The Corner

The Rise of ISIS Predates the Fall of Saddam Hussein

The New York Times has published a necessary corrective to those who view the invasion of Iraq as essentially Year Zero in the Middle East — the origin point for all the calamities that followed. Have you heard that ISIS is George Bush’s fault? Think again. Writing in the Times, Kyle Orton properly attributes the rise of ISIS in Iraq to cultural and religious forces that long pre-dated the American invasion of Iraq. It turns out that Iraq was no more immune to increased radicalization than any other Middle Eastern state, and Saddam reacted in part by embracing the new religiosity:

In a few tactical instances during the 1980s, Mr. Hussein allied with Islamists, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, to destabilize his regional rival in Syria, but these were limited, plausibly deniable links. In 1986, however, the Pan-Arab Command, the Baath Party’s top ideological institution, formally reoriented Iraq’s foreign policy toward an alliance with Islamists. This was the first clear deviation from secular Baathism.

The shift was accompanied by a domestic “Islamization,” with regime media dropping references to a “secular state” and describing the war against Iran as a “jihad.” The changes accelerated after 1989 when Michel Aflaq, the Christian founder of the Baath Party, died, and Mr. Hussein claimed that Mr. Aflaq had converted to Islam. Alive, Mr. Aflaq was a bulwark against Islamization; as a dead convert, he could — and did — baptize a new direction.

Allegedly “secular” Iraq implemented a version of Shariah law, and its military became increasingly radicalized. Saddam himself implemented a “Faith Campaign” that spiraled out of control:

But what began as a cynical attempt to shore up support, as the regime retreated to its Sunni tribal base, took on a life of its own, transforming Iraq into an Islamist state and imposing lasting changes on Iraqi society . . . The Faith Campaign claimed to be ecumenical, but its clear pro-Sunni tilt led to a final collapse of relations between the state and the Shiite population and heightened sectarian tensions. In the Sunni areas, however, the campaign was effective, creating a religious movement I call Baathi-Salafism, under Mr. Hussein’s leadership. It also eased strains between the regime and independent religious movements like the “pure” Salafists, whose long opposition to the regime gave way to some of its members serving in its administration, even though Mr. Hussein was warned by his intelligence chief that if the alliance continued, the Salafists would eventually supplant the regime.

Thus, al Qaeda in Iraq wasn’t so much a new movement as an expression of many Saddam loyalists’ actual religious convictions:

There was never any “Baathist coup” of former regime elements inside the Islamic State, as some analysts assume, because these men had long since abandoned Baathism. They joined Al Qaeda in Iraq early after the invasion as an act of ideological conviction, and when Al Qaeda in Iraq’s leadership was nearly destroyed in 2008-10, these officers were the last men standing precisely because of their superior counterintelligence and security skills.

Orton concludes:

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

It’s difficult to imagine that the Middle East would actually be better off if one of its most powerful nations had been allowed to continue down the path of “Baathi-Salafism” that Orton describes. And it’s just wrong to believe that the American invasion of Iraq is the triggering event for the savage jihad that it tearing the region apart (the Arab Spring has been far more destabilizing than the Iraq War). Jihad springs out of Islam itself, and the latest wave of jihad springs from cultural, political, and social forces far beyond American control. We are merely left to do our best to defend our nation, control the jihadist outbreak, and defeat its armies — a staggering challenge made far more challenging by domestic critics who refuse to understand the nature of the enemy we face.

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