I have been asked to appear on CNN Tonight with Don Lemon to discuss Donald Trump's remarks accusing President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of founding the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Trump: "He’s the founder of ISIS. He founded ISIS. I would say the co-founder would be Crooked Hillary Clinton."
I wish Mr. Trump would be a bit more reticent in his description of these things--after all, words are important.
CNN asked if I thought Obama was "responsible" for ISIS, to which I honestly answered, "I could make the case that he is."
Here's how I came to that conclusion:
Soon after Trump's remarks, Mrs. Clinton's supporters retorted that the responsibility for the creation of ISIS rests with President George W. Bush, based on the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Whether you support the decision to invade Iraq--as Mrs. Clinton did--or not, by the time President Bush left office in January 2009, the surge and accompanying "Sunni Awakening" (both engineered by General David Petraeus) had effectively defeated both the Shi'a militia (primarily the jaysh al-mahdi, JAM) as well as al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI).
The U.S. military mission in Iraq was in the process of changing to training Iraqi security forces and keeping a watchful eye on the Shi'a-dominated government of Nuri al-Maliki. That was the situation that President Obama inherited as he took office.
The failure of the Obama Administration to secure a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq to replace the one signed in 2008 is an important factor in what happened afterwards. In my opinion, the President wanted out of Iraq so badly that he did not even try to hammer out a new SOFA with the Iraqis, who were willing to negotiate. Against the advice of his military commanders, President Obama ordered the complete withdrawal of American forces in late 2011.
Almost immediately after the departure of U.S. troops, we saw the reconstitution of AQI concurrent with the hollowing out of the Iraqi military as al-Maliki replaced his competent--mostly Sunni--commanders with his unqualified cronies, all Shi'a. Corruption skyrocketed and the Iraqi Army became the impotent force that collapsed in the defense of Mosul in June 2014.
AQI began operations in the western part of Iraq, retaking al-Fallujah and Ramadi fairly quickly. The resurgence of AQI came as no surprise. When you announce a date certain that you are withdrawing your forces from the country, adversaries merely wait until you are gone and resume their operations.
Meanwhile, across the border in Syria, the "Arab Spring" demonstrations had deteriorated into a bloody civil war. In 2012, the Free Syrian Army asked for help. To her credit, Secretary Clinton (as did the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) favored providing weapons and other assistance to the rebels. They were overridden by the President.
With no help going to the rebels from the West, AQI sent forces to Syria to take advantage of the deteriorating situation, on one hand to assist the FSA, but mostly to carve out territory for an Islamic state. They formed the al-Qa'idah element in the Levant, calling themselves the Victory Front (jabhat al-nusrah, JN). Soon afterwards, AQI and JN merged to form ISIS, changing later to just the Islamic State.
According to Mr. Trump (and in this specific claim, I agree) it was President Obama's premature withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, and his refusal to assist the Syrian opposition in 2012--both against the advice of his senior advisers--that created the power vacuums (plural) that directly led to the formation of ISIS.
However, for Mr. Trump to say that Obama and Clinton are the "founders" of ISIS is not just misleading, it is untrue. However, I do think the President and former Secretary of State bear responsibility for the rise of ISIS--he more than she.