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Bush's Only Iraq Regret? His Paternity for ISIS

November 12, 2014

Just in time for Veteran's Day, former President George W. Bush is promoting a new book dedicated to his father's military service. As part of his PR swing, Bush explained that he has only one regret about his 2003 invasion of Iraq. Unsurprisingly, Dubya's sole lament is not for the enormous cost in American blood and treasure sacrificed in a needless war launched under false pretenses. In fact, 43 didn't even single out--as he did many times in the past--"using bad language like, you know, 'bring them on'" as the lone mistake of his presidency. No, President Bush's only regret now about his Iraq war is the rise of ISIS, a development which, he implicitly suggests, is the fault of his successor:

"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."

But if George W. Bush is looking for a scapegoat in the emergence of the Islamic State, he need only look in the mirror. You don't have to take my word for it that paternity for ISIS is his. President Bush told us so.

ISIS, or what Bush calls "Al Qaeda Plus," owes its stunning battlefield victories to a deadly alliance of Sunni tribesmen alienated by his man in Baghdad Nouri al-Maliki, some of Saddam's former officers who "should have surrendered or been done in" in 2003, and, of course, Al Qaeda fighters Bush himself admitted he attracted to Iraq.
President Bush couldn't agree more. After all, in his December 2008 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.

And the defeat of Al Qaeda in the western provinces of Iraq would not have been possible with the Sunni Awakening in which the United States purchases the allegiance of tribal sheiks and armed 90,000 of their fighters. But those "Sons of Iraq" 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--George W. Bush's man in Baghdad--refused to do. As Dexter Filkins explained earlier this 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, the 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 idea of 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 I worried in November 2007 ("Bush's M.C. Escher Strategy for Iraq"), Shiite wariness and Sunni distrust threatened to undermine any hope for a peaceful, nonsectarian future:

More and more, President Bush's strategy in Iraq resembles an M.C. Escher illustration. Like the hands drawing each other or the elegant depiction of stairways that cannot possibly meet, the military progress of the U.S. surge is producing an image of a future Iraq that, while glorious to behold, can never be built. The very American alliances with Sunni tribal leaders that are reducing sectarian violence and the threat from Al Qaeda also threaten to undermine the Shiite majority government in Baghdad. And the "enduring" U.S. presence announced by President Bush this week may serve only to protect the Maliki government from its domestic enemies, not its friend and American foe Iran. If anything, the surge may be making the prospect of Iraqi national reconciliation even more remote.

As Zack Beauchamp summed it up in Vox in August:

The most obvious way in which the US bears responsibility for ISIS's rise is the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The United States invaded Iraq, accidentally sparked a sectarian civil war, and generally created the conditions for what was then al-Qaeda in Iraq to flourish. Without the American invasion, al-Qaeda in Iraq never would have been so strong, and ISIS never would have grown out of it.

Eleven years after opening Pandora's Box by replacing the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein with the Shiite partisan al-Maliki, George W. Bush cannot escape blame for the inevitable sectarian conflict he unwittingly unleashed in Iraq. Now, Maliki is gone and many of the fighters once led Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq have reorganized--and metastasized--into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria under the self-proclaimed emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. As Vox rightly explains, there's plenty of blame to go around when it comes to the rise of ISIS. But as the Obama administration continues to mount air strikes and build alliances to destroy the Islamic State, there should be little doubt that his predecessor played the vital role in inadvertently creating it in the first place. Victory may have a thousand fathers and defeat may be an orphan, but Dubya wants someone else to own paternity for his bastard love child. Or to put it in a way that Republicans will understand: ISIS? George W. Bush built that.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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