Republicans are scrambling to rewrite history and pin the blame on the chaos sweeping the Middle East on President Obama’s foreign policy, in one of the most offensive, self-serving lie campaigns ever conducted. As the situation in the Middle East deteriorates and militant fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as IS, ISIL, or Daaesh in Arabic) overran the key Iraqi city of Ramadi and the archaeological wonder of Palmyra in Syria, Jeb Bush announced at a New Hampshire fundraiser that “ISIS didn’t exist when my brother was president. Al Qaeda in Iraq was wiped out when my brother was president.”
Such a statement is as profoundly ignorant as it is false. It shows that not only is Jeb Bush attempting to distort the facts, but that he shares his brother George’s complete inability to comprehend the nuances and intricacies of complex foreign policy situations. He’s not the only one, unfortunately; the entire GOP Republican field has taken to battering Obama’s successes with a verbal barrage of utter falsehoods and lies: Lindsey Graham recently announced to cheers that “If you fought in Iraq, it worked. It’s not your fault it’s going to hell. It’s Obama’s fault.” We owe it to President Obama’s legacy and to the very spirit of truth itself to not let them succeed in passing the buck on the blame for Iraq.
The truth of the matter is that ISIS has existed in some capacity since 1999. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian jihadist who had been radicalized fighting the Soviet Union, founded Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Organization of Monotheism and Jihad or JTJ) in Herat, Afghanistan. Their early years were focused on toppling the Jordanian monarchy, aiding other jihadist “liberation” groups in places like Chechnya, and building jihadist contacts in Iraq and Syria. All that changed with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003; “within six months, Zarqawi became a household name for his brutal personal beheadings and fast-paced suicide bombing campaign against Shiite religious targets and Sunni civilians.”
The JTJ’s successes attracted more recruits, and Osama bin Laden “bought” the group in 2004 so that he could remain relevant in hiding and still be the marquee brand of jihadist spirit in the Middle East. Zarqawi renamed the group to Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers (AQI), and with bin Laden’s support, built the extensive network of jihadist contacts across the Levant that allowed the group to make such rapid progress after the American departure and the outbreak of civil war in Syria.
The destabilization of Iraq following the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime set up an open season for jihadist groups like AQI and al-Zarqawi’s particularly brutal brand of terrorism. In a wild orgy of violence and destruction, the group launched attacks on Shiite mosques, Iraqi security forces, American occupation forces, and foriegn civilians. During this time, al-Zarqawi brought his network of loosely linked jihadi Sunni militias together and united them under the banner of Majlis Shura al-Mujahedin (MSM).
On June 7th, 2006, an American bomber dropped a thousand pounds of explosives on al-Zarqawi’s safehouse, ending his life and leadership, but failed to make any sort of tangible effects on the conflict. Abu Omar al-Baghdadi took over command of the MSM umbrella group and declared in October 2006 the establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq- still very much during the Bush presidency.
The success of the surge, the backlash to ISIS’s sheer brutality among the local populace, and ideological infighting led to the group’s temporary decline. The group found new life with the outbreak of civil war in Syria against the Alawite Shiite regime of Bashar al-Assad, and that conflict spilled over into Iraq with the failure of the Iraqi government to assert control over the Sunni heartland of Iraq, Anbar Province, leading to the situation we face today.
The development of ISIS as first a terrorist group and then their evolution into legitimate counterstate actor is obviously very complicated. Part of the reason that the Republican candidates wield their lies so freely is the complicated nature of the group, coupled with their utter ignorance of the situation and the context that it sprout from. Brian Fishman, an analyst, admits that “unfortunately, almost everyone in Washington, including those of us that understood and emphasized the political shifts it had made, continued to use ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq’ as shorthand for the group because it was widely understood nomenclature among policymakers.”
Complicated or not, the inability of the Republican candidates to understand the intricacies of the conflict and their absolute failure to educate themselves on the issue should disqualify them from the presidency on principle alone. It’s that exact kind of ignorance that led us to make so many blunders in Iraq in the first place, and their attempts to pass the blame away from George Bush’s catastrophic invasion is a shameless and pathetic attempt to rewrite history. We need to accept the truth to prevent us from making those same mistakes again.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.