Elephants in the Room

Could ISIS Have Been Averted?

Different choices by the Obama administration could have made it harder for the Islamic State to become as powerful as it did.

US-made armoured vehicles drive down a road in western Mosul's al-Rifai neighbourhood on May 31, 2017 after it was retaken by government forces during their ongoing battle against Islamic State (IS) group fighters. / AFP PHOTO / KARIM SAHIB        (Photo credit should read KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images)
US-made armoured vehicles drive down a road in western Mosul's al-Rifai neighbourhood on May 31, 2017 after it was retaken by government forces during their ongoing battle against Islamic State (IS) group fighters. / AFP PHOTO / KARIM SAHIB (Photo credit should read KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images)

As the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State inches toward a bloody conclusion, the world is witnessing a parade of war’s horrors: U.S. airstrikes that produce unexpectedly high casualties, Iraqi units accused of human rights violations, and a grim acknowledgement that the worst of the fighting might still be ahead of us. Moreover, the Manchester bombing makes it clear that the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State is likely to linger long after the Islamic State loses its grip on the territory it controls in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Even if U.S. and coalition forces appear to be on a trajectory towards defeating the Islamic State and retaking Mosul, the terrible death toll the Islamic State has inflicted throughout the world raises one obvious question: Was it inevitable that President Barack Obama and his successor, President Donald Trump, would have to deal with the Islamic State threat, or could different choices by U.S. policymakers have plausibly resulted in a far less lethal Islamic State?

This is the question Hal Brands (who blogs over at Shadow Government) and I tackled in a recent article for Survival, the journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies: “Was the Rise of ISIS Inevitable?”

Spoiler alert: We argue the Islamic State threat was not inevitable. We take considerable pains to show how different choices by Presidents George W. Bush and Obama would have likely headed off the Islamic State threat long before it reached its peak in late 2014. Nothing in our argument transfers blame for the toll from the terrorists, where it belongs, to American policymakers, who could have made different choices that would have stymied the terrorists more effectively. But weighing carefully where American policies fell short is a vital part of policy analysis and essential to doing better against whatever terrorist threats emerge after the Islamic State.

We focus on proximate factors, specifically major decisions, since 2002, even though it is obviously true that the deep causes for the rise of the Islamic State go back decades, if not centuries. The more proximate the choice, the more confidence you can have in evaluating the likely results of alternative policies. We also focus on U.S. policy choices, even though it is almost certainly the case that choices by other actors were at least as consequential and probably much more so. We are engaging in foreign policy analysis, not grand history. The most urgent question for U.S. policymakers is what, if anything, they can do differently.

We look at four key decisions:

1. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, along with the policy management problems that the invasion engendered immediately after.

2. Obama’s decision to disengage from Iraq and carry through with a near-total withdrawal from Iraq in 2010 and 2011.

3. Obama’s decision not to intervene more robustly in the Syrian civil war during the early (pre-2013) phase of that conflict.

4. Obama’s decision in late 2013 and 2014 not to confront the Islamic State when it was making its eastward conquest through Syria and Iraq.

We conclude that different policy choices at each of those four inflection points could have reduced and perhaps averted the threat posed by the Islamic State, although in some cases not by as much as critics have argued and not without other potentially negative consequences. Our evaluation is more nuanced than the ones that are prominent in campaign debates and cable shout-fests.

Of course, we have the advantage of hindsight, but we take pains to focus on alternatives that were actively promoted by experts inside and outside the administrations at the time so as to make this a fairer and more useful analytical exercise.

We conclude that Bush critics have a fair point: The invasion of Iraq and then the difficulty in quickly reestablishing a stable post-conflict political order there created the conditions that gave rise to al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the Islamic State.

However, Bush critics, especially Obama, were wrong when they went on to argue that the invasion of Iraq made the rise of the Islamic State inevitable.

On the contrary, we show how different, but eminently plausible, choices by the Obama administration could have made it harder for the Islamic State to become as powerful as it did in 2014. The Obama policy that was most consequential, we found, was the set of decisions that led to the failure to consolidate the hard-won success in Iraq — a success achieved at great cost during the late Bush and early Obama years. That success was real — indeed, so real that it may have lulled the Obama administration into a false sense of confidence about its strength — but it was fragile, and it needed a more enduring U.S. presence to sustain it.

Different Obama policies in Syria and late in the game in Iraq might also have better thwarted the rise of the Islamic State, but we show that those alternative policies also had likely downsides that make the calculation more mixed.

The article is not a partisan polemic. I was a political appointee in the Bush administration and Brands was a political appointee in the Obama administration. Moreover, we ran our argument by key policymakers from both the Bush and Obama eras to make sure we had anticipated all of the counterarguments those responsible for the decisions might want to offer.

The article does, however, describe a tragedy. The United States is not to blame for the rise of the Islamic State. Nor is the United States all-powerful, capable of preventing any evil in the world. Far from it. But different U.S. policies might have better positioned it in the fight against the Islamic State. Learning how may not make it easier to defeat the Islamic State now, but it may help policymakers make the best choices among the array of alternatives they will face once the Islamic State is dealt with.

Photo credit: KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images

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