contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, author of The New York Times Magazine feature piece, "Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart."
As Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump claims Barack Obama and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton founded the Islamic State by creating a power vacuum when it withdrew from Iraq, journalist Scott Anderson responds with a history lesson about developments in the Middle East since President Bush invaded the country in 2003. "In fact, it was the Bush administration that negotiated the withdrawal of American troops," Anderson says, adding that Trump himself called for the U.S. to leave Iraq as early as 2007.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the wars engulfing the Middle East, a topic which has resurfaced as part of the 2016 presidential campaign. Speaking at a campaign event on Thursday, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said Barack Obama and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton created the Islamic State.
DONALD TRUMP: Our government isn’t giving us good protection. Our government has unleashed ISIS. I call President Obama and Hillary Clinton the founders of ISIS. They’re the founders. In fact, I think we’ll give Hillary Clinton the—you know, if you’re on a sports team, most valuable player, MVP, you get the MVP award. ISIS will hand her the most valuable player award. Her only competition is Barack Obama, between the two of them.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, on Thursday, conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt asked Trump to clarify his comments.
HUGH HEWITT: I’ve got two more questions. 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.
DONALD TRUMP: No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He’s the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.
HUGH HEWITT: But he’s not sympathetic to them. He hates them. He’s trying to kill them.
DONALD TRUMP: I don’t care. He was the founder.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, there you have Donald Trump answering Hugh Hewitt’s questions.
All of this comes as a report by the Syrian Center for Policy Research finds the death toll in Syria has reached nearly half a million people. In April, President Obama announced the deployment of 250 more special ops troops to Syria in a move that nearly doubles the official U.S. presence in Syria. Syria is only one of a number of ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Last year, a record 60 million people around the world were forced to flee their homes, becoming refugees.
Well, reporter Scott Anderson examines all of this and much more in a remarkable new report published in this week’s New New York Times Magazine. It’s called "Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart," examining what’s happened in the region in the 13 years since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. It’s told through the eyes of six people in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. The report also includes photographs by Paolo Pellegrin, a virtual reality video that allows the viewer to embed with Iraqi fighting forces during the battle to retake Fallujah. Scott Anderson is also the author of the book Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East.
Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Scott.
SCOTT ANDERSON: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: An entire issue—
SCOTT ANDERSON: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —of The New York Times Magazine. First, respond to what Donald Trump is saying. And again, for his surrogates who go around saying this is a metaphor, he’s—
SCOTT ANDERSON: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Just as Hugh Hewitt says, "What you really mean is that they created a vacuum for ISIS." He made it very clear.
SCOTT ANDERSON: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: He said, no, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are the founders of ISIS.
SCOTT ANDERSON: Right. This is kind of an extrapolation of a Republican talking point that’s been out there for the last couple of years, which is that by withdrawing American troops from Iraq in 2011, the Obama administration created the vacuum that allowed ISIS to step in. What’s very conveniently forgotten in that, in that whole issue, is that it was—in fact, it was the Bush administration that negotiated the withdrawal of American troops. In the spring and the summer of 2008, they negotiated with the Maliki regime to have American troops extend on, to have a pretty substantial American military presence in Iraq going forward. And what that foundered on was that the Maliki administration would not give American servicemen—servicemembers immunity from any crimes they might commit in the country. And on that basis, the Bush administration—not the Obama administration—announced they were pulling all troops out of Iraq by 2011. So I think—so, this Trump idea, I think, is a carry-on from this talking point that’s been kind of floating out there for the past couple years.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, Donald Trump, in 2007, in an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, when Blitzer said, "What do you want to happen?" because, by then, he had come out against the war in Iraq—
SCOTT ANDERSON: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2007, he said the U.S. should just get out now.
SCOTT ANDERSON: Right. Well, of course he did, yeah. Yeah, I mean, it doesn’t surprise me at all. He seems to have been taking both sides of every issue for a number of years, so...
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to get to your epic piece here, because I think the importance for me is, in this country, we suffer so much from historical amnesia. You attempted, in a newspaper magazine piece, to go into the history, before the United States even began to get involved in the Middle East, to lay the basis for some of the problems, especially in the most failed states now, back to European and colonialism in the region after World War I.
SCOTT ANDERSON: That’s right. If you look at the, say—there’s 22 nations in the Arab world. And if you look at the three that have really been sort of torn apart, fragmented by the so-called Arab Spring, it’s Syria, Iraq and Libya. And it’s not coincidence that those are also three of the very small group of countries that were kind of created from whole cloth by the Western colonial powers at the end of World War I. And in each of those countries, what you have is a very weak sense of national identity.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this is from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire.
SCOTT ANDERSON: From the Ottoman Empire. They’re all part of the Ottoman Empire. And so there’s this very—this very fragile sense of national identity. And in all three of those cases, you had these very brutal totalitarian dictators come in. And among the other things they did, they were trying to forge this sense of national identity. And when the—you know, in the Arab Spring, when Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi are overthrown, Bashar al-Assad is on—very teetering, what people’s primary loyalty goes to is not to the state, often, but to their tribe, to their clan, to their sectarian affiliation.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain, though, for people who don’t understand how countries get created—
SCOTT ANDERSON: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —especially younger people now—
SCOTT ANDERSON: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —what you lay out so well in this piece, how these countries were carved up.
SCOTT ANDERSON: Right. Under the Ottoman Empire—the Ottomans was a rather ingenious empire, because the very weakness of the Ottomans was—they turned into their strength, which was—it was a very decentralized, very weak central authority empire. They gave their different provinces and different regions tremendous autonomy. As long as you paid your taxes and met your military conscription rates, you were kind of free to run yourself, you know, as you saw fit. Very little authority came down from Constantinople.
When the Ottomans joined Germany in World War I, they lost. They were on the losing side. And, you know, the winners from World War I, especially Great Britain and France, they saw the Ottoman Empire as—they called it "the Great Loot," that this was the spoils of war that they could divide up. So they came into the Middle East, and they formed these artificial states.
Iraq was—Iraq is essentially a joining together of three autonomous Ottoman provinces—a Shia component, a Sunni component and a Kurdish component in the north. Syria is kind of just the opposite. Greater Syria encompassed an enormous area of—that today would be Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan. So, with this kind of this Greater Syria region, they divided it up into sort of more manageable parcels. In the case of Libya, you had three provinces under the Ottomans that were very distinct. In that case, it was the Italians who came in and joined them together and created this colony of Libya.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, then, in the Arab Spring, you have convulsions across the Middle East, but you note that those nations that had more historical development, like Egypt, managed to somehow survive intact without this kind of civil war, but the ones that were created artificially out of the European colonialists are the ones that have suffered the most?
SCOTT ANDERSON: That’s right. I mean, it really is—there’s a commonality to the countries that have really fractured apart. Egypt—Egypt is a sad case in its own right, for different reasons. But I don’t think there’s ever been a realistic fear in Egypt that it’s going to somehow fracture apart, because there isn’t there—certainly, in Egypt, there’s a sense of nationalist identity going back a thousand, 2,000 years.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you have these six figures who you use to sort of illustrate, take us through the crises in these countries. And in Egypt, talk about the young woman that you profile.
SCOTT ANDERSON: In Egypt, Laila Soueif, she’s the matriarch of this political dissident family that she has been active in, in resistance against the dictatorship going back to the 1970s. She was active against Anwar Sadat, then under Hosni Mubarak—she and her husband, who’s now deceased. She was—when the Tahrir Square demonstrations started in January of 2011, she was in the forefront of it. She has three children, who also all became activists.
AMY GOODMAN: Who we’ve talked to frequently, her son having been imprisoned, and her daughters.
SCOTT ANDERSON: Oh, you—yes, that’s right. And now two of the three children are in prison for extended periods. The interesting thing about Laila Soueif is that, very early on, even before Mubarak was overthrown—and it was about a 12-day revolution—she saw the danger signs of the revolution being subverted. She was lobbying for the kind of political leadership, the anti-Mubarak political leadership in the country, to essentially seize power. She was basically telling them, "Do not let the military kind of step in into this." And she was not listened to. And really, what’s happened in Egypt over the last four or five years is very much a disaster foretold.
AMY GOODMAN: We have break, and then we’re going to come back to this discussion. We’re talking to Scott Anderson, who’s a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. This week, he contributed quite a lot. His article is the entire issue, without any advertisements, of the magazine. It’s called "Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart." This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.