The great PBS documentary series “Frontline” is rerunning one of its outstanding films. This one, titled “The Rise of ISIS,” which is about, well, maybe you can guess from the title. I watched it Tuesday night, and highly recommend giving it a look if, like me, you struggle sometimes to keep straight how the region long ago known as Mesopotamia managed to blend history, religion and tribal grudges into the current mess.
Originally aired last year, it will probably float through the various PBS affiliates for a while. If not, you can stream it via this link.
The documentary most definitely does not solve the problem of ISIS. No big, foolproof idea for dealing with the scourge is identified. Obama-haters will certainly be able to spot the places where they will think that if only President Obama had acted differently, more forcefully, sent troops, bombed harder, said or did or threatened whatever at this point or that, things would be so much better now.
But to me that’s in the category of “if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything will look like a nail.” If you are sufficiently committed to the blame-Obama game, every foolish thing that Obama did is the problem, except for the feckless things he didn’t do, which are even worse. As the sarcasm suggests, that’s not how I see it.
To me (and, of course, all reasonable observers) the villain of the “Frontline” piece is Nouri al-Maliki, the former prime minister of Iraq, who comes across (as he pretty much always does) as a sectarian (Shiite) thug and the worst possible choice to lead Iraq in the post-Saddam era.
Shia Arabs were and are the biggest of the three major groups in Iraq. Saddam Hussein ran a relatively secular regime based on his Ba’ath Party, but the Shiites were treated badly and brutally repressed when they complained or pushed back or just existed. It’s perhaps understandable that, in the absence of a Gandhi figure, when the Shia gained power in Iraq (thanks to the U.S. invasion) they would mistreat the other major population groups.
A key cause
A big part of the cause of the “The Rise of ISIS” as portrayed in the documentary was that, in the absence of a Gandhi, that Iraq got a Maliki.
Maliki did everything possible to alienate the other two groups, the Kurds, who predominate in the north of Iraq, and especially the Sunni Muslims, who predominate in the center and especially in Anbar Province. ISIS (which morphed out of an earlier movement called Al Qaida in Iraq) is a Sunni group that rose up in Anbar and seemed, at first, to many Anbar Sunnis like a liberation movement compared to the deal they were getting from Maliki.
You can learn a lot more of the step-by-step if you watch the documentary. And I guarantee you will either learn a bunch you never knew or relearn a bunch that you forgot.
But the shortcoming of the documentary (and you can’t have everything in 57 minutes) is that it starts the story too late. When the narrative starts, Maliki is already in power and already mistreating and alienating the Sunnis. But how did Maliki come to power? Well, the Americans (and let me be obnoxiously specific and say the George W. Bush administration) picked him.
For backup on that fact, I rely on a great long-ago New Yorker piece by Dexter Filkins which I wrote about a couple of years ago. Filkins, who covered the Iraq War for the New York Times and who also appears in the brand-new “Frontline,” wrote that in 2006 the Americans were fed up with the first stooge they had put into power in Baghdad and were looking for another when a CIA official suggested Maliki to the U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad (without telling the ambassador that Maliki had long-standing grudges against both Americans and Sunnis).
And so, without much input from the new democracy that the Americans had set up in Iraq, Khalilzad, an important architect/cheerleader for the Iraq War and the representative of the Bush administration, arranged for the accession to power of Maliki, a thug who was pretty close to the opposite of a Gandhi.
(If you were to click through that link two paragraphs above, you would find that Filkins wrote that “Khalilzad emphasized that he did not choose Maliki; he had merely exerted American leverage to maximum effect.”)
After a few years of Maliki, the Sunnis of Anbar had become alienated and were unwilling to defend the province once the pre-ISIS fighters showed up looking for a place to start their caliphate.
Of course, before that American blunder was the idea of the war to liberate Iraq in the first place.
And if you can stand one more backflip into history, the roots of Iraq’s instability and Sunni-Shia hatred can be traced to the British and French mapmakers who, in the aftermath of World War I, created the nation of Iraq out of three former Ottoman provinces, one predominantly Kurdish, one Sunni and one Shiite.
I don’t know when the golden age of peace and brotherhood was in Iraq, but it must have predated World War I, and the trouble with that is that before World War I, there never was and never had been any such country.