Middle East analyst Kyle Orton has an op-ed in The New York Times today, called “How Saddam Hussein Gave Us ISIS,” that, as you might imagine, is raising some eyebrows on the internets. I have to say, though, as somebody who has read Orton’s work (the growth of ISIS out of the wreckage of Saddam’s government is his most frequently recurring theme), I think what people are reacting to is an overzealous headline and Orton’s tendency to exaggerate his own material. If you dig into the substance of what he’s writing, there’s some actual meat there, even if part of his conclusion, in my view, is flatly wrong.
One thing that isn’t in dispute is that former elements of Saddam’s regime played a very important role in ISIS’s rise and continue to play an important role in its ongoing military operations. But it’s not clear precisely what the connection is between those former regime elements and the insurgent/terrorist group. The commonly accepted story is that ex-regime figures, members of Saddam’s “secular” Baʿath party governing apparatus, threw in with Islamists after the US occupiers enacted their de-Baʿathification project, starting in 2003. They ran the military side of the organization while setting up men like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as a kind of religious front to appeal to a wider array of potential recruits. What the research that Orton cites suggests is that the reality is more complicated than that.
At the root of this question is the challenge of defining “secular.” The Baʿath Party is considered “secular” and “nationalist,” which to most Western ears means “not religious.” But in fact, the Baʿath movement embraced a religious message from its very beginnings, albeit not an explicitly Islamic one (its founder, Michel ʿAflaq, was a Christian Arab who may have converted to Islam later in life, though that is disputed). As Joshua Landis writes, “ʿAflaq did not try to take Islam out of Arabism; he sought to make Arabism the central tenet of Islam.” Now, there’s obviously an easy case to be made that ʿAflaq and his fellow Baʿath leaders were faking it, using religious rhetoric to appeal to people who wouldn’t otherwise have cottoned to a secular/socialist/nationalist Baʿath ideology. But while that may be true, it’s been ~3/4 of a century since ʿAflaq started propagating Baʿathism, more than enough time for the people he was trying to fool with his fake religiosity to have taken over the movement and imbued it with genuine religiosity.
Orton’s work focuses on Saddam’s own incorporation of Islamism into Iraqi Baʿathism. Quoting from his NYT piece:
In a few tactical instances during the 1980s, Mr. Hussein allied with Islamists, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, to destabilize his regional rival in Syria, but these were limited, plausibly deniable links. In 1986, however, the Pan-Arab Command, the Baath Party’s top ideological institution, formally reoriented Iraq’s foreign policy toward an alliance with Islamists. This was the first clear deviation from secular Baathism.
The shift was accompanied by a domestic “Islamization,” with regime media dropping references to a “secular state” and describing the war against Iran as a “jihad.” The changes accelerated after 1989 when Michel Aflaq, the Christian founder of the Baath Party, died, and Mr. Hussein claimed that Mr. Aflaq had converted to Islam. Alive, Mr. Aflaq was a bulwark against Islamization; as a dead convert, he could — and did — baptize a new direction.
The campaign of Islamization intensified further after Iraq’s devastating defeat in Kuwait in 1991 and the subsequent Shiite revolt, culminating in 1993 with Mr. Hussein’s abandonment of the last vestiges of Baath secularism when he initiated the Faith Campaign. In some respects, Mr. Hussein’s government was following rather than leading public opinion, as Iraqis fell back on their faith for solace under the harsh international sanctions. But what began as a cynical attempt to shore up support, as the regime retreated to its Sunni tribal base, took on a life of its own, transforming Iraq into an Islamist state and imposing lasting changes on Iraqi society.
As in ʿAflaq’s case, there’s reason to believe that Saddam could have been faking it, adopting a Sunni Islamist pose in the face of a serious Shiʿa threat and as a way to shore up his regime’s tenuous grasp on power. In fact there is some question among scholars as to whether Saddam genuinely became more religious later in his life, and whether that change caused, or was caused by, the Faith Campaign. Maybe Saddam started to believe his own propaganda. At any rate, it doesn’t really matter–also as in ʿAflaq’s case, even if Saddam was faking it, it’s entirely possible (even likely) that at least some of the people around him weren’t.
We run into another problem here, which is that Western media effectively presented an image of Saddam’s regime to its audiences in 2003 that was unchanged from the perception people had of his regime in 1990, ignoring the possibility that 12+ years, a major war, a major revolt, and a decade of harsh sanctions may have, you know, worked some fundamental changes upon Saddam, his government, and Iraq. Which is not to necessarily blame Western media for failing to cover what was an increasingly closed off society throughout the 1990s and then in the run up to the Iraq War, but now that more is being learned it seems clear that there was a degree of Islamization happening within Saddam’s regime that most Westerners simply didn’t know about. In particular, the “Fedayeen Saddam,” established by the dictator in 1995 as his own personal guard against potential traitors within his regime, seems to have been heavily Islamized, and members of that organization were among Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s first recruits.
The Faith Campaign (which began as a cross-sectarian effort but later began pushing hardline Sunnism) was run by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the maybe-dead top Baʿathist official who formed the “Naqshbandi Army,” an anti-American paramilitary force led by a number of ex-Saddam officers that worked with AQI/ISIS during last year’s big offensive. The Naqshbandi Army itself is evidence against the argument that all top ex-Baʿathists are necessarily secular; “Naqshbandi,” referring to the prominent Sufi Naqshbandi order, is an explicitly religious marker. But its work with ISIS has often been portrayed as merely an alliance of convenience, which is possible but seems to be an argument that gets asserted a lot without ever really being demonstrated. Likewise, Hajji Bakr, the former “deputy” of Baghdadi who was a colonel in the Iraqi army under Saddam, has often been portrayed as manipulating Islamists to further his own secular Baʿathist agenda, but it’s also entirely possible that he was among those who really took to the Faith Campaign and became genuine Islamists.
It should be noted that the Naqshbandi Army and ISIS have been on the outs with one another for a year or more, much to the Naqshbandis’ detriment. This is a pretty powerful argument against the theory that the the same Baʿathists are running both organizations, but it’s pretty consistent with the argument that both organizations are being run by different cadres of Islamized ex-Baʿathists.
Now, where I think Orton goes too far is when he argues that ISIS, or something like it, would have come into being whether the Iraq War had happened or not (hence the overstated NYT headline). This is counterfactual history, and while counterfactual history can be a fun and illuminating enterprise, it shouldn’t ever be mistaken for actual history. There’s a lot of evidence that Saddam’s efforts to co-opt Islamism fertilized the ground for a group like AQI/ISIS to develop, but you simply cannot deny that it was Saddam’s removal that actually allowed that organization to flourish. To argue otherwise lets the Bush administration off far, far too easily.
I don’t know if that’s Orton’s intent. It appears to be. But I think it’s important to make the distinction between the research and the conclusions one draws from that research. There are capable researchers out there, even some working in hardcore neoconservative institutions (as is the case with Orton, who works at the Henry Jackson Society), whose big picture foreign policy views are garbage. Orton’s findings here are supported with evidence and have been echoed by some other researchers studying ISIS and late Baathist Iraq. And there are still many unanswered questions about the last decade of Saddam’s time in power and the easy transition that so many of his ex-officials made from the supposedly secular Baathist establishment to Islamist terrorism. If Orton intends his research to serve as an apologia for Bush-Blair warmongering then he’s wrong about that, but it doesn’t mean the research itself is necessarily inaccurate.
It’s possible that Saddam’s regime would have turned to hardcore Islamism eventually, or been overthrown by Islamists, or that the circumstances of Saddam’s eventual, natural passing would have led the same elements that created ISIS to, well, create ISIS. But those claims are speculative, and not all that useful in terms of fighting the group now. What would be useful in terms of fighting ISIS now would be to understand whether the former regime elements embedded within it are working cynically, using the organization’s appeal to bolster their efforts to recreate Saddam’s regime, or whether they are, in fact, true believers. There’s a pretty strong case to be made, in my view, that Orton is correct to some degree and at least some of them fall into the latter category.
In his NYT op-ed, Orton writes that “the Islamic State was not created by removing Saddam Hussein’s regime; it is the afterlife of that regime.” But the thing about afterlives is that they only come about after death, and it matters how that death occurred. It was the Bush administration (and let’s not forget Tony Blair, since Orton is British) and its illegal/unjustifiable decision to invade Iraq that brought us this particular version of the Baathist regime’s afterlife. Any attempt to lift that responsibility from their plate is wrong and, to the extent that it whitewashes the full impact of that policy disaster, it’s a little offensive to boot.