The Political Animal

The Causes of ISIS

Establishing what caused ISIS has become, for many, something of a cause. I have not researched exactly when the debate began – what was, as it were, the cause of the debate over the cause of ISIS – but certainly soon after its sweep from Syria into Iraq began, and unsurprisingly if even earlier, people began to seek to account for it.

Aside from the customary ambient smoke of conspiratorial accounts, an immediate choice was the Obama administration’s obvious utter failure, post withdrawal from Iraq, to anticipate and clandestinely target the organization. Soon enough, another “cause” came to supersede that one, that of the Iraq War, and the forces it unleashed (I choose that dead metaphorical verb purposefully) across the region. The argument rages on, but let us recognize in considering it, the ideological war behind it. The initial offering, above, comforts supporters of the Iraq War, the second contests it on behalf of the war’s opponents. Who lost China, the quintessential Cold War ideological contest in political historiography, has been replaced now by who caused ISIS.

The latest entry in the contest comes from Kyle W. Orton in “How Saddam Hussein Gave Us ISIS,’ in The New York Times. It is a fine and enlightening piece and a much needed addition to the historical account. Orton explains how the Iraqi Baath party transformed over Hussein’s rule from a secular party into a party both strategically and peformatively Islamist, if not authentically so. What further interests me about the essay begins with the “gave us” in the title. Like my “unleashed,” it is an imprecise substitute for “caused,” which is itself a word, going back to Aristotle’s four causes, that is conceptually complex.

Most arguments about causation, especially the political, are simplistic. When one claims that the Iraq War caused ISIS, or that Saddam Hussein “gave us” us ISIS, what exactly is one saying? Is the writer seriously asserting that a phenomenon – this complex phenomenon – had but a single cause, without which it would never have arisen? One hopes not, but when the argument over causation is a cover for partisan campaigns to cast blame, it frequently descends to that kind of reductionism.

Intentional or not, Orton’s argument deflects responsibility from the destabilizing effects of the American invasion of Iraq. (It also adds considerable weight to the always reasonable pre-invasion concern that Hussein might cooperate with Al-Qaeda.) As he wrote even before the Times op-ed, at greater length and with even richer support, “The Islamic State Was Coming Without the Invasion of Iraq.” Here we have the further uncertain formulation “was coming.” But as Orton acknowledges in the Times,

The Arab nationalist Baath Party, which seized power in 1968 in a coup in which Mr. Hussein played a key role, had a firmly secular outlook. This held through the 1970s, even as religiosity rose among the Iraqi people. [Emphasis added]


In some respects, Mr. Hussein’s government was following rather than leading public opinion, as Iraqis fell back on their faith for solace under the harsh international sanctions. [Emphasis added]

In the latter observation, we have the introduction of yet another cause – post Gulf War economic sanctions – that segments of the anti-Western left will be happy to entertain. The first observation opens up a whole history of Islamist developments over the twentieth century. There was, says Orton, a rise in religiosity prior to and independent of Hussein’s transformations, a rise he as much as followed as led. We know, from Saudi Arabia to Iran to the Muslim Brotherhood and beyond, that both Sunni and Shia developments were emerging, theologically and geopolitically, in conflict with each other, with existing secular governments, and with the West. When we seek to assign causation, when we seek to ascribe blame, how reductively do we simplify to reach a point other than that of genuine, useful understanding?

The verbs matter, as they reflect – if we do not wish to achieve the reductive simplicity that passseth understanding – what aspect of causality we clearly intend. Orton claims Saddam Hussein gave us ISIS. If he means laid considerable groundwork for it, Orton makes a strong case. He also argues that ISIS was coming without the Iraq War. That may well be – again, he makes a strong case – but part of the open question is when, and much of what we should be thinking about when we question, meaningfully, what caused ISIS, is what caused the rise of ISIS now, under these conditions.

Orton closes in the Times, by stating,

The Islamic State was not created by removing Saddam Hussein’s regime; it is the afterlife of that regime.

The first clause, as to “created,” seems clearly true; the second clause, with its vaguer ideation of “afterlife,” only partially so.

In his earlier essay, Orton offered in closing,

To put it simply, the Saddam regime’s reputation for keeping a lid on religious militancy and sectarianism is exactly wrong; by commission and omission it brought both things to levels Iraq has scarcely ever known in its history.

Here, the judgment seems properly the reverse, that the last clause is, as Orton so well argues, clearly true. As to the well-known, also dead metaphorical “lid” of the first clause, lids are popped or blown, their contents, already there, released into the surroundings. Dogs, already living and breathing, and straining for release, to track or attack, are unleashed. Waters, already rising, “burst” dams, “break” levies. Pick your metaphor, choose your verb. The Iraq War, like all acts, caused some things to happen, and when it comes to the good and the bad, you don’t get to pick and choose.



The Wisdom of G.H.W. Bush – and Barack Obama


Whatever one’s judgment about the goal of the Gulf War of 1991, it is difficult to argue (which hardly means that no one will) that it was not superbly managed and prosecuted. The deeply and broadly experienced George Herbert Walker Bush, in contrast to his shallow but zealously missionary son G.W., famously chose, after driving Iraqi troops from Kuwait, not to pursue the Iraqi army to Baghdad. The subsequent abandonment of the Iraqi Shia to Saddam’s revenge after Bush encouraged them to rise up was the war’s one great screw up. That tawdry entailment of proxy geopolitics gets balanced in the historical memory with the multiple subsequent lessons of how flinty is the taste for battle on behalf of people who otherwise despise you. One weighs that loss against the gain of the no fly zone and the genuine rescue of Iraq’s Kurds, who gained not only their lives but the opportunity, perhaps never more boldly seized, to build a vibrant society under constant threat of tyranny.

Son G.W., we know, screwed the pooch to world record levels in pursuing mock wars of high minded liberation. His Iraq war is over, managed carefully to an end, in the circumstances presented to  him, by Barack Obama. But G.W. screwed up more than one war in display of the anti-wisdom of his father. In Afghanistan, with the Taliban driven from power and a base for Al-Qaeda eliminated, its leadership driven from the country, the Gulf War model would have suggested declaring victory and moving on to what should have been the only Long War, against transnational terrorizing Islamism. Instead, stuck in Iraq, Bush and NATO piddled about half-heartedly for six years in a further war of nation building and battle against insurgency.

When Obama came to office, he felt again compelled by circumstance , as well as the promise of the military and the wonder what if we hadn’t screwed it up for six years, to pursue a truer commitment and see if that would make the difference in eliminating AfPac as a future base for terrorism. Obama made a major commitment, but he did not go all in, as the martial voices of the imperial GOP will always have us do, sending legion after legion into battle. Do any but unanchored GOP presidential candidates and the usual Republican Cato the Elders still believe that creating a stable, reliable ally in Afghanistan is an achievable end, a fight worth fighting any longer?

This week’s Quran burnings at Bagram Airforce Base, and the ugly murderous reaction to the incident, reinforce two lessons at least. It is very little reported why the Qurans were considered fuel for a fire. The evidence is that Taliban prisoners were passing messages to each other by writing in Qurans. Apparently, in another life affirming expression of God’s eternal love, this is a blasphemy calling for death. These Qurans might have been used for a propaganda victory over the Taliban. Well, we have our Seal Team Sixes and we have our book burnings. Life and war are messy, and screw ups really are the norm, you know. But a mistake is a mistake, and a burned book, even on purpose, is a burned book. The homicidal rage that has followed it is a degeneracy of human development that not many Americans will care to accept in return for the expenditure of American resources, blood, and will.

Obama, though, has seen this coming. Not all that long, really, after he upped the ante in Afghanistan, he began to gather his chips toward the edge of the table. He will get us out as best he can, playing the cards he was dealt. He will continue to fight the war Bush mostly mouthed, the diffuse and international war of terror groups and replicating cells. He will get no credit for that from his political enemies. You have to wonder how much credit he will ever get for devoting so much of the energy of his two presidential terms, should he get them, to carefully cleaning up the war making misadventures of his predecessor. History judges those kinds of achievements, which are a little too subtle, and honest, for the campaign trail.

Similarly, against the first push he faced to initiate a war of his own, in Libya, Obama refused to commit American ground troops or even to engage without an international coalition he insisted take the lead. This was not Roman enough for the GOP, but Libya is not looking so swell right now. Obama managed to meet what was pressed upon him as a moral obligation, to save those threatened by Gaddafi, but like Bush the Elder in the Gulf, he did not over commit the country to its detriment. In the same way, against those who would have Obama bomb Iranian nuclear sites now, and those for whom no amount of negotiation with an obdurate foe is ever enough until it has managed a course to failure, Obama seeks to work the force of arms against the force of genuine and biting international policy sanctions. If the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapons program is somehow peacefully diffused, it will be one of the signal geopolitical achievements of our era, and it will be Obama’s.

It is hard not to believe that G.H.W. would not have enjoyed a policy conversation with the current president more than one with his son. That would earn Obama condemnation from opposing quarters, but that’s pretty much the way it has been. But the truth is that in between the two men, you can’t find a surer presidential hand in foreign policy.

Now what Obama has to do in the next nine months is not break any pledges on taxes.


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Culture Clash

Go to the Theater this Sunday

Last Sunday on the sad red earth saw the thirteenth and concluding installment of the film noir Double Down. (You can catch up with DD here. Man murders his rich identical twin, assumes the twin’s identity, and pursues the same woman, a detective, as a lover – what’s not to like?) Beginning this weekend, the Sunday Matinee turns to drama, in a play that treats the kind of political themes that interest so many readers of this blog.

What We Were Thinking Of is a drama of 60s generational conflict set against the backdrop of the culture wars and the Gulf War of 1991. Like another world, isn’t it?

1971. When you’re young, intellectual and arrogant, violence can be twisted into a justifiable act. But 20 years later, the consequences of your actions can suddenly come back to haunt you.


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