Andrew Bacevich: Washington in Wonderland, Down the Iraq Rabbit Hole (Again)

By Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is writing a military history of America’s War for the Greater Middle East. His most recent book is Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.Originally published at TomDispatch

There is a peculiar form of insanity in which a veneer of rationality distracts attention from the madness lurking just beneath the surface. When Alice dove down her rabbit hole to enter a place where smirking cats offered directions, ill-mannered caterpillars dispensed advice, and Mock Turtles constituted the principal ingredient in Mock Turtle soup, she experienced something of the sort.

Yet, as the old adage goes, truth can be even stranger than fiction. For a real-life illustration of this phenomenon, one need look no further than Washington and its approach to national security policy. Viewed up close, it all seems to hang together. Peer out of the rabbit hole and the sheer lunacy quickly becomes apparent.

Consider this recent headline: “U.S. to Ship 2,000 Anti-Tank Missiles To Iraq To Help Fight ISIS.” The accompanying article describes a Pentagon initiative to reinforce Iraq’s battered army with a rush order of AT-4s. A souped-up version of the old bazooka, the AT-4 is designed to punch holes through armored vehicles.

Taken on its own terms, the decision makes considerable sense. Iraqi forces need something to counter a fearsome new tactic of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS): suicide bombers mounted in heavily armored wheeled vehicles. Improved antitank capabilities certainly could help Iraqi troops take out such bombers before they reach their intended targets. The logic is airtight. The sooner these weapons get into the hands of Iraqi personnel, the better for them — and so the better for us.

As it turns out, however, the vehicle of choice for ISIS suicide bombers these days is the up-armored Humvee. In June 2014, when the Iraqi Army abandoned the country’s second largest city, Mosul, ISIS acquired 2,300 made-in-the-U.S.A. Humvees. Since then, it’s captured even more of them.

As U.S. forces were themselves withdrawing from Iraq in 2011, they bequeathed a huge fleet of Humvees to the “new” Iraqi army it had built to the tune of $25 billion. Again, the logic of doing so was impeccable: Iraqi troops needed equipment; shipping used Humvees back to the U.S. was going to cost more than they were worth. Better to give them to those who could put them to good use.  Who could quarrel with that?

Before they handed over the used equipment, U.S. troops had spent years trying to pacify Iraq, where order had pretty much collapsed after the invasion of 2003. American troops in Iraq had plenty of tanks and other heavy equipment, but once the country fell into insurgency and civil war, patrolling Iraqi cities required something akin to a hopped-up cop car. The readily available Humvee filled the bill.  When it turned out that troops driving around in what was essentially an oversized jeep were vulnerable to sniper fire and roadside bombs, “hardening” those vehicles to protect the occupants became a no-brainer — as even Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld eventually recognized.

At each step along the way, the decisions made possessed a certain obvious logic.  It’s only when you get to the end — giving Iraqis American-made weapons to destroy specially hardened American-made military vehicles previously provided to those same Iraqis — that the strangely circular and seriously cuckoo Alice-in-Wonderland nature of the entire enterprise becomes apparent.

AT-4s blowing up those Humvees — with fingers crossed that the anti-tank weapons don’t also fall into the hands of ISIS militants — illustrates in microcosm the larger madness of Washington’s policies concealed by the superficial logic of each immediate situation.

The Promotion of Policies That Have Manifestly Failed

Let me provide a firsthand illustration.  A week ago, I appeared on a network television news program to discuss American policy in Iraq and in particular the challenges posed by ISIS.  The other guests were former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Leon Panetta, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and current CEO of a Washington think tank Michelle Flournoy, and retired four-star general Anthony Zinni who had once headed up United States Central Command.

Washington is a city in which whatever happens within the current news cycle trumps all other considerations, whether in the immediate or distant past.  So the moderator launched the discussion by asking the panelists to comment on President Obama’s decision, announced earlier that very day, to plus-up the 3,000-strong train-and-equip mission to Iraq with an additional 450 American soldiers, the latest ratcheting up of ongoing U.S. efforts to deal with ISIS.

Panetta spoke first and professed wholehearted approval of the initiative.  “Well, there’s no question that I think the president’s taken the right step in adding these trainers and advisers.”  More such steps — funneling arms to Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis and deploying U.S. Special Operations Forces to hunt down terrorists — were “going to be necessary in order to be able to achieve the mission that we have embarked on.”  That mission was of critical importance.  Unless defeated, ISIS would convert Iraq into “a base [for] attacking our country and attacking our homeland.”

Flournoy expressed a similar opinion.  She called the decision to send additional trainers “a good move and a smart move,” although she, too, hoped that it was only the “first step in a broader series” of escalatory actions.  If anything, her view of ISIS was more dire than that of her former Pentagon boss.  She called it “the new jihad — violent jihadist vanguard in the Middle East and globally.”  Unless stopped, ISIS was likely to become “a global network” with “transnational objectives,” while its “thousands of foreign fighters” from the West and Gulf states were eventually going to “return and be looking to carry out jihad in their home countries.”

General Zinni begged to differ — not on the nature of the danger confronting Washington, but on what to do about it.  He described the present policy as “almost déjà vu,” a throwback “to Vietnam before we committed the ground forces.  We dribble in more and more advisers and support.”

“We’re not fully committed to this fight,” the general complained.  “We use terms like destroy.  I can tell you, you could put ground forces on the ground now and we can destroy ISIS.”  Zinni proposed doing just that.  No more shilly-shallying.  The template for action was readily at hand.  “The last victory, clear victory that we had was in the first Gulf War,” he said.  And what were the keys to success then?  “We used overwhelming force.  We ended it quickly. We went to the U.N. and got a resolution. We built a coalition.  And that ought to be a model we ought to look at.”  In short, go big, go hard, go home.

Panetta disagreed.  He had a different template in mind.  The Iraq War of 2003-2011 had clearly shown that “we know how to do this, and we know how to win at doing this.”  The real key was to allow America’s generals a free hand to do what needed to be done.  “[A]ll we really do need to do is to be able to give our military commanders the flexibility to design not only the strategy to degrade ISIS, but the larger strategy we need in order to defeat ISIS.”  Unleashing the likes of Delta Force or SEAL Team 6 with some missile-firing drones thrown in for good measure was likely to suffice.

For her part, Flournoy thought the real problem was “making sure that there is Iraqi capacity to hold the territory, secure it long-term, so that ISIS doesn’t come back again.  And that involves the larger political compromises” — the ones the Iraqis themselves needed to make.  At the end of the day, the solution was an Iraqi army willing and able to fight and an Iraqi government willing and able to govern effectively.  On that score, there was much work to be done.

Panetta then pointed out that none of this was in the cards unless the United States stepped up to meet the challenge.  “[I]f the United States doesn’t provide leadership in these crises, nobody else will.”  That much was patently obvious.  Other countries and the Iraqis themselves might pitch in, “but we have to provide that leadership.  We can’t just stand on the sidelines wringing our hands.  I mean… ask the people of Paris what happened there with ISIS.  Ask the people in Brussels what happened there with ISIS.  What happened in Toronto? What’s happened in this country as a result of the threat from ISIS?”

Ultimately, everything turned on the willingness of America to bring order and stability out of chaos and confusion.  Only the United States possessed the necessary combination of wisdom, competence, and strength.  Here was a proposition to which Flournoy and Zinni readily assented.

With Alice in Washington

To participate in an exchange with these pillars of the Washington establishment was immensely instructive.  Only nominally did their comments qualify as a debate.  Despite superficial differences, the discussion was actually an exercise in affirming the theology of American national security — those essential matters of faith that define continuities of policy in Washington, whatever administration is in power.

In that regard, apparent disagreement on specifics masked a deeper consensus consisting of three elements:

* That ISIS represents something akin to an existential threat to the United States, the latest in a long line going back to the totalitarian ideologies of the last century; fascism and communism may be gone, but danger is ever present.

* That if the United States doesn’t claim ownership of the problem of Iraq, the prospects of “solving” it are nil; action or inaction by Washington alone, that is, determines the fate of the planet.

* That the exercise of leadership implies, and indeed requires, employing armed might; without a willingness to loose military power, global leadership is inconceivable.

In a fundamental respect, the purpose of the national security establishment, including the establishment media, is to shield that tripartite consensus from critical examination.  This requires narrowing the aperture of analysis so as to exclude anything apart from the here-and-now.  The discussion in which I participated provided a vehicle for doing just that.  It was an exercise aimed at fostering collective amnesia.

So what the former secretary of defense, think tank CEO, and retired general chose not to say in fretting about ISIS is as revealing as what they did say.  Here are some of the things they chose to overlook:

* ISIS would not exist were it not for the folly of the United States in invading — and breaking — Iraq in the first place; we created the vacuum that ISIS is now attempting to fill.

* U.S. military efforts to pacify occupied Iraq from 2003 to 2011 succeeded only in creating a decent interval for the United States to withdraw without having to admit to outright defeat; in no sense did “our” Iraq War end in anything remotely approximating victory, despite the already forgotten loss of thousands of American lives and the expenditure of trillions of dollars.

* For more than a decade and at very considerable expense, the United States has been attempting to create an Iraqi government that governs and an Iraqi army that fights; the results of those efforts speak for themselves: they have failed abysmally.

Now, these are facts.  Acknowledging them might suggest a further conclusion: that anyone proposing ways for Washington to put things right in Iraq ought to display a certain sense of humility.  The implications of those facts — behind which lies a policy failure of epic proportions — might even provide the basis for an interesting discussion on national television.  But that would assume a willingness to engage in serious self-reflection.  This, the culture of Washington does not encourage, especially on matters related to basic national security policy. 

My own contribution to the televised debate was modest and ineffectual.  Toward the end, the moderator offered me a chance to redeem myself.  What, she asked, did I think about Panetta’s tribute to the indispensability of American leadership?

A fat pitch that I should have hit it out of the park.  Instead, I fouled it off.  What I should have said was this: leadership ought to mean something other than simply repeating and compounding past mistakes.  It should require more than clinging to policies that have manifestly failed.  To remain willfully blind to those failures is not leadership, it’s madness.

Not that it would have mattered if I had. When it comes to Iraq, we’re already halfway back down Alice’s rabbit hole.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. digi_owl

    The big F fascism of the 1930s may be “gone”, but its basic tenets live on.

    hell, i’ll claim right here and now that USA is potentially a single leadership change away from going overtly fascist.

    And its foreign policy is backing many potential fascists as well.

    1. participant-observer-observed

      “single leadership change away”

      No change needed: dear leader fast track defender and exporter of “American corporate interests” [which latter now write the laws elected reps used to write] is now an un-elected entity and knows no term limits.

      Your day has arrived, friend.

    2. NotTimothyGeithner

      *American style fascism. Spain and Italy still had a royal family under Franco and Mussilini, and in much the same way, the U.S. will always have elections. The national pride aspects will still reflect the host country at a level.

      Take the “Pussy Riot” outrage. Yes, we ignore our pals in Riyadh, but DC rallied to the side of a group that trespassed and damaged a state museum. Freedom of speech was the rallying cry, and of course, “Pussy Riot” disappeared from the National discussion when the elites saw the actual video. The propaganda has to focus around American values.

      There isn’t a full blown aspect to fascism.

      1. Gio Bruno

        …or that Russian culture (Orthodox Church) is deeply embedded in its relatively conservative population. (Most Russians were outraged at the desecration.) That’s why Putin came down hard on the P-Riot. (Just like US courts come down hard on Terrists.)

        I have Russian emigre’ friends (Millienials) who think P-Riot is off the deep end.

        1. Otter

          Russians were outraged. But, came down hard?

          Pussy Rioters served less time than US Terrists serve waiting to be dismissed without charge.

  2. Nick

    On the other hand…. The Kurds (purported good guys – secular, progressive, inclusive, oil rich) are growing stronger every day. ISIS continues weakening the Assad regime (which is still supported by Russia and Iran at great cost) – but now controls little more than a cluster of towns near the coast and could lose Damascus altogether in the coming months. Iran is a wild card, do they double-down in Iraq/Syria, or make a nuclear deal to reap billions on oil exports?

    Regardless, US anti-ISIS operations in Iraq/Syria amount to around $30 million a day, a tiny fraction of the several hundred million daily cost of the decade long occupation of Iraq. Until a united Iraqi political structure solidifies, the US is well positioned to continue grinding away at the ISIS threat for the foreseeable future.

    Occupation was a $2 trillion disaster…but the long game is stability and access to $20-30 trillion in oil, gas, and development. Obama has been consistent in his views that American ‘ownership’ of the Iraqi problem is a red-herring. Iraqis must rule themselves, and nothing forces divisive political groups together faster than the prospect of mutual annihilation. This will entail hard choices by all sides, border may be redrawn. However, Obama could yet pull a rabbit out of this hat.

    1. James Levy

      Couple of problems: 1) what evidence do you have that Iraq can be salvaged as a unified state? 2) why, given the reality of global climate change, would we ever want that oil and gas extracted? 3) please provide a map of this shrunken territory you claim is all that ISIS controls today–have they lost Ramadi yet? 4) ISIS is a creature of the Saudis and the Turks–how do they fit in all this? 5) Why are the Israelis so conspicuously leaving ISIS alone while continuing intermittent attacks against the duly constituted government of Syria?

      1. Nick

        Well, no one probably knows what’s going to happen in Iraq, so many pieces are in play. What is known, Assad is growing weaker, Syria is disintegrating, huge parts of Iraq are lawless without governance. So much depends on a nuclear deal with Iran, political consensus among Iraqi political groups ect… the next 6 months will point to which direction things will move.

        1. lolcar

          One more Friedman Unit, huh. That’ll be about 19 FUs since we first heard that the next six months would be critical.

          1. NotTimothyGeithner

            I checked. There have been 18 Friedman units since the term was used, so I guess this is the 19th. Friedman has been using “six month” intervals since November 03.

            1. lolcar

              You’re right. The term was coined in ’06 but it was ’03 that Friedman actually first said the next six months were critical and it makes more sense to count from there. So 11 and a half years or 23 FUs.

      2. sufferinsuccotash

        Your second point is the real kicker. The overriding US (and Western) policy regarding the Middle East should be: Keep The Fossil Fuels In The Ground.

    2. DJG

      Has anyone yet been able to substantiate the gazillions that Iran is supposedly spending on a campaign to destabilize Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq? {Hey, and why not throw in destabilizing Greece, too?}

      How long have you been on the White House staff?

    3. sleepy

      The US supports various “moderate” jihadi groups in Syria fighting against the Syrian government which, of course, is the main opponent of ISIS in Syria.

      How on earth does wearing down the Syrian government and effectively helping ISIS in Syria translate to “grinding down” ISIS in Iraq? Seems to me, if defeating ISIS is the main goal, supporting Syria would be the response.

      I’m not sure at all that Russia and Iran are anywhere close to giving up on Syria either, particularly Russia with its Syrian naval base.

    4. Pepsi

      There are several problems with your information.
      1. The kurds are not a monolith. There is the secular progressive marxist YPG in Syria, and then the Barzani one clan state of Kurdistan. The YPG have been baring the brunt of the fighting against daaesh.

      2. The islamist advances in syria only come because of the supply of thousands of anti tank weapons from the us and saudi. Along with air cover and artillery screens on the israeli border and turkish border. If this support would cut off, they would again fail.

      3. The us wrote the iraqi constitution to split it into ethnic statelets. The us set up the iraqi military to be ineffectual. Everything here is going according to plan.

      The neocon reapproachment with saudi arabia was the first part of this sunni islamist attack on every other faith of the native people of the me. A human presence in washington could end this very quickly.

  3. Doug

    There are at least two additional elements to the deeper consensus being affirmed by the speakers. In addition to (1) ISIS is existential threat to US; (2) US must ‘own’ the problem; and, (3) ‘ownership/leadership’ must build around military might is this pair:

    A. Profits accruing to private sector military contractors are both sacrosanct and justified in light of free market superiority; and,

    B. The government/military/political establishment (e.g. these three speakers) cannot afford democratic practices such as critical thinking and debates across all three of Hallin’s spheres (instead of just conventional wisdom) because that would undermine — be ‘inefficient’ – respecting the other elements of this consensus.

  4. Carla

    I would love to know what Andrew Bacevitch thinks of Michael Glennon’s little book “National Security and Double Government.”

  5. diptherio

    Might I suggest that you mess around with the graphic a bit? Seems like every time you cross post from Tom Dispatch recently you end up with a huge book ad right in the middle of the text. Float that thing to the right and scale it down a tad, is what I’d do.

  6. Mbuna

    I would say that defense industry sales and profits trump everything else- in a corporatocracy nothing else could be as important. If destroying the world means record profits, well then it is their fiduciary duty to do so.

    1. Raj

      I would put oil/gas right beside the defense industry in this case…the U.S. isn’t pushing all of its chips into the overthrow of the Assad regime for nothing…Israel (and its U.S.-based partner, Noble Energy) needs to get the natural gas from the Levantine Basin to the Europe market somehow, and the ideal solution is to construct a pipeline across Syria…but that can’t happen until Assad is out and a “friendly” regime is put in place.

  7. Larry Headlund

    If only Iraq had strong leadership that could maintain order; leadership hostile both to Islamic fundamentalism and to Iran.

    1. short memory

      I was under the impression that Saddam Hussein fit that bill rather nicely. Whatever happened to him?

  8. ambrit

    We all know that this is not going to end well for the Middle East, and for America.
    A hidden point: The American Imperial system is creating it’s own enemies as it goes. When will it create an enemy who is a serious threat, say, someone who can shut down or take over The Kingdom and it’s resources? There’s the real danger. We are forcing an evolution of Islamist militancy. Each time, the survivors of the current battle get more efficient.

  9. MikeNY

    Andrew Bacevich for President, or Czar, or at least Secretary of Defense.

    Right now, the lunatics in DC are running the asylum.

  10. RUKidding

    Good post with good info. All I can say is: eh? what else is new? Sending tanks to Iraq, are we now (again)? CHA CHING!!!!! What’s good for the MIC is good for the crooks, thieves and liars in Washington DC.

    Why if ISIS didn’t exist, it’s almost like the CIA would have to recruit, arm, train and fund a similar group. Oh wait….

    1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

      I try very hard not to be more cynical than others on NC, debating the fine points of foreign policy or banking reform or election strategy, but the fact-checker in my head keeps getting in the way. That checker tells me that the right answer for each of those boils down to one thing: filthy lucre.
      We do what we do, whether it is in Iraq or Wall St or Iowa because of one thing: there are a few billionaires who want another zero on their bank balances, and they could care less whether people starve or die or if the planet as a whole just chokes itself to death as a result.
      I should stop posting, it’s not as though I want to see the the debates stop, and showing up and farting at the dinner party is such bad form. But I guess I hope people will ponder whether we really just have a money problem, and all of our other problems devolve from it.

  11. Steve

    Maybe the best thing at this point is to tacitly acknowledge that Iran is best positioned to deal with ISIS and let them do it. This also entails accepting the reality of Iran’s growing hegemony in the region. And that this is the price of having acted like such bad asses in taking out Saddam, only to get our pants pulled down in the aftermath.

  12. Cebepe

    Colonel, now Professsor, Andrew Bacevich again points to D.C.’s collective security delusions, using a recent TV discussion about ISIS with three D.C. insiders. Leon Panetta (former Defense Secretary and CIA Director) expresses the insanity most clearly: “Our national security interests are involved; otherwise, why would we be over there in the first place?” This is inverted logic, which Bacevich rightly calls “madness lurking just beneath the surface.” Panetta also most clearly expresses (3 times, every time he opens his mouth) the D.C. doctrine of the “threat to our homeland,” which is now ISIS in the Middle East, replacing al-Qaida. Bacevich says: “Peer out of the rabbit hole and the sheer lunacy quickly becomes apparent.” Michele Flournoy reinforces Panetta by confirming that ISIS “ is the new jihad.” General Zinni reinforces the message by saying a stable Middle East is in “our national interest,” and that trouble there can quickly “metastasize.” Bacevich cannot do much with these three “smirking cats, ill-mannered caterpillars, and Mock Turtles” (though he does not identify which is which!), and he evidently was dissatisfied with his own performance, hence his subsequent excellent article republished here. Yet I wish Bacevich would focus on the main items of lunatic thinking, which is that ISIS is a “threat to the U.S. homeland,” and that our merely being over there is proof that our national security interests are involved. We do not hear the leaders of European nations talking like this, though they are closer to the Middle East. We do not hear the Chinese or the Indians talking like this, though they are heavily reliant of buying oil in world markets. We do not hear anyone else talking like this, and yet the United States is the safest country in the world, geographically, yet it constantly talks as if it faces imminent threat.

    1. bh2

      The principle threat to the nation is our disasterous policy of “internationalism”, which inevitably puts us into the position of intervention — pouring blood and treasure into doubtful causes.

      The Chinese have meanwhile steadily grown their economic and political influence around the world without ever firing a single shot. Unlike us, they will trade with any country that trades in peace with them.

      Which strategy does it seem more likely will win in the long term?

  13. Chauncey Gardiner

    Appreciated Bacevich’s observation of the theological nature of the consensus in DC about the three primary elements that guide U.S. policy toward what is termed “our national security”. Given repeated policy failures at enormous cost over a time period that now spans decades, each and every one of these three ideological elements should be open to public question and change IMO.

  14. mclaren

    Washington’s national security bureaucracy increasingly resembles a doomsday cult. The Aum Shinrikyo cult and D.C.’s beltway foreign policy pundits…twins separated at birth…?

    Instead of sarin gas in the subway, AT4s to Iraq. Rinse, wash, repeat…

Comments are closed.