Diplomatic Relations Editors' Forum Hasan Siddiqui International Relations Iraq ISIS Islamic State Leon Fleddermann Michael Lumbers Security Syria Terrorism The Middle East and North Africa The United States of America

Is Obama Responsible for the Rise of ISIS?

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush recently blamed the Obama administration for creating a vaccum in Iraq ultimately filled by ISIS when it withdrew all U.S. combat forces from the country at the end of 2011.

The threat that ISIS poses to U.S. security, who’s to blame for it, and what can be done to counter it all figure to feature prominently in next year’s U.S. presidential campaign. With that in mind, we asked our program editors and distinguished Middle East expert Asher Susser this week:

Can the Obama administration be blamed for the rise of ISIS?


Asher Susser: All Politics is Local

Professor Emeritus of Middle Eastern History, Tel Aviv University

The troubles of Iraq have roots that run far deeper than recent U.S. decision-making. Iraq was the product of a British design that lumped together three very disparate former Ottoman provinces-Basra, Baghdad and Mosul-populated by Shi’te and Sunni Muslim Arabs and Sunni Muslim Kurds, to create the new state of Iraq in 1920. Though the Shi’ites were the clear majority from the outset, the Sunni Arabs were made the masters of the country in cooperation with the British, who were still at the height of their imperial greatness. In later years, Saddam and the Ba’th Party perfected the system of Sunni preeminence by creating the machinery of repression that kept them in power in what one Iraqi exile called the “Republic of Fear.”

Many, if not most, observers still tend to exaggerate the influence of the great powers in shaping historical trends in the Middle East and not enough credit is given to the agency of the local players in forging regional realities. Some may argue that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 disproves this point. Indeed, it overthrew the Sunni-dominated Ba’th regime. But instead of achieving democracy in Iraq and throughout the region by the expected “domino effect,” the regional forces, starting with the empowerment of the Shi’ite majority in Iraq and their co-religionist in Iran, followed by the resurgence of Sunni counter forces, such as ISIS, have entered into a destructive conflict with each other and have completely derailed the U.S. project. In fact, virtually nothing remains of the original U.S. design, as local forces are presently ripping the Fertile Crescent apart.

The origins of the mess in Iraq long precede the actions of both the Bush and the Obama administrations. The U.S. has no doubt played a role in recent developments: Bush, by bowling over Saddam and the Sunnis, was far more significant than anything Obama could have done. But it is not this or that U.S. presidential decision that shapes the contours of Iraqi politics, but rather the seething undercurrents of local historical forces.

Those who ignore the history, political culture and identities of the Middle Eastern peoples do so at their peril. They are destined to repeat the folly of their predecessors, and to reap the whirlwinds that the local forces are bound to lay in wait for them.


Trevor Schenk: To the Hell that is Iraq!?

Program Editor, Canada’s NATO

There are many factors, including civil wars, failed states, sectarian tensions, outside funding, and policy mistakes by several countries (including the U.S.), that created the chaos we are now witnessing in Iraq and Syria.

Perhaps the most disastrous decision was to disband the Iraqi Army after the 2003 invasion. This ultimately led to the creation of al-Qaeda in Iraq and its successor, ISIS, evidenced by the fact that ISIS has utilized a network of former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party to help militarize and run the organization.

Much of the blame can also be put on former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who promised to run a more inclusive government. Instead, he pursued policies that strengthened his own Shia and marginalized the Sunni population, prompting many of them to rise up in arms.

ISIS was also aided, both directly and indirectly, by several other countries in the region. Wealthy individuals from the Gulf states of Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia sent money to the group, mainly to support the toppling of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, an Iranian ally. Turkey was also complicit, as it allowed ISIS recruits to flow into Syria through its own territory.


Leon Fleddermann: We Have Seen the Turning of the Tide

Contributing Writer

Attributing the responsibility of turning Iraq into the hell on earth that it is today to one man’s policies overlooks the broader picture and the deep historical and social background of the Middle East. Yet the effect of U.S. policies cannot be dismissed. The eventual unpopularity of the war drove the Bush administration to hasten the nation-building process and prepare for departure earlier then advised. The Obama administration completed the exodus of the U.S. military, leaving behind unfinished business in the form of an unstable Iraq. Washington’s attempt to repeat its past success of fostering democracy in West Germany and Japan following the removal of dictatorial regimes failed. The enduring Shia-Sunni rivalry outweighed any common interest in building a democratic society, leaving the people demoralized and without a common cause. The Islamist ideology manifesting in the form of ISIS quickly replaced the void of power left behind.


Hasan Siddiqui: Partially

Program Editor, Expanding Community

Upon reflecting on the circumstances that have contributed to the rise of ISIS, one cannot blame the Obama administration for its creation, but at the same time, one cannot ignore the missteps, which, if addressed, could have curtailed the movement at an earlier stage.

The rise of ISIS, not the movement’s actual establishment, stems from the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq on the pretext of WMDs, none of which were found. But ISIS’ shocking expansion across Iraq and Syria would not have happened had the Obama administration followed through on its vow to punish Assad for using chemical weapons against rebel forces when such evidence emerged in the summer of 2013. Tough rhetoric and posturing from Washington notwithstanding, no retaliation took place and Assad has continued to use chlorine as a weapon against Syrians, primarily civilians. Neglecting to back the Free Syrian Army and other then-moderate rebel groups with weapons and support against Assad played into the hands of radical Islamist groups like the al-Nusra Front and ISIS, towards whom many opponents of the Syrian regime flocked as a tangible alternative.

ISIS’ sudden push into Iraq stemmed from the springboard it gained in Syria. Had the group been dealt with seriously and had more palatable anti-Assad forces been backed, ISIS’ “blitzkrieg” would have been stemmed. The rise of ISIS may not have as much to do with its military capacity as with the inability of actors on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border to resist it.


Michael Lumbers: Facts Are Stubborn Things

Program Editor, Emerging Security

Jeb Bush’s cherry-picking speech is a stark reminder why politicians should not get the last word on historical interpretation. If he wishes to dissociate himself from his brother’s foreign policy record, Bush may want to consider choosing an alternative line of attack against the Democrats. For if an immediate catalyst for the rise of ISIS can be identified, look no further than George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, which unleashed longstanding sectarian tensions that had been suppressed under Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship. By empowering the country’s Shia majority and marginalizing former Sunni leaders through sweeping, ill-advised de-Baathification measures, the Bush team inadvertently set the stage for the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which thrived on widespread Sunni disenchantment and was ISIS’ antecedent.

The assertion of former Bush officials that the “surge” of U.S. troops at the end of 2006 stabilized Iraq, only for Obama to fumble this inheritance, exaggerates the role that American troops played in defeating the Sunni insurgency and downplays the Sunni Awakening’s contribution.  The subsequent sidestepping of these Sunni tribesmen by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was instrumental in engendering the Sunni resentment on which ISIS has capitalized. Whether the presence of roughly 10,000 U.S. troops beyond 2011, the number recommended by the president’s military advisers, could have done more than only partially curb some of Maliki’s worst excesses is unlikely; U.S. influence in Baghdad had already waned well before Obama assumed office. The Sunni-Shia chasm that has set Iraq and the wider Middle East aflame is largely immune to the application of outside force; until this divide is bridged, the introduction of additional U.S. forces will not provide a sustainable solution.


Eric Morse: A Conflict with Deep Origins

Senior Research Analyst, NATO Association of Canada

As Gandalf said to Bilbo Baggins long years ago, “starting is too great a claim for any.” If you must look for a starting point in history – a will o’ the wisp on the face of it – you might better look to the overthrow of the Baathist regime in Iraq by George “43” Bush in 2003. But given that Islamist extremism had existed in strength for decades before then, any assignment of responsibility for historical phenomena is at best a game in counterfactual history, at worst political moralizing. At most times there are too many variables in play. At the time that the U.S. departed Iraq, ISIS had already “risen,” and was militarily active in Syria while Anbar was in barely concealed chaos. There was already a vacuum, and in order to say that U.S. troops could have filled it, one would have to assume an occupation sine fine and an economy that could have sustained the same. ISIS is chaos incarnate, but it still rules only the hinterland of Upper Mesopotamia, which no power, regional or global, has ever succeeded in holding for very long or very securely.


  • NATO Association of Canada

    The NATO Association of Canada (NAOC) strives to educate and engage Canadians about NATO and its goals of peace, prosperity and security. The NAOC ensures Canada has an informed citizenry able to participate in discussions about its role on the world stage.

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NATO Association of Canada
The NATO Association of Canada (NAOC) strives to educate and engage Canadians about NATO and its goals of peace, prosperity and security. The NAOC ensures Canada has an informed citizenry able to participate in discussions about its role on the world stage.