Missteps in the Middle East

I’m fascinated by things I don’t understand. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve been binge reading all sorts of material on the Middle East.

My latest book was Joby Warrick’s look into the rise of ISIS. The critical acclaim “Black Flags” has garnered is much deserved. The work is not only exceptionally informative but an enjoyable read. I highly recommend to all interested in the current situation in the Middle East.

It begin’s by developing the character of Zarqawi, a small time thug turned radical Islamist. It follow his exploits, from Afghanistan to a Jordanian prison, and then to Iraq, where fortuitous circumstances turned him into a jihadist of international fame. It was this man that birthed what is now known as ISIS.

What stood out to me more than the relentless ambition of Zarqawi, or the heroic efforts of the Jordanian king and others to fight extremism, was how impactful U.S. action (or inaction for that matter) was in almost all of the pivotal moments of development for Zarqawi and his terrorist organization. Let me give a few examples…

Forced disbandment of the Saddam Hussein’s Baathist party

There are a number of layer’s to this — I’ll just tackle one. Prior to the invasion, Iraq was run by Saddam’s political party. If you were anybody at all in government, you were a member of the Baath party. When the U.S. eliminated the party, it eliminated the ruling class that operated the various functions of government. With no readily available alternative, dysfunction set in. Security evaporated, important infrastructure crumbled. This quickly soured the Iraqi’s attitude toward their American “liberators” and brought about the ill will which allowed Zarqawi’s brand of extremism to flourish.

Rushed Iraqi election

The Bush White House needed a political win. The supposed WMD’s had not been found and Saddam’s terrorist ties had gone unproven. U.S. rationale for continued involvement in Iraq had shifted to focus on planting the “seeds of democracy” in the country. After two bloody years in Iraq, patience was waning. The elections were scheduled for January 30th, 2005, and Washington was pushing hard to make sure everything stayed on schedule. Zarqawi and his al-Qaeda affiliates went about making sure the elections failed. They made it clear among Sunni’s that going to the polls was tantamount to signing one’s own death warrant. Despite c0ncern, U.S. pressure insured that elections were held. The result was lopsided due to this. Sunni disillusionment towards their new government was then used by Zarqawi to flame resentment towards the Shia population and American troops, escalating the conflict within the country.

Time and time again, circumstances created by misguided U.S. action were capitalized on by Zarqawi, often with devastating consequences. I think this has less to do with Zarqawi’s strategic savvy and more to do with a lack of understanding by American decision makers. Roll the tape forward and you’ll see similar missteps, often taking the form of inaction, by the Obama administration, be it a hasty backing of the Egyptian protesters or repeated refusal to deploy resources to influence the Syrian conflict.

Democracy has failed to take root in the Middle East as hoped. The seeds planted in Iraq were of a far different and dangerous kind. American action abroad has far reaching consequences and there are no do overs. But we can learn from our mistakes. And the “post Iraq invasion” Middle East presents a plethora of lessons. We owe it to ourselves and the world to learn from these mistakes and present a sound foreign policy, detailed and firmly rooted in the reality of world around us rather than idealogical aspirations or political gamesmanship.

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