In America’s War for the Greater Middle East, Andrew J. Bacevich, one of our most eloquent and incisive students of American foreign policy, military history, and the often-vexed nexus between the two, makes a startling claim: For the last 36 years, the United States has been engaged in an ill-advised, counterproductive struggle to shape the destiny of the Muslim world—not only in the Middle East proper, but in Southwest Asia, North and East Africa, and the Balkans as well.
Like Vietnam, this has been an undeclared war that started off small, and escalated in fits and starts into a major conflict. Like Vietnam, it has been poorly understood by policymakers, senior military officers, and the American public.
And like Vietnam, it is a doomed undertaking, with tragic implications.
Since the early ’80s, in “almost imperceptible increments,” the American military’s center of gravity has shifted from the plains of Europe, where it was deployed to fend off a Soviet attack against Western Europe, to the Middle East. After the 9/11 attacks, the conflict expanded exponentially, driven by invidious delusions about the efficacy of American military power, and a hubristic belief that the world’s only “indispensable nation” has both the right and the obligation to remake the region over in our own image.
Trouble is, millions of people in the Islamic world have rejected out of hand Western multiculturalism and the values of democracy and rule of law we see as universal, and seek to impose on them. They have come to see the United States not as an ally seeking to help them liberate themselves from repressive strongmen, economic dysfunction, and chronic instability, but as an imperialist purveyor of wantonness and materialism, bent on world hegemony.
Despite having been heavily engaged in the region’s geopolitics for 35 years, we remain deplorably ignorant of the region’s peoples and cultures, and continue to pursue political policies and military strategies in the region that exacerbate rather than diminish the region’s myriad difficulties. And we squander precious American lives and resources that should be devoted to far more urgent concerns here at home.
Bacevich’s book, in addition to providing a thought-provoking and penetrating account of the evolution of an ultimately futile conflict, is also a passionate plea to a self-absorbed American public to awake from their slumber, reflect seriously on what their leaders are doing in their name in the Islamic world, and force them to bring an end to the project.
The author charts the beginning of this war to the enunciation of the Carter Doctrine in January 1980. The Russians had just invaded Afghanistan. Fears that they had designs on the Persian Gulf, coupled with a recognition on the part of our most peace-loving post-war president that he was perceived as weak in defending American interests abroad, led Carter to declare that any effort to seize the oil fields of the Gulf would be perceived as an assault on a vital interest of the United States, and “will be repelled by any means necessary, including the use of force.”
Implementing the Carter Doctrine “implied the conversion of the Persian Gulf into an informal American protectorate. Defending the region meant policing it… While keeping the Soviets out, the United States would assume responsibility for enforcing good behavior of anyone inclined to make mischief. How else could the U.S. safeguard the uninterrupted flow of oil” upon which the American way of life was dependent?
Our chief means of managing the protectorate hasn’t been through the use of soft power or imaginative diplomacy, but through military interventions, ranging from retaliatory air strikes and commando raids, to extended deployments in hell holes like Somalia and Lebanon, to the two agonizing and inconclusive wars we have been fighting for more than a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Yet as Bacevich’s astute, often wry analysis of the fallout from more than a dozen military deployments over 35 years shows, these interventions have almost invariably aggravated problems and animosities, spurring further violence rather than bringing about even temporary peace and stability. And they have added fuel to anti-American fires—fires which glow with far greater intensity now than they did back when Carter was president.
The American war for the Middle East began modestly and without a clearly enunciated overarching strategy. There was the CIA-led program to aid the Afghan rebels against the Soviets; a series of strikes against Moammar Qaddafi, “an erratic megalomaniacal buffoon, less a serious menace than a perennial pain in the behind,” and a disastrous and strategically lame misstep into the Lebanese Civil War in 1982.
In Lebanon, due to a peculiar blend of political and strategic obtuseness at the highest reaches of the Reagan administration, a battalion of Marines sent in to project “presence” and preserve peace soon came to be perceived by Muslim militias—Hezbollah prominent among them—as an active participant. Marine patrols began taking fire, and their base became an object of regular artillery barrages. Finally, on October 23, 1983, a truck bomb driven by a Hezbollah terrorist blew up the Marine barracks, killing 241 Americans. Soon thereafter, Reagan withdrew American forces in defeat. Bacevich offers this scathing critique:
The sad fact is that those who sent the Marines into Lebanon had no real idea what they were doing or what they were getting into. For the most part, the resulting failure there served to broadcast American ignorance, ineptitude, and lack of staying power. As for… expectations of dramatizing America’s role as peacemaker, enhancing U.S. credibility in Arab eyes, and demonstrating a capacity to police the region: none of it happened… Hezbollah soon emerged to form another sates-within a state. Its leaders could reasonably claim to have inflicted a decisive defeat on the world’s preeminent superpower, a conclusion not lost on other opponents of the United States.
A core theme of this compelling and sobering account is that even when our interventions have appeared to be successful and been widely celebrated as such by mainstream media and military experts, as in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, the lightning-fast defeat of the Taliban in the opening campaign of the Afghanistan War, and the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, they have had dire, unforeseen consequences down the road a bit.
The “stunning” victory against Saddam in 1991 soon proved nothing of the sort, as Saddam brutally crushed a Kurdish uprising in the north and a Shiite one in the South, forcing the United States to establish no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq and fight a quasi-war for more than a decade. After the “defeat” of the Taliban in Afghanistan in early 2002, “a protracted war ensued, waged in a country where the United States was without vital interests, against an adversary that, however repellant, did not directly threaten U.S. security.”
In Iraq in 2005, even as the Bush administration made claims that the insurgency was in its “last throes,” it was in fact gaining in strength and sophistication:
Two years after the fall of Baghdad, the armed resistance consisted of Sunni “rejectionists” unhappy with the prospect of the Shia majority exercising political power, Shia militias unhappy with prolonged military occupation, and the so-called foreign fighters who were anything but unhappy. Seizing upon the opening created by the invasion of Iraq, they welcomed the opportunity to wage anti-Western jihad there… In October 2004 they took to calling themselves Al Qaeda in Iraq, their leader Abu al—Zarqawi pledging fealty to Osama bin-Laden. Prior to 2003, in its quest to create a new caliphate, Al Qaeda had not managed to gain a foothold in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Now, paradoxically, thanks to George Bush’s war on terrorism, it had.
The logic of using the U.S. military to respond to threats to order and stability in the Middle East appeared particularly compelling in the heady days after the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. That brief conflict, which marked the first major deployment of American forces to the region, had restored the American people’s faith in their military, vanquished the Vietnam syndrome, and seemed to confirm that a new American way of war, heavily reliant on speed, agility, and cutting-edge technology, could rapidly dispense with any adversary at acceptable cost in terms of casualties and collateral damage. The new military would be America’s chief tool in preserving a “new world order.”
Of course, it didn’t work out that way. The passing of the Vietnam syndrome, in Bacevich’s view, portended a “heedless absence of self-restraint, with shallow, moralistic impulses overriding thoughtful strategic analysis… Faced with some grave injustice or large-scale violation of human rights, presidents now found it increasingly hard to justify [military] inaction.” An early and unfortunate result of the demise of the syndrome: the intervention in Somalia in 1992-94. That operation “began with the best of intentions and culminated in a bloody defeat” in the rough streets of Mogadishu. It revealed in stark terms the limitations of America’s technologically driven military to deal with “asymmetrical threats.”
Here, and not for the last time, the American obsession with taking down individual personalities—in this case the warlord Mohamed Aidid—reflected a belief that neutralizing the top leader of an enemy state or network would lead to the complete collapse of the adversary. This is a patent falsehood, as the loss of various Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders confirms.
For a decade after the Persian Gulf War, the United States tried to stabilize the convulsions in the Greater Middle East by containing Hussein, and fighting two short wars in the Balkans. Yet while Bill Clinton deepened American military involvement in the region, and began a desultory campaign of cruise missile strikes against Al-Qaeda-sponsored terrorist attacks against American targets, he “never devised anything remotely approximating an actual strategy. Prevailing assumptions about U.S. military supremacy and history’s direction seemingly made strategy—which implies establishing priorities, making choices, and matching means to ends—unnecessary.”
No administration’s Middle East policies, from Carter’s to Obama’s, escapes harsh criticism in America’s War for the Greater Middle East, but Bacevich reserves special contempt for George W. Bush’s grotesquely hubristic “global war on terror.” Without ever stopping to give serious consideration to the underlying causes of Muslim extremist hostility toward the United States, the real sources of political volatility in the region, or to the limits of American power, the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team decided almost reflexively that it was “us against them,” and we were going to prevail.
There were delusions of grandeur inherent in the project from the outset:
A principal aim of the global war on terrorism was to unshackle American military power. Doing so… held the key to preserving the American way of life and all that it entailed. From the outset, in other words, the war’s purposes looked beyond any immediate danger posed by Al Qaeda or even by the disordered condition of the Greater Middle East… Ultimately, the war’s architects were seeking to perpetuate the privileged status that most Americans take as their birthright. Doing so meant setting down a new set of rules—expanding the prerogatives exercised by the world’s sole superpower and thereby extending the American Century in perpetuity.
The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld triumvirate set about, in Rumsfeld’s phrase, “to change the way they live,” first in Iraq, and then throughout the region, without ever really thinking through the ramifications of the immense task they’d set for themselves—and for the American people. “Unfortunately,” Bacevich concludes, “their achievements proved negligible, their blunders monumental and enduring.”
The author has the highest regard for the men and women who serve in the armed services and finds little to criticize about their training or performance in combat per se. Rather, he assigns blame for our many military blunders during this long war by turns to the delusions of presidents, high-level policymakers, defense intellectuals, and to a welter of senior officers “unable to decipher the political dimensions of the war they were charged with waging.”
Of Norman Schwarzkopf, Bacevich quips: “Generalship in wartime requires foresight, equanimity, and a supple intelligence. Whatever his other talents, Schwarzkopf was not especially graced with these qualities.” Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM commander charged with overseeing the initial campaigns in both Afghanistan and Iraq, “had an obligation to help [Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld] think realistically about war and formulate sound policies. In that regard, Franks failed abysmally.” Bacevich is equally tough on the architect of the surge, David Petraeus: “his achievement was to camouflage failure.”
Yet, the ultimate source of the problem goes well beyond the performance of generals and admirals. It lies in the “pernicious collective naiveté” embedded in a set of assumptions within the national security establishment: that those within the establishment are by definition able to discern the true historical forces at work in the Middle East; that the United States has the wherewithal to shape and direct those forces; and that American military power offers the most expeditious means to do the shaping. The great contribution of America’s War for the Greater Middle East, in the end, is that it demolishes the validity of these assumptions with equal measures of lucidity, persuasiveness, and common sense.
This is an exceptionally important book to be sure, yet Bacevich’s overarching argument would be even more compelling if he had made an attempt to present the considered pro-intervention arguments of policymakers and academics with some degree of respect and objectivity before going on to challenge their validity. Time and time again, the author cherry picks quotes out of context from pro-interventionists with the clear intention of making them look plain foolish.
It’s indisputable that cogent arguments for military intervention in the Middle East have been made many times over the years by some of the most respected foreign policy experts in the United States, but you’d never learn that by reading this book. Invariably the author treats pro-interventionists with scorn and derision, and that ultimately diminishes the persuasiveness of his own case.
And not all the chaos and suffering that have bedeviled Middle Eastern history since 1980 have their origins in American military misadventures—nor does Bacevich say so. But he gives so little agency to the people who live in the region that one might well form that mistaken impression. In this sense, the author’s tight focus on American initiatives and interventions at the expense of those of the local players has a distorting rather clarifying effect.
Finally, Bacevich’s fine book urgently begs a question: Since conflict in the Middle East has obviously engaged the vital interests of the United States over the past 35 years, what might an enlightened American policy toward the region have looked like? The author never ventures an answer. Too bad. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who’d like to know his thinking on that question.