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America’s Misadventures in the Greater Middle East

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America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History by Andrew J. Bacevich (Random House, 2016), 480 pages.

America’s Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East by Chas W. Freeman Jr. (Just World Books, 2016), 256 pages.

Few forces in American public life are as powerful as the one that pulls people in Washington into the foreign policy mainstream. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, the press, think tanks — all seem ready and indeed eager to be sucked into the deadening consensus that prevents the United States from adapting its foreign policies to a changing world. They treat original thinking as the germ of a frightful plague. Those who offer new ideas are stigmatized as — in John McCain’s wonderful phrase — “wacko birds.”

To make one’s way in the American foreign-policy world, it is essential to work from what Barack Obama has called the “playbook.” Accepting hoary assumptions is required. Among them are: the world is locked in an eternal struggle between good and evil; the United States leads the forces of good; people around the world are half-formed Americans eager for U.S. guidance; and this guidance often requires the use or threat of military force, since evil cannot be confronted any other way. Challenging those assumptions is a career-killer.

A few brave souls dare to dissent. As we sink into what seems like endless war, especially in the Islamic world, a small group of experienced national-security experts has emerged to urge a different path. These veterans do not agree that the United States must base its foreign policy on confrontation, threats, sanctions, bombing campaigns, invasions and occupations. Instead they offer a “less is more” alternative that could lead to a more peaceful world and advance American security interests. Given the climate in Washington, there is little prospect that their advice will be heeded. Americans cannot complain, however, that no one has plotted a path that could take them out of the Middle East and away from militarism.

Two of the most trenchant thinkers to have rebelled against the foreign policy “playbook” — both of whom have been my university colleagues — spent decades in public service. Andrew Bacevich is a West Point graduate whose 23-year military career ran from Vietnam to Iraq — that is, from one disaster to another. Chas Freeman was one of the most brilliant diplomats of his generation, with assignments ranging from being Richard Nixon’s interpreter in Beijing to serving as assistant secretary of Defense and U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Their new books are welcome rebellions against the Washington consensus. Taken together, they contain more wisdom about the Middle East than most Americans hear in a lifetime.

We often look at our sad history in the Middle East as a series of shortsighted misadventures, many of which ended either badly or tragically. In his newest book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, Bacevich presents them differently. He asserts that they are not isolated episodes but part of a single, permanent war for the greater Middle East that has been under way without interruption since 1980. It is an intriguing argument. But why start in 1980?

The Carter Doctrine

U.S. policy of intervening in the Middle East might well be dated to 1945, when Franklin Roosevelt struck a deal with Saudi Arabia that gave America access to Saudi oil in exchange for a commitment to defend the al-Saud family regime. Alternately, it could be seen as beginning in 1953, when President Dwight Eisenhower sent the CIA to depose the relatively democratic government of Iran and place the shah back on his Peacock Throne. Bacevich chooses to begin his story in 1980 because he sees that as the moment when the U.S. drive to dominate the Middle East became military. In that year, Jimmy Carter made a fateful declaration: “Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

That declaration, which became known as the Carter Doctrine, “implied the conversion of the Persian Gulf into an informal American protectorate,” Bacevich asserts. “Defending the region meant policing it…. No one thought the challenges ahead would be easy. But at least they appeared straightforward and unambiguous. In fact, they would prove to be neither.”

The Carter Doctrine made America the guardian of the established Middle East political order. It led to a host of American interventions, including support of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War, decades of relentless efforts to undermine the Iranian government, wars against Iraq, and the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia — cited by Osama bin Laden as one of the reasons he launched his anti-American terror campaign. Nineteen-eighty was also the year Carter began U.S. support for jihadist forces in Afghanistan, launching a long war in that benighted country that is still raging and seems likely to rage indefinitely. U.S. policies before 1980, Bacevich argues, may well have been unwise, but they did not entail invasions, occupations, or sustained bombing campaigns.

From that beginning, Bacevich proceeds through the sorry history of U.S. military interventions in the Middle East. His military experience enriches his narrative, but his historical acumen makes it especially rewarding. He provides not just a comprehensive account of this multi- front war, fought as far afield as Africa and the Balkans, but also a cogent narrative fitting the various pieces together. His book is also a scathing critique of U.S. inability to change its foreign policies to adjust to a changing world. An “abiding theme of America’s War for the Greater Middle East,” Bacevich laments, is America’s leaders’ insistent belief that they have “no choice except to press on.”

“To fancy at this point that the US military possesses the capacity to ‘shape’ events there is an absurdity,” he concludes. “Indulging that absurdity further serves chiefly to impede the ability of the United States to attend to more pressing concerns. Washington finds itself playing yesterday’s game and playing it badly.”

Bacevich lists four reasons for a lack of resistance to America’s outdated and self-destructive foreign policies. The United States lacks “an anti-war or anti-interventionist political party worthy of the name”; politicians find it more expedient to “support the troops” than question war’s value; “some individuals and institutions actually benefit from the armed conflict that drags on and on”; and Americans “appear oblivious to what is occurring.”

A changed world

Today’s quagmire in the Middle East reflects how far America has come from the day in 1989 when President George H.W. Bush told his newly named ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas Freeman, “Nothing much ever happens in Arabia.” Freeman was ambassador during Operation Desert Storm and retired soon afterward, ending a 30-year career in diplomacy. As American policy in the Middle East became steadily more belligerent, he spoke out against it. In 2009 he was chosen to become the chairman of Obama’s National Intelligence Council, which sifts through reports from 16 government agencies to prepare National Intelligence Estimates. Politicians and lobbyists acting on behalf of Israeli interests launched a fierce and ultimately successful campaign to block his nomination. “The tactics of the Israel lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency,” he said in a characteristically blunt response.

With his nearly unequalled diplomatic experience, Freeman has become one of the most insightful analysts of both America’s misguided Middle East policy and its wider diplomatic and political follies. His new book, America’s Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East, is a collection of his recent speeches, each of which is a carefully constructed critique, laced with the sharp conclusions for which he is well known. Together they constitute an advanced postgraduate course in the current state of American foreign policy.

“In Washington, the threat to use force has become the first rather than the last resort,” Freeman says in one speech,

We Americans have embraced coercive measures as our default means of influencing other nations, whether they be allies, friends, adversaries, or enemies. For most in our political elite, the overwhelming military and economic leverage of the United States justifies abandoning the effort to persuade rather than muscle recalcitrant foreigners into line. We habitually respond to challenges of every kind with military posturing rather than with diplomatic initiatives directed at solving the problems that generate these challenges. This approach has made us less — not more — secure, while burdening future generations of Americans with ruinous debt. It has unsettled our allies without deterring our adversaries. It has destabilized entire regions, multiplied our enemies, and estranged us from our friends…. What we have actually proved is that, if you are sufficiently indifferent to the interests of others and throw your weight around enough, you can turn off practically everybody.

In a concluding chapter, written for this book, Freeman ties his arguments together and suggests that the United States forge a radically less interventionist policy toward the Middle East. This new approach “should start by recalling the first law of holes — when stuck in one, stop digging.”

“Our military campaigns to pacify the region have destabilized it, dismantled its states, ignited ferocious wars of religion among its peoples, and generated new terrorist threats to us,” Freeman writes.

In the end, to cure the dysfunction in our policies toward the Middle East, it comes down to this: We must cure the dysfunction and venality in our own politics. If we cannot, we have no business trying to use an 8,000-mile-long screwdriver to fix things one-third of the way around the world. That doesn’t work well in the best of circumstances — but when the country wielding the screwdriver has very little idea what it’s doing, it really screws things up.

These two books suggest a new American approach to the Middle East based on changed realities. Since America no longer depends on the Persian Gulf for its oil supplies, spending so much money to patrol and “protect” it is essentially a security subsidy to East Asian countries that do use oil from the Gulf. The disappearance of the Soviet Union wipes away the supposed need for allies-at-all-costs in the region. Growing understanding of the roles Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have played in fueling terror campaigns makes them less attractive partners. Given those realities and the press of other needs, the authors argue, the United States no longer has a sound reason to maintain a large military presence in the Middle East, or to insist on “shaping” its future. To the argument that withdrawal would just set the region’s people free to kill each other, they reply that that is already happening — and that the least the United States should do is stop participating in the killing. They call for what is in essence a reversal or abandonment of America’s decades-long obsession with the Middle East, and urge less confrontational foreign policies toward other regions as well.

Bacevich and Freeman have spent most of their adult lives seeking to promote America’s interests in the world. They have not only resisted the force that draws retired diplomats and military commanders to the Washington foreign-policy “playbook,” but rebelled against it. Both should be working at the top of the U.S. national-security apparatus in Washington. Instead they remain voices in the wilderness. “For now, sadly,” Bacevich admits, “Americans remain deep in slumber.”

This article was originally published in the August 2016 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Stephen Kinzer is an author and newspaper reporter. He is a veteran New York Times correspondent who has reported from more than 50 countries on five continents. His books include "Overthrow" and "All the Shah’s Men".