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 Political Animal

The (Lost) Art of Democratic Argument – A Day Trip (3)

from Eric Scheie at Classical Values, on the subject of “odious debt” from which a citizenry might be granted relief:

The Cato Institute has another piece on odious debt:

Most debts created by Saddam Hussein in the name of the Iraqi people would qualify as “odious” according to the international Doctrine of Odious Debts. This legal doctrine holds that debts not used in the public interest are not legally enforceable.Far be it from me to compare people like Chris Dodd, Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to Saddam Hussein. They didn’t build huge palaces or massacre their political enemies. But how can reckless policies which are certain to bankrupt a country ever be considered to be in the public interest? Saddam Hussein would say that his were, and I think all tyrants would make the same claim. As to consent, once again, all the Saddams would argue that of course the people consented. Just ask Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; I am sure he will say that the people love him and he is acting in their interest.

But tyranny is tyranny. It doesn’t have to reach the bloodthirsty levels of a Saddam Hussein. Tyranny is arbitrary power, especially illegal and unconstitutional power.

Which raises the question of the day: Are we now living under tyranny?

I sometimes get myself worked up into emotional states, and when I do I try to avoid writing about the topic that upset me, because I find I am more capable of being logical, analytical, and rational when I am calm. And it is really easy to get all worked up and scream that these people who want to invade our privacy, steal our money, and run every last aspect of our lives are tyrants.

But the other day I was calm, collected, unemotional, relaxed, you know, completely sober in every sense of the word, and I concluded that, yes, it is beyond question that the United States government has become tyrannical.

On sober reflection, I still agree with my sober and reflective thought.

Let’s start with Scheie’s gracious concession that Chris Dodd, Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid might be distinguished from Saddam Hussein on the basis that they “didn’t build huge palaces or massacre their political enemies.” Good that he was able to find some moral space between the parties. I think the same space may be found between Hussein and G.W. Bush. Yet there has to be for Scheie some basis of comparison, so he finds it in fiscal policies that are “certain to bankrupt a country,” and in this the parties are all alike. But, of course, the current policies are not certain to bankrupt the country (if I were required to bet money on the prospect – I’d rather not – I would bet they won’t), but because that certainty is required for the foolish moral equivalency Scheie draws, he asserts it anyway. He then claims, out of some faculty other than a critical one, that Saddam Hussein, like the Democrats, thought his fiscal policies for the good of his country – another equivalency. There is good reason, actually, to think that Hussein did not think about the good of his country, not in any way, by any definition of the words “good” and “country,” that the rest of us would understand, but even if he did conceptualize in those terms, Scheie would here be making the kind of relativistic argument that a believer in “classical values” would otherwise reject. He has just offered the fiscal equivalent of “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

Just because Hussein might have made the same claims as Democrats – and Republicans – doesn’t mean that the claims are true or equivalent, anymore than wrapping oneself in a banner of national liberation and freedom fighting means, on the basis of the claim alone, that one doesn’t meet a definition of terrorist. Individual cases need to be judged against established criteria.

Let’s continue with the observation that Scheie takes no note in his agonizing over the debt of the policies of George W. Bush and the amount of debt his administration racked up, or the trillions – a quadrupling – accumulated during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Wherever we are right now, we didn’t get here by the guidance of Barack Obama alone, but this kind of slanting is necessary when you want odiously to compare people to a tyrant like Saddam Hussein, as many people Scheie would reject compared Bush and Hussein. Playwright Tony Kushner said he thought both of them evil. I’ll bet that really burned Scheie. Now look what he is up to.

Scheie says we’re “living under a tyranny.”

Here is is

/ˈtɪrəni/ Show Spelled[tir-uh-nee] Show IPA
–noun, plural -nies.
1. arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power; despotic abuse of authority.

2. the government or rule of a tyrant or absolute ruler.

3. a state ruled by a tyrant or absolute ruler.

4. oppressive or unjustly severe government on the part of any ruler.

5. undue severity or harshness.

6. a tyrannical act or proceeding.

Some of these words are subjective. Your “oppressed”?  Hey, I feel oppressed, too. I use you, but you abuse me. And just and unjust we could argue all day. There are times many of us, when young, feel our parents to be tyrants. But “unrestrained,” “absolute rule” is the starting point for tyranny, from which the severity and harshness and all the rest may objectively follow. You can dislike the policies of your government a whole, whole lot – it can even, actually, be misguided – but that doesn’t make it a tyranny. That’s why Scheie is waiting so eagerly for November. The meanings of words do matter, and one might think a believer in “classical values,” like good, honest democratic debate, might well believe that, too.

Judging by this nonsense, apparently not.

(H/T Shrinkwrapped)



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