Donald Trump is standing by his charge that President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are the “co-founders” of ISIS.
“In many respects, you know, they honor President Obama,” Trump said at a Florida rally on August 10th. “He’s the founder of ISIS. I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton.”
Commentators immediately ripped into Trump’s latest accusation against Obama as demonstrably false. They point out that ISIS’s predecessor organization was originally a part of al Qaeda in Iraq and was founded years before Obama became president. David A. Graham, a staff writer at The Atlantic, for example, wrote that the idea that Obama is “a founder of the group is plainly ridiculous.”
A conservative radio show host, Hugh Hewitt, tried during an interview with Trump to offer him some wiggle room. “You meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace,” Hewitt said, in attempting to clarify for the audience what Trump really meant. At first, Trump did not back down from his use of the term “founder” when describing Obama’s relationship to ISIS. He responded, “No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.” But then, Trump explained, “I mean, with his bad policies, that’s why ISIS came about. If he would have done things properly, you wouldn’t have had ISIS.” Hewitt agreed with Trump’s explanation, but said he would not have used the phrase “founder of ISIS” to communicate it.
A debate over the precise semantics should not be allowed to obscure the underlying truth of Trump’s observation. Obama’s policies, in which Hillary Clinton participated in their formulation and early implementation, created the conditions that allowed ISIS to rise and become the global threat that it represents today.
ISIS (or the Islamic State, as it likes to call itself) emerged from the remains of the al Qaeda organization in Iraq, which was founded by the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi was killed during the second term of George W. Bush’s administration. The al Qaeda organization itself was defeated as a result of Bush’s “surge” policy, which Obama and Hillary Clinton, as U.S. senators, opposed. On October 22nd, 2007, Osama bin Laden admitted in an audio tape, entitled “Message to the people of Iraq,” that al Qaeda was losing the war in Iraq because it had made mistakes and no longer had the allegiance of Sunni insurgents who had switched sides. When Barack Obama became president on January 20, 2009, the war in Iraq against ISIS’s predecessor group was essentially won.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who would later declare himself the caliph and leader of the Islamic State, had been detained in 2004. The date of his release is not certain. He may have been released a few months after his arrest along with other prisoners who were deemed to be low-level at the time. However, according to one account, he was released from a U.S. detention camp in 2009, declaring to U.S. reservists “‘I’ll see you guys in New York,’” according to Army Col. Kenneth King, who was the commanding officer of Camp Bucca.
What we do know for sure is that there was no serious threat posed by any organized ISIS fighting force when Obama took office in 2009. It was President Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, rather than follow the military’s advice to leave a residual force behind, which turned the smoldering embers of the once defeated al Qaeda-backed insurgency into the raging out-of-control conflagration that the newly constituted ISIS, under al Baghdadi’s leadership, created in the entire region. In that sense, ISIS became a newly spun off start-up under Obama’s watch, which launched successfully and expanded because of the power vacuum that Obama’s misguided policies created.
Just as entrenched dominant companies have often ignored upstart challengers until it was too late, Obama indulged in the idea that ISIS’s expansion posed no serious threat. In early 2014, as ISIS was racking up military victories, Obama said, “If a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”
Hillary Clinton was no longer Secretary of State in 2014. But looking back at Obama’s JV comment in November 2015 as she campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination, she rejected any suggestion that Obama’s trivialization of the ISIS threat was ill-advised, “from the perspective of what they had accomplished at the time.”
Even as Obama began to take the ISIS threat more seriously, he chose to counteract it with little more than a reactive, incrementalist approach, which Hillary Clinton would continue if elected president. What is needed is the use of overwhelming military power to completely destroy ISIS’s nerve center and major satellite operations. General George Patton’s maxim holds true today: “There is only one tactical principle which is not subject to change. It is to use the means at hand to inflict the maximum amount of wound, death, and destruction on the enemy in the minimum amount of time.”
ISIS came to life in the first place because of the Obama-Clinton policy of precipitous withdrawal from Iraq. ISIS rapidly gathered steam during its building stage because Obama underestimated the fierce determination of its leaders, the attractiveness of its jihadist ideological message to lure many new recruits, and its highly sophisticated methods. ISIS has metastasized into a global terrorist network because Obama failed to apply the maximum amount of military power at hand to utterly destroy ISIS at its heart in the minimum amount of time.
Donald Trump is telling the cold hard truth. Obama and Clinton in effect created the space for ISIS’s success.