Sorry, Jeb. Your Brother Did Create ISIS

W's war of choice destabilized the region and laid the groundwork for today's nightmare enemy

It must be tough being the brother of the man who is responsible for the world-historical disaster that was the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It's tougher still to try to replace him as the next Republican president of the United States.

This week, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush found that out the hard way. Mocked by the press and his GOP rivals for first announcing, "I would have" gone into Iraq knowing what he knows now, Jeb reversed course days later in declaring, "I would not have gone into Iraq." But even before the pain had subsided from that severe case of whiplash, Bush was embarrassed at an event in Reno by 19-year-old college student Ivy Ziedrich. When Bush tried to pin the paternity for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria on President Obama, the University of Nevada political science major replied simply:

"Your brother created ISIS."

Ziedrich's is a bold claim. After all, for her to be right, ISIS—the dangerous movement combining Saddam loyalists, former Al Qaeda members and disgruntled Sunni fighters—would have to have emerged as a direct result of the war Bush launched in 2003. The disbanding of Saddam's 400,000-man army would have to be laid at the feet of "The Decider." Foreign fighters must have flocked to Al Qaeda—a non-factor in Iraq before the U.S. invasion—specifically to target American troops. And while those unlikely allies forged ties in U.S and Iraqi prisons, Sunni tribesmen once paid by American forces would have to have become alienated by a sectarian Shiite strongman in Baghdad beholden to Iran. The inevitable outcome of such U.S. mismanagement of post-Saddam Iraq, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld privately warned his boss on October 15, 2002, would be that "Iraq could experience ethnic strife among Sunni, Shia, and Kurds" with the result that "it could fracture into two or three pieces, to the detriment of the Middle East and the benefit of Iran."

Unfortunately for Jeb Bush—and to Ivy Ziedrich's credit—that is precisely what transpired. Or to push in terms even Republican mythmakers can understand: ISIS? George W. Bush built that.

Bringing Al Qaeda to Iraq

Let's start with an easy one. We know that the U.S. invasion of Iraq brought Al Qaeda to Iraq and the region because President Bush told us so.

In his December 2008 exit interview with Martha Raddatz of ABC News, he acknowledged that it was the American presence that drew Al Qaeda fighters to Iraq, and not the reverse:

BUSH: One of the major theaters against al Qaeda turns out to have been Iraq. This is where al Qaeda said they were going to take their stand. This is where al Qaeda was hoping to take -

RADDATZ: But not until after the U.S. invaded.

BUSH: Yeah, that's right. So what? The point is that al Qaeda said they're going to take a stand. Well, first of all in the post-9/11 environment Saddam Hussein posed a threat. And then upon removal, al Qaeda decides to take a stand.

As we now know, Al Qaeda in Iraq was down, but not out. Ejected from most of Anbar province by U.S. forces and the fighters of the "Sunni Awakening," the remaining followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi retrenched across the border in Syria. Just three weeks ago, President Bush told a closed door meeting of Jewish donors that the Islamic State was Al Qaeda's "second act." (As the groups splintered in Syria in February 2014, Al Qaeda central said it wanted no part of the Islamic State in its second act.)  Nevertheless, as the Washington Post explained last month, the "hidden hand" behind the emergence of the Islamic State was Saddam Hussein's

De-Ba'athification and Disbanding Saddam's Army

As we'll see below, from the beginning high-ranking officers from Saddam's military and officials of his Ba'ath party have played critical leadership roles in the military and economic operations of ISIS. But that's not because, as President Bush claimed in 2004, they "should have surrendered or been done in." Instead, it is in large part due to the very reason Ivy Ziedrich gave Jeb Bush: the 2003 decision to disband the Iraqi army and "de-Ba'athify" the Iraqi government. And those catastrophic decisions by Coalition Provisional Authority's L. Paul Bremer were blessed by President Bush.

Using letters provided by Bremer, the New York Times in 2007 documented that President Bush indeed casually approved Bremer's May 2003 plan to disband the Iraqi military. Bremer released both his May 22, 2003, letter detailing his plans and progress on de-Ba'athification and the dissolution of Saddam's army, as well as President Bush's May 23 response.

In his May 22 letter, Bremer informed Bush that:

"We must make it clear to everyone that we mean business: that Saddam and the Baathists are finished...I will parallel this step [de-Baathification] with an even more robust measure dissolving Saddam's military and intelligence structures to emphasize that we mean business."
In his shockingly brief May 23 response, Bush nonchalantly blesses Bremer's fateful step to dissolve the Iraqi military:
"Your leadership is apparent. You have quickly made a positive and significant impact. You have my full support and confidence. You also have the backing of our Administration that knows our work will take time."

President Bush must have been pleased with Bremer's work. In December 2004, Bush rewarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Three years later in 2007, an unfazed Bush told biographer Robert Draper, "The policy was to keep the army intact; didn't happen," and "Yeah, I can't remember, I'm sure I said, 'This is the policy, what happened?'"

What happened is that the tens of thousands of now unemployed and very unhappy Iraqi soldiers formed the basis for the insurgency the killed and maimed thousands of American soldiers. Nevertheless, in response to the growing bloodbath and chaos his decisions unleashed,President Bush in August 2004 had a novel explanation for the carnage in Iraq:

"Had we had to do it [the invasion of Iraq] over again, we would look at the consequences of catastrophic success - being so successful so fast that an enemy that should have surrendered or been done in escaped and lived to fight another day."
Lived to fight another day, indeed.

Giving Birth to the Leadership of ISIS

In the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic, Graeme Wood gave his intepretation of "what ISIS really wants." Under the leadership of "emir" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Wood claimed, ISIS seeks to build a new Islamic caliphate that will realize its End-Times, millenarian vision. "The Islamic State awaits the army of 'Rome,'" Wood said, "whose defeat at Dabiq, Syria, will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse."

But before there was al-Baghdadi (rumored to be partially paralyzed after an American air strike), there was Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi. Also known as Haji Bakr, he was a colonel in Saddam's intelligence service. And as documents recently obtained by Der Spiegel show, the late Haji Bakr was the architect of the ISIS organization that selected al-Baghdadi as its religious front man.

The former colonel in the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein's air defense force had been secretly pulling the strings at IS for years. Former members of the group had repeatedly mentioned him as one of its leading figures. Still, it was never clear what exactly his role was.

But when the architect of the Islamic State died, he left something behind that he had intended to keep strictly confidential: the blueprint for this state. It is a folder full of handwritten organizational charts, lists and schedules, which describe how a country can be gradually subjugated...

The story of this collection of documents begins at a time when few had yet heard of the "Islamic State." When Iraqi national Haji Bakr traveled to Syria as part of a tiny advance party in late 2012, he had a seemingly absurd plan: IS would capture as much territory as possible in Syria. Then, using Syria as a beachhead, it would invade Iraq.

As Kevin Drum summed it up, "Bakr wanted to build an organization that could retake Iraq, and he calculated that this could best be done by combining the secular mechanisms of Saddam Hussein with the religious fanaticism of an Al Qaeda." The real roots of ISIS, Drum concluded, "are as much secular as religious."

And those roots run deep among the "thousands of well-trained Sunni officers [who] were robbed of their livelihood with the stroke of a pen" by Paul Bremer in May 2003. And like Haji Bakr, many soon found an ally in the Al Qaeda chief, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. As Liz Sly wrote in the Washington Post:

Some of those Baathists became early recruits to the al-Qaeda affiliate established by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Palestinian Jordanian fighter who is regarded as the progenitor of the current Islamic State, said Hisham al Hashemi, an Iraqi analyst who advises the Iraqi government and has relatives who served in the Iraqi military under Hussein. Other Iraqis were radicalized at Camp Bucca, the American prison in southern Iraq where thousands of ordinary citizens were detained and intermingled with jihadists.Among them was the future emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Held in Camp Bucca from February through December 2004, al-Baghdadi was able to form close links with jailed Saddam loyalists and Al Qaeda fighters. As Ben Hubbard and Eric Schmitt detailed in the New York Times last August, he "handpicked many of his deputies from among the men he met while a prisoner in American custody at the Camp Bucca detention center a decade ago."
He had a preference for military men, and so his leadership team includes many officers from Saddam Hussein's long-disbanded army.
They include former Iraqi officers like Fadel al-Hayali, the top deputy for Iraq, who once served Mr. Hussein as a lieutenant colonel, and Adnan al-Sweidawi, a former lieutenant colonel who now heads the group's military council.
The pedigree of its leadership, outlined by an Iraqi who has seen documents seized by the Iraqi military, as well as by American intelligence officials, helps explain its battlefield successes: Its leaders augmented traditional military skill with terrorist techniques refined through years of fighting American troops, while also having deep local knowledge and contacts. ISIS is in effect a hybrid of terrorists and an army.
To put it another way, heckuva job, Bushie.

Ensuring Sectarian Conflict by Backing a Shiite Strongman in Baghdad

"When George W. Bush left office," the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol declared earlier this year, "Iraq was safe and peaceful." Of course, that wasn't the case in 2009. And the sectarian violence that increasingly gripped the country would not have been prevented had President Obama succeeded in reversing Bush's Status of Forces agreement that called for all U.S. forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. That's because Jeb's brother didn't just pour the foundation for the edifice of the Islamic State. Nouri al-Maliki, President Bush's man in Baghdad, was also Tehran's. And by backing the Shiite hyper-partisan, Bush ensured future sectarian conflict with Iraq's Kurdish and Sunni minorities.

As you'll recall, the defeat of Al Qaeda in the western provinces of Iraq would not have been possible without the Sunni Awakening in which the United States purchased the allegiance of tribal sheiks and armed 90,000 of their fighters to battle Al Qaeda. But those "Sons of Iraq" would only stay bought if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite majority integrated them into the nation's security forces. But accommodating the Sunni groups was precisely was Maliki—that is, George W. Bush's man in Baghdad—refused to do. As Dexter Filkins explained last year:

In the two and a half years since the Americans' departure, Maliki has centralized power within his own circle, cut the Sunnis out of political power, and unleashed a wave of arrests and repression. Maliki's march to authoritarian rule has fueled the reemergence of the Sunni insurgency directly. With nowhere else to go, Iraq's Sunnis are turning, once again, to the extremists to protect them.
In 2006, that committed Shiite sectarian Nouri al-Maliki was President Bush's hand-picked choice for the premiership. But by the summer of 2007, Robert Draper reported, Bush, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham were all worrying that Maliki would undo the gains of the surge made possible by General David Petraeus' Sunni Awakening:
It suddenly seemed that the efforts of the surge might be for naught. And so, shortly after returning from Iraq, McCain and Graham visited President Bush at the White House. According to three individuals with knowledge of the July 11 conversation, the pair advised Bush to cut all ties with al-Maliki unless he showed immediate signs of engagement. Such a move on Bush's part would be tantamount to encouraging a coup against Iraq's first democratically elected prime minister, but McCain and Graham saw the situation as a desperate one. We've got a military strategy that's working, they told the president. And it's being undercut by an Iraqi government that's dysfunctional.
Bush was sympathetic. He'd been giving al-Maliki pep talks for more than six months now, with little to show for the effort. But, he told the two senators, "Who's going to replace him?"
We don't have a good answer for that, they replied. But unless al-Maliki changes, we can't get there.
As it turned out, Maliki didn't change. The hope for a pluralistic Iraqi government, dependent as it was on the Shiite majority's inclusion of the Sunni minority previously represented by Saddam Hussein, soon began to fade. As the New York Times warned as the last American troops were leaving Iraq in December 2011, the Sunnis' worst fears were being realized:
The Shiite-dominated central government has arrested prominent Sunnis on accusations that they are secret members of the long-disbanded Baath Party, which has alienated Sunni elites. Meanwhile, a Sunni revolt a few hundred miles to the north of here against the Shiite-aligned government in neighboring Syria is gathering force.
Last month, government police officers wounded two guards and detained two others in a raid on the home of a Sunni, Sheik Albo Baz, in Salahuddin Province, prompting a protest by several thousand Sunnis in Samarra, a city divided by sect.
This followed the roundup by police officers of 600 suspected Baath Party sympathizers in October; they were accused of planning a coup.

The impact of the simmering Sunni grievances was evident in the rapid ISIS takeover of Mosul in June 2014. The much larger Iraqi army units, comprised mostly of Shiite troops from outside Anbar, evaporated in the face of just hundreds of ISIS fighters. The Washington Postdescribed the reaction of residents:

For many in the mostly Sunni city, the ouster of the hated national security forces was welcome, offering a sign of just how much the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has alienated the Sunni population in the eight years since Maliki came to power.

Mercifully, the situation in Iraq has improved. President Obama forced Maliki from office by conditioning U.S. assistance on his replacement. U.S. and coalition air strikes have helped the Kurds repel ISIS fighters, while Iraqi forces backed by Shiite militias loyal to Iran and its allied clergy in Iraq ejected ISIS from Tikrit. ISIS "emir" al-Baghdadi has been seriously wounded and his second-in-command killed. Twelve years after George W. Bush's launched "shock and awe" with a card deck featuring Saddam Hussein and 51 of his henchmen, "King of Clubs" Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri was finally killed. But his extremist Naqshbandi Army still fights alongside ISIS, while new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is struggling to keep Sunni tribal leaders, his Iranian patron, the Shiite militias, and the United States on the same page.

In April, George W. Bush re-emerged to lend his support to his brother while taking a few pot shots at President Obama's Middle East policies. As for his decision to invade Iraq in the first place, Dubya has only one regret, even after "knowing what we know now." As he put it in November, that regret is the rise of ISIS:

"I think it was the right decision. My regret is that a violent group of people has risen up again. This is al Qaeda plus. I put in the book that they need to be defeated. And I hope they are. I hope the strategy works."
We all do. But George W. Bush should most of all because, as Ivy Ziedrich rightly suggested,ISIS is his baby. While Jeb belatedly acknowledged that his brother's invasion of Iraq was a mistake, he simply could not bring himself to admit Dubya's cataclysmic failure lives on in the Islamic State. As he lectured Ziedrich, "We respectfully disagree":
"Look, you can rewrite history all you want. But the simple fact is that we are in a much more unstable place because America pulled back."
Sorry, Jeb. You're the revisionist here. Iraq and the region are much more unstable because your brother went in.

 

Jon Perr is a consultant who writes about politics and public policy at Perrspectives (@Perrspectives).  His work is also featured at Crooks & Liars, DailyKos and other sites.