U.S. Support for Good Governance in Middle East is Key to Stopping Threats like ISIS, Crocker Testifies
Following decisive military defeats in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State or ISIS, has lost its so-called caliphate, and its fighters have been driven underground or dispersed. But the victory over ISIS raises the fear that foreigners who flocked to Iraq and Syria to fight for the caliphate will regroup elsewhere or plot terror attacks in other countries, including the United States.
On May 23, the House Committee on Homeland Security of the 115th U.S. Congress convened a hearing to consider the threats posed by the ISIS diaspora and how to counter them. Among the testifying witnesses was Amb. Ryan C. Crocker MCF ’85. Crocker was U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009 and is a visiting lecturer and diplomat-in-residence at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Crocker served in Iraq during the “surge,” when tribal leaders turned against al-Qaeda with U.S. encouragement and support.
In his opening remarks, Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) called for “a comprehensive strategy” that addresses “the root causes that breed terrorists” so that “ISIS cannot rally, regroup, and rebuild from a new location.”
In response, Crocker told the committee that only “good governance in the region … will prevent the re-emergence of terrorist organizations that target Americans, whether at home or abroad.” He argued that American leadership is crucial for achieving that goal.
Crocker said both the Obama and Trump administrations have erred in treating the Islamic State chiefly as “a military problem with a military solution,” which he called “a dangerous oversimplification.” Crocker told the committee that ISIS’s earlier success in Iraq and Syria represents a symptom of a much larger political problem: “a chronic failure of governance” in the Middle East. In the absence of stable democratic institutions and the rule of law, he said, ISIS “or something like it will be back.”
In Crocker’s view, the United States’ political withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 was a huge mistake. Combined with the outbreak of civil war in Syria the same year, the Iraqi political crisis that followed our withdrawal helped create the conditions for ISIS to emerge from the remnants of al-Qaeda and become a major regional player — in part by exploiting dissatisfaction with poor governance in both countries.
Poor governance in Syria and Iraq goes back to the aftermath of World War I, Crocker said. In the Treaty of Versailles, the British and French drew the map that still largely defines national boundaries in the region without regard for “the building of stable institutions, respect for the rule of law, and preparations for peoples of the area to govern themselves.” Instead, the war’s victors installed monarchies with “no connections to the peoples over which they allegedly ruled, and certainly no interest in establishing the institutions and traditions of good governance.”
When these illegitimate monarchies were later overthrown, Crocker said, they were replaced by governments hewing to various “isms,” including Arab socialism, or Baathism, which is associated with Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and the Assad family’s rule in Syria. Like the monarchies that preceded them, these authoritarian regimes also failed to develop “institutions that provide for the common good” and respect for the rule of law.
ISIS, Crocker said, represents “yet another ism, Islamism,” and “it too has failed.” Yet it remains a potent threat, he argued, and America must work to transform the political conditions that make Islamism seem appealing to segments of the Iraqi and Syrian populations.
In post-ISIS Iraq, Crocker argued, that will mean doing all we can to help the Shia-dominated government develop political institutions that don’t alienate the majority Sunni population, whose distrust of Baghdad helped ISIS recruit and grow. The process of building good governance in Iraq, he said, “is likely to be long and difficult,” and the key to success will be to support broad principles rather than individual politicians.
Syria represents a more difficult case, Crocker said: the civil war is still raging, and more than a dozen foreign countries and regional actors have become involved. What happens next is impossible to predict. But the United States must not make the mistake it made after World War I, he said, when a rising tide of isolationism prevented us playing a meaningful role in the world. In contrast, Crocker said, American leadership after World War II created an international order that “brought broad prosperity and averted another massive ground war” for seven decades.
In recent years, however, the United States’ commitment to world leadership has slipped, Crocker noted. To avert the return of ISIS or something similar in Iraq and Syria, he said, we must reverse that trend.
“In my judgment,” he told the committee, “American leadership is vital to homeland security. I hope very much we will reassert that role. The Middle East and the world will not run by themselves.”
In addition to Crocker, the witnesses included:
- Gen. John M. “Jack” Keane (U.S. Army Ret.), chairman of the board of the Institute for the Study of War;
- Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and;
- Joshua A. Geltzer, former senior director for counterterrorism for the U.S. National Security Council.
Crocker is the former dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and was a U.S. ambassador to six countries, including Afghanistan (2011-2012), Iraq (2007-2009), Pakistan (2004-2007), Syria (1998-2001), Kuwait (1994-1997), and Lebanon (1990-1993). He has received the honor of career ambassador, the highest honor in the Foreign Service, among other awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2009).