Obama’s Admission On Middle East Violence

Truly, President Obama’s recent call to address the root causes of violence, including that of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) and al-Qaeda, was a step in the right direction, but still miles away from taking responsibility for the mayhem that has afflicted the Middle East since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“The link is undeniable,” Obama said in a speech at the State Department on  February 19 “When people are oppressed and human rights are denied—particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines—when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit.” Of course, he is right. Every word. However, the underlying message is also clear: it’s everyone else’s fault but ours. Now, that’s hardly true, and Obama, once a strong critic of his predecessor’s war, knows it well.

Writing at MSNBC.com, Sarah Leah Whitson went a step further. In “Why the fight against ISIS is failing,” Whitson, criticized the anti-IS alliance for predicating its strategy on militarily defeating the group, without any redress of the grievances of oppressed Iraqi Sunnis, who, last year welcomed IS fighters as “liberators.”

“But let’s not forget how Iraq got to that point,” she wrote, “with the U.S.-led Iraq war that displaced a dictator, but resulted in an abusive occupation and destructive civil war, leaving more than a million dead.”

Spot on, well, almost. Whitson considered “displacing of a dictator,” as a plus for the U.S. war, as if the whole military venture had anything to do with overcoming dictatorship. In fact, the “abusive occupation and destructive civil war” was very much part of the U.S. strategy of divide and conquer. Many wrote about this to the extent that the argument itself is, in fact, history. At least both arguments are a significant departure from the pseudo-intellectualism that has occupied the larger share of mainstream media thinking about terrorism and violence.

Not only does the conventional wisdom in U.S. media blame the bloody exploits of IS on the region itself, as if the U.S. and western interventionism are not, in any way, factors at least worth pondering. For them U.S. intervention is a force for good, rarely self-seeking and exploitative. Worse, no matter how they unravel the argument, Islam somehow ends up being the root of all evil—a reductionist, silly, and irresponsible argument, to say the least. Also a dangerous one, for it infers the kind of conclusions that will constantly point to a self-destructive foreign policy, the kind that set the Middle East ablaze in the first place.

The constant injection of all sorts of bizarre arguments, like that of Graeme Wood’s recent piece in the Atlantic, is aimed at creating distractions, blaming religion and its zealots for their “apocalyptic” view of the world. Wood’s argument, designed to be a methodical and detached academic examination of the roots of IS, is misconstrued at best, disingenuous at worst.

“That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model,” Wood concluded with the type of liberal positivism that has become as galling as religious zeal.

Mohamed Ghilan, an Islamic law scholar dissected Wood’s argument with integrity based on authentic knowledge of both Islam and the Middle East. “An analysis of what ISIS is about and what it wants that looks to Islam as a causal source of their behavior is not only misguided, but harmful,” he wrote. “It obscures the root causes for why we have an ISIS, an al-Qaeda, an Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, and any of the other groups that continue to arise. It creates further confusion and contributes to a rising Islamophobic sentiment in the West. And, when given the guise of academic rigor, it accomplishes all of this rather perniciously.” Since the first Iraq war (1990-91) until this day, America’s mainstream intellectuals and journalists refuse to accept the most prevalent truth about the roots of the current crisis; that military intervention is not a virtue, that war begets chaos and violence, that military invasion is not a harbingers of a stable democracy, but invites desperately violent polices predicated on winning, regardless of the cost.

That very admission came from former United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, who, by virtue of his previous position, should indeed be able to assess the link between the U.S. war on Iraq and the current upheaval. Although he rightly blamed regional powers for exasperating the conflict, he laid the blame where it surely belongs: the Iraq war, invasion, and the way the occupation was handled afterwards. “I was against this invasion and my fears have been founded. The break-up of the Iraqi forces poured hundreds if not thousands of disgruntled soldiers and police officers onto the streets,” he said.

That was the backbone of the initial home-grown resistance in Iraq, which forced the U.S. to shift strategy by igniting the powder keg of sectarianism. The hope then was that the “disgruntled soldiers” of Iraqi resistance would be consumed in a civil war inferno involving Sunni-based resistance against Shiite-based militias, themselves working for or allied with the U.S., and a U.S.-imposed Shiite government in Baghdad. “The aim of creating democracy without the existing institutions ushered in corrupt sectarian governments,” Annan said. For Annan, the war and invasion come first, followed by the sectarian mismanagement of Iraq, also by the Americans, an admission that is rarely echoed by U.S. officials and media, as demonstrated by the obstinately deficient media coverage.

One is rarely proposing to ignore existing fault lines in Middle Eastern societies—sectarianism, fundamentalism, unresolved conflicts, and the monster of authoritarianism and corruption. None of this should be unheeded, if a peaceful future is possible. On the other hand, the argument that seeks every pretense—from blaming Islam and believers of some strange apocalypse to everyone but the U.S. and its allies—is a poor attempt at escaping moral and political responsibility.

The danger of that argument lies in the fact that its promoters don’t mind seeing yet another war, like the one that was visited on the Middle East a decade or so ago, the one that brought al-Qaeda to the region, and orchestrated the rise of IS, and the bloodbath that followed.



Ramzy Baroud is a syndicated columnist, media consultant, author, and founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).