Washington in Wonderland

06/18/2015 10:41 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

Down the Iraqi Rabbit Hole (Again) 

Cross-posted with

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.

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.

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