Who's to blame for ISIS? [Commentary]

Is America responsible for the chaos engulfing the Middle East? It is a question not far from many a Washington discussion of current events. With the Islamic State's fanatics erasing the region's colonial borders, for some the answer is evident: The U.S. upended the established order when it invaded Iraq in 2003, the repercussions of which are being faced now and likely for years to come. Requiring little perspective, this analysis has been embraced by a number of pundits. As is often the case in the Middle East, the reality is not so simple.

One has to go back to the aftermath of World War II and the waning years of the European colonial experiment in the Middle East to find parallels to the political upheavals witnessed in recent time. Over a two-decade span from 1950, revolutionary movements — socialist inspired and often officer-led — dispatched the monarchs of Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen while threatening the thrones of Jordan, Morocco and Oman. By 1970, however, a relative stability had been reestablished across the region backed by international consensus that would last another 40 years.

Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003 severely tested the regional order, causing temporary unease (read: Syrian leader Bashar Assad's hasty withdrawal of troops from Lebanon in 2005), but by the end of the decade the old order was feeling like its old self again. The reasons were several. First, there was U.S. preoccupation with Iraqi stabilization after the optimism of 2003 gave way to the enormity of the challenges that had been unleashed. Then came the 2008 election of a new U.S. commander-in-chief, whose pledges of Middle East policy reset and rapprochement with Damascus and Tehran signaled to Arab autocrats an end to any U.S. dreams of "democratizing" the region.

But if the perceived threat of political-reform-by-force subsided by the time George W. Bush handed the White House over to his successor, the challenges to sustaining authoritarian rule in the Arab World, which had existed long before the Bush administration, had not. Within four years, the remaining inheritors of the post-colonial, anti-monarchic trend (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen) all fell in rapid succession to popular revolutions born of unmet aspirations and economic distress. Only in Syria, where the royal experience in the 20th century had ended much earlier, is the power structure established in the period of post World War II transition still holding on — but just barely and only through extreme brutality employed against civilians.

Sadly, despite initial euphoria, the so-called Arab Spring beginning in 2011 has yet to usher in what political scientists might refer to as the Fourth Wave of democracy across the Arab World. On the contrary, systemic failure of governance has left a void in which long-suppressed and poorly resourced Arab moderates find it difficult to compete for citizens' loyalties — particularly when confronted by Islamists, backed by the largesse of foreign patrons who deem Arab democracy inimical to their interests, and armed with a ready-made political program of purported divine origin.

That the environment in the Middle East today is traceable to a single event with singular culpability (e.g. Saddam's overthrow) is easy to grasp and politically convenient. However, such analysis tends to absolve decades of Arab dictatorship and its ruinous effects, and allows for a distinction between recent events in Syria and Iraq and those elsewhere (Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen), despite historic and political linkages. Ironically, across the Middle East, conspiracy theorists now have public opinion accepting U.S. complicity in the entire Islamist tide for the usual litany of imperialist motives.

While the justifications and lessons of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 will be debated for years to come, what the ouster of Saddam Hussein did more than all else was demonstrate before the Arab street the fragility of authoritarianism, lifting the veil of fear that had kept tens of millions of citizens from Tunisia to Yemen long captive to the whims of a few. For this the U.S. can accept some responsibility. For the rest, including ISIS, one need look no farther than the legacies of Saddam, Assad, Gadhafi and their colleagues in despotism.

Owen Kirby is a Bethesda resident and regional development expert. He served in the U.S. Department of State as senior advisor in the Office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative, 2004-2009, and as a senior governance advisor in Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2009-2010. His email is kirbyoh@gmail.com.

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