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Fecteau: Is Obama or Bush to blame for the Rise of Islamic State?

Monday, September 07, 2015


Vice President Dick Cheney and other Republicans have relentlessly criticized the Obama administration for failing to leave a residual force behind in Iraq.  They claim President Barack Obama is responsible for the rise of the Islamic State, and the fall of Iraq. 

The entire story is more complicated. 

Without a doubt, the seeds for the rise of the Islamic State were planted by the Bush administration.  During the chaotic Iraq War, because of the lack of post war planning, al Qaeda filled the void.  

Eventually, the CIA placed high level Iraqi sheiks and tribal leaders on the payroll. With this influence, fueled by hatred for al-Qaeda, the Sunni-tribes formed the Sons of Iraq to defeat al Qaeda which was the chief impetus for stabilizing Iraq with help from U.S. forces.  

Everyone knew this wasn’t permanent. 

In 2008, the Bush administration negotiated a status of force agreement, including legal immunities for U.S. forces.  The Iraqi Parliament and President ratified this agreement with a withdrawal date of January 1, 2012. 

However, in 2011, the Obama administration and the Iraqi government failed to reach a similar accord to extend the status of forces agreement. The bottleneck was legal immunities for U.S. forces.  Parliament did not support the extension with the legal immunities. Thus, Obama executed the Bush negotiated withdrawal. 

After the Arab Spring, neighboring Syria fell into perpetual chaos which al Qaeda used to train and replenish their numbers.  From there, al Qaeda rapidly captured of territory in sections of northern and western Iraq, and declared they formed an Islamic State. 

Seeing the chaos in Iraq, Obama reintroduced U.S. advisors (troops) under an emergency provision, began to bomb the Islamic State (formerly al Qaeda), armed and trained the moderate Syrian rebels, and provided the Iraqi government with more support.  

Hindsight is twenty-twenty, but looking back, mistakes were made. 

From the beginning, both administrations oversold and under delivered.  There was, of course, President George W. Bush infamously standing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln with a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.” Upon withdrawing troops, Obama noted, "we're leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.”  Both administrations likely understood the gains in Iraq were only temporary. 

You can support the Iraq War and oppose the way it was fought.  The U.S. has a long history of toppling regimes.  This particular intervention was handled so poorly, we will pay for generations.  al-Qaeda was not a potent force in Iraq prior to the U.S. intervention.  Because of the poor post war planning, al-Qaeda filled the security void. 

During the Iraq War, U.S. forces rounded up criminals, insurgents, and terrorists, and lumped them together in prison. These prisons became fertile breeding grounds for antigovernment forces and al Qaeda, amplifying its influence in the process.  In one of these camps, the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, would eventually emerge.

As for the exact number of troops to be left behind, there was a lot of controversy. Obama’s military advisors recommended 25,000 U.S. advisors, but the Obama administration wanted closer to 5,000.  

With both figures, the chances these advisors would make an impact against the Islamic State are negligible at best.  The Iraqi Army entirely fell apart, and advisors are just that, meant to advise, not fight entire wars.

These efforts were largely in vain.  The Iraqi democracy rejected a status of forces agreement with important legal protections for U.S. forces.  The powerful Iraqi prime minister did offer to sign an executive memorandum, but this would undermine the tenuous, nascent Iraqi democracy.

It is exceptional difficult to make the case the United States fought for democracy in Iraq, when U.S. government undercuts it by going around their elected Parliament, and so Obama withdrew U.S. forces.  

While the Sunni uprising nearly destroyed al Qaeda, the fall of parts of Syria gave al Qaeda a second wind. Weighing what to do was like navigating a passage between Charybdis and Scylla for the Obama administration.  The American people did not support ground troops in Syria to dislodge the Islamic State, and airstrikes could only do so much.

While easy the lambaste Obama administration for withdrawing U.S. forces, there is enough fault to go around.  President Obama reintroduced U.S. forces – realizing Iraqi democracy could not survive anyway -- though executive understanding instead of democratic means, providing U.S. forces critical legal protections. 

By far, the Bush administration is most at fault for failing to have a substantive post-war plan to ensure long-stability in Iraq.  The chaos of Iraq gave birth to al Qaeda, long before Obama assumed office, and the chaos in Syria gave rise to its contemporary form, the Islamic State.

Arguing whether we should or shouldn’t have left troops behind in Iraq is a moot point. The Islamic State is here today through a combination of missteps by both administrations. 

However, no amount of U.S. troops would have changed that. 

Matt Fecteau ([email protected]), of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, lost to U.S. Rep. David Cicilline in last year’s Democratic primary. He is a former White House national security intern and Iraq war veteran.


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