Elliott Abrams On Iraq, ISIS
In part two of Here & Now’s series on ISIS and Iraq, host Jeremy Hobson spoke with Elliot Abrams, a supporter of the original war in Iraq who believes the rise of ISIS can be tied to decisions made by President Barack Obama.
Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and was a deputy national security adviser for President George W. Bush.
“I think the developments of the last six years are not the responsibility of President Bush,” he said. “They are the responsibility of the president in power now.”
- Part 1 of this series: Military Analyst Andrew Bacevich On Iraq, ISIS
Interview Highlights: Elliot Abrams
On the rise of ISIS in Iraq
“I think the strength of ISIS is partly a reaction to the feeling on the part of Sunnis in Iraq that their government is pushing them aside, and in Syria for Syrian Sunnis that their government is slaughtering them. Of course that wasn’t happening – certainly not as badly a few years ago – and I wonder if we could have avoided this terrible problem… I think it was probably a mistake for the United States to diminish our influence in Iraq by removing all of the troops in the way we did. And I think the president did make a mistake in, I guess it was 2012, in not accepting the advice he got from Clinton and [CIA Director David] Petraeus and [Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta to do more in the Syrian conflict.”
On whether the U.S. invasion of Iraq caused ISIS’s rapid growth
“Let’s go to January 2009 when nobody was talking about a thing called ISIS. There was not this terrible terrorist group. My own view is that it grew up mostly as a product of the slaughter in Syria, of now approximately a quarter of a million people by a regime that is viewed as Shia and is linked to Iran and Hezbollah. I think it is the reaction to that slaughter that largely explains ISIS… How is it that they grew so quickly, grew much more quickly than al-Qaida itself in that region than al-Qaida in Iraq or in the Arabian Peninsula? I think it was a reaction to the horrible slaughter of Sunnis that was going on in Syria and secondly to the feeling of alienation of Sunnis in Iraq at the hands of a quite sectarian government.”
On whether the U.S. should join the fight against ISIS
“…what we see in Syria in part reflects the failure of the U.S. to move against the Assad regime and to help moderate rebels.”
“We know not only from 9/11, but from the attacks that have been tried in the United States that we may not want to be a part of this, but the people on the other side do view the United States as a target. So it’s something that we cannot turn away from… A U.S. military presence in Iraq might have given us the ability to influence events there. I do think the Obama administration made a huge mistake when the president rejected the advice of people who were supposed to be his key foreign and military advisers, secretaries of state and defense and the head of the CIA, who told him that more was going to be needed in Syria and he wouldn’t do it. I think that again it’s impossible to prove a negative, but it does seem that what we see in Syria in part reflects the failure of the U.S. to move against the Assad regime and to help moderate rebels. In that vacuum those rebels that are linked to terrorist groups, like ISIS, al-Qaida, have really grown really fast.”
On how to ally with moderate rebel groups fighting ISIS
“I think it’s striking that there are rebel groups in Syria that have been getting almost no help for several years now from the United States and from the outside more generally, but they continue fighting and they continue not joining ISIS or al-Qaida. Identifying people will be hard, especially now in 2015 because several years of vicious combat have gone by. But look, that’s why we have a CIA, that’s why we have relationships with Turkish and British and Jordanian intelligence in order to make those judgment about who we should be dealing with and whom we should not be dealing with.”
On the relationship between terrorist groups and ungoverned land
“I think that if the United States turns away and allows Iraq to collapse into a giant ungoverned space that is instead ruled by ISIS, we will find ourselves at the receiving end of more and more efforts to do a terrorist attack on the homeland.”
“I think we’ve learned that ungoverned space is space that’s used by terrorists groups. We see the way that ISIS has obliterated the border between Syria and Iraq. I think that if the United States turns away and allows Iraq to collapse into a giant ungoverned space that is instead ruled by ISIS, we will find ourselves at the receiving end of more and more efforts to do a terrorist attack on the homeland.”
On whether he regrets the Bush administration’s actions in Iraq
“I think the administration was right to do what it did in 2003 on the basis of the information we had available then. I think the post-war planning, obviously everyone would say was inadequate and should have been much better. And that leads you to 2007 and 2008 and the surge and I think the situation in Iraq and Syria was much different in 2009 when President Obama came to office and he himself at the time he was removing troops said he felt the situation in Iraq had improved greatly and was far more stable. I would not go back to 2003 when there was no ISIS and when the situation in Iraq looked quite different. I think the developments of the last six years are not the responsibility of President Bush. They are the responsibility of the president in power now.”
- Elliot Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations
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