Review: America’s War for the Greater Middle East

It has been said that for most Americans history began on September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks that happened on that day seemed like a bolt out of the blue to an American population not given to introspection. What mattered in the days and years that followed 9/11 was not the history of the United States’ involvement in the Middle East, the region from which the terrorists came, but the raw facts of who did what that day and what the collective “we” would do about it.

But history did not, in fact, begin on 9/11. The history of America’s actions in the Middle East before that day held critical contextual information that, if considered, would have aided in both correctly diagnosing the problem and recognizing the appropriate course of action. But this history was not considered, neither immediately after 9/11 nor at any step along the way since.

In his new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, Andrew Bacevich brings to light the full history of America’s 36-year (and counting) war in the Middle East. He explores not only the details of America’s interventions, but also the successes, and lack thereof, that those interventions have achieved.

Bacevich, a West Point Graduate, retired Army colonel, historian and political conservative, is a uniquely qualified voice on foreign policy matters, particularly for conservatives who are conditioned to believe that war and foreign policy critics are always anti-troops leftists. Bacevich’s extensive resume obviously frees him from such accusations.

Bacevich traces the genesis of America’s War for the Greater Middle East to President Jimmy Carter who, in response to the energy crisis of the late 1970s, determined the flow of oil out of the Middle East to be critically important to the American way of life. The idea that American interventions in the Middle East have been “wars for oil” has subsequently become a point of contention, but, as Bacevich shows, American policy makers, including Carter, were candid about oil’s centrality to America’s Middle East policy at the outset of its large-scale involvement in the region.

Another key factor leading to American interest in the Middle East was the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, which Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, saw as both a threat and an opportunity – a threat by the Soviets to the oil which the U.S. so desperately wanted and an opportunity to wage a proxy war against America’s chief antagonist.

This combination of factors led to two critical decisions in the late 70s and early 80s: the casting of revolutionary Iran as America’s preeminent regional enemy and supporting radical militants in Afghanistan’s resistance to the Soviets. The first, itself a consequence of America’s support for Iran’s repressive ruler, the Shah, would ultimately lead to the U.S. giving aid and support to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its war with Iran. The second would lead to the birth and growth of militant Afghan rebels groups. Both decisions would have consequences far beyond what the American foreign policy establishment had planned for.

As Bacevich notes, between the beginning of Carter’s presidency and the end of Reagan’s, the United States inserted itself into Middle Eastern matters in not only Afghanistan and Iran, but also Iraq, Libya and Lebanon (where, conservatives would be surprised to learn, Israel repeatedly proved itself to be a thorn in Reagan’s side with actions that ranged from lying about its military intentions to facilitating murderous violence towards civilian refugees in Lebanon to armed standoffs with American military units).

By 1988, there was some reason to believe that American policy in the region had been successful, even with the ultimate failure of the intervention in Lebanon and the overstated efficacy of American action in Libya. At the end of Reagan’s second term, the Soviet Union had been ousted from Afghanistan and was on the brink of collapse. Iraq, with military, intelligence and political support from the U.S., had prevailed over Iran (which had been supported by Israel).

But there were fissures in the bedrock of these victories. The war in Afghanistan left that country devastated, a fact of little concern to Americans after the Soviets had departed. Soon the American-trained and -equipped radicals engaged in a civil war that would ultimately result in the rise of the Taliban.

America’s hatred of Iran led it not only into a shortsighted partnership with Hussein, but also to excuse Iraqi aggression against American sailors (an attack for which, amazingly, the U.S. blamed Iran) and to excuse itself for shooting down an Iranian commercial jet carrying 290 people.

Bacevich draws the obvious conclusion that American action throughout the 1980s, rather than stabilizing the region and securing American interests, actually set the stage for more instability. Saddam quickly proved himself to be an unworthy ally when he invaded Kuwait in 1990. America’s subsequent commitment to driving the Iraqis out of Kuwait came with its own baggage, not the least of which was to draw the ire of radical Islamists like Osama bin Laden who resented a foreign military presence on their holy land. This situation, exacerbated by the fact that the U.S. stayed on after the Persian Gulf War had been won, would bear bitter fruits a decade later.

Throughout the 1990s American foreign policy continued to militarily and economically pound Iraq, even as it ventured into new areas of the Muslim world. An intervention in Somalia went horribly wrong, with the most visible, but far from the only, failure being the Black Hawk Down episode in that country’s capital of Mogadishu. Military action in Bosnia was more effective in theory, but was never able to deliver on its promises of stability and an inclusive postwar culture.

Then came September 11, 2001, otherwise known as the beginning of history. Rather than acting as an impetus to reevaluate foreign policy aims and effectiveness, the attacks led the U.S. to quickly embroil itself more deeply in the region’s instability, adding two more wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the growing list of military interventions.

The next decade and a half would usher in a revolving door of war aims and military strategies, as toppling terrorist supporters and finding WMD’s gave way to creating democracies and westernizing the region. But it turned out that destroying regimes was easier than building nations. Thus, even as the U.S. successfully – and relatively easily – ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan and deposed Hussein in Iraq, these two countries quickly became more unstable than they had been before. Indeed, as Bacevich notes, it was only after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime that terrorists showed up in Iraq.

America’s failure to bring about positive change in Afghanistan and Iraq did not, however, cause it to doubt its ability to do so elsewhere in the region. Even while proclaiming his intention to end those two wars, Barack Obama’s administration committed itself to new ones in the name of nation building and social change. Interventions in Libya and Syria by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president stand out as particularly prominent failures but they were far from his only extensions of America’s decades-long interventions in the region. As Bacevich observes, “Even as it sought to convey the impression of striking out boldly in a new direction, the Obama administration’s chief contribution to the War for the Greater Middle East was to enlarge it.”

From Carter to Obama, this war, while enlarging, has steadily lost its strategic rationale. Carter’s war for oil, while morally dubious, was at least clear enough to be understandable. What the U.S. is doing in the region today makes absolutely no sense, and hasn’t for a long time. The passage of time has witnessed America becoming increasingly mired in the Middle East quicksand even as long-term success and a clear connection to American interests have become more elusive. As Bacevich observes, “after more than three decades of trying, for U.S. forces the mission remains unfinished. Indeed, ‘unfinished’ hardly begins to describe the situation; mission accomplished is nowhere in sight. Put simply, we’re stuck.”

In closing, Bacevich asks two questions: why hasn’t America’s War for the Greater Middle East succeeded and why can’t we get out? His answers to the first question, which challenge both conservative and liberal dogma, won’t win him friends on either side of the aisle.

For conservatives, Bacevich notes the error in the strain of thought that finds a military solution to every problem. American military might, which is unquestionably the greatest in the world, has been able to achieve only partial victories in America’s War for the Greater Middle East, and even those victories have often been quickly reversed. It appears that tearing down is an easier military task than rebuilding.

Bacevich also questions liberals’ notion that Western-style democracy and notions of civil rights are both desired by all cultures and exportable by the use of force. Bacevich even has the audacity to call into question the value of the forced multiculturalism so in vogue among today’s leftists. The folly of attempting to militarily bring social change to a complicated and volatile part of the world has been a lesson hiding in plain sight.

In addition to Americans’ overestimation of the utility of military power, the military’s actions in the Greater Middle East has complicated matters. Americans have still not grasped that inhabitants of other countries don’t like foreigners intruding on their lands, bombing them, torturing their countrymen, destabilizing their countries and killing their families. Whether explained away as collateral damage, as instances of mistaken identity or as isolated incidents of American depravity, American attitudes towards killed, maimed and displaced Middle Easterners has been to effectively devalue their lives. Regardless of whatever other problems this mentality may represent, it has made America’s goal of reshaping the Middle East in its image monumentally more difficult.

As to the question of why the U.S. cannot get itself out of the Middle East, Bacevich points the finger at a foreign policy establishment – political, military and media – that cannot bring itself to question the basic assumptions that guide its actions. That 35-plus years of involvement in this region has brought about no long-term success to speak of has not registered as a significant enough development to cause those involved in policy-making to reevaluate their decisions.

But the establishment does not bear all of the blame. Bacevich also criticizes an American population that can’t be bothered to pay attention to what its country is doing around the world, nor to the repercussions emanating from its actions. That Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda and ISIS have all received American support at one time or another is either completely glossed over or explained away as a series of tactical failures.

Ultimately, Bacevich believes that America’s War for the Greater Middle East to be a failure, and he marshals enough evidence in this book to make that case convincingly. Its failure is compounded by the fact that time has removed many of the initial reasons why the U.S. bothered to militarily commit to the Middle East in the first place.

The solution, he believes, will only be found when the American people recognize that “Perpetuating the War for the Greater Middle East is not enhancing American freedom, abundance, and security. If anything, it is having the opposite effect. One day the American people may awaken to this reality. Then and only then will the war end. When this awakening will occur is impossible to say. For now, sadly, Americans remain deep in slumber.”

With America’s War for the Greater Middle East, Andrew Bacevich has again sounded a wake up call. We can only hope that this time America won’t sleep through the alarm.