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“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.

(Republished from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Afghanistan, American Military, Iraq 
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  1. Claim nr. 2 is actually true. Not only China depends on the Persian Gulf oil, but also America’s european and asian allies. The loss of political influence in the Gulf would also impact the dollar with disastrous economic impact.
    Claims 1, 3 and 4 are interconnected. Both US military presence in Iraq and the aid given to Egypt are, at least partly, motivated by a desire to protect Israel.

    • Replies: @rod1963
    , @patriot
  2. rod1963 says:
    @Pseudonymic Handle

    Let China patrol the Persian Gulf, they have the manpower and resources to do it.

    As for Europe they have a ample supply of NG and oil from Russia who more than happy to sell it to them, not to mention nuclear energy if say Germany restarted their reactors and ignored American threats and promises to provide cheap energy to them(which we cannot do).

    Who cares about Israel, they’ve been a bloody thorn in the side of the U.S. and have caused us no end of troubles. The country is as artificial as a Jarvik heart, it cannot exist without tremendous amounts of external resources being given to it. Should the U.S. ever fall on economic hard times, it is finished along with our puppet states of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.

    That said, yes our adventures in the ME have been abject failures from the get go. No more successful than Crassus’s or Julian the Apostate’s expeditions to that hellish region. The problem is our leaders and so-called beltway experts are in reality idiots who don’t think, don’t listen and certainly never even bothered to study the region or it’s inhabitants beyond listening to some 30 second executive summary from a political hack. Over the years I’ve listen to many Ivy League educated nimrods paraded around on TV to pontificate about the region. The vast majority were total idiots that I wouldn’t trust to baby sit my pet rock. Most said the same c**p, that the people were just like your secular Westerners and it was just a matter of money and training to make them like the U.S. or some such poppycock.

    It was so amusing to see them shocked at Isis rolling up our American trained Iraqi with no effort. Heck it was predictable.

    The sad thing is this claque of self-congratulating poltroons in D.C. are still in charge and setting policy and will be until the American people decide to physically throw the sorry lot into the Atlantic ocean where they belong.

    Since these idiots an

    • Replies: @Jay
  3. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The true problem is the all powerful Jewish lobby in the USA. This poisons and perverts the foreign policy the USA SHOULD adopt towards the Mideast, Persian Gulf, Iran and the Arab world. The truth is, none of these are very important to America.

  4. Controlling the Gulf gives the USA the ability to strangle China economically, if desired. As long as the USA seeks to maintain global hegemony she is hardly going to hand control of the Gulf over to China, or any other non-vassal.

    Personally I think the US should aim for a much more limited hegemony than at present – control Oceania (the oceans), but let Eurasia (Russia) and Eastasia (China) have their own continental spheres of influence on the Eurasian landmass. Basically the British Empire approach, in contrast to the current New World Order concept where the USA dominates the entire planet.

    • Replies: @David
  5. Jay says:

    I agree wholeheartedly! What we are experiencing, I fear, is the sorry politics of global empire. The end of our folly will not be good, and will in all likelihood occur sooner rather than later.

  6. The author is wrong about the importance of Persian Gulf oil to the US. First of all, it is the marginal barrel which sets world oil prices, so if you take a lot or all of Persian Gulf oil off the market, prices will sky rocket for everybody including the US despite increased oil production here. Secondly, we live in an interconnected world and all important US trading partners, China, Japan and the EU, will be hit very hard by a major increase in oil prices. There will be both an income effect and a BOP impact which will be highly negative for world trade upon which almost every nation depends.

    • Replies: @tim
  7. David says:
    @Simon in London

    You see, toxoplasmosis has infected America’s mind, has undone our wholesome love of life, and is now driving us into the gut of its next host. You are reasoning like a creature bent on self preservation.

  8. Jim says:

    Iraq never existed. It was like the imaginary country called “Yugoslavia” supposedly inhabited by an imaginary people called “Yugoslavs”.

    In the future America will become an imaginary country inhabited by various peoples who may be called “Americans” but who will be nothing of the sort

    In the future “Iraqi’s” will be as rare as “Yugoslavs”.

  9. pyrrhus says:

    Iraq never existed as a country, as opposed to several ethnicitys held together by force. It was a product of the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement in which Britain and France divided up the middle east arbitrarily in the aftermath of Lawrence of Arabia’s unfortunate uniting of the Arab tribes to drive out the Ottomans.

  10. patriot says: • Website
    @Pseudonymic Handle

    There is never a need to go to war for oil. This is because oil is the only thing they have to sell. If they don’sell oil, they starve.

    No, our 20-yr war-romp in the Middle-east was not about oil, it was to destabilize all of Israel’s enemies.

    Israel and the USA are controlled by the same group of people — they are the same country.

  11. The Grate Deign [AKA "Bro. Steve"] says:

    Many Americans — maybe even most — would gladly quit Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, and all the rest right now, today, immediately or even sooner. But you won’t advance that goal by blending your argument with a big scoop of haughty, contemptuous, anti-American shlock. See Gruber, Jonathan.

  12. @Jim

    Re ‘ imaginary country called “Yugoslavia” ‘.
    Can you claim that Russian empire never existed?
    From 1600s to 1900s citizens of that empire were called “Russians”
    by people outside the said empire. It did not matter that a lot of them
    considered themselves “mordva”, “bashkirs”, “tatars”,”kalmyks”, “evrei”, etc.
    For outside world they were “Russians”.
    Was Russian empire “imaginary country”?
    Who’s troops occupied Napoleon’s Paris?

    • Replies: @Jim
  13. David M. says:

    I agree with numbers 1, 3, and 4. On number 2, I think the Persian Gulf does have a major influence on us, for reasons elucidated by JoaoAlfaiate above. On the other hand, I figure that the oil would continue to flow in some form even without our presence. The cost might be higher, or the supply disrupted, but probably not to such an extent that it comes close to justifying our involvement at the current scale. If we really needed to be permanently involved, we could probably just limit ourselves to keeping the sea lanes clear.

    I cannot agree on number 5. We have been lulled into a sense of security by the lack of follow up attacks rivaling 9/11. But that doesn’t mean we might not in the future face an attack that eclipses 9/11 by an order of magnitude. Read about some of the things that the French bomb maker David Drugeon was working on in Syria, for instance. I hope he really is dead.

    I am not saying that I am sure that Islamic terrorism is an existential threat, but rather that I don’t see any reason to be confident that it is NOT an existential, or at least very serious, threat. It may in fact only be the relative incompetence of our enemies in the Middle East that has protected so far. In my opinion, if a state exists which is openly dedicated to the goal of slaughtering American civilians, such as ISIS, and also shows some organizational competence, by all means, let’s treat them as a serious threat and take them out. The assumption that they can be ignored and managed with internal security measures is just that – an assumption, and one that was proven wrong in the past.

    We also need to drop this idea that we have an obligation to fix any broken state where we conduct military operations. Sticking around to manage the chaos just results in resentment and further complications (for instance ISIS) not to mention feeds the perception that we can be defeated. Let’s get out of dodge after we do the job.

  14. Sam J. says:

    patriot is exactly right. The Israelis are responsible for 9-11.
    Andrew J. Bacevich is right about everything else.

    Our energy needs can be easily met. Use the present excess of oil and at the same time do a crash program on Molten Salt Reactors (MSR). MSR’s don’t blow up like high pressure water reactors. The melting point of the salt is higher than lead so even if it melts down the uranium containing salt will flow a few feet then freeze. Some models can use spent fuel and they burn most of the radioactive material so the have little waste and don’t need thousands of years for the rest to be safe. Even better some models with a little more research can be run on Thorium which is more common then lead. Unfortunately the Chinese a few years ago came to Oak Ridge, copied all our research on MSR’s, assigned hundreds of engineers to work on them and we will have to buy them from them if we don’t hurry.

    We should have a goal to multiply the energy usage of each American by a factor of 100. Energy is wealth. Modern stuff like carbon fiber is just embedded energy.

  15. Jim says:
    @Immigrant from former USSR

    “Soviet” was just as much a fake identity as “Yugoslav”.

  16. tim says:

    Why would Persian Gulf oil be ” off the market”? It is the only thing that keeps those countries afloat. No embargo should they attempt one will last three months.

  17. Secondly, we live in an interconnected world and all important US trading partners, China, Japan and the EU …

    What does China import from the U.S.?

    In what sense is China a trading partner? Because China buys Treasury bills?

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