And so it goes: years after George W Bush stood on that battleship and proclaimed Mission Accomplished, Iraq is once more teetering on the edge of a chaos that many hoped was fading. All the attempts at nation-building, at creating a unified police force and army, of building up a native political establishment – all are under threat from the insurgent army of the Islamic State in Iraq (more commonly known as Isis). Isis have recently seized control of Mosul, already control significant parts of neighboring Syria, and have even been threatening to enter Baghdad in recent days (although that threat seems to be receding now, at least in the immediate term).
The level of brutality shown by Isis has made Saddam Hussein’s regime seem like a bunch of pussycats. Hands have been chopped off, mass shootings have taken place as a matter of course, and enemies accused of apostasy or spying have been crucified, literally. Isis are apparently so barbaric that even Al-Qaeda have refused to be associated with them, and Isis have had to start issuing orders to their followers not to videotape and share footage of executions on social media – it turns out there is such a thing as bad publicity. Despite this, they are still gaining supporters, donations, and strength, and pose a genuine threat to the stability of the entire country and the whole region – because they at least provide an alternative to the void of governance that has plagued Iraq since Saddam was taken out of the picture.
Clearly Isis do not have any positive solutions for the problems facing the people of Iraq, and they must be held accountable for their brutal actions – no-one is forcing them to crucify people, after all. But we would be foolish to act like this new insurgency has no connection to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The simplicity of the neoliberal doctrine that the leaders and electorates of the west fell for in those years is beginning to show its dangerous flaws.
In invading Iraq, we made the conscious decision to destabilize a country that, despite being under the thumb of a dictator who was almost certainly a very unpleasant man, was one of the calmer places in the region. Groups like Isis and Al-Qaeda would have posed no threat to Saddam because of the strong control he kept over the many different groups and communities of his nation. But destabilization seemed like a better option to the US, because it offered opportunities – the chance for oil, the chance to reshape the whole region through one of its most important countries, the chance to take advantage of what Naomi Klein has called ‘the shock doctrine’. This is the idea that chaos and disaster is good for capitalism, it provides opportunities for investment and profiteering.
Little did we realize at the time that if chaos is good for capitalist extremists, it’s even better for extremists with religious ideologies. It creates a void into which they enter, a void which they can fill with violence, religion, and the promise of a return to stability which local people can understand and relate to. We are seeing the same thing happening in other chaotic regions of the world that the US has helped to destablize (and continues to do so under Obama) – Yemen and Pakistan, in particular. Areas of these countries are under regular US drone attack, with no contact from their own national government. As in Iraq, extremist religious groups are stepping up to take on the role of the state and to create their own version of stability. This is the mirror image of that neoliberal shock doctrine.
It’s time for the west to realize that we cannot create stability in our own image through invading countries and bombing wide regions of the world. Such actions do not have predictable outcomes that inevitably benefit us – instead, they set off chain reactions that end with what we have seen in the past few weeks: crucifixions and the speedy return of Iraq to complete chaos.