Americans want answers. Several months ago Iraq’s second most populous city, Mosul was overrun by a well-armed, well-organized, well-funded group of ‘militants’ called ISIS (now the Islamic State). Since then, thousands of Iraqis have been displaced, hundreds of Iraqi soldiers have been murdered and two American journalists have been beheaded. And the American people want knowledge and reassurance – two goals that in this instance seem to be at odds.

In an address a couple of weeks ago, President Obama said flatly that he didn’t have a strategy for dealing with ISIS yet, a statement that drew criticism from the professional left and right. Joe Biden several days later delivered his own address – a sort of save – in which he promised to chase ISIS to the ‘gates of Hell’, which is still not a strategy, but did reassure the likes of Chris Matthews and presumably Al Franken and others.

Optimism in the face of an enemy is of course useful if not essential. Projecting strength inspires one’s allies and can strike fear into the hearts of a seemingly implacable foe. Politicians must ‘feel the pain’ of the American people in times of crisis. None of the above is enough to defeat ISIS, radicalism or American policies that foment psychopathic zealotry. In fact, ISIS is in some respects a consequence of our military’s ‘successes’ not its failures.

ISIS began in 1989 as the brainchild of Jordanian born Abu Mosad Zarqawi and it strikes me as an organization that takes shape as its opposition advances and recedes. Its philosophy is fixed, but its physical space is fluid. So, in 1989 it was nameless and mostly stateless. In the early 1990s it was loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In the 2000s, its set up shop after the US invasion of Iraq and was absorbed into Al Qaeda, becoming Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). After Zaqarwi’s death in 2006, the Surge and the ‘Awakening’ it split between native Iraqis and international jihadists – natives became the Sons of Iraq, the international jihadists became nameless and stateless again. After the US withdrew and the Maliki government showed itself unable to fight or effectively absorb the ‘Sons of Iraq’ into the new government, it re-linked with the international wing and became ISI (The Islamic State in Iraq). Then it expanded to Syria and became ISIS (The Islamic State in Syria). Today it is back in Iraq with a goal that defies borders – it is simply IS or The Islamic State.

IS is similar to Al Qaeda in many respects, yet it’s long involvement with the Iraq War has made it unique. It is made up of soldiers that have fought for the US as proxy warriors, against the US as Sadaam’s troops, for the US as members of the Maliki security force and against the US as jihadists. Like Al Qaeda, it espouses a worldview that demands that people choose one of four options: convert, become a tax-paying, second class citizen (dhimmi), flee, or die, but it has shown a ferocity against Shia Muslims that Al Qaeda’s leadership has rejected. Over the years it has bombed mosques, wedding processions, funeral processions, schools, military recruitment sites, all with the goal of killing Shia Muslims or undermining the Maliki government, which we should also take another look at.

In 2011, the US pulled out most of its troops and ‘handed power over’ to the Maliki government. Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim, was supposed to create and maintain a government that shared power with Sunnis, Kurds and other minority groups, while maintaining security against any number of hostile groups and individuals. The Sons of Iraq (a faction that would become part of IS) were not included and given the backpay they were promised. In some cases they were even prosecuted for crimes committed during the war. That probably contributed to their split and the growth of IS, but I want to explore another piece of the puzzle: this idea of ‘handing over power’.

American neo-conservatives, and many liberals, have argued that 9/11 and Sadaam Hussein’s ‘defiance’ were caused by perceived American weakness: for power to be real in the minds of its enemies, it must consistently prove and reaffirm itself. The road to 9/11 in the minds of many American strategists was paved by inaction in the 1980s after the bombing of a Marine base in Lebanon, an unwillingness to depose Sadaam Hussein in the First Gulf War, retreat in Somalia, and insufficient retaliation after the bombing of the USS Coles among other things. Hussein, Bin Laden and others believed as Tojo had decades earlier that the US was a ‘paper tiger’, scary looking but harmless. These arguments propelled us into the war in Iraq as much as the existence of supposed WMDs. If we accept them – or even if we accept their persuasiveness  – then power as the US projects it can be proved or disproved, shown or hidden, exercised or restrained – but it cannot be ‘handed over’, certainly not by constitutional writ. Malaki’s job was a difficult one, perhaps made impossible by his own ineptitude and the short-sightedness of his benefactors in the US. He was supposed to project his own power and back it up, just as his benefactors had. In this regard he has failed, his state is collapsing and Americans want answers and reassurance.

Well, there’s little in the above that should reassure us if we just want to be left alone to shop and watch reality tv. Hitler/Nazi analogies don’t work. Neither do Vietnam comparisons. The President is slated to present his strategy for defeating IS/ISIS this coming Wednesday. His plan, which analysts think projects that the US will defeat IS in three years time, will likely be off by a few decades. The President’s earlier statement about not having a strategy to defeat IS is likely the second most truthful statement made about this war – and yes this is a continuation of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The most truthful statement was uttered by Colin Powell who said that if we invade Iraq we have to remember the ‘Pottery Barn Rule’: if we break it, we buy it. If we destabilize a government, we become responsible for it. If we fire 500,000 Iraqi state workers, many of them soldiers, and they become an insurgency, we’re responsible. If we pour billions into US companies to ‘rebuild’ Iraq, while leaving Iraqi companies dormant and unable to qualify for funding to rebuild their own country, we’re responsible for the backlash. In these mistakes and countless others Americans have bought a problem. And we will own it for decades to come.

Suggested Reading:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/08/isis-a-short-history/376030/

Baghdad Year Zero by Naomi Klein

Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chadrasekaran