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Retired U.S. Army colonel Andrew Bacevich on the danger of axiomatic thinking

Andrew Bacevich

An axiom is a fundamental truth, so self-evident that it requires no proof and a chain of logic built upon it will have a solid foundation. But what happens when it turns out that an elaborate worldview and life-and-death-making policies are built on half-truths or even false “axioms”?

Once something is embraced widely as an axiom, it’s extremely hard (but vitally necessary) to continue to keep one’s mind open to the possibility that a particular axiom is more truthy than true.

Blogging for the Huffington Post under the headline “Malarkey on the Potomac,” Andrew Bacevich puts five of the axioms that underlie the foreign/military policy of the United States under the microscope, and he rejects them all. Here are the five:

  • 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.

Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel who lost a son in the Iraq war, now Boston University-based scholar of international affairs and especially of war and peace, summarizes his conclusions thus:

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.

For the full work up, the post is here.

Speaking of posts, this is my last one until after the holiday. I won’t say it’s number one on my list of many blessings, but I’m thankful for MinnPost readers.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 11/26/2014 - 10:17 am.

    Happy Holidays

    Thanks Eric, for all your work. Have a happy Thanksgiving.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/26/2014 - 11:56 am.

    This particular cow has left the barn many years ago, but the main, driving force of our Middle East policy has been to provide cover for Israel and the policies of Israeli politicians. We’ve allowed the condition where regardless of how many expansions Israel makes into “facts on the ground”, we still support them.

    And the spiral of awfulness on both sides of that issue has led to bigger problems throughout the region. The region is getting more radical in response and the politics in Israel are becoming more “in your face”. Appease one side–you anger the other side, and empower further moving away from the center on both sides. Iraq had no way of attacking us. Iran has had no effective way of attacking us. Yet, our concern for Israel and preserving their right to make outrageous choices pushed us into needless wars. The same concern led us to support repressive regimes throughout the Middle East and left criminals like Mubarek and Assad in place.

    But hey, it’s beyond solving for the immediate future, so have a Happy Thanksgiving.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/26/2014 - 12:19 pm.

    Not surprising

    Having lost a son in Iraq, Bacevich is obviously depressed and angry and is lashing out in grief. But I could be wrong.

    Our interests align with Israel because the jihadists have bundled Israel and the U.S.together as their common enemy and the destruction of both as the primary reason for their existence.

    The claim that Israel has no right to exist is becoming common in left-wing veterans organizations, which is where I would expect Col. Bacevich’s views to be found.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 11/26/2014 - 01:26 pm.


      You could be wrong.

      Our interests aligning with Israel has nothing to do with jihadists. That’s a pretty modern phenomenon. Our initial political interest in Israel was a combination of anti-semitism and ill-defined exceptionalism. In other words, Israel was a convenient place to redirect the masses fleeing from Nazism because we didn’t want them here and we didn’t want to look like the bunch of jerks we were actually being because ‘Merica is above all that. In fact, historically, it would seem that our political interests in Israel, and our subsequent meddling, probably have a lot to do with the existence of America-directed Middle Eastern aggression. That’s not to say that Israel doesn’t deserve to exist. It does because it already exists, and has in some form for millenia. But, it also has to play nice with the rest of the nations that already exist, and vice versa. The US is being manipulated into bullying the Middle East for the whims of a sociopath who happens to run Israel. He’s not interested in peace, he’s interested in throwing his weight around as a favored child of a very powerful country. As an American, I don’t like my tax money being spent on spoiling such a child, let alone antagonizing scores of other nations to do so.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/26/2014 - 01:58 pm.

      Two other points

      The US has supported Israel since its founding, owing to its presence as a relatively democratic state in the Middle East. Recent events have cast some doubt on that characterization, but that has been the traditional justification even before jihadi terrorists became a threat to the US.

      The Republican Party also boasts a large faction (hello there, Representative Bachmann!) that supports Israel in order to further their eschatological fantasies. If all of the Jewish people in the world move to Israel, they will rebuild the Temple on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. This will bring about a massively destructive war, and ultimately, the rapture. Heck of a basis for a foreign policy.

      • Submitted by E Gamauf on 12/01/2014 - 08:26 am.


        One claim: “Israel has no right to exist”
        as though there is a big movement to that effect.

        Another claim: “Israel MUST exist & Jews should flock ‘home’ like geese,
        so that christians can achieve prompt rapture!”

        These don’t seem like good policies, whether they exist, or not.

  4. Submitted by jody rooney on 11/26/2014 - 02:10 pm.

    Sure let’s not believe someone who has been there

    Mr. Tester. I would also say it is highly likely that the Col. himself has been there. No one who is a career officer understands what it means to die for your country. While I am sure that he does mourn his son’s death he perhaps knew way better than civilians the path he was following.

    I would venture to guess that many retired Army officers would tell you the same thing the article says. There are also probably many active officers that think the same thing but can’t say it. From my exposure to officers they know their job well and they know what a successful use of the military is and what is not a good use for it.

    No one who has studied the history of that part of the world even briefly can ever think there will be lasting stability imposed from the outside.

  5. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/26/2014 - 10:45 pm.

    True and false

    First, I will address Mr. Bacevich’s points. Interestingly, they go sequentially from totally true to totally false.

    The presence of American force in the Middle East is indeed unnecessary and even damaging (for America, that is, of course, which is what counts) and all suggested examples of that are valid. However, military presence there and conducting a war are two completely different things. If presence is bad, it doesn’t mean that coming, winning, and leaving is bad. Just like staying long in a casino most likely will result in big losses while coming, getting a few free bucks to gamble and a free ticket to a show is a positive experience.

    The importance of the Persian Gulf has indeed diminished with increased production of oil in America (thanks, Republicans) but that happened just recently which Mr. Bacevich admits. So it may be true now but hasn’t been that way for long and it is hard to change the course quickly; but it may be prudent to change the policy shortly.

    Arab allies are indeed not allies – they are just countries with whom America has some common interests but that what should count. There are actually no allies in the world politics, just common interests but those interests may tie countries together firmer than anything else. And the interests America, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia share are strong: defeat Iran and stop advancement of terrorism (which I will get to later). So recalling how many 9/11 highjackers were from Saudi Arabia is irrelevant – those people were born there but were not supported by the government (people who cut the heads of Americans recently were born in Europe – should we bomb London?). Equally unreasonable is mentioning Egyptian military coup – why should we care if Muslim Brotherhood, that governed it before, was America’s sworn enemy?

    Dealing with Israel has become a rallying cry for… actually both extreme left and extreme right. Everyone remembers that one of the most ardent critics of Israel is Pat Buchanan but if you read left-wing blogs, you will find almost exactly the same arguments. Even here liberals gladly agree with Israel bashing. Interestingly, Mr. Bacevich does not say what actions Israel takes that are contrary to American interests. Is it refusal to commit suicide by agreeing to all Palestinian demands? Of course, in real life it the world that enables terrorism by discussing granting Palestinian state the next day after they kill four rabbis in a synagogue or giving money to Gaza the third time. So in this case, the false axiom is actually the need to push for an agreement and two state solution, not support for Israel.

    And finally, terrorism. True, eliminating terrorism may be impossible just like it is impossible to eliminate all crime. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t fight crime because if we stop doing it, we will have more of that. If we stop fighting terrorism, we will have more of that, much more. If terrorism was dealt swiftly from the very beginning, in the ’70, we would not have had that problem by now. We didn’t respond to Beirut bombing and we got Hezbollah. We did not respond to our embassy takeover in 1979, and we have Iran now. We didn’t fight al Qaeda, and we got 9/11 (so 9/11 on its own tells us that this is not a false axiom). We stopped fighting terrorism in Iraq and we got ISIS. Terrorism cannot win militarily, that is true, but there are other ways it can win. 9/11 had a huge effect on economy and if there were another terrorist act shortly thereafter, America would have been in big trouble. And I am not even talking about possibility of a WMD terrorist act…So eliminating terrorism or just fighting it to contain, the actions should be the same meaning that terminology is irrelevant in this case.

    A few more points:
    Mr. Rovick, I wonder how concern for Israel forced Obama to leave Assad in power?
    Mr. Holbrook, America did not support Israel from the very beginning – it is a very common misconception but read the history books. In fact, President Truman recognized Israel against advice of the State Department and, until 1967, America did not really do anything for Israel.
    Ms. Kahler, how do you like your money going to Hamas (yes, America gives to Abbas and he pays civil servants in Gaza who serve Hamas)?

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/28/2014 - 01:19 pm.

      Assad has been in power since 1970, long before Obama was a twinkle in any conservative’s eye, so it’s not alla bout Obama.

      After the war against Israel, the government of Syria has made itself relevant and a player in regional politics by not attacking Israel again.

      As was stated explicitly in May 2011:


      “If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel,” he said in an interview Monday that lasted more than three hours. “No way, and nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime.”

      Asked if it was a warning or a threat, Mr. Makhlouf demurred. “I didn’t say war,” he said. “What I’m saying is don’t let us suffer, don’t put a lot of pressure on the president, don’t push Syria to do anything it is not happy to do.”

      His words cast into the starkest terms a sentiment the government has sought to cultivate — us or chaos — and it underlined the tactics of a ruling elite that has manipulated the ups and downs of a tumultuous region to sustain an overriding goal: its own survival.

      (end quote)

      And besides, Syria has been useful to the US in the past:

      …The evidence is overwhelming: in the months and years after 9/11, the US collaborated closely with Syria, which became an ally in the war on terror and a frequent destination for victims of extraordinary rendition. Syrian torturers worked hand in hand with US interrogators…..

      ….Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a Syrian-born German citizen and alleged al-Qaida recruiter, was arrested in Morocco in October 2001 and rendered by the CIA to Syria, where he was held incommunicado in the notorious Far’Falastin detention centre. “US officials in Damascus submit written questions to the Syrians, who relay Zammar’s answers back,” reported Time magazine in July 2002. “State department officials like the arrangement because it insulates the US government from any torture the Syrians may be applying to Zammar.”….

      …..According to the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, who has spent much of the past decade investigating what she calls “the dark side” of the war on terror, Syria was one of the “most common” destinations for rendered suspects. Or, in the chilling words of former CIA agent Robert Baer, in 2004: “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria.”…

      ….Following 13 days of questioning, the US authorities, suspecting Arar of ties to al-Qaida based on flawed Canadian police intelligence, “rendered” him not to Canada, where he lived, but to his native Syria, from where his family had fled 15 years earlier.

      For the next 10 months, he was detained without charge in a three-foot by six-foot Syrian prison cell where, according to the findings of an official Canadian commission of inquiry, he was tortured. Arar says he was punched, kicked and whipped with an electrical cable during 18-hour interrogation sessions. … Arar claims his Syrian torturers were supplied with specific questions by the US government; he was asked the exact same questions in Damascus he had been asked in New York…

      (end quote}

    • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 11/29/2014 - 06:42 am.

      Factually Incorrect Statements

      “Mr. Bacevich does not say what actions Israel takes that are contrary to American interests.” – Do the word settlements and apartheid come to mind Mr Gutman ?

      “Is it refusal to commit suicide by agreeing to all Palestinian demands?” – You mean like stop stealing their land ?

      “Of course, in real life it the world that enables terrorism by discussing granting Palestinian state the next day after they kill four rabbis in a synagogue or giving money to Gaza the third time. ” – Keep moving the goal posts Mr Gutman and pretend that Israel is all ready to grant a Palestinian state.

      “So in this case, the false axiom is actually the need to push for an agreement and two state solution, not support for Israel. ” – Our continuing support for this kind of conduct hurts our standing in the world. You may be an Israel firster, but the rest of us would like to see the Arab world move towards moderation on all sides.

      “We didn’t respond to Beirut bombing and we got Hezbollah.” – Umm, no. Invading other countries gave the world Hezbollah.

      “We did not respond to our embassy takeover in 1979, and we have Iran now.” – Umm,no. Propping up dictatorships gave us fundamentalist Iran.

      “We didn’t fight al Qaeda, and we got 9/11” – Umm, no. Support for corrupt and brutal dictatorships gave us 9/11.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/29/2014 - 11:04 am.

      Not exactly

      The history books have Presidents Wilson, Harding, and Coolidge going on record as supporting the Balfour Declaration. The books also say the State Department’s attitude was a little more nuanced than you make it sound.

      As far as monetary aid, up through the early 70s, Israel was the single largest recipient of US aid after the Second World War.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/27/2014 - 10:11 am.

    Hate to say but…

    Progressive like Noam Chomsky and Micheal Albert etc. made this observation back in the 70s (excluding the terrorism component). And yes, the Colonel is absolution correct. However such “axioms” were always artificial constructs servicing elite economic interests rather than “national” interests.

    Furthermore, I’d point out that it was Jimmy Carter’s administration that actually cemented this Middle East regime by declaring that regions oil reserves are a vital “strategic” interest that we will defend militarily if need be.

    As for terrorism, it simply does not present any existential threat to the US. Nor can terrorist crash our economy (except maybe with some kind of cyber attack that kill our currency or something). Republican economic policies based on Chicago School magical thinking and Ayn Randian idiocy crashed our economy. The fact that democrats like Clinton enacted some of those policies just illustrates how pervasive magical thinking became during the Great Stupid (the decades after Viet Nam)

  7. Submitted by E Gamauf on 11/28/2014 - 05:10 am.

    Isn’t it amazing – poster experts

    I haven’t read the original article yet, however, the idea that there is “axiomatic thinking” in these assumptions is an interesting idea.

    It is astounded that it is being evaluated, both pro & con – based upon whether its in line with a posters’s thinking — as though the comments are more essential than the expertise of the colonel.

    Of course, opinion pieces aren’t meant to be written at length in the reactions posted in these reader comments & I doubt very many people read the long ones.

    The policy decisions under discussion are more complicated and farther-ranging than pure advocacy.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/28/2014 - 12:15 pm.


      “It is astounded that it is being evaluated, both pro & con – based upon whether its in line with a posters’s thinking — as though the comments are more essential than the expertise of the colonel.”

      Yes, all of our greatest policies observations from Colonels. These are actually mundane observations.

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