Hillary Clinton Didn't Create ISIS, But America Can Still Blame Itself
Wise Men of Foreign Affairs have jumped at the chance to debunk a wild rumor that Hillary Clinton bragged about creating ISIS in her new memoir—truly an easy layup in the annals of punditry. The rumor even got the name of Clinton's memoir wrong. But, that's OK: The remaining facts still allow America to feel guilty.
According to at least one Egyptian blogger, the conspiracy theory—complete with fake quotes from a fantasy version of Clinton's memoir entitled Plan 360—emerged from the hothouse of Egypt's Pro-Mubarak/Pro-Military Facebook pages: a social circle in which it is already de rigueur to suggest that the U.S. and the Muslim Brotherhood secretly conspired to orchestrate the Arab Spring. This screenshot of a Facebook page for the Egyptian military's counter-terrorism and special operations unit, Task Force 777, and its reconnaissance special operations unit, Task Force 999, depicts one of the earliest appearances of the fake Clinton quotes:
Leaving aside for the moment the question of why Clinton would brag about this covert operation, in progress, in her memoir, what foreign policy objectives could possibly be achieved by America manufacturing ISIS? Like: Why do that? To what ends?
One version involves Israel (obviously), and something about balkanizing Israel's Mid-East neighbors to both justify their nefarious Zionist expansion, or whatever, and remove opposition to it. Another version, as The Week pointed out Tuesday, claims that the U.S. would plan to recognize an ISIS caliphate and that this caliphate would turn out to be (somehow) very amenable to America's strategic and economic interests.
Despite the fact that the U.S. Embassy in Beirut felt compelled to publicly debunk all this on their Facebook page, it's unclear how many people in the region actually believed it.
The hashtag #HilaryClintonsMemoirs ( #مذكرات_هيلاري_كلينتون) quickly started trending across social media in the region, Huffington Post UK reported, "with satirical tweets mocking the theory with outlandish claims about what else the Secretary of State might have written—like a secret CIA plot to close all the restaurants in Cairo and replace them with McDonalds."
Good one, the Middle East. I'm lovin' it.
Not everyone appreciated the Middle East's jokes, however. Writing in his "Open Source" column for the New York Times, Robert Mackey would like you to know that many in the Arab-speaking world are doing some genuine soul-searching about their culture's own role in the emergence of ISIS and that these conspiracy theories have simply been a haven for the obstinate and the self-deluded; Muslims who are too afraid to look themselves and their societies in the mirror.
For instance, the Lebanese scholar Ziad Majed wrote on his blog that at least six factors from the recent history of the Middle East helped give birth to the militant movement, including "despotism in the most heinous form that has plagued the region," as well as "the American invasion of Iraq in 2003," and "a profound crisis, deeply rooted in the thinking of some Islamist groups seeking to escape from their terrible failure to confront the challenges of the present toward a delusional model ostensibly taken from the seventh century."
That sort of introspection is not for everyone, of course, so a popular conspiracy theory has spread online that offers an easier answer to the riddle of where ISIS came from: Washington.
Ha, ha. "Washington." What buffoons!
Let's learn a valuable lesson from the psychological projections of these weak-willed Third World plebes: desert Archie Bunkers and izaar-clad Tony Sopranos too parochial in their worldview and too much in denial of their own culpability to face this present danger.
America is better than that.
Let us examine with clear eyes all the ways in which our own democratically elected government—in Washington—is responsible for where ISIS came from.
U.S. Policy in Chechnya
In a report this week on the blistering efficiency and military prowess of ISIS, ABC News reporter James Gordon Meek got an incredibly great, short answer as to where the Islamic State gained its technical expertise:
"Probably the Chechens," a U.S. official said.
ISIS, or ISIL, or the Islamic State—whatever you want to call it—was nearly dead in 2007, after U.S. forces in Iraq and local Sunni tribes successfully joined forces against the group. It wasn't until the Syrian uprisings that it reemerged as a potent force, after a failed merger with the al-Qaida-affiliated Syrian rebel group al-Nusra, lead most of al-Nusra's foreign-born jihadis to defect to ISIS.
"Foreign-born jihadis" here meaning career Islamists like the Chechen groups, which have been conducting terror campaigns, kidnappings, and suicide bombings in Russia, with a reasonable degree of success, for over 15 years now. Some of the most prominent leaders now fighting with ISIS are Chechens: the ginger-bearded "rising star" Omar al-Shishani and the group's Che Guevara, Muslem al-Shishani (the unnervingly studly viking face pictured above). In addition to Saudi and Pakistani assistance, many of the Chechens were led and supported by the CIA-trained Afghan mujahideen, up-to-and-including Osama bin Laden: ace mentors, in other words, with proven experience in a professional terror setting.
When not actively defending the Chechen extremists with weirdly bipartisan neocon-neoliberal advocacy groups, policy makers and government officials in Washington have turned a proactively blind eye to Chechen Islamist activities in Russia and here in the United States with infamously fatal consequences. Both the 9/11 Commission Report and FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley have shown that senior-level officials refused to classify Islamic terrorists in Chechnya—like their then-leader Ibn al Khattab who had direct contact with bin Laden—as actual terrorists, thus preventing the FBI from properly investigating "20th hijacker" Zaccarias Moussaoui before 9/11. Another pre-9/11 FBI investigation, this time into a Florida summer camp run by the Saudi-funded World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), discovered that the group was showing children videos praising Chechen bombers, only to be pulled off the case according to an FBI memo, ID 1991-WF-213589, uncovered by Greg Palast for the BBC and Vice. Upon further digging by Palast:
Several insiders repeated the same story: U.S. agencies ended the investigation of the bin Laden-terrorist-Chechen-jihad connection out of fear of exposing uncomfortable facts. U.S. intelligence had turned a blind eye to the Abdullah bin Laden organisation [yes, WAMY was run by a bin Laden brother] because our own government was more than happy that our Saudi allies were sending jihadis to Afghanistan, then, via WAMY, helping Muslims to fight in Bosnia then, later, giving the Russians grief in Chechnya. The problem is that terrorists are like homing pigeons – they come home to roost.
As Joe Trento of the National Security News Service, who helped me on the investigation, said, "It would be unseemly if [someone] were arrested by the FBI and word got back that he'd once been on the payroll of the CIA… What we're talking about is blow-back. What we're talking about is embarrassing, career-destroying blow-back for intelligence officials."
The agency has gone to great lengths to paper over this. When former CIA agent Robert Baer—whose writing served as the factual basis for that weird George Clooney movie Syriana—wanted to cite Russian sources about the Saudi-Chechen connection in his book Sleeping With the Devil, the agency pressured him not to. This despite the fact that it was publicly available information he'd acquired after retiring from government service.
A big part of the reason for this sensitivity is that covertly letting the Saudis and their Islamic radicals chip away at the oil-rich rubble on the fringes of the collapsed Soviet empire has been America's favored strategy for collecting the spoils of the Cold War.
"The policy of guiding the evolution of Islam and of helping them against our adversaries worked marvelously well in Afghanistan against the Red Army," a former CIA analyst told Swiss journalist Richard Labévière back in the late 1990s. "The same doctrines can still be used to destabilize what remains of Russian power, and especially to counter the Chinese influence in Central Asia."
Granted: The events of September 11th made this grand strategy a little tricky, domestically, but as you may have noticed over the past few years, particularly in Russian-allied Syria, it's mostly back on track.
U.S. Policy in Syria
When exactly did we start supplying arms and training to the rebels in Syria, a fluid and motley coalition of the willing that includes both moderate, justifiably rebellious critics of the Assad regime, and barbaric religious extremists with medieval ideas and state-of-the-art weapons?
Overtly, it began around the summer of 2013, during the red-line debate and that highly politicized chemical weapons attack. Covertly, it began around a year earlier from a staging point in Turkey, according to the New York Times. According to the Wikileaks STRAFOR cables, it began in late 2011, when James F. Smith, former director of Blackwater, as well as the former employer of celebrity whistleblower Edward Snowden, Booz Allen Hamilton, and presumably other American mercenaries, got the go-ahead to start secretly working with the rebels.
For whatever reason, respectable opinions are allowed to differ on whether or not it's a good foreign policy idea to push for regime change in Syria. Part of the reason is probably that we use the euphemism "regime change" and not (say) "covertly overthrowing the Syrian government." You can stick to your (curiously selective) humanitarian position that Assad is a bloody dictator who must go. Or, like this writer for The New Republic, you can attempt to understand the Russian and Assad perspective on the conflict. Either way, you can still have deep qualms about how America has currently chosen to arm select rebels groups: a policy that seems doomed to failure as the groups sometimes fight one another, stealing weapons in the process, or forge alliances with one another, trading arms and munitions like so many Pokémon cards.
According to an investigation by PBS news magazine Frontline, you'd have plenty of U.S. government officials to wring your hands with in shared anguish and mutual guilt:
[M]any both inside and out of government fear U.S.-provided weapons could make their way into extremist hands, particularly in a place like Syria, where alliances and foes change with breakneck fluidity. Moderate rebel groups have worked closely with the al Qaida-aligned Nusra Front and the Islamic Front, one of whose factions, Ahrar al Sham, includes al-Qaida members among its founders.
Perhaps because of those reasons, Congress has never publicly signed off on funding for a training and arming effort, and officially, the United States only provides non-lethal aid, like food rations, clothing and first aid supplies.
U.S. Policy in Iraq
If you really need it explained to you how "al-Qaida in Iraq" transformed into ISIS, or the ways in which the Bush administration's 2003 invasion of Iraq, Operation Ruin Everything, helped to precipitate this current nightmare, then you are going to have to go read a Vox explainer or two. It's nice to meet you, by the way; You must be new to the "Blame America First" crowd.
Do you consider yourself more of a hippie peacenik or a Ron Paul isolationist-type? Something else? Do you blame America first, because—as a voter—you feel responsible for your democracy's policies abroad? Or because you secretly just hate America in your heart-of-hearts and wish to see this Great Experiment in Liberty come to a close? How do you feel about the antiwar poems of Robinson Jeffers?
There are no wrong answers per se. Actum Est, and all that.
You're among friends here.
[top photo via James Keivom/New York Daily News; asterisms constructed from photos via Heavy, Army Recognition, and Pool/Getty]
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