This is a quickie book, meant to answer an immediate hunger for some idea of how a potent bunch of terrorist fanatics called (sometimes) ISIS could have suddenly overrun much of two countries. Based on Cockburn's own reporting, the result is somewhat Iraq-centric. It has probably been somewhat more possible to report from Baghdad than Damascus of late. But he's got a fairly coherent theory that is presented in this small book.
Cockburn locates the essential background to current events in two factors. First, the generations-long promotion of an intolerant variant of Islam by oil-rich Saudi Arabia. When you've got almost infinite cash to pass around, you can construct an awful lot of mosques and schools that teach your brand of religion; the Saudis have been at that project since 1945. And little as the U.S. likes the result, we've seldom said "boo" against it.
Cockburn's second background condition has been the Western world's war on Arab nationalism, in particular on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. After feeding Iraqi persistence in its long war against Iran in the 1980s and then smashing Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, Western-backed U.N. sanctions throughout the 1990s pretty much destroyed what remained of a functioning Iraqi state. The consequence, continuing and intensifying through the US invasion and occupation of the 2000s, has been to put all the functions of a government -- handing out bureaucratic jobs, law enforcement and criminal justice, even the military -- up for sale from whoever had grabbed the power of appointment to whoever would pay. Iraq became one of the most corrupt societies in the world. No wonder the Iraqi army of some 400,000 men put up almost no resistance to a couple of thousand ISIS fighters on the move in northern Iraq this summer. The officers sold the troops their positions, then pocketed half their salaries, and most of any money for supplies.
According to Cockburn, the West frequently, and sometimes willfully, misinterpreted the upheavals of the Arab Spring. Worse, Arab insurgents themselves were poorly equipped to lead their own societies.
Cockburn concludes that the U.S., the West, and Middle Eastern peoples are in for a long, ugly, and likely bloody passage. He's not the sort of reporter who prognosticates, but what he sees is unstable and frightening.
Time will tell how far the redrawing of maps will go -- and which forces get to decide whatever new boundaries come to be.