHouse.gov
There are some figures in the mainstream blaming America for ISIS, but for all the wrong reasons. Hillary Clinton, the once and future presidential candidate, told a former Israeli prison guard turned journalist at The Atlantic that America had created ISIS by not sufficiently committing itself to the war in Syria.
“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton said. An editor at The Wall Street Journal likewise suggested that ISIS was empowered by a failure to take “decisive action” in Syria, never mind that the “decisive action” politicians like Clinton had in mind was aimed at taking out Assad, not ISIS, one of the groups fighting his regime.
President Obama has also been busy massaging recent history with the help of a compliant elite press. In an interview with a mustachioed horse's ass at The New York Times, Obama rejected the idea that insufficient American arms-peddling created ISIS, arguing that the “idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms” to the Syrian opposition and have that lead to something good “was never in the cards.”
What Obama didn't mention, and his interviewer didn't deign to go into, was that the United States did in fact arm the Syrian opposition, mostly by proxy. In March 2013, the Times itself reported that, “With help from the CIA, Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria's opposition fighters.” The “scale of shipments,” according to government officials quoted in the piece, “was very large,” though some in the Syrian opposition expressed uneasiness at the time, telling the Times that “whoever was vetting which groups receive the weapons was doing an inadequate job.”
But those details are lost in the rush to humanitarian war since they suggest that a past intervention sold on humanitarian grounds failed to prevent the evil that exists today—and probably made it worse—to the point that the President of the United States won’t even rebut his hawkish critics by pointing out that he actually did arm Syria’s rebels.
“Be that as it may, professor, what do we now?” a concerned citizen might ask. “Do we let people die because you hate America?”
Well, friend: there is a genuine humanitarian crisis in Iraq and, since it helped create the disaster that is now unfolding, the United States does have a duty to help out. But—and this is really important, guys—bombing Iraq has never once made the situation there better. It has actually made things a lot worse, leading to body counts beyond the most committed jihadist’s wildest dreams (while creating loads of new jihadists, the presence of which can be cited to justify the next intervention).
The absence of a good answer to a problem like ISIS is not a good reason to embrace a snake-oil cure that has proven time and again to be worse than the disease. The US military is not a humanitarian organization, nor should it be expected to behave like one. If America wants to help, it should offer those fleeing the violence in Iraq the ability to seek refuge in the United States—and promise those who stay behind that it will never ever bomb them again.
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