The founder of ISIS is the founder of ISIS: Or, Contingency exists

Donald Trump’s latest “gaffe” is his claim that Obama is the founder of ISIS. Now even Trump seems to admit — to the extent compatible with his “never back down” policy — that this is a hyperbolic way of saying that Obama’s Mideast policies “caused” ISIS to come into existence. We can easily imagine a leftist making a similar claim about George W. Bush, insofar as there is a very plausible case to be made that ISIS never would have come into being if not for the disastrous and criminal Iraq War.

I would suggest, however, that neither Obama nor Bush “caused” ISIS to exist. In reality, the founder of ISIS is the founder of ISIS. There was no inner necessity growing out of the Iraq invasion of 2003 that leads to the ISIS of 2016. Is it likely that a militant Islamist organization would emerge under the circumstances created by the Iraq War and its aftermath? Absolutely. But there was no necessity that it should take this particular form and pursue these particular goals. The organization and its priorities are the product of its own leaders and membership, who exercised their own agency in circumstances that they did not choose and cannot fully control. The emergence of something like ISIS may have been predictable to some extent, but the existence of the ISIS we actually know is a contingent outcome of historical forces and human decisions.

The very fact that the Iraq War is at the root of the phenomena we’re discussing should actually highlight the role of contingency in this process. One of the greatest critiques of the war is that it was a war of choice, taken up gratuitously and arbitrarily by a particular circle of politicians (Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al.) with the ear of a pliable president and a submissive public. To some extent it was a “natural outgrowth” of the long-standing US policy favoring regime change in Iraq, which is probably why it attracted bipartisan support, but the shitty equilibrium that had persisted for over a decade (Saddam in office, but hemmed in by sanctions and a no-fly zone) could presumably have persisted indefinitely. There was no inner necessity that Saddam should be removed right then.

And indeed, the reference to Trump should further emphasize the role of contingency in politics. Yes, Trump is riding on certain deep trends in American politics, and his success thus far was predictable to some extent — though I suspect that many such predictions are more like lucky guesses. But Trump is a very particular person, with a very particular life trajectory, and the “movement” that has coalesced around him seems to be very, very dependent on Trump the individual. After all, there were over a dozen empty suits who were clearly willing to take up Trump’s “message,” but none of them seemed to pass the laugh test for Trump supporters.

What does all this add up to? Basically, I’m tired of reading too-clever-by-half post-hoc analyses of how everything that happens grows directly out of historical necessity — the “I can’t believe you’re surprised by this” school of political commentary. There has to be some way to acknowledge the contingencies growing out of human agency without collapsing into individualistic moralizing.

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