ISIS Takes Ramadi–And It Wasn’t Bush’s Fault

Matt Vespa
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Posted: May 18, 2015 9:30 AM
ISIS Takes Ramadi–And It Wasn’t Bush’s Fault

Once again, we’re reminded about the limits of air power, as ISIS continues to expand in Iraq. Earlier today, ISIS scored a huge victory over Iraqi Security Forces by capturing Ramadi (via NYT):

The last Iraqi security forces fled the provincial capital of Ramadi on Sunday, as the city fell completely to the militants of the Islamic State, who ransacked the provincial military headquarters, seizing a large store of weapons, and killed people loyal to the government, according to security officials and tribal leaders.

The fall of Ramadi to the Islamic State, despite intensified American airstrikes in recent weeks in a bid to save the city, represented the biggest victory so far this year for the extremist group, which has declared a caliphate, or Islamic state, in the vast areas of Syria and Iraq that it controls. The fall of Ramadi also laid bare the failed strategy of the Iraqi government, which had announced last month a new offensive to retake Anbar Province, a vast desert region in the west of which Ramadi is the capital.

The loss of Ramadi came a day after the Pentagon said Special Operations Forces, flying in helicopters that took off from Iraq, carried out a raid in eastern Syria that resulted in the death of an Islamic State leader and the capture of his wife, along with a trove of materials American officials hope will yield important intelligence on the group.

Yet, now that the Bush factor has been annoyingly brought back into the national discourse about the Iraq War, is this all George W. Bush’s fault? Moreover, did the 43rd president “create ISIS,” which was posited to former Gov. Jeb Bush at a town hall event recently by 19-year-old University of Nevada student Ivy Ziedrich. Ziedrich is also a member of her campus’s Young Democrats:

…as Mr. Bush spoke about the rise of the Islamic State, and put blame on President Obama for removing troops from Iraq, Ms. Ziedrich found herself becoming furious. ISIS, she believed, was the product of George W. Bush’s bungled war in Iraq.

“A Bush was trying to blame ISIS on Obama’s foreign policy — it was hilarious,” said Ms. Ziedrich, who attends the University of Nevada. “It was like somebody crashing their car and blaming the passenger.”

Well, as it turns out, removing troops from Iraq might have been a hasty decision since Obama has sent American forces back, albeit in non-combat roles. Also, Dexter Filkins at The New Yorker noted both Ziedrich and Bush are somewhat incorrect in their claims–and that the debate over the rise of ISIS is just as contentious as our reason to invade Iraq in March of 2003.

'It was when 30,000 individuals who were part of the Iraqi military were forced out — they had no employment, they had no income, and they were left with access to all of the same arms and weapons,” Ziedrich said to Bush. Well, as any person who followed the de-baathfication of Iraq, it was actually the entire Iraqi military–a total force of 400,000 men. Also, Filkins noted that it was Syria that actually gave ISIS its revival, noting that by 2011, the group was “in a state of near-total defeat.” [emphasis mine]

…as the last Americans left Iraq, there came the great uprising in Syria that pitted the country’s vast Sunni majority against the ruthless regime of Bashar al-Assad. Syria quickly dissolved into anarchy. Desperate and seeing an opportunity, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, dispatched a handful of soldiers to Syria, where, in a matter of months, they had gathered an army of followers and had begun attacking the Assad regime. Suddenly, Baghdadi’s group—which had been staggering toward the grave only months before—was regaining strength. In 2013, the I.S.I. became the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria. ISIS was born.

Finally, in June, 2014, legions of ISIS fighters swept out of Syria and grabbed huge swathes of northern and western Iraq. That prompted President Obama to order American troops to help save the Iraqi Army—indeed, to help save Iraq itself—and American pilots to bomb ISIS’s positions. Baghdadi, in proclaiming himself the caliph of the Islamic State, had assembled around himself a group of leaders, many of whom were once soldiers in Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army.

In this sense, Ziedrich is right again, at least notionally: some of the men fighting in ISIS were put out of work by the American occupiers in 2003. Still, it’s not clear—and it will never be clear—how many of these Iraqis might have remained peaceful had the Americans kept the Iraqi Army intact. One of the Iraqis closest to Baghdadi was Ibrahim Izzat al-Douri, a senior official in Saddam’s government until 2003. (Douri was reported killed last month—it’s still not clear if he was or not.) It’s hard to imagine that Douri—or any other hardcore member of Saddam’s Baath Party—would have ever willingly taken part in an American occupation, whether he had a job or not. So, in this sense, Ziedrich is overstating the case. While it’s true that George W. Bush took actions that helped enable the creation of the Iraqi insurgency, and that some leaders of the insurgency formed ISIS, it’s not true that he “created” ISIS. And there’s a good argument to be made that an insurgency would have formed following the invasion of Iraq even if President Bush had kept the Iraqi Army together. He just helped to make the insurgency bigger.

But let’s get to Governor Bush’s assertion—that Iraq went down the tubes because of President Obama’s decision to pull out all American forces, and that Obama could easily have left behind a residual force that would have kept the peace.

I took up this issue last year in a Profile of Maliki, the Iraqi leader we left in place. Maliki didn’t really want any Americans to stay in Iraq, and Obama didn’t, either. But—and this is a crucial point—it seems possible that, if Obama had pushed Maliki harder, the United States could have retained a small force of soldiers there in noncombat roles. More than a few Americans and Iraqis told me this. They blame Obama for not trying harder. “You just had this policy vacuum and this apathy,” Michael Barbero, the commander of American forces in Iraq in 2011, told me, describing the Obama White House.

So, on this, Governor Bush isn’t entirely accurate, but makes a good point: the Obama Administration might have been able to keep some forces in Iraq if it had really tried.

Filkins noted that once American forces left, then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki engaged in a prolonged campaign of repression against the Sunni minority. As ISIS came pouring back across the border from Syria, the Sunni minority thought any other form of authority would be optimal against the oppressive Maliki. It was a perfect storm.

“Americans like Barbero—and a number of Iraqis, as well—argue that the mere presence of a small number of American troops, not in combat roles, could have made a crucial difference,” wrote Filkins.

Could all that have been prevented? It’s impossible to know, of course, although President Obama, by sending American forces back to Iraq, seems at least implicitly to think so. Historians—along with Governor Bush and Ivy Ziedrich—will be arguing about the question for a long time.

What we do know is that the Bush administration made a huge error in disbanding the Iraqi military, but the 43rd president didn’t “create ISIS.” An insurgency was going to form, but Bush just made it bigger. Again, that’s nothing to cheer about, but neither is this incessant push by the political left to blame Bush over Iraq. I never hear people bash Lyndon Baines Johnson for sinking America deeper into Vietnam.  That war saw over 500,000 Americans rushed into Southeast Asia, where 58,000 of them died fighting an enemy that was never going to surrender until the entire county was united under communism, albeit a more nationalistic form of it.

At least Bush’s 2007 surge was able to more or less neutralize the insurgency, causing violence to drop precipitously and allowing the “Clear, Hold, and Build” strategy to etch out a foothold in the country.

So, yeah; liberals might be eating up this sound bite, but it’s not true. As I’ve said previously, I wonder if Ziedrich will be just as hard on Mrs. Clinton, who voted for the Iraq War in 2002.