During a Wednesday night rally in Florida, Donald Trump said something that sounded absurd even for him — that President Obama founded ISIS.
"In many respects, you know, they honor President Obama," Trump declared. "He's the founder of ISIS."
This sure sounds like Trump is accusing Obama of secretly creating ISIS. But what Trump really meant by this, as he explained in a subsequent interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, is that ISIS was the direct result of the US troop withdrawal from Iraq implemented under Obama.
"The way he got out of Iraq was that that was the founding of ISIS, okay?" Trump tells Hewitt. "With his bad policies, that’s why ISIS came about."
All of these comments are wrong, however — in two distinct and equally damaging ways. First, Trump completely botches the history of ISIS: The group was founded in 1999 and really grew up after the US invasion of Iraq. If any US president could be blamed for ISIS’s "founding," it would be George W. Bush, not Barack Obama.
Second, Trump’s "founding" phrasing is damaging even though he didn’t mean it literally. Trump is, intentionally or not, validating conspiracy theories about America’s relationship with ISIS. It’s a terribly irresponsible thing to say — and illustrates one of the many reasons Trump would make an awful president.
ISIS was "founded" more than 10 years ago — before Obama came along
To understand why Trump’s claim that Obama "founded" ISIS is so off base, you need to understand the group’s actual origins.
ISIS has its origins in a Jordanian group called Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTWJ), founded in 1999 by a militant named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi, himself from Jordan, was a kind of thuggish figure, known more for brutality than theological sophistication. Initially, his group was fairly marginal in the global jihadist movement, especially compared with al-Qaeda.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 changed everything. The American-led war, by destroying the Iraqi state, left much of the country in chaos. Foreign fighters and extremists began moving into Iraq, assisted by Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, which sought to bog down the United States. Zarqawi and his group were among those foreign fighters.
The Sunni extremists who arrived found a friendly audience among former Iraqi soldiers and officers: The US had disbanded Saddam Hussein's overwhelmingly Sunni army, which was disbanded in 2003, creating a group of men who were unemployed, battle-trained, and scared of life in an Iraq dominated by its Shia majority.
Zarqawi's group, as it fought in Iraq, grew to prominence, attracting al-Qaeda's attention. In 2004, Zarqawi pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda, for which he would receive access to its funds and fighters. His group was renamed al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and it became the country's leading Sunni insurgent group.
By 2006, Zarqawi’s group controlled a swath of territory in Iraq roughly similar to the areas ISIS has occupied more recently. It started calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq, or ISI for short.
Shortly thereafter, Zarqawi’s group met a fierce backlash. Sunni tribal leaders, who had always hated living under AQI's harsh and often violent rule, became convinced that the Shias were starting to win Iraq's sectarian civil war. To avoid being on the losing end of a bloody war, they up took arms against AQI in a movement called the Awakening.
Zarqawi was killed in 2006 by a US airstrike, and the US increased its troop presence in Iraq that year and the next. But it was, more than anything else, the Awakening that destroyed al-Qaeda in Iraq’s empire.
But while the group lost its territory, it survived in a much weakened form. A hard core of AQI loyalists, led by current ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, survived the group’s military defeat and continued operations as a small terrorist cell. This group would eventually become what we know as ISIS today.
In short: The group that would become ISIS was founded in Jordan in 1999, and became devoted to holding territory in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003. You can debate which of these constitutes ISIS’s "founding" in some metaphysical sense. But by any definition, the group was founded well before President Obama came into office. Trump is just flatly wrong on this.
The US withdrawal from Iraq under Obama wasn’t the reason ISIS grew
Okay, a Trump defender might say, but Trump’s real point isn’t that Obama "created" ISIS. It’s that Obama withdrew US troops from Iraq in 2011, creating a security vacuum that allowed ISIS to regain its strength.
This is a pretty standard conservative narrative, one not at all unique to Trump. It is, however, quite wrong. The real sources of ISIS’s recent growth were the Syrian civil war and political sectarianism in Iraq, neither of which was within the power of United States to prevent.
By 2010, "Iraq finally had relatively good security, a generous state budget, and positive relations among the country’s various ethnic and religious communities," Zaid al-Ali, author of The Struggle for Iraq's Future, wrote in Foreign Policy. But that strong position was squandered. Then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stripped his political opponents of power, appointed his cronies to run the army, and killed peaceful protesters.
Most importantly, Maliki reconstructed the Iraqi state along sectarian lines, privileging the Shia majority over the Sunni minority. This exacerbated Iraq's existing sectarian tensions: Sunni Iraqis, after all, had long and falsely believed themselves to be Iraqi's majority (owing to Saddam-era propaganda). They saw Maliki as depriving them of their rightful control of the state — and his actions deepened their belief that the Iraqi state was fundamentally illegitimate.
Around this same time as this was happening, Syria erupted in Arab Spring protests and, eventually, descended into civil war. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current leader of ISIS who was at the time in Iraq, saw the chaos as an opportunity, sending a contingent of fighters to Syria to set up shop there in late 2011.
These two developments — Iraq’s unraveling and Syria’s civil war — created a perfect incubator for ISIS.
Growing political sectarianism in Iraq helped the group rebuild its core Iraqi fighting force. The war in Syria allowed them to gain weapons, battlefield experience, funding, and a different avenue for recruiting. Its growth in Syria led it to start calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria — or ISIS, for short.
This is the key problem with Trump’s claim about Obama and ISIS. In order for his accusation to be true, he needs to be able to explain how leaving US troops in Iraq would have been able to stop either the Syrian civil war or avert the Maliki government’s sectarian turn. US troops could have killed ISIS fighters, sure, but that wouldn’t have solved the root causes of the group’s growth.
Remember, US troops couldn’t destroy ISIS during the post-2003 war on their own. The key cause of AQI’s defeat then was an Iraqi Sunni uprising, which wasn’t in the cards given the Iraqi government’s sectarian policies between 2009 and 2014. And that’s to say nothing of the idea that US troops in Iraq could somehow have stopped ISIS’s growth in Syria.
Moreover, it’s not obvious that American troops could even have stayed in Iraq given Iraqi politics. The 2011 withdrawal was the result of a status of forces agreement (SOFA) signed by the Bush administration in December 2008. The Obama administration actually attempted to renegotiate the SOFA and insert a provision that would leave between 5,000 and 10,000 troops in the country.
But the negotiations to keep US troops in Iraq were always doomed, largely due to Iraqi politics. The new deal would have needed to go through Iraq’s parliament. The overwhelming majority of both Sunni and Shia Iraqi voters, understandably still angry about the US invasion, wanted American troops gone. Iraqi MPs would not have risked their jobs in support of a US troop presence that many of them also resented.
"The Iraqis had a vote here, and made it very clear that they wanted a clear end date when US troops would leave the country," Douglas Ollivant, the National Security Council director for Iraq from 2008 to 2009, said in a 2012 interview with Iraq expert Joel Wing. "From the Iraqi perspective, this agreement was always about our withdrawal, and our presence over the last three years was simply a temporary accommodation to allow us to do that in an orderly manner."
Bottom line? US troops probably would not have stopped ISIS’s rise, and, even if they could have, there would have been very little Obama could have done to make sure they stayed in Iraq. Trump is simply wrong.
Why Trump’s comments are terrible in addition to being wrong
Trump’s comments go beyond merely being wrong on the facts. They actively encourage even worse thinking about America’s role in Iraq.
Trump has been insistent that his "founder of ISIS" phrasing is accurate, despite all the evidence to the contrary. In his radio interview, host Hewitt tries to get Trump to back off the "founder" phrasing, and make the argument about the US withdrawal creating ISIS without the incendiary framing. Trump refuses:
Hewitt: Last night, you said the President was the founder of ISIS. I know what you meant. You meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace.
Trump: 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.
Hewitt: But he’s not sympathetic to them. He hates them. He’s trying to kill them.
Trump: I don’t care. He was the founder. His, the way he got out of Iraq was that that was the founding of ISIS, okay?
The issue here is that this plays into actual conspiracy theories about the founding of ISIS. Many people within the Middle East believe the United States is secretly helping ISIS in order to weaken states in the region. Trump’s phrasing just puts more fuel on the fire.
"It’s a conspiracy theory that some in [the Middle East] region believe, and a US presidential candidate just affirmed it," Matt Duss, the president of the Foundation for Middle East peace, wrote to me.
Nor is this just a conspiracy theory in the Middle East. "[Trump’s] line that Obama founded ISIS echoes exactly a myth propagated by Russian state-controlled media and bloggers," Michael McFaul, a Stanford professor and former US ambassador to Russia, tweeted.
Trump’s insistence that his "founder" phrasing is appropriate, then, goes beyond merely being wrong about the causes of ISIS’s rise. It affirmatively amplifies ideas that damage America’s reputation abroad.
This is a major problem with Trump. When he makes mistakes, or says something indefensibly terrible, he almost never apologizes. When pressed, he doubles down, even when it sounds ridiculous and even racist. Think about his insistence that he saw Muslims in New Jersey celebrate 9/11 (never happened), or that Obama might not have been born in America.
Whether this is an intentional appeal to Islamophobes or simply a rhetorical tick whose consequences Trump doesn’t appreciate is more or less irrelevant. The "founder of ISIS" comments play into a demonstrated pattern of saying something damaging and then refusing to apologize and own up to its consequences.
That’s a very dangerous quality for someone who wants to become president. A poorly phrased statement by the most powerful person in the world doesn’t just help amplify bad ideas — it can actively cause an international crisis.