Last night in a speech in Florida Donald Trump said something that was perhaps intended to distract the public from his threat/joke about “Second Amendment people” doing something about Hillary Clinton. Trump declared that President Obama was “the founder of ISIS.” Not satisfied with this line which he repeated several times, he added that “the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton.” In doing so, he illustrated a unique ability to take something that is true—the current administration’s responsibility for the rise of ISIS resulting from its ill-considered withdrawal from Iraq and refusal to do something about Syria–into something that sounds like one of the conspiracy theories Trump has promoted in the past. In this way, he simultaneously obscured the truth and lowered the level of political discourse in this campaign even further.
But while this utterance is more proof that Trump will never pivot to more responsible or presidential behavior, we should also examine his claim about Obama and Clinton being the founders of ISIS.
One can trace the origins of the current unrest back to the American invasion of Iraq and also much farther back to the religious and ideological roots of Islamism that are deeply embedded in the history of the region and Islam. But the precipitate cause of the creation of the group known to us now as the Islamic State was directly related to policy decisions taken by the Obama administration in its first term.
Obama inherited a war in Iraq that was, as he boasted after taking office, already won. That victory and emerging stability were handed to them by the decisions taken by Obama’s predecessor, though neither Obama, Biden, nor Clinton acknowledged that the surge ordered by George W. Bush that they had opposed had succeeded. But Obama was determined to “end” that war, as well as the conflict in Afghanistan, regardless of the dangers, and withdrew American forces from Iraq to make good on that claim. At the same time, he steadfastly refused to do anything about the emerging chaos next door in Syria as the Assad regime, whose dissolution Obama called for.
That combination of a reckless withdrawal in Iraq and inaction in Syria created the vacuum into which the remnants of the Sunni insurgency, al-Qaeda, and other radicals coalesced into what is now ISIS. It would also be years before Obama was ready to admit the lethal nature of the new threat that had emerged on his watch which he initially denigrated as the “JV” terror team, and even then what followed was a half-hearted offensive that allowed the group to reign as a sovereign power over large stretches of territory in both nations.
So in that sense, it’s true that Obama’s misguided policies and to a much lesser extent Clinton, who was reportedly in favor of intervention in Syria that the president opposed, were integral to ISIS’s success.
But to call him its founder is another thing entirely. Such a charge is redolent of the truther myths about Obama not being an American citizen, a secret Muslim, or an Islamist mole inside the government. Formulating the issue in that matter turns a series of grievous mistakes into the acts of a “Manchurian Candidate.”
But the problem with that is not just that it is misleading or debases the debate. It gives the Democrats a free pass to ignore the real issues and the flaws in the policies they advocate and instead can just focus on Trump’s rabble rousing. Such exaggerations are what many in the GOP like since they labor under the delusion that the way to beat the Democrats is to employ Trump’s gutter tactics. But in taking a truth and distorting it into a lie, Trump has allowed Clinton to avoid the tough questions about what happened and, instead, dismiss the issue as just one more example of a Trump slur.
Of course, part of the problem with Trump’s critique of the administration is that he offers no coherent alternative plan to its series of fiascos. Like Obama and Clinton, Trump won’t acknowledge the victory that George W. Bush won in Iraq during his second term. And like Obama, he is more interested in a withdrawal from the Middle East and a policy of allowing his Russian friend Vladimir Putin free reign to reassemble the old Soviet Empire. That he says at the same time that he will “kick ISIS’s ass,” merely confuses the issue and calls into question what, if anything, he will actually do in the unlikely event he will be elected.
By changing the topic from one of Obama and Clinton’s responsibility for the current Middle East to one about his loose mouth, Trump has not only failed to provide a cogent alternative on foreign policy. He also again proved to be the gift that keeps on giving to the Democrats.