The Causes of ISIS

by A. Jay Adler on December 24, 2015
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Establishing what caused ISIS has become, for many, something of a cause. I have not researched exactly when the debate began – what was, as it were, the cause of the debate over the cause of ISIS – but certainly soon after its sweep from Syria into Iraq began, and unsurprisingly if even earlier, people began to seek to account for it.

Aside from the customary ambient smoke of conspiratorial accounts, an immediate choice was the Obama administration’s obvious utter failure, post withdrawal from Iraq, to anticipate and clandestinely target the organization. Soon enough, another “cause” came to supersede that one, that of the Iraq War, and the forces it unleashed (I choose that dead metaphorical verb purposefully) across the region. The argument rages on, but let us recognize in considering it, the ideological war behind it. The initial offering, above, comforts supporters of the Iraq War, the second contests it on behalf of the war’s opponents. Who lost China, the quintessential Cold War ideological contest in political historiography, has been replaced now by who caused ISIS.

The latest entry in the contest comes from Kyle W. Orton in “How Saddam Hussein Gave Us ISIS,’ in The New York Times. It is a fine and enlightening piece and a much needed addition to the historical account. Orton explains how the Iraqi Baath party transformed over Hussein’s rule from a secular party into a party both strategically and peformatively Islamist, if not authentically so. What further interests me about the essay begins with the “gave us” in the title. Like my “unleashed,” it is an imprecise substitute for “caused,” which is itself a word, going back to Aristotle’s four causes, that is conceptually complex.

Most arguments about causation, especially the political, are simplistic. When one claims that the Iraq War caused ISIS, or that Saddam Hussein “gave us” us ISIS, what exactly is one saying? Is the writer seriously asserting that a phenomenon – this complex phenomenon – had but a single cause, without which it would never have arisen? One hopes not, but when the argument over causation is a cover for partisan campaigns to cast blame, it frequently descends to that kind of reductionism.

Intentional or not, Orton’s argument deflects responsibility from the destabilizing effects of the American invasion of Iraq. (It also adds considerable weight to the always reasonable pre-invasion concern that Hussein might cooperate with Al-Qaeda.) As he wrote even before the Times op-ed, at greater length and with even richer support, “The Islamic State Was Coming Without the Invasion of Iraq.” Here we have the further uncertain formulation “was coming.” But as Orton acknowledges in the Times,

The Arab nationalist Baath Party, which seized power in 1968 in a coup in which Mr. Hussein played a key role, had a firmly secular outlook. This held through the 1970s, even as religiosity rose among the Iraqi people. [Emphasis added]

Further,

In some respects, Mr. Hussein’s government was following rather than leading public opinion, as Iraqis fell back on their faith for solace under the harsh international sanctions. [Emphasis added]

In the latter observation, we have the introduction of yet another cause – post Gulf War economic sanctions – that segments of the anti-Western left will be happy to entertain. The first observation opens up a whole history of Islamist developments over the twentieth century. There was, says Orton, a rise in religiosity prior to and independent of Hussein’s transformations, a rise he as much as followed as led. We know, from Saudi Arabia to Iran to the Muslim Brotherhood and beyond, that both Sunni and Shia developments were emerging, theologically and geopolitically, in conflict with each other, with existing secular governments, and with the West. When we seek to assign causation, when we seek to ascribe blame, how reductively do we simplify to reach a point other than that of genuine, useful understanding?

The verbs matter, as they reflect – if we do not wish to achieve the reductive simplicity that passseth understanding – what aspect of causality we clearly intend. Orton claims Saddam Hussein gave us ISIS. If he means laid considerable groundwork for it, Orton makes a strong case. He also argues that ISIS was coming without the Iraq War. That may well be – again, he makes a strong case – but part of the open question is when, and much of what we should be thinking about when we question, meaningfully, what caused ISIS, is what caused the rise of ISIS now, under these conditions.

Orton closes in the Times, by stating,

The Islamic State was not created by removing Saddam Hussein’s regime; it is the afterlife of that regime.

The first clause, as to “created,” seems clearly true; the second clause, with its vaguer ideation of “afterlife,” only partially so.

In his earlier essay, Orton offered in closing,

To put it simply, the Saddam regime’s reputation for keeping a lid on religious militancy and sectarianism is exactly wrong; by commission and omission it brought both things to levels Iraq has scarcely ever known in its history.

Here, the judgment seems properly the reverse, that the last clause is, as Orton so well argues, clearly true. As to the well-known, also dead metaphorical “lid” of the first clause, lids are popped or blown, their contents, already there, released into the surroundings. Dogs, already living and breathing, and straining for release, to track or attack, are unleashed. Waters, already rising, “burst” dams, “break” levies. Pick your metaphor, choose your verb. The Iraq War, like all acts, caused some things to happen, and when it comes to the good and the bad, you don’t get to pick and choose.

AJA


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