In 2012 and 2013, U.S. policy in Egypt was jeopardized, in real and tangible ways, by Egyptians believing bizarre conspiracy theories
about the Obama administration's intentions. The theories didn't make any sense, and they in no way reflected reality, but it didn't matter -- because people believed them.
A couple of years later, conspiracy theories are once again complicating U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, but this time, the trouble is in Iraq. The Washington Post
published a remarkable piece
On the front lines of the battle against the Islamic State, suspicion of the United States runs deep. Iraqi fighters say they have all seen the videos purportedly showing U.S. helicopters airdropping weapons to the militants, and many claim they have friends and relatives who have witnessed similar instances of collusion. Ordinary people also have seen the videos, heard the stories and reached the same conclusion -- one that might seem absurd to Americans but is widely believed among Iraqis -- that the United States is supporting the Islamic State for a variety of pernicious reasons that have to do with asserting U.S. control over Iraq, the wider Middle East and, perhaps, its oil.
The Post spoke to Mustafa Saadi, a commander in one of Iraq's Shiite militias, who said American support for ISIS "is not in doubt." ISIS is "almost finished," he said. "They are weak. If only America would stop supporting them, we could defeat them in days."
From time to time, Republicans in the United States, including GOP presidential candidates
, will argue publicly that President Obama's national security policy has the effect of helping ISIS
. Rick Santorum recently went so far as to argue
that it "sounds like" the president "is in cahoots with the strategy of ISIS."
But in all likelihood, they're not being overly literal about Obama being an ISIS ally, and even if some Republicans go that far, it's just routine political stupidity that's easily ignored.
Except, in Iraq, many people actually believe conspiracy theories that claim the United States and ISIS are allies.
U.S. military officials say the charges are too far-fetched to merit a response. "It's beyond ridiculous," said Col. Steve Warren, the military's Baghdad-based spokesman. "There's clearly no one in the West who buys it, but unfortunately, this is something that a segment of the Iraqi population believes." The perception among Iraqis that the United States is somehow in cahoots with the militants it claims to be fighting appears, however, to be widespread across the country's Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide, and it speaks to more than just the troubling legacy of mistrust that has clouded the United States' relationship with Iraq since the 2003 invasion and the subsequent withdrawal eight years later. [...] The allegations of U.S. collusion with the Islamic State are aired regularly in parliament by Shiite politicians and promoted in postings on social media.
"We don't believe the Americans support Daesh," Naseer Nouri, spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, told the Post. "But it is true that most people are saying they do."
And how, exactly, can U.S. officials make reality clearer? I haven't the foggiest idea -- in fact, I have a hard enough time understanding how American conspiracy theorists arrive at their bizarre conclusions, so debunking nonsense to an Iraqi audience is a total mystery.
But the fact remains that this is yet another challenge facing U.S. policy in the region.