Last week, Ivy Ziedrich, a University of Nevada undergrad, confronted potential Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush about his impolitic remarks blaming President Obama for the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Ms. Ziedrich instead placed the blame squarely on Jeb's brother, former President George W. Bush. While not incorrect, the reality, however, is that responsibility for the creation of ISIS does not rest with George W. Bush's alone. Given the dismal state of America's overall Middle East policy, there seems to be a need among politicians and citizens alike to apportion blame for this perceived failure. In light of the recent fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi to ISIS, moreover, the specific issue of America's decades-long misadventure in Iraq has once again reared its ugly head for the American electorate to ponder, and the blame game has been initiated with all the vigor one can expect from a spectacle Theodore White has likened to the greatest source of human excitement short of war -- the American Presidential campaign. While the various candidates struggle to explain how they would have voted on the decision to invade Iraq -- always prefacing their answer, hypothetical or otherwise, with the soul-cleansing precondition of "knowing what we know now" -- the fact remains that there is little genuine understanding among the American chattering class about how or why America became involved in Iraq to begin with, creating a situation where by both Ivy Ziedrich and Jeb Bush are wrong to place blame for the creation of ISIS on either George W. Bush or Barack Obama.
There is a huge playing field on which the ISIS blame game can be played, encompassing the totality of the history of Anglo-American involvement in the Middle East. The French and British can be blamed for carving up the Middle East territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War, further fragmenting an already fragmented Arab world and helping create the conditions that led to the formation of the insular and backward Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, something that would not have happened had the Arab revolt been allowed to run its course. America, too, comes in for its fair share of the blame for helping sustain the Saudi Kingdom as a viable entity. In the closing months of the Second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt met with Saudi King Abdul Aziz aboard the USS Quincy in Egypt's Great Bitter Lake in 1945, sealing a strategic relationship that built on America's need for oil and Saudi Arabia's need for a superpower protector.
The alliance between the Saudi royal family and the brand of virulent extreme Islam embraced by ISIS -- known as Wahhabism -- dates back more than 270 years, when Muhammad ibn Saud and Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab combined secular rule with true faith to create a domain where, according to the Saudi rulers, "true" sharia law prevails to this day. It is in this self-proclaimed Islamic paradise that, a century ago, the predecessors of ISIS took form as Wahhabist zealots known as Al-Ikhwan, or the "Brotherhood." With the support of the Saudi rulers, the Ikhwan conducted a "purification" campaign to purge the Arabian peninsula of anyone who did not adhere to the tenets of Wahhabism. In addition to the tens of thousands who perished in the inter-tribal fighting involved in the ascendency of the Ikhwan (men, women and children -- the Ikhwan took particular pleasure in slicing open the bellies of pregnant women), more than 40,000 people were beheaded by the Ikhwan in the decade following its rise to power, and upwards of 350,000 amputations were likewise conducted in the name of Islamic justice. Even the atrocities of ISIS pale in comparison to these figures.
Having used the fanaticism of the Ikhwan to consolidate domestic political power, the Saudi royal family turned on them in 1927, eradicating the Ikhwan movement with the help of British arms. Militant Wahhabism, however, wasn't terminated, but rather driven underground, where it continued to fester in the backwaters of Saudi tribal society. ISIS is simply the modern progeny of the Ikhwan, the by-product of a policy undertaken by Saudi Arabia since 1973 to export radical Wahhabism abroad in an effort to reduce tensions with the Wahhabist "Scholars of Islamist Law", or Ulema, and the Saudi government over the playboy antics of the Saudi ruling class. This exportation took on an additional urgency following the 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca -- the holiest place in all of Islam -- by fanatical adherents of an off-shoot sect of Wahhabism who believed that the Islamic redeemer, or Mahdi, had been dispatched to earth by God.
The linkage between those who seized the Grand Mosque in 1979 and the forces of Al Qaeda and ISIS today is not lost on the Saudis, hence the strenuous efforts undertaken to provide off-shore outlets for those Saudi citizens who feel the need to become a mujahid, or "inner struggler", in the name of Wahhabism -- either by joining a group actively engaged in violent jihad abroad or, more commonly, facilitating violent jihad through financial support. ISIS is one such outlet; while there is no doubt that its sources of income are many and varied, the so-called "charitable contributions" provided by Saudi and other Gulf Coast Arabs allowed hundreds of millions of dollars to flow to groups and individuals that later melded into ISIS, thereby enabling their early sustainment and growth. These "charitable contributions" continue to this day and play an important role in funding the ongoing operations of ISIS.
Rather than blame Barack Obama or George W. Bush for the creation of ISIS, Americans should place the blame right where it belongs -- on the Saudi royal family. But then blame likewise must be apportioned to every American president who has acted to sustain America's oil-based relationship with the Saudis originally struck by Franklin Roosevelt -- Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama. Every president named was made aware of the unsavory nature of the Saud-Wahhabi alliance, and every president chose to ignore it. This wasn't because each president willfully turned a blind eye to the realities of the Saudi regime, but rather because American presidents are inherently political creatures who respond to the needs and desires of their electorate, in this case an American population addicted to a lifestyle largely sustained by guaranteed access to Middle Eastern oil. It was American largess, in the form of dollars exchanged for oil, which enriched the Saudi regime and enabled it to lavish millions in the cause of exporting radical Wahhabism. So, in a way, all Americans are responsible for the creation of ISIS -- myself included.
The creation of ISIS predates the decision of Barack Obama to withdraw American combat troops from Iraq. It predates the decision of George W. Bush to invade Iraq. It predates the decision of Bill Clinton to make removal of Saddam Hussein official U.S. government policy, the decision of George H. W. Bush to confront Saddam over the invasion of Kuwait, and the decision of Ronald Reagan to turn a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons by Saddam against Iran and Iraq's own Kurdish population -- one could go on and on, reversing through each presidential predecessor, to uncover errors in policy that contributed to the future errors of policy of his successor. The one thing that all presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have had in common with regard to Middle Eastern policy is that none have had genuine freedom of action, but rather were constrained by policies and decisions inherited from those who came before them. It is too simple to assess a given time frame in isolation and draw sweeping conclusions -- America invaded Iraq, removed Saddam and ISIS was born, or America withdrew from Iraq, chaos ensued and ISIS was born. Obama was influenced by Bush 43, who was influenced by Clinton, who was influenced by Bush 41, and so on and so forth.
What all these policies do have in common is the arrogant underpinnings of American exceptionalism -- the notion that American might makes right, and what is good for America is by extension good for the rest of the world. America's emergence after the Second World War as the world's foremost military and economic power helped create and sustain the notion of a new "White Man's Burden" marked by the unique role that could be played by post-war America in revitalizing global socio-political-economic relations following the collapse of those European empires that survived the First World War. But this new American mission was undertaken in a vacuum created by the tragedy of global conflict, and therefore unsustainable as the world order sought to right itself, with or without American assistance. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, rather than signaling the beginning of an era of American dominance, instead brought an end to the post-war conditions that enabled America to dominate. The world struggled -- and continues to struggle -- to emerge from under the weight of the Soviet-American global contest of wills that defined the decades between 1945 and 1991.
Iraq is but one of the more visible manifestations of this post-Cold War reality. American force of arms could remove a dictator, but was -- and is -- incapable of transforming a society against the will of the indigenous population. When America toppled Saddam, it unleashed regional forces -- Iranian, Arab, Kurd, Sunni, and Shia -- that were not understood then, and are not understood now. America continues to mistake tactical victories - the fall of Baghdad, the capture of Fallujah, the death of Zarqawi, the "surge" -- for strategic vision. Not one of America's tactical successes in Iraq has withstood the test of time, and yet America continues to look to them as a template for future action that, in doing so, cements failure as the only possible outcome. The ultimate irony of the blame game is that it locks those who purport to seek a solution to the problem of ISIS into evaluating and assessing the symptoms associated with ISIS rather than the disease that spawned ISIS. Since America's involvement in Iraq is itself such a symptom, any search for a solution that predicates success on continued American involvement is itself doomed to fail. Failure to accurately identify the root cause of a problem leads to solutions that solve nothing.
It is high time American policy makers understood that, when it comes to the issues of Iraq, Syria, and ISIS, America is the problem, not the solution. As a country we need to stop buying into a Saudi-backed narrative that lays the blame for the ongoing unrest in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere at the feet of Iran, and instead recognize that those responsible for the ongoing regional conflagration reside in Riyadh. If we stop trying to unilaterally solve the myriad of problems that rage in the Middle East, then perhaps the Saudi government will stop instigating them. If not, then they alone will reap the consequences. The days of Saudi monopoly over the global oil economy are long past. A resurgent American domestic oil production capacity, combined with the looming possibility of Iranian oil reentering the global economy in a meaningful way, liberates American decision makers from the trap of Saudi-driven policy. With or without the fall of Ramadi, ISIS is not America's problem to solve. Sometimes the only way to win is to walk away.