The time of the Plague

In Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, we encounter a world isolated and left alone to fend for itself against the pestilence

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

‘What’s true of all the evils of the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves…’
-Albert Camus

A year ago the hordes of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) invaded large swaths of Iraq, and occupied Mosul, the country’s second largest city. Few weeks ago they drove the hapless and hopeless Iraqi army out of the city of Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar province. What occurred between these two occupations was a year of nihilistic, but systematic horrors visited upon any Iraqi opposed to ISIS’ interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence and polity, but particularly against Shiites and Kurdish opponents, and the various Christian communities in the country. There were death marches of mostly women and children, mass killings and mass graves, women and girls were bought and sold as slaves, thousands of civilians were killed, many literally by the sword or ritually beheaded and crucified, including Western journalists. The enterprising killing cult, while rampaging in large areas of Syria and Iraq attracted thousands of would-be ‘Jihadist’ many of whom were driven by the thrill to kill, and their horrific deeds inspired other ruthless and fanatical Islamists to engage in wanton acts of terror against mostly soft, civilian targets. Today, Iraq and Syria are teetering under repeated poundings, and the very existence of these brittle states within which borders lay in ruins some of the oldest, and once most sophisticated and vibrant cities in the world: Damascus, Aleppo and Mosul, is threatened.

What was the reaction of the White House to the fall of Ramadi? A stunning admission from the President of the United States, that he still lacks ‘a complete strategy, because it requires commitments on the part of Iraqis as well’. After spending billions of dollars over many years on training, and advising the Iraqi army, the President added without any hint of irony that ‘details are not worked out’ yet. After this public display of presidential ennui, it was decided to deploy 450 trainers/advisors in addition to the 3100 advisors/trainers already deployed in four bases in Iraq. How would 450 additional trainers address what seems to be the serious structural problems in the Iraqi army was left unsaid.

The ambivalent president

The challenge of ISIS following the fall of Mosul, and after the barbarians appeared to be heading towards the gates of Baghdad to breach them, President Obama, the most ambivalent of all American Presidents in modern times was forced to organize a coalition to launch a limited air campaign to deter and stop ISIS’ territorial expansion. And although the President claimed that his new policy against ISIS was designed to first ‘degrade’ then later on ‘destroy’ ISIS, it is clear nonetheless that President Obama does not intend to do anything serious beyond containing ISIS’ advance, and leaving to his/her successor the task of eliminating this threat.

The fall of Ramadi, exposed the pathetic state of the Iraqi army, just as it exposed the utter failure of an ineffective air campaign against ISIS despite 3800 airstrikes against it. It has been reported that almost 75 percent of U.S. air sorties return to base with their missiles and bombs because of lack of targets. And this is due in part to the President’s opposition to the deployment of American troops in forward positions as spotters for airstrikes. The ‘Islamic State’ keeps metastasizing, and spreading like a pestilence that does not have an antidote. There is an air of unreality among American officials – civilian and military- involved in prosecuting a war their commander-in-chief does not want to fight decisively. The President is still wedded to his initial policy of extricating the United States out of Iraq (and Afghanistan) and he still resists the pressure to go back into a failed state, few years after announcing triumphantly that he ended the second longest war in America’s history.

What makes this moment in the history of the Middle East so unique and yet fraught with dangers is that while some important countries are literally in flames there sits in the White House an ambivalent President whose actions betray his growing detachment from the Middle East, and his diminishing intellectual and emotional interests in the region. There is a growing sense in the region, mostly but not exclusively among Arab officials and commentators that the U.S. under President Obama, as someone puts it ‘is leaving the Middle East at best, and at worst giving the region to Iran’. This is an exaggerated summation of Obama’s approach to the Middle East, but it does contain some truth.

To lead or not to lead…

Obama’s decision to deploy 450 trainers was seen as a ‘tactical tweak’ at best, a half measure designed to show the Iraqis and his domestic critics that he is doing something and investing in the training of the Iraqi army, oblivious to the fact that there is no longer such a thing as a national ‘Iraqi’ army, and that this force has serious structural problems, that its sectarian nature reflects the deep fissures in Iraqi society, that its ineffective and corrupt leadership is immune to reform, and that finally it suffers from low discipline and diminished morale, because fundamentally it lacks ‘the will to fight’ as Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said publicly. That is why, for all the talk in Washington about waiting for Iraqi commitments to lead the fight against ISIS, the decision makers at the Pentagon and the White House know or should know that the conventional Iraqi armed forces the way they are constituted today are incapable of fighting as a cohesive force.

There is a growing sense in the region, mostly but not exclusively among Arab officials and commentators that the U.S. under President Obama, as someone puts it ‘is leaving the Middle East at best, and at worst giving the region to Iran’.

Hisham Melhem

According to informed sources, General Lloyd Austin, commander of United States Central Command who is in charge of the air campaign has been calling for deploying American spotters, and the deployment of attack helicopters against the ISIS columns, but that the White House, specifically President Obama, with the support of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey have resisted these calls. U.S. officials always claim that the President is constantly reviewing military options, although the President has been remarkably consistent in resisting decisive military options. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said recently that President Obama will definitely look at a range of different options when he was asked about deploying spotters; but then he reiterated that the administration is most eager to build Iraqi capacity to take on ISIS. “The U.S. military cannot and should not do this simply for Iraqis, and, frankly, Iraqis want to be in the lead themselves”. It seems Ben Rhodes cannot resist revisiting the phrase that shall live in infamy; that the U.S. will be ‘Leading from behind’ and following a failing state in this case.

President Obama and his White House aides see the problem of ISIS mostly as a military challenge that the Iraqi state, in its brittle conditions and with help from the U.S. should respond to. The conflagration in Syria and Iraq (as well as in Libya and Yemen) is the result of decades of authoritarian rule, economic and social dislocation, sectarianism and radical Islamism, and such conflicts do not lend themselves to solely military solutions. When one looks at the deployment of 450 additional trainers into the heart of such a complex historical conflict one sees the absurdity of such actions.

It is true, that the Syrians and the Iraqis are in the main responsible for the restoration and rebuilding of their shattered societies and polities, but given their current divisions, and the fact that the outside world, including the United States did contribute to their unraveling, and most importantly since ISIS does represent a threat to Europe and the U.S. it is imperative that Washington plays a leading role in defeating ISIS and in helping the peoples of the region in building representative and legitimate and hopefully in the future democratic governance. The Threat of ISIS will not remain within the borders of Syria and Iraq, and the fires in those states will eventually engulf other states, including America’s allies.

In search of a strategy

Theoretically, President Obama can choose to sit on the fence and watch epic ugly civil and sectarian wars, in which the barbarians of ISIS will continue their beheading sprees, and slave-holding and women-raping orgies, and the brutal ‘secular’ regime of Assad continues its use of barrel bombs, field artillery and primitive chemical weapons (much more efficient killing machines than what ISIS has) to force Syrians into submission. But, aside from the moral failure of such an approach, when these wars are over, and someday they will be, the region will have paid a horrific price and will be a desolate world inhabited by bitter peoples with unforgiving memories. Or the United States can choose to lead a serious regional and international coalition with a clear strategy that would tackle the threat of ISIS and other fanatical Islamists, as well as confronting the magnets that attracted them for instance to Syria, that is the Assad regime and its depredations.

It is remarkable that President Obama, four years after the upheavals that have swept the Middle East is still looking for a strategy. Certainly, sending trainers to Iraq is not a strategy. What Obama needs is a comprehensive strategy that address the wars in both Syria and Iraq simultaneously. It was lawless Syria that allowed ISIS to grow and invade Iraq. Both Syria and Iraq are unwinding. Both Syria and Iraq are being manipulated by an assertive Iran seeking to establish itself as the region’s hegemon. The United States is still capable of leading a rescue effort to save the region from its own daemons, and it could do so without committing large troops and certainly without invading another country.

The Plague

In Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, we encounter a world isolated and left alone to fend for itself against the pestilence. Oran, the Algerian city is the metaphor Camus uses in the novel he has written in 1947 in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of Nazism. The plague overwhelms Oran, just as ISIS overwhelmed Mosul and isolated the city from the rest of Iraq. The concept of the ‘absurd’ was central in Camus’ writings; the absurdity that comes from our mortality, our disconnectedness from the universe, and from divinity. But in the face of an absurd universe, Camus posits human agency and responsibility. Even if you know that you will lose, you should struggle as if you might win. Camus chooses the plague as a metaphor for the frailty of the human condition. This awful disease brings to the fore in a painful and merciless way one’s awareness of one’s mortality which should compels us to show solidarity with each other and to exercise our freedom of choice as social beings responsible for our own actions.

The central character in The Plague is Dr. Bernard Rieux, the healer who dedicates himself, at a considerable price to his work as a doctor saving as many lives as possible. As the plague spreads, we see the most noble and the most base of emotions and behavior. For Dr. Rieux, the Plague was a test of one’s humanity and sense of decency.

Looking at the plague devastating the Middle East today, one asks where are the healers in the mode of Dr. Rieux and his colleagues? Just as those courageous characters in Camus’ Oran, one would hope that in each city suffering from the plague there is a healer named Dr. Rieux working with real actors to destroy the plague. President Obama, has it in his power, to play the role of Dr. Rieux, the American healer, but he seems to have made his free choice not to engage, lead, or heal.


Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.