Sam Seitz

I know the title of this article sounds highly partisan, but I promise that scoring political hits is not the point of this post. I’m not here to blame Bush, for while I think he made an enormous error in invading Iraq, I also think that he was remarkably willing to adapt his strategy and learn from his mistakes. Moreover, I don’t believe that Obama is blameless when it comes to the mess that is the modern Middle East. Nevertheless, I find statements from right-wing pundits blaming Obama for ISIS absolutely absurd and painfully uninformed.

First, it’s important to remember that Iraq refused to sign the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Specifically, Iraq was unwilling to allow U.S. forces stationed in Iraq legal immunity, thus leading Obama to pull out completely. The U.S. certainly could have deployed forces unilaterally and coerced Iraq into giving American soldiers immunity, but that would have severely strained U.S.-Iraq relations and pushed Iraq towards Iran and Russia. Moreover, it’s more than a bit hypocritical for Republican neocons who wax poetic about the great democracy the U.S. established in Iraq to now blame Obama for not forcibly ramming U.S. combat soldiers down Iraqi voter’s throats. One can either have a U.S.-led puppet regime, or one can have a free democracy that is capable of choosing its own path. One can’t have both.

Now, even if we grant Republicans the argument that Obama could have somehow negotiated a better SOFA, it doesn’t follow that ISIS wouldn’t have arisen. After all, even at its most ambitious, the SOFA would have only seen 10,000 American soldiers deployed. Moreover, these soldiers were to function purely in a support role, training and advising the fledgling Iraqi Army. When ISIS arose, what would these advisers have done? It’s unclear. What is clear is that they would have been fighting a war they weren’t fully authorized to be involved in, and they would have been serving as frontline combat troops, a role for which they weren’t equipped or prepared.

But, just for the sake of argument, I’ll grant that Obama could have negotiated a better agreement and U.S. trainers could’ve quickly and effectively engaged ISIS in Iraq. There is still an enormous hole in the conservative argument that this is all Obama’s fault: ISIS is headquartered in Syria. Even if we had multiple frontline regiments in Iraq on hair-trigger alert, it wouldn’t have mattered because they wouldn’t have been able to strike at ISIS’ core in Syria. Obama tried to strike at Syria, but the Republican-controlled legislature blocked him.[1] Of course, this little fact is conveniently ignored when right-wing agents craft their story about how Obama lost Iraq. If the U.S. wanted to destroy ISIS in its infancy, it needed to hit ISIS in Raqqa, its headquarters. The GOP prevented the U.S. from doing this, so they bear at least as much blame as Obama. Finally, it’s important to remember that the grievances that led to ISIS’ rise were political in nature. Maliki brutally suppressed minority groups like the Sunnis who eventually formed ISIS. Leaving combat troops in would never have fixed this. Only repairing Iraqi civil society would have prevented the rise of ISIS, and there was no way the U.S. could have done that even if they had the entire 2003 invasion force still in Iraq.

Obama has made a number of foreign policy mistakes regarding the Middle East. He clearly underestimated ISIS, and he was probably Pollyannish about Iraq’s stability. Bush also made mistakes. He destabilized the region and backed the corrupt Maliki. The GOP-controlled legislature also contributed to the rise of ISIS by blocking U.S. intervention in Syria and by engaging in all sorts of domestic political antics (i.e., the Debt Ceiling Crisis) that prevented the Obama administration from dedicating more time and attention to the Middle East. Nevertheless, the failures of these groups are at best secondary. If we are to assign blame to anyone, it should be Maliki. He is the one who led the corrupt and oppressive administration that helped foster the grievances which eventually culminated in ISIS. He blew it, and the U.S. is cleaning up the mess.


[1] For the record, I’m 100% agnostic regarding the decision not to invade Syria