Top Five Washington Assumptions on Mideast that Are not True

By Andrew J. Bacevich ( | —

“Iraq no longer exists.” My young friend M, sipping a cappuccino, is deadly serious. We are sitting in a scruffy restaurant across the street from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  It’s been years since we’ve last seen each another. It may be years before our paths cross again. As if to drive his point home, M repeats himself: “Iraq just doesn’t exist.”

His is an opinion grounded in experience.  As an enlisted soldier, he completed two Iraq tours, serving as a member of a rifle company, before and during the famous Petraeus “surge.”  After separating from the Army, he went on to graduate school where he is now writing a dissertation on insurgencies.  Choosing the American war in Iraq as one of his cases, M has returned there to continue his research.  Indeed, he was heading back again that very evening.  As a researcher, his perch provides him with an excellent vantage point for taking stock of the ongoing crisis, now that the Islamic State, or IS, has made it impossible for Americans to sustain the pretense that the Iraq War ever ended.

Few in Washington would endorse M’s assertion, of course.  Inside the Beltway, policymakers, politicians, and pundits take Iraq’s existence for granted.  Many can even locate it on a map.  They also take for granted the proposition that it is incumbent upon the United States to preserve that existence.  To paraphrase Chris Hedges, for a certain group of Americans, Iraq is the cause that gives life meaning. For the military-industrial complex, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Considered from this perspective, the “Iraqi government” actually governs, the “Iraqi army” is a nationally representative fighting force, and the “Iraqi people” genuinely see themselves as constituting a community with a shared past and an imaginable future.

Arguably, each of these propositions once contained a modicum of truth.  But when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and, as then-Secretary of State Colin Powell predicted, broke the place, any merit they previously possessed quickly dissipated.  Years of effort by American occupiers intent on creating a new Iraq out of the ruins of the old produced little of value and next to nothing that has lasted.  Yet even today, in Washington the conviction persists that trying harder might somehow turn things around.  Certainly, that conviction informs the renewed U.S. military intervention prompted by the rise of IS.

So when David Ignatius, a well-informed and normally sober columnist for the Washington Post, reflects on what the United States must do to get Iraq War 3.0 right, he offers this “mental checklist”: in Baghdad, the U.S. should foster a “cleaner, less sectarian government”; to ensure security, we will have to “rebuild the military”; and to end internal factionalism, we’re going to have to find ways to “win Kurdish support” and “rebuild trust with Sunnis.”  Ignatius does not pretend that any of this will be easy.  He merely argues that it must be — and by implication can be — done.  Unlike my friend M, Ignatius clings to the fantasy that “Iraq” is or ought to be politically viable, militarily capable, and socially cohesive.  But surely this qualifies as wishful thinking.

The value of M’s insight — of, that is, otherwise intelligent people purporting to believe in things that don’t exist — can be applied well beyond American assumptions about Iraq.  A similar inclination to fanaticize permeates, and thereby warps, U.S. policies throughout much of the Greater Middle East.  Consider the following claims, each of which in Washington circles has attained quasi-canonical status.

* The presence of U.S. forces in the Islamic world contributes to regional stability and enhances American influence.

* The Persian Gulf constitutes a vital U.S. national security interest.

* Egypt and Saudi Arabia are valued and valuable American allies.

* The interests of the United States and Israel align.

* Terrorism poses an existential threat that the United States must defeat.

For decades now, the first four of these assertions have formed the foundation of U.S. policy in the Middle East. The events of 9/11 added the fifth, without in any way prompting a reconsideration of the first four. On each of these matters, no senior U.S. official (or anyone aspiring to a position of influence) will dare say otherwise, at least not on the record.

Yet subjected to even casual scrutiny, none of the five will stand up.  To take them at face value is the equivalent of believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy — or that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell really, really hope that the Obama administration and the upcoming Republican-controlled Congress can find grounds to cooperate.

Let’s examine all five, one at a time.

The Presence of U.S. Forces: Ever since the U.S. intervention in Lebanon that culminated in the Beirut bombing of October 1983, introducing American troops into predominantly Muslim countries has seldom contributed to stability.  On more than a few occasions, doing so has produced just the opposite effect. 

Iraq and Afghanistan provide mournful examples. The new book “Why We Lost” by retired Lieutenant General Daniel Bolger finally makes it permissible in official circles to declare those wars the failures that they have been.  Even granting, for the sake of argument, that U.S. nation-building efforts were as pure and honorable as successive presidents portrayed them, the results have been more corrosive than constructive.  The IS militants plaguing Iraq find their counterpart in the soaring production of opium that plagues Afghanistan. This qualifies as stability?

And these are hardly the only examples.  Stationing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia after Operation Desert Storm was supposed to have a reassuring effect.  Instead, it produced the debacle of the devastating Khobar Towers bombing.  Sending G.I.’s into Somalia back in 1992 was supposed to demonstrate American humanitarian concern for poor, starving Muslims.  Instead, it culminated in the embarrassing Mogadishu firefight, which gained the sobriquet Black Hawk Down, and doomed that mission.

Even so, the pretense that positioning American soldiers in some Middle East hotspot will bring calm to troubled waters survives.  It’s far more accurate to say that doing so provides our adversaries with what soldiers call a target-rich environment — with Americans as the targets.

The Importance of the Persian Gulf: Although U.S. interests in the Gulf may once have qualified as vital, the changing global energy picture has rendered that view obsolete.  What’s probably bad news for the environment is good news in terms of creating strategic options for the United States.  New technologies have once again made the United States the world’s largest producer of oil.  The U.S. is also the world’s largest producer of natural gas.  It turns out that the lunatics chanting “drill, baby, drill” were right after all.  Or perhaps it’s “frack, baby, frack.”  Regardless, the assumed energy dependence and “vital interests” that inspired Jimmy Carter to declare back in 1980 that the Gulf is worth fighting for no longer pertain.

Access to Gulf oil remains critically important to some countries, but surely not to the United States.  When it comes to propping up the wasteful and profligate American way of life, Texas and North Dakota outrank Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in terms of importance.  Rather than worrying about Iraqi oil production, Washington would be better served ensuring the safety and well-being of Canada, with its bountiful supplies of shale oil.  And if militarists ever find the itch to increase U.S. oil reserves becoming irresistible, they would be better advised to invade Venezuela than to pick a fight with Iran.

Does the Persian Gulf require policing from the outside? Maybe. But if so, let’s volunteer China for the job. It will keep them out of mischief.

Arab Allies: It’s time to reclassify the U.S. relationship with both Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Categorizing these two important Arab states as “allies” is surely misleading. Neither one shares the values to which Washington professes to attach such great importance.

For decades, Saudi Arabia, Planet Earth’s closest equivalent to an absolute monarchy, has promoted anti-Western radical jihadism — and not without effect.  The relevant numbers here are two that most New Yorkers will remember: 15 out of 19.  If a conspiracy consisting almost entirely of Russians had succeeded in killing several thousand Americans, would U.S. authorities give the Kremlin a pass? Would U.S.-Russian relations remain unaffected?  The questions answer themselves.

Meanwhile, after a brief dalliance with democracy, Egypt has once again become what it was before: a corrupt, oppressive military dictatorship unworthy of the billions of dollars of military assistance that Washington provides from one year to the next.

Israel: The United States and Israel share more than a few interests in common.  A commitment to a “two-state solution” to the Palestinian problem does not number among them.  On that issue, Washington’s and Tel Aviv’s purposes diverge widely.  In all likelihood, they are irreconcilable.

For the government of Israel, viewing security concerns as paramount, an acceptable Palestinian state will be the equivalent of an Arab Bantustan, basically defenseless, enjoying limited sovereignty, and possessing limited minimum economical potential. Continuing Israeli encroachments on the occupied territories, undertaken in the teeth of American objections, make this self-evident.

It is, of course, entirely the prerogative — and indeed the obligation — of the Israeli government to advance the well being of its citizens.  U.S. officials have a similar obligation: they are called upon to act on behalf of Americans. And that means refusing to serve as Israel’s enablers when that country takes actions that are contrary to U.S. interests.

The “peace process” is a fiction. Why should the United States persist in pretending otherwise? It’s demeaning.

Terrorism: Like crime and communicable diseases, terrorism will always be with us.  In the face of an outbreak of it, prompt, effective action to reduce the danger permits normal life to continue. Wisdom lies in striking a balance between the actually existing threat and exertions undertaken to deal with that threat. Grown-ups understand this. They don’t expect a crime rate of zero in American cities. They don’t expect all people to enjoy perfect health all of the time.  The standard they seek is “tolerable.”

That terrorism threatens Americans is no doubt the case, especially when they venture into the Greater Middle East. But aspirations to eliminate terrorism belong in the same category as campaigns to end illiteracy or homelessness: it’s okay to aim high, but don’t be surprised when the results achieved fall short.

Eliminating terrorism is a chimera. It’s not going to happen. U.S. civilian and military leaders should summon the honesty to acknowledge this.

My friend M has put his finger on a problem that is much larger than he grasps. Here’s hoping that when he gets his degree he lands an academic job.  It’s certain he’ll never find employment in our nation’s capital.  As a soldier-turned-scholar, M inhabits what one of George W. Bush’s closest associates (believed to be Karl Rove) once derisively referred to as the “reality-based community.” People in Washington don’t have time for reality. They’re lost in a world of their own.

Andrew J. Bacevich, currently Columbia University’s George McGovern Fellow, is writing a military history of America’s war for the Greater Middle East. A TomDispatch regular, his most recent book is Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2014 Andrew Bacevich

Mirrored from


CBS: “War on ISIS: Rare look at training to stop Saudi-born terrorists”

20 Responses

  1. REALITY, particularly long term rational thinking based on REALITY, is almost non-existent in most parts of the world.

    – Americans suffer from delusions of empires, while they fail at trying to keep the old British (ME), French (Vietnam & ME) and Spanish (Latin America) empires from completely de-colonizing and restructuring.

    – Israel is trying to replicate the failed colonial experiments of the old collapsed empires and can’t figure out why the locals fiercely resist them. Israelis can not seem to understand that the locals have thousands of years of history and resent another bunch of European “crusader” invaders.

    – The Saudis may now understand they have made a “deal with the devil” by letting an extremely anti-human religious cult control the population, but they do not appear to know how to get rid of the religious nuts and move the country forward.

    And the list goes on with virtually no grouping of humans not suffering from massive delusions.

    A rational USA would tell most of the people on earth they are on their own and would return most of the US military might to the US.

  2. Bacevich (and , of course Juan Cole being another) is one of the few voices of sanity in our public discourse today, and he occasionally is actually given a public forum to speak from. Unfortunately it is usually something like Bill Moyers’ show or Tom Dispatch where he is just preaching to the choir.

      • Yes, on Oct. 3, Bacevich wrote an oped in the Washington Post critical of Obama’s bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria. He made a lot of sense because Syria is a nightmare with no easy solutions. However, Obama sending 3,000 military advisors to aid the Iraqis regaining control of their country isn’t exactly “Iraq War 3.0.” It’s risky but so is withdrawing. Both moves have downsides.

        I’m not the same Jack as the initial poster.

  3. Thanks for this strong dose of sanity on a Monday morning, Gen. Bacevich! The US government, unfortunately, has a lot of inertia when it comes to changing its course and and even more so its world-view. But even more significantly, there are big powerful wealthy lobbies that keep these five assumptions from ever being questioned.

  4. Bacevich’s comments regarding Israel are very misleading when he writes “Washington’s and Tel Aviv’s purposes diverge widely. In all likelihood, they are irreconcilable.”. It is Obama’s policies since the overwhelming majority of Congress and the American people back Israel’s policies. Since it has been Abbas that has been unwilling to put his signature on a final document (in fear of his life) and who brought Hamas into his government which effectively scuttled any possibility of a peace agreement, Bacevich’s comments are not only misleading but disingenuous.

  5. Excellent observations, as usual, by Mr. Bacevich.

    Some additional points:

    (1) the secret intent of the Likud Party and other right-wing parties in Israel is ultimately to force Palestinian Arabs to vacate Gaza and the West Bank so a unified Jewish Israel can be established in those areas pursuant to annexation. The economies of both areas are being sabotaged by the Israeli government as a central strategy in achieving this goal.

    (2) Afghanistan generates 87% of the world’s opium production; the poverty created by ongoing civil war and a lack of a strong central government have fueled the entry of Afghan farmers into cultivating opium poppies; the same phenomenon has occurred in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon where opium is harvested and later trafficked via Hezbollah-controlled areas in South Lebanon – the Baathist Syrian government and its officials reap an estimated $300 million to $1 billion annually in payoffs to permit this activity.

    (3) there are Salafist extreme elements in Saudi Arabia that have supported international terror activities and the nationality makeup of the 9/11 hijackers, as duly noted by Mr. Bacevich, is prime evidence of this – yet the U.S. is in no position to impose or demand a crackdown given the State Department perception that U.S.-Saudi relations may suffer and may endanger further receipt of the 28% segment total oil consumed annually by the U.S. that is represented by Saudi oil imports.

    (4) there has been relative peace and calm in South Lebanon in the 8 years since Israel withdrew following the August of 2006 conclusion of the South Lebanon War – many Lebanese political leaders who dislike Hezbollah and its odious policies have credited its militia with creating a mutual deterrence between itself and the Israeli government that has withstood the test of time.

    Overall, Mr. Bacevich has succinctly set forth crucially important points that should be heeded by the White House and U.S. Department of State.

  6. As for “The Importance of the Persian Gulf”, I disagree. The Persian Gulf is vital to the US. The fact that the US maintains it’s hand on the spigot gives it vital influence over Asian and European nations. Alliances with Japan, South Korea, and the Phillipines are predicated on US assurances that oil from the Persian Gulf will continue to flow and that in a dispute with China, the US will always be able to threaten such oil flow. Also, US control over the Persian Gulf gives it influence over world oil prices, vitally important to the US energy giants that own large numbers of US legislators.

    As for “Israel”, I disagree. I see no evidence for the US preference for a 2-state solution. The legislative arm of the US government is strongly supportive of Netanyahu, and I suspect the only reason the executive arm still gives lip service to 2-state is to allow authoritarian US Arab allies to maintain close relations with the US. If the US executive indicated it preferred the Israeli policy of gradual take-over, the Jordanian, Gulf, and Egyptian governments would have no choice but to degrade their relations with the US or face street protests.

    As for the “The Presence of U.S. Forces”, I disagree. The only thing that gives legitimacy to the US hegemony in the Middle East is it very real demonstrated ability to interfere militarily. The US continues to demonstrate this as they seek to deny oil production capabilities from Daesh (or whatever it’s called).

    As for “Arab Allies”, I disagree. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States have traditionally been very supportive of US oil policy. While other countries in the region steadily shift to Asia-centric import policies, Gulf States solidly import from the US. For example, while the non-oil exporter Yemen imports very little from the US, the US is first or runs a close second in all the Persian Gulf Arab countries. And let me tell ya, Kuwait is a way more valuable import partner than Yemen. As for Egypt, how has Egypt been non-valuable? The Egyptian officers control the government, and guess where they all got their training? And let’s not forget the Suez canal, their part in the isolation of Hamas, and their maintenance of a demilitarized Sinai.

    As for “Terrorism”, I agree. US hegemony over the Middle East comes with a price. The US hegemony creates powerful losers, and these losers may blame the visible US presence for their status as losers. And violent attacks on US civilians (i.e. terrorism) are the easiest way to affect US policy. By giving up hegemony, the US would certainly improve the security of its citizens. However, that would also lead to a reduction in US power. It is clear that the US power structure has determined that US citizens would have to become a lot more insecure before it would be worth reducing Middle East hegemony.

    • I agree that Egypt has been useful as a U.S. ally (and Prof. Bacevich does not appear to disagree on this point) however he feels the current Egyptian military government is corrupt and therefore an unworthy recipient of massive ongoing foreign aid from the U.S.

      Corrupt foreign regimes have traditionally been the staunchest allies of the U.S. Think of Chile’s Pinochet, Nicaragua’s Somoza, Iran’s Shah and Cuba’s Batista as a few examples. Perhaps Hosni Mubarak may be the best example of all.

      As Henry Kissinger once mused on Iran’s former head of state: “He’s not much of a Shah – but he’s our Shah.”

      Should the U.S. donate foreign aid to human rights violators? Not according to the Foreign Assistance Act – but how often is that federal statute observed?

      • I don’t disagree about the morality of giving money to nasty people. But if you remove morality from the equation, well, is it wise to give money to corrupt dictators or ally with ultra-conservative absolute monarchs? In that case, it’s debatable. However, maintaining hegemony in the Middle East is important to at least some of those backing the US government. As such, the alternative, disengagement is unlikely a good approach for maintaining hegemony.

        The economies of France and the UK are smaller than those of China or Germany, but France and UK have lots more pull in the Middle East than the latter because of their levels of engagement. What do the citizens of the UK or France gain from that engagement? It’d be difficult to argue that their benefit is anything but negative. However, the powers behind those governments certainly regard Middle East engagement as important.

        The US et al, that desire influence in the Middle East could attempt to do so within some sort of moral framework (whose moral framework, though?). I’d certainly be interested in seeing what that could look like. But I suspect that a truly moral framework would require war crime trials of American officials, reparations and disengagement. And that’s no going to happen.

  7. RE:Persian Gulf. A global economy based on trade requires freedom of navigation. The US may not use oil from the region, but our trading partners do. After their economies collapse, ours will too. International partnerships would be preferably to guarantee freedom of navigation, but the right wing in America thinks that is a plot.

    • Good point jstrong, however it goes further than that. While Prof Bacevich and Juan Cole may be top people on ME relationships (and Juan Cole has been my go-to guy for a decade on that) they have no credibility on US oil production.

      Fracking is a failing scam with a depletion rate that is eye-watering. Without massive drilling programmes, there is NO productivity worth having from any of the shale plays. As we will discover as the current low prices drive out the drillers.

      Shale oil/tar sands/ tight gas and their relatives are prima facie evidence of the passing of peak oil. Their costs, financial, EROEI and environmental are horrific and the companies doing the work are losing money hand over fist at an accelerating rate, NOT a sign of a developing, growing or sustainable business.

      The West, especially the US is trapped in a place where it cannot reduce its consumption without destroying its economy, can’t pay the higher costs of tight energy without destroying the economy and can’t control what remains of conventional production without destroying the countries from which it produced.

      The future is not merely grim, it s adamantine.

  8. Of course Iraq doesn’t exist. It never has! The Ottomans knew this, and governed the area via three separate provinces. Joe Biden, bless his heart, wanted to return to this successful system, suggesting a “federal” system in Iraq, with three separate zones, not unlike the old Ottoman system. But who listens to old Joe? Our “support” of Egypt is essentially a bribe to keep them off the Israeli’s necks…cheap at the price, in my view. The Saudi princes would like to rid themselves of their Wahhabi contract, thus conferring legitimacy on the regime. This will happen, slowly, over time. As far as troops in the region, it probably made strategic sense to kick Saddam out of Kuwait, as he might have invaded Saudi next. You don’t want a chap like that controlling the majority of Mideast oil. But all the other incursions and invasions have been mistakes. I would keep the 5th fleet where it is, in Bahrain and Qatar, just in case. But, lay low. Avoid Isis, and Syria. These are local problems. Israel? We have to protect it, even if we disagree form time to time with its tactics, and strategy. This is a moral imperative, not a strategic one, and is supported by the vast majority of the American people, year after year. Better the Balfour declaration had designated southern Nevada as the homeland of the Jews. Returning to their ancient homeland, from which they were cruelly and illegally expelled, was always a preferred sentimental choice, but a strategic disaster. Oh, well. What’s done is done. A one state solution is the only answer, as Caroline Glick suggests.

  9. Whatever we’re doing in Iraq and Afghanistan has nothing to do with ‘pretenses’, Andrew! And whatever degree that administration personnel in the field and in D.C. see things as they are doesn’t have much to do with it either. Sorry to say, but the situation is just like LBJ and Vietnam; Lyndon Baines Obama has got to position himself just to protect his flank. Every move they make has to do with internal American politics. He’s long since squandered whatever credibility he began with. He’s a political operator and nothing more.

  10. Obama bombing ISIS in Kobane, Syria saved the Kurds in the city from being massacred. If that would have happened, the Kurdish riots in southeastern Turkey would have been EXTREME, especially since Serena Shim had shown evidence of Turkish authorities transporting ISIS fighters into Syria. Shim was killed in a VERY murky traffic accident right after these facts became public. A couple of days later, Turkey joined our anti-ISIS coalition.

    ISIS thrives on chaos and they almost hit the motherload in Kobane.If these ISIS killers run wild, they will become much bigger and able to create chaos in a wider area.–Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan…

    Confronting ISIS is the right strategy. Lets just hope American politicians don’t go overboard.

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