The killing of the founder and leader of the Islamic State by U.S. commandos operating in Syria should certainly further weaken the most vile and deadly Islamist movement to emerge in the Middle East in the modern era.
The world is certainly a better place with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi dead and a measure of justice meted out on behalf of all the women ISIS raped, all the journalists ISIS beheaded and the tens of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis it abused. Good for President Donald Trump for ordering it, for the intelligence agents who set it up, for the allies who aided in it and for the Special Forces who executed it.
But this story is far from over, and it could have many unexpected implications. Let’s start at home.
Trump was effusive in his praise for the U.S. intelligence agencies who found and tracked al-Baghdadi to the lair in Syria where he blew himself up to avoid being captured. In his news conference, Trump went on and on about just how good the men and women in our intelligence agencies are.
Well, Mr. President, those are the same intelligence agencies who told you that Russia intervened in our last election in an effort to tip the vote to you and against Hillary Clinton (and is still intervening). When our intel agencies exposed that reality, you impugned their integrity and quality.
And the same intelligence agencies who tracked down al-Baghdadi are the same ones who produced two whistleblowers high up in your White House — who complained that you abused the power of your office to get Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, touching off this impeachment inquiry.
And those same intelligence agencies whom you hailed as heroes for tracking down al-Baghdadi are the same “deep state,” the same agencies and whistleblowers whom your White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, just smeared as “radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution.’’
So thank you for clearing up this confusion. We now know that the same intelligence services who have been heroic in protecting us from those who want to attack our constitutional democracy from abroad are the same heroes who have stepped up to protect our constitutional democracy from within. Unlike you, they took seriously their oath to do both.
As for the future of the Middle East, let’s not forget that ISIS was the Sunni Muslim jihadi organization that emerged after President Barack Obama’s administration eliminated the previous holder of the worst-person-in-the-world title, Osama bin Laden. Al-Baghdadi’s death — a very good thing in and of itself — is not the end of our troubles in and from the Middle East.
Trump’s effort to play down the significance of Obama’s killing of bin Laden — while playing up his killing of al-Baghdadi as the key to creating the peace to end all peace — only shows how ignorant he is about the region.
ISIS emerged in 2014 as the product of three loose factions or movements, as I pointed out in a column back in 2015.
One faction comprised the foreign volunteers. Some were hardened jihadis, but many were losers, misfits, adventure seekers and young men who had never held power, a job or a girl’s hand, and they joined ISIS to get all three. ISIS offered a paycheck, power and sexual release to men and women coming from closed societies or cultures where none of that was available.
ISIS’s second faction — its brains and military backbone — was composed of former Sunni Baathist army officers and local Iraqi Sunnis and tribes, who gave ISIS passive support. Iraqi Sunnis constitute about one-third of Iraq’s population. They had ruled Iraq for generations, and many Sunnis in the Iraqi military were enraged, humiliated and frustrated by how the U.S. invasion of Iraq had overturned that order and put the Iraqi Shiite majority in charge.
ISIS also derived a lot of passive support from just average Iraqi Sunnis after Iran and pro-Iranian Shiites in power in Baghdad, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — whom the Bush administration tragically installed — used their power to further abuse Iraqi Sunnis and keep them from jobs and out of the military.
For many Iraqi Sunni villagers under ISIS control, ISIS was just less bad than the brutality and discrimination they experienced under Iraq’s pro-Iranian Shiite-led government back then. Google “Iraqi Shiite militias and power drills” and you’ll see that ISIS didn’t invent torture in Iraq.
Fortunately, we and the Iraqis finally figured that out, and Iraq has a much better government today. But the U.S. keeps repeating the same mistake in the Middle East: overestimating the power of religious ideology and underappreciating the effect of bad governance.
As Sarah Chayes, who long worked in Afghanistan and has written an important book — “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security” — puts it: “Nothing feeds extremism more than the in-your-face corruption and injustice” that some of America’s closest Middle East allies administer daily to their people.
The third ISIS faction was composed of the true religious ideologues, led by al-Baghdadi. They have their own apocalyptic version of Islam. But it would not have resonated so far and wide were it not for the first two factors listed above.
And that leads us back to Trump and his foreign policy. Trump has never met a dictator he did not like. He is blind to the fact that the next al-Baghdadi is being incubated today in some prison in Egypt, where President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt, whom Trump once actually called “my favorite dictator,’’ is not only rounding up violent jihadis but liberal nonviolent journalists, activists and politicians. Their only crime is that they want to have a say in their country’s future and help to create an environment where they can realize their full potential — so they will not have to look for dignity, power, a job or a girl’s hand from extremist groups like ISIS.
When Trump praises al-Baghdadi as his favorite victim and el-Sissi as his favorite dictator, all he is doing is walking in place. We’re actually getting nowhere.
And that brings me back to Syria. Syrian Sunnis supported ISIS for the same reason Iraqi Sunnis did. Iran, the pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia, the Shiite-Alawite Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and Russia have all collaborated to create a pro-Iranian Shiite minority government in Damascus, Syria. Of course they gave Trump a free pass to kill Baghdadi! His death just makes it that much easier for them to rule Syria without sharing power with the Sunnis. As long as that’s the case, there will be no stability there.
Finally, Trump kept going on and on in his news conference about how he, in his infinite wisdom, was keeping U.S. troops in Syria to protect the oil fields there so maybe U.S. oil companies could exploit them. He even boasted that while he was against the Iraq War, we should have taken over all of Iraq’s oil fields to pay for it.
This is disgusting talk, and again, a prescription for trouble in the future. If America has any role in the Middle East today, it is not to protect the oil wells but to protect and enhance what I call the “islands of decency.”
These are places like Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan, Jordan, the UAE, Oman, Lebanon and the frail democracies in Tunisia and Baghdad. None of these are developed democracies; Oman, Jordan and the UAE are monarchies. But perfect is not on the menu in the Middle East right now. And these countries do promote more moderate versions of Islam and religious tolerance, they do empower their women, and they do encourage modern education.
These are the necessary but not sufficient antidotes to ISIS. They are worth preserving and enhancing in hopes that they can develop one day into something better for all their peoples. Just look at the democracy protests in Lebanon. You can see where the young people want to go.
Only Trump would boast of defeating ISIS and thinking that all that needs to be done now is to protect the Middle East’s oil wells and America’s favorite dictators — and not its wells of decency.
Thomas L. Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.