America’s War for the Greater Middle East by Andrew J. Bacevich (New York: Random House, 2016; 480 pages)
America’s military involvement in the Middle East began in classic imperial fashion, according to military historian and retired Army colonel Andrew J. Bacevich. They had something we needed, and we made sure we had access to it. “Oil has always defined the raison d’être of the War for the Greater Middle East,” he writes in the first paragraph of his magisterial work, America’s War for the Greater Middle East. “Over time, other considerations intruded and complicated the war’s conduct, but oil as a prerequisite of freedom was from day one an abiding consideration.”
By 1969, oil imports already made up 20 percent of the daily oil consumption in the United States. Four years later, Arab oil exporters suspended oil shipments to the United States to punish America for supporting Israel in the October War. The American economy screeched to a halt, seemingly held hostage by foreigners — a big no-no for a country accustomed to getting what it wants. Predictably the U.S. response was regional domination to keep the oil flowing to America, especially to the Pentagon and its vast, permanent war machine.
The Middle East was now a U.S. military priority, and the pursuit of direct American domination of the region came from none other than the supposed peacenik, Jimmy Carter. Before him, Richard Nixon was content to have the Middle East managed by proxies after the bloodletting America experienced in Vietnam. His arch-proxy was the despised shah of Iran, whom the United States had installed into power and then armed to the teeth. When his regime collapsed in 1979, felled by Islamic revolutionaries who would eventually capture the American embassy and initiate the Iranian hostage crisis, so too did the Nixon Doctrine. That same year, the Soviet Union rolled into Afghanistan. The world was a mess, and Carter was under extreme pressure to do something about it, lest he lose his bid for a second term. (He suffered a crushing defeat anyway.)
Furies beyond reckoning
The result was the Carter Doctrine. Delivered to the American people during the 1980 State of Union Address, Carter started America’s War for the Greater Middle East. Months earlier, in his infamous “malaise” speech, Carter asked Americans to simplify their lives and moderate their energy use. Now he declared America’s right to cheap energy. “Let our position be absolutely clear,” he said. “An 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.”
Analyzing the Carter Doctrine, Bacevich writes that it “represented a broad, open-ended commitment, one that expanded further with time” — one that “implied the conversion of the Persian Gulf into an informal American protectorate. Defending the region meant policing it.” And police it America has done, wrapping its naked self-interest in the seemingly noble cloth of democratization and human rights.
It is illustrative, and alarming, to list Bacevich’s selected campaigns and operations in the region since 1980 up to the present, unleashed by Carter and subsequent presidents. Let’s go in alphabetical order by country followed by the campaigns and operations:
Afghanistan (Cyclone, 1980–1989; Infinite Reach, 1998; Enduring Freedom, 2001–2015; Freedom’s Sentinel, 2015–present); Bosnia (Deny Flight, 1993–1995; Deliberate Force, 1995; Joint Endeavor, 1995–1996); East Africa (Enduring Freedom—Trans Sahara, 2007–present); Egypt (Bright Star, 1980–2009); Iraq (Desert Storm, 1991; Southern Watch, 1991–2003; Desert Strike, 1996; Northern Watch, 1997–2003; Desert Fox, 1998; Iraqi Freedom, 2003–2010; New Dawn, 2010–2011; Inherent Resolve, 2014–present); Iran (Eagle Claw, 1980; Olympic Games, 2007–2010) Kosovo (Determined Force, 1998; Allied Force, 1999; Joint Guardian, 1999–2005); Lebanon (Multinational Force, 1982–1984); Libya (El Dorado Canyon, 1986; Odyssey Dawn, 2011); North/West Africa (Enduring Freedom—Trans Sahara, 2007– present); Pakistan (Neptune Spear, 2011); Persian Gulf (Earnest Will, 1987–1988; Nimble Archer, 1987; Praying Mantis, 1988); Saudi Arabia (Desert Shield, 1990; Desert Focus, 1996); Somalia (Restore Hope, 1992–1993; Gothic Serpent, 1993); Sudan (Infinite Reach, 1998); Syria (Inherent Resolve, 2014–present); Turkey (Provide Comfort, 1991); and Yemen (Determined Response, 2000)
While Bacevich deftly takes the reader through the history of all those wars, the most important aspect of his book is his critique of the United States’s permanent military establishment and the power it wields in Washington. According to Bacevich, U.S. military leaders have a tendency to engage in fantastical thinking rife with hubris. Too many believe the United States is a global force for good that has the messianic duty to usher in secular modernity, a force that no one should ever interfere with, either militarily or ideologically.
As Bacevich makes plain again and again, history does not back up that mindset. For instance, after the Soviet Union’s crippling defeat in Afghanistan, the Washington elite saw it as an American victory, the inauguration of the “end of history” and the inevitable march of “democratic capitalism.” They didn’t see that the U.S.-armed Afghan mujahideen also believed they were the victors and that they had every intention of resisting America’s version of modernity as much as they had resisted the Soviet Union’s. (America’s self-destructive trend of arming its eventual enemies — either directly or indirectly from Saddam Hussein to ISIS, respectively — is a recurring theme of Bacevich’s narrative.)
Over and over again after 9/11, America would be taught this lesson, as Islamic extremists, both Sunni and Shia, bloodied the U.S. military across the Greater Middle East, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq. History cannot be controlled, and it had its revenge on a U.S. military and political elite who somehow believed they could see the future and manage historical forces toward a predestined end that naturally benefitted America. As Reinhold Niebuhr warned, and Bacevich quotes approvingly, “The recalcitrant forces in the historical drama have a power and persistence beyond our reckoning.”
Yet across America’s War for the Greater Middle East, presidents would speak theologically of America’s role in the world, never admitting the United States is not an instrument of the Almighty. George H.W. Bush would speak of a “new world order.” Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would declare that America is “the indispensable nation.” George W. Bush’s faith in this delusion led him to declare a “global war on terrorism,” where American military might would extinguish evil wherever it resided and initiate Condoleeza Rice’s “‘paradigm of progress’ — democracy, limited government, market economics, and respect for human (and especially women’s) rights” across the region. As with all zealots, there was no acknowledgment by the Bush administration, flamboyantly Christian, that evil resided inside them too. Barack Obama seemed to pull back from this arrogance in his 2009 Cairo speech, declaring, “No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” Yet he continued to articulate his faith that all people desire liberal democracy, even though that simply isn’t true.
All in all, American presidents and their military advisors believed they could impose a democratic capitalist peace on the world, undeterred that each intervention created more instability and unleashed new violent forces the United States would eventually engage militarily, such as Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda, and ISIS. Bacevich explains that “this conviction, deeply embedded in the American collective psyche, provides one of the connecting threads making the ongoing War for the Greater Middle East something more than a collection of disparate and geographically scattered skirmishes.”
War and diplomacy
Another piece of connective tissue, according to Bacevich, is the belief that war is not the failure of diplomacy but a necessary ingredient to its success. The U.S. military establishment learned this “lesson” in Bosnia when U.S.-led NATO bombing brought Serbia to the negotiating table at the Dayton Peace Accords. “The proper role of armed force,” writes Bacevich, “was not to supplant diplomacy but to make it work.” Gen. Wesley Clark was more succinct when he called war “coercive diplomacy” during the Kosovo conflict. U.S. military force was no longer a last resort, particularly when technology was making it easier to unleash violence without endangering U.S. service members’ lives.
This logic would run aground in Iraq after 9/11 during what Bacevich calls the “Third Gulf War.” In an act of preventive war, the Bush administration “shocked and awed” Baghdad, believing U.S. military supremacy and its almost divine violence would bring other state sponsors of terrorism to heel after America quickly won the war. “Vanquishing Saddam Hussein and destroying his army promised to invest American diplomacy with the power to coerce.” Although the Bush administration believed the war ended after three weeks, Bacevich notes, “the Third Gulf War was destined to continue for another 450.” The people on the ground, as the D.C. elites just learned in November, have a way of not going along with the best-laid plans made for them in the epicenters of power.
There was hope that Barack Obama, a constitutional professor, would correct the Bush administration’s failures and start to wind down America’s War for the Greater Middle East. Instead, he expanded it into Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and West Africa through drone warfare and special-operations missions. Without “any unifying aim or idea,” according to Bacevich, the Obama administration’s “principal contribution” to America’s War for the Greater Middle East was to expand its fronts.
Now this war is in the hands of Donald J. Trump. If there is any upside to a Trump presidency — and I find it hard to find many — it’s the possibility that the intensity of American imperialism in the Middle East will wane. But I find that likelihood remote. Trump has promised to wipe out ISIS, which means continued military action in at least Iraq, Syria, and Libya. He has also called for more military spending, and I find it hard to believe that he or the national-security establishment will increase investment in the military and then show restraint in the use of force overseas.
As Bacevich clearly shows over and over again in his narrative, the men and women who make up the defense establishment have a fanatical, almost theological, belief in the transformational power of American violence. They persist in this belief despite all evidence to the contrary. These are the men and women who will be whispering their advice into the new president’s ear. Expect Uncle Sam’s fangs to grow longer, his talons sharper, his violence huge.
Bacevich, himself, is not hopeful. In a note to readers that greets them before the prologue, Bacevich is refreshingly terse with his assessment of America’s war for the Greater Middle East: “We have not won it. We are not winning it. Simply trying harder is unlikely to produce a different outcome.” And to this it’s not hard to hear Trump retort, “Loser!” And so the needless violence will continue on and on with no end in sight unless the American population develops a Middle East syndrome to replace the Vietnam syndrome that once made Washington wary of war.
That lack of confidence in the masters of war can’t come soon enough.
This article was originally published in the July 2017 edition of Future of Freedom.