Yes, Obama’s Policies Helped Create ISIS, and Bush’s Helped Too

The latest hard-hitting journalism from the campaign trail is once again related to Donald Trump. The happy news is that there’s at least a kernel of truth in the latest remarks, and better still, it’s about foreign policy. Unfortunately, the bad news is that, as usual with Donald Trump, he doesn’t have many details to back it up, and the few details he does offer, are wrong.

First, here’s what he said, at a campaign rally last week:

He is the founder of ISIS. He is the founder of ISIS, okay? He is the founder. He founded ISIS. And I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton.

Since then, Trump has alternated between doubling down on this formulation and downplaying it by saying the obvious–namely that sarcasm is, in fact, a thing.

As the tweet above suggests, the whole episode led to a series of apparently serious journalism explaining that Obama is not literally the co-founder of ISIS. For instance, CNN’s self-styled terror expert Peter Bergen wrote this rebuttal. Among its winning lines were the following:

Like so much else that Trump has said, these claims are false. The founder of ISIS is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a shadowy Iraqi cleric who President Obama is doing everything in his power to kill.

Wait, so you’re telling me that Obama doesn’t moonlight as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Glad we got that cleared up, since I’m sure that’s how most people interpreted Trump’s remarks. After all, he’s not prone to exaggeration.

Also, incidentally, the second part of Bergen’s statement is wrong. In fact, President Obama is doing everything within his power and quite a few things that are beyond his power in an attempt to kill him–in particular, waging a war without Congressional authorization.

But I digress. While these various literal refutations seem merely inane at first glance, they actually serve an important purpose. By focusing the argument along the most narrow lines possible, the broader debate about America’s interventionist foreign policy is avoided. The real question is whether America’s interventions this century–in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere–have produced greater stability and security, or greater chaos. Any honest observer must conclude it is the latter.

In one sense, Trump is right: The blame for the ongoing, unquestioned disaster does rest on Barack Obama and on Hillary Clinton–who headed the State Department when the worst decisions were made. But it also rests on George W. Bush, and Trump was wrong to omit him.

With that framework in mind, let us briefly make note of the most salient policy disasters that helped lead to the creation of ISIS, which now has a presence in Iraq:

  • Bush – Invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003 based on the false pretense of weapons of mass destruction.
  • Bush – Occupying Iraq after the regime change, ultimately serving as a security force for a new Iraqi government, no matter how corrupt and authoritarian it became.
  • Obama (and Clinton) – Overthrowing Ghadafi in Libya in 2011, based on a false pretense of an impending genocide in Benghazi.
  • Obama – Backing the substantially non-moderate opposition in Syria starting around 2012, based largely in the east of country. This invariably strengthened the budding rebellion among radicals in neighboring Iraq.

Although all of these policies are awful, the last is particularly striking based on what we know now. An internal intelligence document from the Defense Intelligence Agency was recently declassified. Written in August 2012, it noted the following key things:

  • That Al Qaeda in Iraq and similar extremist groups were dominant players in the Syrian rebellion
  • That the Western powers, Turkey, and the Gulf States were supporting the rebellion anyway
  • That the current trends could lead to the establishment of a “Salafist principality” in Syria and Iraq, but that could be useful for weakening Assad and, by extension, Iran.

In other words, Obama’s own government intelligence predicted that backing the opposition in Syria risked strengthening extremist groups so much that they could eventually establish a de facto state. And in spite of this risk, he directed the CIA to do it anyway.

Now, obviously that doesn’t mean al-Baghdadi was hired by the CIA or that President Obama was trying to create a terror group that had far more power and influence than the ones that preceded it. So too, President Bush probably wasn’t aspiring to light the entire Middle East on fire with the invasion of Iraq and inspire more terrorism for years to come.

But if we are going discuss foreign policy seriously, we must look beyond intentions and consider actual results.

Presidents Bush and Obama both overthrew secular dictators on false pretenses, in Iraq and Libya, apparently in the hopes that a better government would follow. Chaos followed instead. Similarly, whatever his precise intent, President Obama’s policy of backing the opposition in Syria had the predictable result of strengthening extremist groups, ultimately culminating with ISIS holding substantial territory in Syria and Iraq, and Al Qaeda in Syria holding territory elsewhere in Syria.

There’s no reason to think that Trump had all this history in mind when he suggested that Obama and Clinton “founded ISIS”. In the remarks I’ve seen, the Trump camp has preferred to blame ISIS on Obama’s decision to pull out of Iraq too soon. This is foolish, since the withdrawal timeline for Iraq was actually set by President Bush, and was not really the fundamental cause. One wonders what the media would do if Trump had the knowledge and guts to explain the real causes of ISIS’s rise, but I doubt we’ll get the chance.

Still, even if Trump himself doesn’t know how America’s foreign policy facilitated the rise of ISIS, it doesn’t change the reality. And the reality is that we can draw a clear causal chain between the reckless decisions of the Bush Administration through to the reckless decisions of President Obama and Secretary Clinton, which ultimately helped create ISIS and the pervasive instability that reigns in the Greater Middle East.

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