“In the battle of Iraq, the U.S. and our allies have prevailed and now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country.” -President George W. Bush May 1, 2003
“God has granted your brothers the Mujahideen victory and conquest after years of patience…Raise your head high, for today – by Allah’s grace – you have a state and khilāfah (caliphate), which will return your dignity, might, rights, and leadership.” -Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Qurayshi, Head of ISIS, July 5, 2014
On May 1, 2003, after only two months of combat in Iraq, former President George W. Bush landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and announced that major ground operations had been concluded. His infamous, premature “Mission Accomplished” speech held that the war was over, so the United States could now try to develop Iraq into a democratic state. But the Middle East is a complex place, and the labels “good” and “evil” don’t fit as snugly as Bush might’ve thought. We’re still seeing the results of this ill-advised labeling today.
But first a bit of history. With the recent U.S. pullout from Iraq, this powder keg has once again erupted. The Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, lost favor in Iraq due to abusive government tactics. Upon winning seats of power 8 years ago, Shiites began receiving preferential treatment, al-Maliki took on powers that made him essentially a supreme ruler, and Sunni tribesmen who had enjoyed years of prosperity under Saddam were now being humiliated, oppressed, and forced aside.
And then ISIS arrived. A group that originated in 2004 in response to the U.S. invasion, ISIS became battle-hardened following the 2011 Syrian revolution after fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s Shiite government as well as other moderate Syrian Sunni rebels. An increased Syrian power base allowed ISIS to recently make a sweeping advance into Iraq, capturing large swaths of territory and military equipment along the way, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Qurayshi, the callous leader of ISIS, decided to celebrate his victory by establishing the Islamic Caliphate, an old form of Islamic religious governance. That’s what brought us to the quote you read above.
His mission is still being accomplished.
But what if we actually created this problem ourselves? Not only created it but provided the framework for the ISIS to reign supreme? And I’m not talking about conspiracy theories (no, the CIA did not train Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi).
It’s not tough to make this case from a military standpoint. From any way you look at it, this mess is the result of the U.S., which brought a power vacuum, governmental corruption, instability, and, in turn, descent into chaos. ISIS has seized this opportunity to make a run at defeating the “infidels”, and destroying the West and its influence.
It’s much more interesting to consider ISIS’s theoretical framework. Are the two players’ models for invasion all that different from each other? I argue that both parties’ actions in Iraq come from similar drives to project geo-political strength and provide superior order and governance.
And here’s the truly chilling part: ISIS borrows directly from U.S. foreign policy.
When you look at the President’s quote regarding the war in Iraq you see a President projecting an image of a strengthened America. “The U.S. and our allies have prevailed,” he proclaims. Per Bush, America policed the world. restored order, deposed a dictator, and saved the lives of countless people from ruthless and discriminatory governmental policies. And not insignificantly, the world got a potent reminder of America’s strength, just two years after TVs blared images of an hobbled, post-9/11 America.
Al-Baghdadi knows his strength and knows his fighters. Like the U.S., he feels he is policing the Arab world, helping them adhere to Islamic principles and a “righteous” way of life. “By Allah’s grace you have a state and caliphate”. Al-Baghdadi is giving the Muslims, the true believers, an authentic way of living, an independent Islamic state, which subscribes to G-d and G-d alone. He’s returning the corrupted Arab world to a better, more prestigious state. He believes he is in a war, a holy war, against the powerful enemies of Islam (Western powers) who corrupt Muslim lands, invade them, and subject Muslims to torture and limited freedoms. Like Bush’s “battle of Iraq”, he acknowledges his mujahideen, or fighters, blesses them, and inspires them to fight for themselves and for an Islamic way of life. He wants people, his warriors, and the world to know of his military accomplishments. So he develops his slick al-Hayat media center to better call Muslims everywhere to his cause. Al-Baghdadi, like the U.S., is now a military powerhouse in the region.
Another look at President Bush’s quote shows Bush was obsessed with the idea of bringing democracy to the unwashed masses. The U.S. after all was “engaged in securing and reconstructing” Iraq. Under American democratic theory, Bush’s obsession turned into a “manifest destiny” project extending past the westernmost borders of the U.S. In other words, everyone needs democracy, wants it, and must plainly understand it.
By contrast, al-Baghdadi has come to conclusion that Muslim governance, through peeking at the past, would suit the Arab lands. We’re thinking the Caliphate: a religious system of governance that ended with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and had its golden age around the 1300s while based in Baghdad, should be resurrected and used to govern Muslims everywhere.
But why establish these forms of government?. The US’s establishment of a democratic government, following U.S. principles, backed by U.S. dollars, meant that Iraq was at the US’s disposal. And the U.S. projected this story onto every newsstand all over the world. However, Iraq is not the U.S., the people do not take kindly to foreigners making decisions for them, and one-size doesn’t fit everybody.
The Caliphate hearkens back to an authentic Islamic golden age. Al-Baghdadi knows of its significance in Islamic culture and tradition. He views its establishment as necessary to implement authentic Muslim governance. And he takes this thought to a whole new level, evident by the mass persecution of Iraqi Christian and Yazidi minorities. It’s clear that the Caliphate is not applicable to the entire region and, in fact, is at odds with large swaths of it.
Similarly, with Muslim rule and control of Muslim land, al-Baghdadi will protect Muslims from corrupt and malicious “infidels” and Western powers who constantly seek to exploit the populations and its resources, while also gaining control of those useful and valuable resources. Thus, to attain a Western power-free, empowered Muslim people and nation, a religious caliphate must be created. Or is it to become the wealthy caliph and live in totalitarian control over the entire region?
Here’s the point. Both players’ strategy stems from the same drive and passions. Both players wanted and continue to want to remove harmful government, demonstrate military superiority, gain hegemony and influence in the region, and eliminate opposing interests, specifically foreign and but also domestic. As much as America may like to consider itself the supreme leader of world politics with a superior moral high ground, so do many other more violent and terrorizing groups, who are now following America’s “shock and awe to reconstruction” technique. And, based on the vacuum left from the American withdrawal and the polarized Iraqi political and social landscape, it is only natural that the flaws in our international and military policies begin unraveling and become opportunistically exploited by religiously extreme, anti-Western groups. ISIS, like the U.S., is merely establishing its name and laying out its framework of superior governance.
And when you look at these quotes, you come across the really fascinating thing: a seasoned American politician in command of troops and a fanatical Muslim religious leader with devout followers share many of the same strategies about how to address their warriors, the common people, and the totality of the world audience.
But is that surprising? Perhaps not. The U.S. held al-Baghdadi for anywhere from 10 months to 4 years, according to whom you trust. Who knows what he experienced during his stay with the U.S. Was it enough to radicalize him as it was for many others? Maybe, or maybe he was radical from the start. But it is fascinating that since his time spent in captivity, he has followed U.S. methods of invasion, restructuring, and propaganda.
Let’s just say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.