The answer to that question is an obvious no, but ask ten Iraqis and at least seven will say the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) is either the creation of the United States or its tool. The other three will be undecided. The alleged U.S. complicity with ISIS was the subject of polite inquiries by educated professionals at tea houses and over meals; faculty questioning at a University of Karbala public seminar; and even the subject of discussion with senior Iraqi officials.
Within the United States, the ISIS blame game revolves around the questions about whether or not President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was the cause of chaos today, or whether the vacuum created by President Barack Obama’s precipitous withdrawal in 2011 was the reason. For Iraqis, the effect is the same: both Democrats and Republicans simply treat Iraq as a political football in an endless quest to score domestic political points rather than focusing on the problem at hand.
The discourse in Iraq is different than that in the United States. Few Iraqis today question whether the invasion was wise; they are happy to no longer live under Saddam’s shadow. Those whom the former regime privileged may disagree, but they always represented a tiny minority committed less to Arab socialism and more to raw power tinged with Sunni Arab supremacy.
What confuses Iraqis with regard to the U.S. position is why, when the Islamic State first erupted onto the Iraq scene and bulldozed through Mosul, Beiji, and Tikrit and appeared to threaten Baghdad and the shrine city of Karbala, the White House did not react, yet when the Islamic State threatened Erbil, Obama launched air strikes to help drive the Islamic State back. This leads to a narrative that the United States is anti-Shi‘ite and prefers the genocidal Islamic State to a truly representative Iraq in which Shi‘ites, by sheer virtue of their number, enjoy political empowerment.
Iraqis also question why the United States seems so indifferent to the actions of its allies. Turkey might talk about rounding up ISIS activists or bombing ISIS targets, but Turks, Kurds, Syrians, and Iraqis are all aware that Turkey disproportionately targets Syrian Kurds fighting ISIS and often releases ISIS activists within hours of issuing a press statement reporting their arrest. A senior Iraqi official quipped that America had become the “United States of Qatar.”
The most important reason, however, why such a corrosive conspiracy theory took hold was because Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared it, had the state-controlled Iranian media amplify it, encouraged Iranian agents of influence within Iraq to repeat it and, from the multi-billion dollar U.S. Embassy? Nothing. Crickets. The issue isn’t lack of gratitude; it’s simply lack of information.
Before the United States began airstrikes in Syria, the only air force operating in Syria was Bashar al-Assad’s. His planes repeatedly dropped barrel bombs on civilian targets but never once bombed the Islamic State capital at Raqqa. Point out that fact to Iraqis, and they recognize the conspiracy is nonsense. But, for too many diplomats, if it’s not said in English, it’s not said at all. Sure, the State Department might tweet, but Twitter is not the social media of choice in Iraq (Facebook is). Nor is simply answering one statement enough. Rather, the U.S. must counter its adversaries’ propaganda repeatedly, and every single day.
The Iraqi government can also do more. Ordinary Iraqis may not fully understand what the United States is providing Iraq, and they may not fully address the logical difficulty of wanting the United States to do more but not wanting American troops back in the country. But the Iraqi leadership knows exactly what the United States is providing. Iraq is not an Iranian puppet, despite propaganda to the contrary. Senior Iraqi politicians should counter the Iranian narrative directly and make clear that the United States does not support ISIS; quite the contrary, it seeks to defeat it. Neither the White House nor the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has made such a request to the Iraqi leadership. Admittedly, few Iraqi politicians, even those who seek a more Western orientation for Iraq, are willing to put their neck on the line for Washington given the pervasive belief that the United States will not only not support them, but will also actively undercut them.
One thing is certain: The United States can do all the right things, but if it allows Iran and pro-Iranian militias in Iraq to shape public perception, the atmosphere will grow poisonous, and U.S. fears about long-term Iranian aims in Iraq will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.