With the situation in Iraq getting out of hand, many criticize Obama for the withdrawal of American troops from the region, while many more blame Bush for initiating the War on Terrorism in 2003. Playing the role of the world’s policeman and maintaining the presence of its troops in unstable, yet strategically important regions, the United States pursued its foreign policy doctrine, also known as Pax Americana, throughout the decades following WW2. It is much easier to deal with a predictable world, the one evolving by a coherent plan than to deal with a tinderbox. Both Bush and Obama failed to secure America’s interests in a region that has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Bush might have been acting in line with the old doctrine, yet apparently without much knowledge and understanding of the region. His major blunder was the ignorance of the historical and cultural specifics of the Middle East in general, and Iraq in particular. When the Bush administration made a decision to wipe out Saddam Hussein’s regime and build a democracy from scratch, it did so in a country that had been ruled by tyrants from its inception; it was quite an unforgivable misstep. Obama, in turn, does not seem to adhere to any consistent doctrine save America’s global disengagement.
Throughout recorded history, Middle Eastern states thrived under strong leaders, capable of generating peaceful coexistence between multiple religious and ethnic groups such as Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Turkmens, and Bedouins. When Saddam Hussein was toppled, in the absence of a strong leader, Iraq started falling apart. The dissolution of the Iraqi Army and administrative institutions left over half a million former government employees in disarray – they had nowhere to go and nothing to do. The Shia minority, who under Saddam were not allowed to form any political institutions and thus were not represented in the state political system, soon seized power. Once in power, they rushed to “restore justice” with prosecutions against both Sunni and other non-Shia groups. Soon, the sectarian conflict spilled over to Syria and Lebanon in the west and Pakistan in the east. Iraq’s plunge into chaos has been spurred by two overlapping drivers: a failed attempt to build a parliamentarian regime and the existential threats posed by Saudi Arabia and Iran
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki can’t defeat the Sunnis, the Sunnis can’t defeat the Shia; Northern Iraq has de-facto become Kurdistan. In April 2013, a radical jihadist group, descended from al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), formed the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). The organization is said to be “surpassing al-Qaeda as the world’s most dangerous jihadist group.” The group is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was released from Camp Bucca, an Iraqi prison, in 2009 by American soldiers. “I’ll see you guys in New York,” said the ISIS leader-to-be to the U.S. Army reservists as he was leaving prison. To the outside observer, it would appear that, in 2009, another nascent Bin Laden was simply released so that in 5 years he could call on hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Mosul (Iraq’s second city) to “make jihad” for the sake of Allah. On the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, June 29, 2014, ISIS simplified its title and adopted the name Islamic State (IS), whereas its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, became a self-anointed “Caliph Ibrahim” – for the first time since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk renounced the Caliphate in 1924. Ataturk also abolished the Arabic alphabet, introduced Latin instead, familiarized a traditional Muslim society with European values and introduced western clothing. Thus, from the perspective of modernization and secularism, Abu Bakr has pushed the Arab world 90 years back by attempting to restore the Islamic Caliphate. The current events strongly resemble those of the Middle East in the 7th and 8th centuries AD, when a small Muslim army conquered Mesopotamia (along with Egypt, North Africa, and part of the Iberian Peninsula) in the glimpse of an eye and thus stretched their possessions across three continents. Such a sweeping conquest was largely possible due to the weakness of the Sassanid and Byzantine Empires, declining states that were unable to contain the Umayyads. Today again, a relatively small group of people is seeking to repeat the accomplishments of their ancestors and capture lands in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. The map made publicly available by ISIS shows a wide swath of black-colored countries stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The desired territory encompasses all of North Africa; Nigeria and Cameroon in West Africa; Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia in Africa’s eastern coast. Their land appetite also expands over the Mediterranean and Red seas to embrace the entire Arab world.
In fairness, such a grand plan doesn’t seem delusional at all. First, the West is no longer the world’s policeman. Second, jihadist groups and other Muslim rebel groups (who sympathize with the idea of creating an Islamist state through violence) are spread throughout Africa, the Middle East, and in parts of Asia. Prof. Peter Neumann of King’s College London estimates that about 80% of Western fighters in Syria have joined the group. The total number of fighters in the IS is estimated to be 15,000, approximately 2,000 of which are of foreign origin. The foreign contingent of the IS is recruited from the UK, France, Germany and other European countries, as well as the US, the Arab world and the Caucasus. The mujahedeen army is very mixed. It comprises Turkmens, Kurds, the Naqshbandi Army (composed of the former Saddam regime officers), and even former Ba’athists. While the elite is predominantly engaged in military actions, the IS covert groups, together with local tribal sheikhs, control the territory.
The bad news is that there is no feasible challenger to Al-Qaeda, the IS, and Jaysh al-Islam. Currently, Sunni mosques, kuttabs (primary schools) and madrasa (theological institutes) are full of students whose theological education and weapons training are generously funded by wealthy sponsors from the Persian Gulf states. Speaking of the IS’s funding, initially the group relied on private donations from rich Arab states, particularly Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Besides such funding, the IS has seized oil refineries in eastern Syria (Raqqa province) and is now selling oil to the Syrian government. Above all, should Iraq fall to the IS, Iraq has the fifth largest proven crude oil reserves in the world. Illegal trade, trafficking, theft, kidnapping, as well as the sharia tax system account for other important sources of income for the IS. Prof. Neumann believes that before the capture of Mosul in June 2014, ISIS had cash and assets worth about $900 million. Afterwards, ISIS had assets worth around $2 billion.
What the ongoing chaos in the Middle East has explicitly demonstrated is that President Bush failed to clearly articulate the goals of invading Iraq – whether it was a punitive measure against the terrorists, whether it was an attempt to spread democracy in the Middle East, or whether it was just an attempt to secure a reliable and predictable partner in the Middle East like the Gulf States.. In fact, the last seems quite achievable, bearing in mind that in 2009 Iraq was in a fairly good shape. Alas, President Obama, who entered office that year, failed to get things straight in Iraq and define America’s interests there with a cohesive strategy. Lack of a clear purpose and the means to implement it is not just a quality of America’s Middle Eastern-policy these days, but rather an earmark of U.S. foreign policy for the past twenty years. With the end of the Cold War, the world has changed; it is no longer a bi-polar system, but an interconnected complexity of competing and rising powers and precarious non-state forces. The model of post-WW2 America’s foreign policy no longer fits in the new state of affairs. So far, American interests and goals in the post-Cold War-era have not been clearly defined, nor a coherent military strategy developed. The United States might not act as a world policeman any more, but it still must protect its national interests.