Donald Trump hit Hillary Clinton hard on foreign policy during the first presidential debate Monday night.
“Secretary Clinton is talking about taking out ISIS,” he said. “Well, President Obama and Secretary Clinton created a vacuum the way they got out of Iraq, because they got out -- what, they shouldn't have been in, but once they got in, the way they got out was a disaster. And ISIS was formed.”
Bernie Sanders has made a similar argument. Lots of people on both the left and the right have made similar arguments. Democrats love to blame ISIS on George W. Bush for invading Iraq, while Republican partisans blame ISIS on Obama and Clinton for withdrawing from Iraq prematurely.
They’re all wrong for one simple reason.
ISIS is a product of the Syrian war, not the Iraq war.
The Syrian civil war started in 2011, eight years after the United States invaded Iraq and three years after President Bush signed the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government that included a deadline for all American troops to leave the country. All combat forces were out in 2010. Only a small “transitional force” remained until 2011.
Whether or not invading was a good idea, leaving almost certainly was, and in any case, it was inevitable. The war was over. Americans didn’t want to be there anymore. Iraqis didn’t want us hanging around either. Public opinion in both countries mandated withdrawal.
I visited Iraq seven times as a foreign correspondent. On my final trip, in 2008, I was bored. It was a hard country to write about then because it was more or less stable. The various militias and terrorist organizations had been routed. If the Iraqis had their act together, they’d be in fine shape by now after eight years of peace.
An entirely separate chain of events led to the rise of ISIS. It started in Tunisia when a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi in the remote town of Sidi Bouzid doused himself with gasoline and lit a match to protest the crooked authoritarian regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Non-violent protests swept across the country like a human tsunami. After a short and furious month, Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia. Tunisia has enjoyed several free and fair elections in the meantime and is currently governed by a secular center-left government.
Tunisia is the one Arab Spring success story, and ousting Ben Ali triggered copy-cat revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Syria. All failed in their own way, though no revolution has failed as spectacularly as Syria’s.
What began as a non-violent protest movement for reform against Bashar al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party transformed over time into an armed insurrection. Relatively moderate forces fought both alongside and against Islamist factions like the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Foreign fighters poured into the country from all over the world, and three years into the bloodshed and mayhem, in 2014, ISIS declared its “caliphate” in the Syrian city of Raqqa in the wake of the withdrawal of Assad’s armed forces.
That’s how it started, and the Syrian civil war is emphatically not a product of the Iraq war. Follow the international chain of causation backwards and you won’t end up in Baghdad, but in Tunisia. ISIS—or something that looks and sounds a lot like it—would have sprung up in Syria even if Iraq were an Arab version of Switzerland.
To be sure, ISIS is the reconstituted and rebranded version of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which reared its ugly head in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein, so in that sense it does appear, at a glance anyway, that ISIS is the product of the Iraq war rather than the Syrian war, but here’s the thing: Al Qaeda in Iraq effectively ceased to exist for years after losing to the American and Iraqi armed forces in the mid-to-late 2000s. It lost every scrap of territory and its entire leadership was erased.
If ISIS didn’t exist, and if Al Qaeda in Iraq never existed, the Nusra Front, which is the Syrian franchise of Al Qaeda, would be recruiting all the foreign fighters, and the Nusra Front has never even set foot in Iraq.
Donald Trump (along with Bernie Sanders and Gary Johnson and so many others) talks about Iraq as if the Middle East would be fine if the Baath Party were left in place in Baghdad. It’s a frankly ludicrous proposition. The Baath Party is still in place next-door in Syria, and how’s that working out?
These kinds of governments can only keep a lid on things until they can’t.
Trump is partly right in one sense, at least. If Presidents Bush and Obama had acted differently, and if Iraq were somehow—miraculously—stable, ISIS would not have been able to invade and conquer the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi from Raqqa. ISIS (or something like it) would still exist, but might be confined to Syria.
How much of an improvement would that be? By focusing all its attention on Syria instead of spreading itself thin across two separate countries, ISIS could very well control twice as much territory in Syria and might even have overthrown the Assad regime by now. (We could speculate all day, but nobody can possibly know.)
Anyway, ISIS is spreading all over the world from Syria, not just into Iraq. It has roughly 20,000 fighters. The overwhelming majority aren’t from either Syria or Iraq. It’s a genuinely international terrorist army, forged in the vacuum left behind by the cleansing of Assad’s army in the Syrian Desert.
At least it’s not spreading everywhere. ISIS controls no territory in Tunisia. It controls no territory in Morocco or Jordan or Algeria. ISIS and organizations like it can only conquer and hold ground in failed states and other anarchic places, of which there are legion.
We’d have a deadly serious ISIS problem on our hands even if Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders had been running the White House for the past sixteen years and never went anywhere near Iraq. The problem would have a different shape and different details, sure, but let’s not kid ourselves here. There is no policy recipe that any American president can come up with that will prevent failing Middle Eastern countries from failing. Nor is there any conceivable policy prescription that can stop ISIS, Al Qaeda, and similar entities from recruiting the disaffected, the radical, the extreme, and the psychopathic.
America’s available foreign policy options are so narrow at this point that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would likely make similar decisions about tackling ISIS next year. They’d both use the Air Force and drone strikes, and they’d both assist local ground forces like the Kurdish Peshmerga. They’d both work with Vladimir Putin’s Russia whether they want to or not, they’d both have to deal with the increasingly deranged Turkish president whether they like it or not, and neither are remotely likely to mount a full scale invasion of Iraq or Syria or anywhere else.
It’s not America’s fault that that part of the world is a mess. It’s the fault of the people who live there. When we aren’t busy taking partisan shots at whichever political party we love to hate most, we all know it’s true, so please, for once, let’s stop blaming America and Americans for what the Middle East does to itself.
The United States has made plenty of mistakes over there, no question about it, and only a stubborn fool refuses to learn anything from them, but Iraq is so dysfunctional that it would still be in catastrophic shape even the United States did everything right. And if Iraq had its act together, it wouldn’t matter how many mistakes Americans made—Iraq would be fine.