History is an unusual thing. What we often think of as the unchanging and permanently decided truth of the past is often little more than our best guess at an imagined retelling of events. History isn't just names, dates, events, and people. It is an idea about the past. It is our collective (and almost always highly flawed) agreement as a society on what has happened (and more importantly why and how something happened). While the who, what, when, and where of history often remains static (though not always!), the why and how are changing constantly. This history in turn feeds our collective memory. We "remember" things like the Second World War, the Alamo, or 9-11 even though many of us were not actually around to witness or understand these events. Unfortunately, like our own memories, public memory is often very flawed and subject to significant alteration. It's why we "remember" that Sarah Palin once said she could see Russia from her house (she never said that).
So when people begin believing that president Obama founded ISIS, or that the American invasion of Afghanistan is "Obama's War," it highlights a disturbing trend that our public memory is fracturing. Even irrefutable dates and facts can now be discounted as inconvenient (or even biased) information. Of course, Democrats are guilty of this phenomenon as well. When our public memory of events which happened not even ten years ago is ignored because it does not align with our own personal beliefs, what is our society to do? This week's post, and indeed this entire blog project, is an attempt to realign our public memory with reality. Now, let's discuss the question of who really founded ISIS...
President Obama, In Syria, With Rebel Military Support?
Let's start right away with the assertion that the rise of ISIS is Obama's fault. After all, there is certainly a case to be made that Obama's policies indirectly and inadvertently contributed to the current issues facing Iraq and Syria. Obama inherited highly unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and ran on a platform of ending both of these conflicts. In late 2011, the administration completed the withdrawal of troops as outlined in president Bush's "Status Of Forces Agreement" with Iraq. While many experts believed that Iraq could stand on its own, others claimed that the Iraqi military was not yet ready to defend against a serious threat. When this threat finally arrived in the form of ISIS, the problems of early withdrawal became all too obvious. But as weak as the Iraqi government was, probably could have handled most internal issues. It took the outbreak of a horrific civil war in neighboring Syria to really allow ISIS to thrive.
Another area in which Obama's policies may have indirectly created ISIS is in Syria. America found itself in a very difficult position as the Syrian Arab Spring began turning into the Syrian Civil War. America's relationship with Assad has never really been great, and his indiscriminate massacre of protesters (violent and non-violent alike) almost ensured that America would support the rebels. But as with so many rebel movements before it, the Syrian rebel troops quickly became infiltrated by radical Islamist forces. The administration took the bold and precarious position of directly arming the moderate sections of these rebel forces to help them overthrow Syrian president Assad. And as almost always happens when America tries to arm "moderate" rebel forces, the weapons ended up in the wrong hands. There certainly were (and to some extent still are) moderate forces in the Free Syrian Army, but it has been extremely difficult to tell who is actually helping ISIS or one of the many other radical groups in Syria. This decision to arm and support sketchy rebels probably wasn't a great idea in hindsight. And it probably did aid in the formation of ISIS, but it hardly awards Obama the title of MVP.
President Bush (Jr.), In Iraq, With A disastrous Invasion?
So if we can't blame just Obama, can we blame Bush? After all, he got America involved in Iraq in the first place! Here too there is a case to be made about the invasion of Iraq and its role in creating ISIS. Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that part of the Middle East was a relatively stable place. Saddam Hussein ruled over Iraq with terrible brutality, but essentially kept the country from dissolving into a nightmare of religious and ethnic violence. He also commanded a strong and loyal military that was capable of holding its ground against threats as large as the Iranian army. All of this stability changed almost overnight with the invasion of Iraq.
As we have detailed here, here, and here, a lot of things went wrong following the 2003 invasion. The biggest destabilizing factors (besides the obvious factor of Iraq losing its dictator) were the removal from government of anyone associated with Saddam's party (and thus anyone capable of running government) and the dissolution of the Iraqi military (immediately creating over a million unemployed and pissed off men with fighting experience). To make matters worse, the American forces left large stockpiles of weapons sitting out in the open for disaffected former soldiers to loot. These mistakes helped create the Iraqi insurgency and al-Qaeda in Iraq, which ultimately branched off into ISIS. Just like Obama, Bush received plenty of intelligence reports which warned about new terrorist groups, insurgencies, or potentially imminent attacks, but nobody pretends that their actions directly caused these to happen!
So maybe it's way more complicated than just blaming one person. Or maybe the founder of ISIS is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the guy who FOUNDED ISIS. Or it could also be any number of the tens of thousands of ISIS supporters, disaffected civilians, brutal dictators, and ignorant colonizers who have contributed to the creation of the modern Middle East. To ignore the roles that previous administrations, other foreign governments, and individual insurgents have played in the rise of ISIS shows not just a complete disregard of, but an utter contempt for historical accuracy.
We teach history because it reminds people that actions have consequences. We teach history because it shows people that events almost always have multiple causes, and that our best solutions to problems sometimes still make them worse. History reminds us of the best in humanity. But it also reminds us of our absolute worst. It unapologetically brings forth with great shame all of the hatred, prejudices, and ignorance that brought us slavery, the Holocaust, Japanese internment, the Trail of Tears, and so much more. And finally, history acts as a check against charlatans and demagogues who in their infinite vanity attempt to twist the irrefutable facts to shamelessly peddle their own agendas. After all, whoever controls the past controls the present. Whoever controls the present controls the future.