By Andrew Bacevich
The American Conservative
“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.