While briefing media in Cairo after talks with Egypt’s new leadership, Kerry was told that many people were accusing the U.S. of responsibility for “the disastrous situation in Iraq and Libya,” because of “its role in exchanging old regimes in the region.”
He strongly disputed the charge.
“What’s happening in Iraq is not happening because of the United States, in terms of this current crisis,” Kerry said. “The United States shed blood and worked hard for years to provide Iraqis the opportunity to have their own governance, and have their own government.”
He put the blame squarely on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL), the al-Qaeda-inspired Sunni jihadist group controlling parts of Syria and extending its hold over territory in northern and western Iraq.
“They’re the ones who are marching through to disturb this ability of the people of Iraq to continue to form their government and have the future that they want,” Kerry said. “This is about ISIL’s terrorist designs on the state of Iraq. And no-one should mistake what is happening or why.”
Under the Bush administration, the U.S. led a coalition that toppled the Sunni Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Saddam, a minority Sunni, had ruled Iraq for 24 years, during which time his regime used chemical weapons to kill thousands of Kurds in 1988, and also killed large number of majority Shi’ites in ruthless crackdowns in 1991 and 1998. Sectarian divisions kept in check by his police state boiled over after his ousting, stoked by Shi’ite Iran on one hand and Sunni extremists on the other.
Under the Obama administration, the U.S. took a leading role in a 2011 NATO operation to protect Libyans under attack from Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, an operation that led to its downfall.
Gaddafi had ruled Libya for 41 years, and his departure left a country riven by regional and tribal divisions, almost entirely devoid of the institutions of state, and ripe for exploitation by Islamist extremists.
Kerry on Sunday also defended the Libyan intervention.
“What happened in Libya was that a dictator was attacking his own people and was threatening to go door-to-door to kill them like dogs,” he said. “And the United Nations joined together in a [Security Council] resolution that they would have a mission to try to protect those people.”
“And the people rose up and the people marched all the way from Benghazi, all the way to Tripoli, and they, in their own voices, in their own actions, decided they wanted a different life,” he continued.
“And today, the United States is working with Egypt, with Tunisia, with Algeria, with Morocco, with Europe, with other countries in order to try to help Libya to be able to pushback against extremists who don’t want them to have that rule of law and that kind of life.”
A threat to the region, and to the U.S.
Cairo was the first destination for Kerry on a trip focused largely on the Iraq crisis, with stops planned in Jordan, Iraq and possibly Saudi Arabia, as well as Brussels for a NATO meeting and Paris for talks with regional partners and Gulf states.
A senior State Department official traveling with him told reporters he was taking a two-fold message on Iraq: Underscoring the severity of the ISIS threat to the region and to the U.S.; and urging countries to press Iraq’s leaders to speed up the formation of an inclusive government.
“We ask that they [regional countries] are echoing the same message that we’re conveying,” the official said, “that addressing Iraq’s security situation, the threat posed by ISIL, is much more likely to be successful in the context of an inclusive government that is formed in short order and can begin addressing this threat from a solid, broad foundation of support.”
Kerry’s insistence that the U.S. role in overthrowing Saddam and Gaddafi was not responsible for the current instability in the two countries did not cover other criticism frequently directed at the administration from various quarters, including:
–That refusal to provide serious military support to the mainstream anti-Assad opposition early on during the Syrian conflict prolonged the war and expedited the influx of jihadists, including ISIS, which is now threatening Iraq as well.
–That its failure to negotiate an agreement allowing the U.S. to retain a limited training and counterterrorism mission in Iraq after the troop withdrawal in Dec. 2011 had left a security vacuum.
–That it took its eye off the ball in Libya after Gaddafi’s fall, thereby facilitating the rise of extremists, including those accused of responsibility for the deadly Sept. 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.