Politics & Policy

How Obama Caused ISIS

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
The administration has caused or exacerbated most of the current problems in the Mideast.

The Syria policy of the Obama administration is the main reason for the growth of the Islamic State (or ISIS)  – and with it, for the current crisis in Iraq, and for a greatly increased danger of terrorism in Europe and America.

Administration policy has fanned the rebellion in Syria and kept it going for three full years, while doing nothing to bring it to a successful close. Sometimes the administration has explicitly tried to keep the rebels in a stalemate with Assad; Secretary of State Kerry said that it was his policy to do just that, in order to promote negotiations and “peace.” The result, so obvious as to make that statement a shameless Orwellianism, has been to keep the war dragging on.

This has provided the hothouse for the growth of the extremist Islamic State. In due course, it spilled over from Syria into Iraq, and it has issued threats against the American homeland. The Obama-Kerry policy has also made for the more than 190,000 deaths in Syria, 500,000 wounded, and 8 million refugees (more than 2 million abroad, 6 million inside Syria) — this, out of a population of about 22 million.

It is hard to imagine a policy more irresponsible, or worse from a moral standpoint. Yet it has been the long-standing policy of Obama and Kerry — and it was Secretary of State Clinton’s, too, until her last weeks in office, when she finally seemed to be getting serious, only to have her new plans thrown out by Kerry. Fanning a rebellion just up to the point where the country is bleeding continuously — what could be more horrible? As the saying goes, “It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.” Worse, because it keeps compounding the crime, as a matter of principle. But absurd behaviors often have their causes in beliefs. This policy has been a logical product of the attitudes and ideologies of the Obama administration: anti-anti-Islamism, moral posturing, moral inversion — enthusiasm about toppling allies like Mubarak, nervousness about toppling adversaries like Assad — and, under the guise of peace, an ideological neutralism directed against one’s own side, something very different from an honestly neutral objectivity.

There are several other self-defeating U.S. policies that have nurtured the rise of the Islamic State, directly and indirectly. They go beyond Syria; indeed, they span the entire Mideast:

1. The “little and late” character of the current air strikes in Iraq.

The U.S. for months ignored Iraq’s requests for help. It just let the Islamic State keep growing. The belated help has been minimalist, and it is given a false, self-limiting rationale. Militarily, the refusal to put boots on the ground means that we lack the guidance needed for fully effective air strikes. Politically, Obama has relied on Iraq’s democratic parliamentary process to make essential changes, and the most it has been capable of delivering is another leader from within Maliki’s Shi’a party, hardly a good beginning for winning back Sunni trust. What was plainly needed was a figure from Ayad Allawi’s mixed Shia-Sunni party instead.

2. The prior complete withdrawal from Iraq.

This compounded the mistake of the Bush administration in destabilizing Iraq, while undoing Bush’s self-corrective measure, the surge. Obama argues that he had to withdraw, after failing to get a new status-of-forces agreement, but that failure was far from a mere objective fact. Obama did not keep pushing by the usual methods that have gotten America status-of-forces agreements and allowed us to keep adequate long-term residual forces on the ground elsewhere. He was too interested in satisfying his domestic base with a total withdrawal.

3. Promoting “democracy” through demanding free participation of religious and sectarian parties in elections.

As I wrote earlier this week about our actions in Gaza, America regularly calls for “democratic” elections, open to all parties, including religious ones. This policy began under Bush, but he retreated when he saw that it worked badly; under Obama it became America’s fixed ideology, applied without regard for consequences throughout the Mideast. Uncritical democracy promotion is a very dangerous ideology. The elections we demanded brought Iraq to the edge of civil war. Elections have kept it there pretty much ever since.

The one relatively happy political period in the entire post-Saddam history of Iraq was prior to elections, under Allawi, whose party was genuinely inclusive religiously. Then the elections brought Maliki’s Shia confessional party to power, and it all went for naught.

What was needed — what is still needed — is not robust-sounding electoral democracy but civilized power-sharing among the different religious communities. This is called “consociationalism,” and it entails cooperation among the elites of different communities, with decisions made by consensus among their leaders. The aim is to distribute the benefits of decisions among the communities and avoid winner-take-all outcomes. That way, the common power structure is not perceived as a threat to any of the communities or as something they need to get control of in order to keep it out of the hands of an opposed community.

Such a system is not easy to create or sustain. Professor Arend Lijphart, its most important proponent, thought it works fine as a form of democracy, indeed better than ordinary democracy. His highly influential books spoke of Lebanon as a case in point. Lebanon’s consociationalism was blown apart a few years later, largely because of the country’s democracy.

The logical conclusion is that what is needed in countries such as Ira, is the consociation, not the democracy that Lijphart connected it with. Consociation doesn’t work so wonderfully after all; its virtue is that it is the least bad option in a badly divided country. But it is fragile. It can be blown apart by democracy. Democracy, with its powerful claim to majority legitimacy, tends to overpower the delicate consociational compromise arrangements. So do the passions stoked by election campaigns.

Some very mature polities, such as Switzerland and the Netherlands (Lijphart’s native country), can fairly reliably continue consociational power-sharing even while they also hold democratic elections and rely on democracy as the legitimizing doctrine. In Lebanon that juggling act has proved too often impossible. And Lebanon is probably the democratically most mature society in the Arab Mideast. In countries even less mature than Lebanon — and there are a lot of them — reliance on democracy serves to level the complex consociational cooperative system to the ground and bring things back to civil war.

That is what America — and democracy — did for Iraq. We made democracy our goal there, after giving up on finding Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction; we brought the country to the edge of ruin. Bush fixed it, up to a point, with the surge; Obama undid the fix, and now it has to be fixed again.

And this is merely the local situation in Iraq. The entire Mideast is aflame, largely because of that wrong emphasis on electoral democracy. The policy has worsened under Obama: Bush stopped when he saw where the elections he had demanded were leading in Gaza and Egypt; Obama just plowed straight on. A look at some of the trouble spots bears out this analysis:

Egypt. It is still a mess, but less than it would have been if the Obama administration had continued to have its way and the Muslim Brotherhood were still in power. It is a near-miracle that Egyptian moderates survived and that the army reasserted control. Otherwise things would be much worse, not just inside Egypt but throughout the region.

Gaza. The war there is a consequence of the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule that the Obama administration promoted in Egypt: The Morsi regime armed Hamas far beyond anything Hamas had ever had before.

Libya. The country is being called a “failed state”; America has cut and run. The Libyan government continues to call for international help, and continues not to get it. It accurately states that the country’s chaos is mainly due to the fact that the West refused to honor the request of the transitional government for NATO to stay on after Qaddafi was killed and help it clean up the militias and their weapons. (Another consequence was that some of the weapons made their way to Mali, forcing the French to undertake another intervention there. And the ripple effects continue farther afield.)

Why didn’t NATO stay? The administration argued at the time that the transitional government was too moderate, too quasi-secular, and it was better to let the Islamists — which meant also the militias — take the leadership in Libya as the natural, inevitable course of events. After having helped the Muslim Brotherhood come to power in Egypt, the administration treated Islamism as the norm for the region.

The administration had earlier delayed the British and French intervention in Libya, with the result that the war had to go on in a longer and costlier way: The NATO forces waited until Qaddafi’s army had, with huge violence, broken the momentum of the popular rebellion and was on the verge of taking Benghazi and committing a genocidal massacre there. The administration also restrained the British and French in their conduct of the war, and gave them only grudging military support; under Obama, the U.S. was not a good ally. His lack of enthusiasm for the alliance, and for NATO, helps explain why Libya’s request for NATO to stay was not honored, and the country was left to slide into ruin.

Lebanon. Hillary Clinton insisted in December 2010 and January 2011 that the pro-Western government proceed to the end with the international tribunal issuing indictments after investigating the assassination in 2005 of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. With the result — it was obvious in advance this was going to be the result — of precipitating a quasi-coup from Hezbollah, and the further descent of the country into both chaos and Syrian influence.


“War is overdetermined”: That was the conclusion of Sergei Karaganov, a leading Russian foreign-affairs analyst, from the early consequences of the Arab Spring. Now the wars are multiplying.

Getting back from here to there — getting back from the brink of a far greater chaos in the region, finding a path to a modicum of stability and progress — is so vast a problem, with so many interconnected corners to be turned, that it’s hard to see a way. But, for starters:

1. We should stop talking about democracy in Iraq and talk solely about moderation and cooperation among the different communities there, and move by stages toward getting the government led again by Allawi’s inter-communal party.

2. We are finally arming the Kurds against the Islamic State. Finally! We should continue. And not stop short of sufficient armaments.

3. In general, we should do more arming of the relative good guys. We did it during the Cold War in our wiser periods, when we didn’t rely on going to war ourselves, and that’s a large part of how we finally won. There are risks in this — there is a big problem of control over where the weapons eventually end up – but it is even riskier when we outsource the whole matter to others like the Saudis, or allow conflicts to just keep getting worse. The most extremist, war-happy parties gain ground the longer the conflicts drag on. The Islamic State grew strong enough to seize weapons we gave to the Iraqi army. It would have been safer to give weapons to serious fighters, despite the valid fear that a few of those weapons might have gotten to extremists, than to give them to weak government forces.

There are examples elsewhere in the world. We should be arming the Ukrainians, not just in marginal ways, but seriously arming them so that Russia would know it would pay a high price for invading. It is the obvious way of reducing the likelihood of full-scale invasion and war. But that’s an out-of-region point. Back to the Mideast . . .

4. We should be arming the relatively good guys in Syria, seriously arming them. Very late to do it, but better late than never. And we should do it directly, not relying on Qatar or the Saudis, who tend to arm people we have reason to distrust.

If we aren’t prepared to do that, then maybe we should eat crow and get together with Russia to throw our full weight behind the brutal dictator Assad. For all his horrors, he is a lot less horrible than the chaos we’ve spawned and the Islamists we’ve enabled to emerge.

Supporting Assad is a monstrous thing to suggest, but at least it would be a strategy of sorts and, as such, superior to our current policy, which amounts to an anti-strategy. As of yet, Assad has done more to fight the Islamic State than we have. Supporting him might have some prospects for success in dealing with it, and with other problems in the region. And also in doing something to repair our relations with Russia; it would show the Russians that we’re not as crazy as they have come to believe we are. The Russian elite has concluded, looking at our Mideast policies, that we are really clinically insane, actively promoting the destruction of our own vital interests, and of elemental stability and decency, in the name of our democratic ideals. Russians find this even crazier than the craziness we find in Putin. Unfortunately, they have a point.

After all, which is worse: supporting Assad, or the approach we have taken in recent years, fanning an unending war, sponsoring “moderate” Islamists and fueling extreme ones? One would of course prefer that we would come to our senses and do more of the right things, without and against Assad. However, the present administration would have to overcome its by now ingrained commitment to not doing this.

5. The only major good news in the region is that Egypt is back in sound army hands, despite the administration’s best efforts to prevent this. We should work closely with Egypt. Egypt is quite concerned with helping Libya out of its current chaos, for example. The U.S. should start to share that concern.

While this article was being prepared for publication, the news came in that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have carried out air strikes in Libya against the Islamist militias, without giving notice to the U.S. government. Egypt has responded to Libya’s appeals for help, without and almost against America.

It is a startling confirmation of what we are saying. (And history rhymes: France went ahead on its own with the initial strikes in Libya two years ago, before setting up joint shop and suffering U.S. restrictions.) New York Times and BBC journalists have commented that it shows how deeply America’s closest regional allies distrust today’s America. The State Department has justified their distrust: It responded with a polemic, in neutralist-negotiations language, against outside interference in Libya. It shows specifically what the U.S. could be cooperating with, and would be cooperating with if it were not still largely on the wrong side.

The major difficulty in our working with Egypt is that Egypt’s leadership is rather hostile to the U.S., in the form the U.S. has taken under the present administration. It feels viscerally that the administration foisted the Muslim Brotherhood on Egypt, and it expresses this fact in the usual, dangerously oversimplified nationalistic terms.

There would be opportunities for regional problems to be sorted out if we too could regain the common sense to be usually on the right side of things, alongside Egypt. This prospect — a major unexpected window of opportunity, if we will simply see things right — ought to provide us with the sense of an imperative to regain the ability to see things right. Unfortunately, this has been beyond the moral capacity of the present administration.


America’s litany of errors does not leave much cause for optimism that things are going to be done right in Iraq during the present intervention. Nor does the political discourse in the U.S. even outside the administration.

The Republican opposition has been inadequate. The party’s establishment has largely stuck by Bush’s mistakes, principally his uncritical democracy promotion. Its more extreme right wing trades in dangerous interventionist mistakes for still more-dangerous isolationist mistakes. The Islamic State grew largely out of isolationist mistakes: out of America’s not doing enough of the right things, even more than out of America’s doing the wrong things.

Among conservatives, a fraction has been fairly consistently on the right side in the Mideast, but it is only a fraction: National Review, yes; Commentary, yes; but not Fox News, whose reporters, needing an instant framework for reporting, have often accepted the categories, language, and assumptions of the mainstream media. The loudest criticism voiced by establishment Republicans and Fox, from the Arab Spring to the 2012 U.S. election, was of Obama’s not promoting democracy with enough wholehearted recklessness.

In a sense, the only subsector of the political spectrum that has pretty consistently avoided being on the wrong side of Mideast factions has been the marginalized paleoconservatives. Not because they have advocated doing the right things — they haven’t — but because, in wishing to stay out of the Mideast, and in accepting their own marginalized role of refusing to see things through any politically correct ideological lenses at all, they have at least avoided talking themselves into being actively on the wrong side.

The “realist” school in international affairs should in theory have had that same virtue, but in practice it has not. It has mostly gone along with the media’s and intelligentsia’s false constructions of reality, merely presenting the same positions as a prudent acceptance of reality rather than as an express moral wish. But then, it has long been known that there is a Realism of the Left. It may be a pseudo-Realism, but it has a powerful academic reach. It is an inevitable by-product of the intersection of Realist culture with the hegemonic Left culture in academia (rather like the way libertarianism often advertises itself as useful to the hegemonic Left culture in fighting against American power abroad and against security authority at home). And it is the official Realism of Obama and Kerry.

There is, to be sure, one large sector of American life that has avoided placing itself on the wrong side in the Mideast most of the time. It is the Christian Right. It has been able to hold out for a simple reason: It is more inclined to align with Mideast Christians than with Mideast Muslims. Which is not intrinsically a moral virtue, but it has some commonsense practical virtue, given that non-Western Christians are inclined to align with the West, and in this era too many non-Western Muslims are not.

By contrast, the Christian Left in America, with which Obama identifies, aligns with Political Islam. Moral inversion is the very cornerstone of its global orientation: The Political Christianity of the Left identifies with Political Islam as a fellow postmodernist Left, fighting against the “injustice” of the modern West’s global wealth and influence (while dumping the blame on “conservatism” — the only enemy the Western Left likes to fight — when Political Islam, applying logically its opposition to Western modernist influences, oppresses women and minorities). The Christian Left has been front and center in getting everything wrong on the Mideast. The Reverend Jeremiah Wright praises Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam; President Obama praises Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is not a coincidence; there is a deep shared reason behind their preferences. Both are acting naturally on the ideology of the Christian Left.

Remedying the range of American errors across the Mideast would require a fundamental change in the administration’s thinking. This is unlikely to happen. The ideologies that have put the administration on the wrong side of things are deeply entrenched, not only inside its offices but also in the mass media and the think tanks.

A real change is likely to be obstructed until there is a new administration, and probably only a half-change will come even then. No major mainstream political sector in the U.S. is seriously rethinking the democracy-promotion ideology — facing the depth of its mistakes, separating them from its important truths, reworking it to get it right. None is reconsidering application of democracy-promotion in the Islamic world, despite the major disasters it has brought there, nor even reviewing the demand for inclusion of religious parties in the electoral lists.

America’s mistakes in the past do not reduce its obligations in the present. If anything, they increase the obligations in the present: We have remedial obligations. Those past mistakes do, however, give cause for concern that America, instead of remedying its mistakes, will further compound them. Indeed, almost inevitably it will do so on the larger Mideast-wide scale, even if it finally does something right inside Iraq.

It would seem hard for the Iraq intervention itself not to make things better, compared with letting the Islamic State continue growing unchecked. Yet even here there is a risk. Without the intervention, the Islamic State would have expanded further but might have quickly run into a bloody denouement at the hands of Kurds, Shias, Turks, Assad, and others. If the U.S. serves throughits policy of containment to stabilize the Islamic State’s territory – it is de facto extending the “Kerry Doctrine” of stalemate from Syria into Iraq — it could help the Islamic State consolidate itself, and thence terrorize the world. Given time, it is bound to entrench its tentacles in society, as the Taliban did, and become much harder to uproot. The Kerry Doctrine is the old Cold War Left version of containment, meaning purely defensive containment aimed at best at stalemate, and thence at peace negotiations from a neutral standpoint of equality. The Cold War Left evidently persists, both in its strategic aversion to winning and in the cultural complement to that aversion: moral-equivalency argumentation; but without the nuclear standoff that provided a reason for caution about moving openly beyond stalemate. There is cause for hope in this loss of a strategic reason — Obama could easily shrug his shoulders as the intervention proceeds, and walk across the line of containment — but also cause for despair: The self-renunciation has deepened to the point that it no longer needs its former grain of strategic justification.

Despite this, the current Iraq intervention has to be supported, and criticisms of its shortfalls have to be made in ways that encourage a more adequate intervention, not a less adequate one. It has stopped the Islamic State’s advance; it could be built on to turn it back. But much more than this will have to be done, in Iraq and elsewhere, before there is a stop to the overall tide of American self-damage in the Mideast.

— Ira Straus is executive director of Democracy International and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. He has also been a Fulbright professor of political science and international relations. The views expressed herein are solely his own.


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