Let’s examine Iraq through a lens that former senator J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) called “old myths and new realities.”
Old myth: The threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is the result of President Obama’s policies, which left unfulfilled the success of President George W. Bush’s surge.
New reality: Baghdad’s problems started decades before Obama reached the White House. They even began long before Bush implemented his ill-conceived, costly invasion to bring U.S.-based “democracy” to a country that neither he nor his top advisers understood.
What’s unfolding now in Iraq — and Syria — is the eruption of long-buried religious (Shiite vs. Sunni) and tribal animosities as groups compete to gain long-fought-for autonomy.
“Sunnis and Shias, cities and tribes, sheiks and tribesmen, Assyrians and Kurds, pan-Arabists and Iraqi nationalists — all fought vigorously for places in the emerging state structure.”
That’s a historic description of Iraq in October 1932, when it became a sovereign state and was admitted to the League of Nations, according to a Library of Congress Country Study. “The Sunni-Shia conflict, a problem since the beginning of domination by the Umayyad caliphate in 661, continued to frustrate attempts to mold Iraq into a political community,” according to the study.
Clashes occurred through history. Then foreigners set up shop — Britain in Iraq and France in Syria — and drew those countries’ artificial boundaries. Theyput minorities in charge, too: Sunnis in Iraq; Alawites, a Shiite spinoff, in Syria.
Sunnis had been favored during the Ottoman Empire, gaining more administrative experience and thus domination in government and the military. Dictatorships emerged as the only way to hold differing groups together, the last Iraqi dictator being Saddam Hussein.
What should the Bush administration have expected in 2003 when its representatives dissolved the Sunni-dominated Iraqi army, dismissed Sunni bureaucrats and others who had belonged to Saddam’s Baath Party, and watched Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, take over as prime minister?
Stephen J. Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, visited Baghdad and in November 2006 reported that under Maliki, there was “an aggressive push to consolidate Shia power,” but it was “less clear whether Maliki is a witting participant.”
It turns out that he was, and as former defense secretary Robert M. Gates put it in January, Maliki’s “anti-Sunni policies have blown up in his face — literally — and . . . he needs to reach out, make allies with the Sunni leaders, the tribal leaders and others, give them a reason to have confidence and faith in the government in Baghdad and then they will be his allies in taking on this spillover of al-Qaeda from the Syrian civil war.”
Maliki talked the talk to Americans but failed to do what he promised. The spillover from Syria intensified Sunni unhappiness.
Old myth: ISIS is related to al-Qaeda, represents a direct threat to the U.S. homeland and must be defeated.
“Today, thanks to Obama, Al-Qaeda is resurgent in Iraq — taking back cities from which it had been driven by the blood of American soldiers [and] using Iraq as a base from which to carry out jihad in neighboring Syria,” Marc A. Thiessen, a former senior aide to Bush, wrote in the Christian Science Monitor on Thursday.
New reality: ISIS is not al-Qaeda. Originally formed as al-Qaeda in Iraq under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, it fell out of favor early with the original al-Qaeda. After Zarqawi was killed by U.S. forces in June 2006, his organization nearly collapsed as Sunni tribal leaders listened to U.S. entreaties and turned their hopes to the Maliki government.
Meanwhile, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a Sunni ex-preacher from Samarra, had been arrested in 2005 and held as a detainee by Americans at the Camp Bucca prison. Whether he was a ruthless jihadist before that or was radicalized by his imprisonment is unclear.
He was released as part of a general amnesty in 2009 and took over the former al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2010, by then called the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). His leadership of bloody attacks in Iraq in August 2011, after he eulogized Osama bin Laden, plus the promise of more such attacks, led to the State Department to offer a $10 million reward for his capture.
In 2012, Baghdadi began recruiting Sunni fighters to join the uprising against the Alawite minority government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even sending commanders there. In Syria, his fighters clashed with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Sunni rebel group supported by al-Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
In February, Zawahiri issued a statement disowning ISIS, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Zawahiri said al-Qaeda “did not create it . . . did not consult with it . . . and is not responsible for its behavior.”
Baghdadi turned his focus to Iraq this year, and the result was that ISIS retook Fallujah and Ramadi. Last week, it took Mosul.
Given this new reality, and hopefully understanding the old myths, how does the United Statesreact?
U.S. military power, particularly bombing alone, cannot wipe out Iraq’s bloody history, nor can it remake Middle Eastern borders.
If Obama is again to support a Baghdad regime, it must be after — not before — its leaders prove they represent that country’s various groups.
Watch what they do, not what they promise to do, should be Obama’s mantra.
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.