Here’s How the Islamic State Came Into Existence: NeoCon Edition

SAFIN HAMED/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

SAFIN HAMED/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

When President Barack Obama announced on Thursday that he authorized limited airstrikes against the Islamic State, an extremist military organization, it meant bringing the United States back to a significant role in Iraq, a country American soldiers were pulled out of in 2011. The airstrikes, which have no timetable for conclusion, were aimed at protecting the Kurdish capitol, Erbil, which serves as a base for American diplomats and military.

As with every war or cause for military action, the conflict in the Middle East leads to constant finger-pointing. But what’s often most important to Americans is what the U.S. contributed to region. So what did the U.S. have to do with the formation of the Islamic State, the group which claims religious authority over Muslims across the world? According to Stephen M. Walt, Harvard professor and columnist for Foreign Policy Magazine, everything. Walt claims that neoconservatives, who pushed for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, bear responsibility for the existence of the extremist Islamic State.

“The Islamic State wouldn’t exist if the neocons hadn’t led us blindly into Iraq, and Iran would have less reason to contemplate getting nuclear weapons if it hadn’t watched the United States throw its weight around in the region and threaten it directly with regime change,” Walt wrote in Foreign Policy.

The roots of the Islamic State go back before the 2003 Iraq war, when neoconservatism was at its height. But the consequences of that invasion may have affected the group’s current shape. The Islamic State, which is often known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), formed in 2006 as a collection of Sunni insurgent groups and was preceded by organizations like Al-Qaeda. (Al-Qaeda initially supported ISIS, but has since disavowed it for being too extreme.)

Before ISIS existed, there was an organization called Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ), formed in 2000, whose goals – written in 2005, two years after the first invasion of Iraq – included forcing a withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq, overthrowing the interim government, assassinating collaborators with the occupation regime, removing the Shia population, and establishing a pure Islamic state. The group transformed into the Islamic State of Iraq by 2006, and now the U.S. estimates the group has as many as 10,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, according to CNN. 

The initial invasion of Iraq was surrounded with pro-democracy rhetoric — the repeated concept that bringing democratic governments would tame these regions. But looking at 2014, the escalating violence and growth of militant group such as the Islamic State shows the United State’s failure in its intervention.

The Human Rights Watch released a report in July, discussing the Islamic State’s targeting of Turkmen, Shabaks, and Yazidis: “ISIS seems intent on wiping out all traces of minority groups from areas it now controls in Iraq,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. “No matter how hard its leaders and fighters try to justify these heinous acts as religious devotion, they amount to nothing less than a reign of terror.”

Similarly to Walt, others see the U.S.’s intervention in the Middle East as doing more harm than good. Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia under President George H. W. Bush, said in a July speech that the United States “set out to reconfigure the Middle East,” and “the result is that the region and our position in it are both in shambles.” He continued, “If we are at all honest, we must admit that the deplorable state of affairs in the Middle East  – in Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iran, the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula, and, peripherally, Afghanistan – is a product not only of the dynamics of the region but also of a lapse in our capacity to think and act strategically.”

However, neoconservative Eliot A. Cohen, who was one of the first promoters of war against Iraq and Iran in 2001, says that the current upheaval as more to do with the inconsistency and unreliable strategy of the Obama administration, which he says fails to understand that war is war. Though he entered the White House with ongoing wars, Obama can’t fill the role of a war president, Cohen says. “He cannot give the speeches that explain these wars, that call for sacrifice, that bring his domestic opponents along to confront a foreign foe, that rally foreign friends and strike fear in the hearts of common enemies,” Cohen writes.

And Obama certainly doesn’t want to be at war. Explaining the authorization of airstrikes this week, Obama reiterated opposition to another war in Iraq. “As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” he said. “American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis there.” The president said the most recent airstrikes at Erbil are an act to prevent a “potential act of genocide,” referring to the protection of the Yazidis, one of the Kurdish-speaking religious minorities being targeted by the Islamic State for genocide. 

Despite the most crucial humanitarian efforts, Walt thinks the U.S. should wash its hands of the conflict in the Middle East — ending its “futile efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” as well as “its military and economic aid to Egypt, Israel, and perhaps a few others.” While it would leave the Middle East in quite a mess, Walt posits that much of the anti-American terrorism coming from the region (such as the Islamic State’s actions) is reactionary, he thinks less involvement would ameliorate that violence. It’s hard to imagine the complete detachment that Walt is proposing coming to fruition, but it’s clear that the years the U.S. spent in the Middle East may have fueled the conflict to its current state.

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