Remember May 2003, in the heady days just after the US toppled Saddam Hussein? President Bush, standing on an aircraft carrier draped with that fateful "Mission Accomplished" banner, declared that "major combat operations in Iraq had ended."
"In the images of celebrating Iraqis, we have also seen the ageless appeal of human freedom," the president said. "The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror."
Today, his whole speech reads like a terrible exercise in grim irony. Those Iraqi celebrations gave way to a civil war and, eventually, the rise of ISIS across about a third of the country. "Human freedom" is being stomped out by crucifixions and beheadings. Terrorism has flourished in Iraq. And it's all part of a region-wide rolling disaster in places like Syria that the United States seems incapable of stopping.
To understand why the Middle East is in chaos today, and why the Obama administration seems to lack a playbook for how to respond, you need to understand the failed US strategy behind Bush's "mission accomplished" speech. It was emblematic of a huge shift in US strategy in the Middle East — one that had disastrous results.
Bush wanted to remake the Middle East: replace the region's autocracies with democracies, and solve America's terrorism problem in the process. But the plan failed. Iraq became embroiled in a vicious civil war. Iran grew in strength, kicking off an increasingly sectarian fight with Saudi Arabia that has fueled conflict throughout the region.
When the Arab Spring protests toppled governments in the region, it added to the chaos, and provided new theaters of conflict. Neither Bush's new plan nor the Cold War-era strategy that preceded it had any good answers for these problems.
This collapse in American strategy didn't cause the Arab Spring, or all of the chaos that followed it. But it was a huge contributor to the problems the region faces today — and explains why the United States seems totally unable to do anything about it.
The Iraq War was supposed to fix the problems of the old system — but made them worse
The Iraq War was supposed to herald a bold, effective new American foreign policy strategy in the Middle East. The 9/11 attacks had convinced the Bush administration that the US's old Middle East strategy had fostered jihadism and therefore had become a dangerous threat to US security. Removing Saddam Hussein and implanting a democracy in Iraq was supposed to be the first step toward a new Middle East. And it was — just not the way the Bush administration hoped.
For decades, the US had pursued a Middle East strategy built around propping up authoritarian states in the region, as long as they were friendly to US interests. During the Cold War, that was a fairly effective way to limit the Soviet Union's influence, and after the Cold War ended, it helped ensure American and global markets' access to critical Middle Eastern oil.
But the 9/11 attacks made that strategy seem like a threat to US interests, not a way to protect them. Bush's assessment of the Middle East's central problem was very clear: repressive governments were making jihadi movements look like attractive alternatives to the region's dictators.
"As long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny — prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder — violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat," Bush said in his second inaugural address, the speech that most clearly encapsulates his administration's new strategy.
America's key ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, was a particular concern. "The Saudi record of direct aid to terror is only the tip of the spear of a larger Saudi effort to spread its extremist version of Islam though the Muslim world," former Bush officials David Frum and Richard Perle wrote in their 2004 book An End to Evil. "For thirty years, US Saudi policy has been guided by the dogma that, problematic as the Saudi monarchy is, it is better than any likely alternative. September 11 should have dispelled that illusion forever."
But Bush couldn't abandon Saudi Arabia entirely. The Saudis were the most important oil-producing nation in the region, and the linchpin of America's network of friendly client states. And similar arguments applied to America's other authoritarian friends, everywhere from Egypt (critical to preventing another Arab-Israeli war) to Bahrain (home to a key US naval base in the region).
The Iraq War was a key part of the Bush administration's plan for spreading democracy without abandoning its nasty allies. It would foster democracy in Iraq, and watch it blossom around the region. Whatever you think the "real" motivation behind the invasion was, turning Iraq into beacon of democracy for countries around the Middle East quickly became the most important plank in Bush's region-wide "freedom agenda."
"Iraqi democracy will succeed — and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran — that freedom can be the future of every nation," Bush said in a 2003 speech. "The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution."
A nice idea, in theory. But it failed. Iraq's collapse into chaos fostered new regional crises: the rise of even more militant jihadi groups and an increasingly sectarian cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Neither America's old client-state strategy nor its new democracy agenda had any solutions to these new problems.
The collapse of Bush's strategy threw America's Middle East policy into chaos
Iraq's collapse created a civil war that sucked in the region's powers and sowed sectarian strife around the region. That situation presaged America's current problems in the Middle East after the Arab Spring — and, in some ways, helped create them. And neither America's traditional Middle East policy nor Bush's revisionist strategy offered a way to respond to the chaos.
American policymakers were caught totally flat-footed by the freedom agenda's collapse. Administration officials had no plan for dealing with an Iraq consumed by sectarian civil war. "We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators," Vice President Dick Cheney famously said just before the invasion.
Iraq wasn't the only place Bush's strategy backfired. At the US's behest, the Palestinian Authority held elections in 2006. The militant group Hamas won, eventually resulting in a Palestinian civil war and schism, with Hamas in charge of Gaza and the Palestinian Authority limited to the West Bank.
Bush's freedom agenda held no answers to these problems. While the US could topple dictatorships and force elections, it had no real ability to get Sunni Iraqis to trust a Shia-dominated Iraqi state. Hence why the 2007 troop surge, heralded as a success at the time, managed only to temporarily reduce violence rather than solve the sectarian grievances that would eventually drive Iraqi Sunnis into ISIS's arms.
Likewise, the US couldn't reform the deeply corrupt Palestinian Authority practices that fueled Hamas's popularity. Bush's democracy agenda didn't come with a plan B.
The United States was strategically adrift in the Middle East for the first time in decades. And its powerlessness fed a nasty process we're seeing play out today: the spread of militant groups that America couldn't eliminate, making extremism and violence around the region worse.
ISIS is the most obvious — and frightening — example. The outcome of Iraq's civil war left just enough ISIS operatives in position to move into Syria during the early stages of the Syrian civil war in 2012. ISIS's move into Syria was a disaster: it radicalized the Syrian civil war, strengthening jihadis at the expense of more moderate rebel factions, while also providing ISIS with the experience and resources necessary to take territory and move back into Iraq in a big way. The Iraq War didn't cause the Syrian uprising or subsequent civil war, but it did make its consequences much worse — leading to the violence that both countries suffer today.
As the United States faltered, Iran rose
The chaos in Iraq also empowered Iran — kicking off another regional conflict that exacerbated the violent aftermath of the Arab Spring protests.
Long outgunned by America and its allies in conventional terms, Iran had developed a tactical playbook for nonconventional warfare: it expanded its regional influence by supporting proxy militant groups, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, that thrived in civil wars and chaotic weak states. After the invasion, Iran ran its Lebanese plays in Iraq: it funneled huge amounts of support to Shia militant groups and parties in Iraq, converting its former nemesis into a potential strategic partner.
That scared America's Sunni allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies. Iran's strategy threatened the foundations of these Sunni governments' regional power. They began looking for ways to counter Iran's growing influence.
So the Iraq war "was the real beginning of [a] new Middle East cold war" between Iran and Saudi Arabia, according to F. Gregory Gause, a professor of international affairs at Texas A&M. This was a major failure for the post–Cold War alliance system: American might was supposed to help keep Iran in line, not empower it. Hence, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states felt like they needed to start being a lot more aggressive in countering Iran — which helped produce a dangerous competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran that's playing out today.
The result: the Middle East in chaos, and the United States adrift
Today, the US is without a playbook in the Middle East. Its old system of authoritarian alliances remains (mostly) in place, but it's poorly suited to dealing with problems like ISIS and the Yemeni civil war. Bush's democracy-promotion agenda is in tatters; the Arab Spring protests having mostly given rise to failed states, civil war, and sectarian conflict. And instead of developing a brand new regional strategy, the Obama administration has essentially drifted from crisis to crisis — an approach that's been effective in some cases, like securing a tentative nuclear deal with Iran, but terribly ineffective in others.
That's particularly bad in the case of the region's destabilizing civil wars, from Iraq to Syria to Libya to Yemen. With the exception of Libya, these conflicts are playgrounds for Iran and Saudi Arabia in their struggle for regional influence. These two regional powers tend to support (respectively) Shia and Sunni factions, making the region's sectarian bloodletting much worse — and much harder to control.
Obama's attempts to ameliorate the regional crisis have, in some cases, heightened that tension by strengthening Iran. For example, US airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq have put ISIS on the defensive, but they have relied on ground support from Iranian-backed militias — thus boosting Iran's political influence in Iraq.
It's not that the failure of the freedom agenda caused all of the regional problems we see today. It's that its legacies — civil war in Iraq and the Saudi-Iranian competition — bled into the post–Arab Spring conflicts and made them much worse than they had to be.
So there still isn't really an American plan for a Middle East full of failed states and civil conflict. Its old strategies helped make the problem: its key authoritarian ally, Saudi Arabia, helped spread violent Islamic extremism. Its new strategies exacerbated it: Bush's democracy-promotion strategy collapsed Iraq, sparking an uncontrollable regional cold war. The US desperately needs a new approach. But the scary thing is that no one seems to know what a good one would look like.