When it comes to Iraq, or the rest of the Middle East for that matter, America is operating on a number of assumptions rooted in fantasy. These false assumptions ensure that America will keep getting itself trapped in quagmire.
Andrew Bacevich, former US Army commander turned academic, knows a good deal about Iraq. The Columbia professor commanded US troops in Operation Desert Storm and his son was lost to an IED during Operation Enduring Freedom.
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.
…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 fantasize 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.
As for the stabilizing effect of US troops, Bacevich points out that this has seldom occurred. To the contrary, it has often destabilized countries where American troops have been based.
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?
The Middle East is no longer strategically vital to the United States. The energy dependence the US once had on the ME has been superceded by events.
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.
As for America’s supposed Arab allies:
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.
Bacevich says it’s long past time that the United States had a realistic assessment of its supposed ally, Israel:
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.
The quest to defeat terrorism is Quixotic at best:
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.”
…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.
What would be the scariest thing Washington could do to its Middle East client rulers? Leave. Tell them they’re on their own, Israel included. Just stop supporting them. No troops, no cash, no weapons unless they serve America’s interests. Eventually America must tire of being bled out by enemies and supposed friends alike in the Middle East.
And if Washington is going to persist and continues to implement a foreign policy based on fantasies, why should Canada enroll in America’s Foreign Legion? With our belief-based government that persistently follows gut instinct instead of fact, appearance over substance, we’re highly susceptible when America goes bonkers.