AMERICA’S WAR FOR THE GREATER MIDDLE EAST: A MILITARY HISTORY by Andrew Bacevitch

(Statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, following the US invasion of 2003)
As a student of history over the years I have studied and taught the 100 Years War between England and France in the 14th and 15th centuries, the 30 Years War in western and central Europe in the 17th century, and now Andrew Bacevitch suggests the 40 Years War in the Middle East that began in the 20th century and continues to this day.  Bacevitch, a former career soldier and professor of history at Boston University, has written a number of important books on American foreign and military policy including BREACH OF TRUST, WASHINGTON RULES, AND THE LIMITS OF POWER explains in his new book, AMERICA’S WAR FOR THE GREATER MIDDLE EAST: A MILITARY HISTORY that the United States has been engaged in a war in the region that dates back to 1979 and is still ongoing.  He has labeled this continuous struggle, the 40 Years War in which the United States has been involved in conflict in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen.  After reading his latest work two questions come to mind.  First, over the period discussed in the book, did the United States ever have an actual strategy?  Second, did American military supremacy obviate the need for a strategy?  After exploring Bacevich’s narrative the answer is a resounding no to the first question, and yes to the second as successive administrations relied on the latest military technology to achieve its goals as it careened from one crisis in the region to the next.  For example, Bacevich describes President Clinton’s policy in the Balkans in the 1990s as “intervention by inadvertence,” and the NATO air campaign in the same region as “military masturbation.”  Further, after discussing President George H.W. Bush’s approach to dealing with Saddam Hussein after forcing the Iraqi dictator out of Kuwait in 1991, Bacevitch describes United States policy as “occupation by air,” setting up “no-fly zones” rather than instituting a realistic approach to dealing with the situation on the ground.

A handout photo of Saddam Hussein after his capture is seen December 14 2003 in Iraq US troops captured Saddam Hussein near his home town of Tikrit...

(Saddam Hussein after his capture in 2003)

Bacevitch’s work is provocative and reflects the ability to synthesize a great deal of information in developing sound conclusions.  The author constructs a narrative that encompasses the period 1979 to the present as he explains the origins of American involvement in the region and how it fostered the “Greater War in the Middle East.”  As he does so he develops his arguments like a prosecutor at an evidentiary hearing as he dissects the approach taken by five presidential administrations.  He carefully crafts his thesis in a step by step approach as each event builds on the next and how they are linked to produce the idiocy of American policy.  As each building block is presented, Bacevitch digresses to compare policy decisions for the Middle East with other somewhat comparative situations in American history from the American Revolution, the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I and II, and the Vietnam War creating interesting parallels.  What is clear from Bacevitch’s narrative is that in many cases American decision makers repeatedly reached conclusions in a vacuum that reminds one of Kurt Vonnegut’s “cloud cuckoo land.”

As the author traces America’s “War for the Greater Middle East” what becomes clear is the lack of a coherent strategy.  Administration after administration succumbed to fallacies of their own making.  Jimmy Carter hoped to develop a new foreign policy agenda of alleviating Third World poverty, resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, and eliminating nuclear weapons.  This agenda would be shattered by the Iranian revolution and a president who “lacked guile, a vulnerability that, once discovered, his adversaries at home and abroad did not hesitate to exploit.”  Bacevitch provides an astute analysis of Carter’s overall foreign policy, focusing mostly on Iran and Afghanistan.  Carter concerned for his own reelection would auger in the “Greater War in the Middle East” by announcing the Carter Doctrine which stated that “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.”  Wonderful in theory, but American fecklessness was on full display in the Iranian Desert in April 1980 as it seemed that American planes and helicopters were playing bumper cars.

Iran hostage crisis - Iraninan students comes up U.S. embassy in Tehran.jpg

(Iranian students seize the American Embassy in Teheran, 1979)

The problem with the Carter Doctrine and subsequent American policy under Ronald Reagan is that it was based on the false premise that the Soviet Union coveted the Persian Gulf and possessed the will and capacity to seize it.  The American response was the creation of a new command for the region called CENTCOM.  Though created to deal with the Soviet threat, CENTCOM would provide the United States with a platform to launch and continue its wars in the region.  What was also very troubling is that CENTCOM paid little attention to the Shi’ite-Sunni divide, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the climate of the region in its planning.  As the Cold War drew to a close, the Reagan administration shifted its focus from the Soviet Union to Iraq as public enemy number one, and did not take into account that state actors were not the only enemies that confronted the United States.  For Reagan, Afghanistan seemed like a major victory as we contributed to the defeat of the Soviet Union.  Another victory was supposedly achieved as we backed both sides in the First Persian Gulf War between Iran and Iraq, a policy we would pay heavily for in the future.  But in endorsing the Carter Doctrine in stepping up American military activity in the region we achieved little of lasting benefit and over time we created an incubator for terrorism that drew the United States into a quagmire later on.  As Bacevitch points out, by supporting the Mujahidin we helped foster Islamic radicalism and with our support Pakistan became a nuclear power.  Further, by meting out punishment to Libyan dictator Moamar Gaddafi it led to bombings in Berlin killing American soldiers and German civilians and the downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland and the death of hundreds of Americans.  The Reagan administration was not just content with an erroneous approach in Afghanistan and Libya, its policy toward Lebanon was hard to fathom resulting in two separate incursions into the Beirut area resulting in further radicalizing Hezbollah and causing the death of 241 Marines.  When the United States withdrew from Lebanon and engaged in the Iran-Contra scandal it reflected American ignorance, ineptitude, and a lack of staying power that Islamists would take note of for the future.

(President Obama’s weapon of choice, drone aircraft over Afghanistan firing Hellfire missiles)

Bacevitch is correct in arguing that the end of the Cold War provided the United States with a freedom of action that it had not enjoyed since the mid-1940s allowing George H.W. Bush to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.  The second Persian Gulf War, was a proxy war against a past to eradicate feelings of inadequacy induced by Vietnam.  This was reflected in the rhetoric surrounding the conflict and commentary evaluating America’s technological and military superiority as we crushed Saddam’s forces.  As much as the war seemed a success American intervention would produce conditions that were conducive to further violence and disorder.  Once Saddam was expelled the United States had no real plan for the post-war situation.  Substantial elements of the Republican Guard remained intact, and Shi’ites and Kurds rose up against Saddam.  Bacevitch points out that a myth developed concerning the 1990s as a relatively peaceful decade for the United States in the region.  This myth was fostered by the supposed success of “Operation Desert Storm.”  However, almost immediately the plight of the Kurds led to a “no-fly zone” in the north, and Saddam’s revenge against Shi’ites led to a “no-fly zone in the south.”  In effect the United States occupied Iraq in the air and flew thousands upon thousands of sorties in the 1990s to control Saddam’s forces.  Once Bush left office Bill Clinton continued the Bush approach of the gap between raw military power and political acuity.  In confronting events in the Balkans and Somalia, the United States widened the “Greater War for the Middle East.”  The United States sought to protect Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo from the Serbs, as well as the Somali people from murdering warlords, but as in most instances the “commitment of raw military power might get things off to a good start, a faulty grasp of underlying political dynamics leaves the United States susceptible to ambush, both literal and figurative.”

Bacevitch digs deep in his analysis integrating American military strategy, the theoretical arguments between military men and their civilian overseers, as well as the application of strategies developed for the battlefield.  Bacevitch explains military concepts in a very understandable manner and the conclusion one reaches is that conceptually American military planners were repeatedly off base in their approach.  Bacevitch’s description of the cast of characters involved is very important and insightful.  Whether discussing Generals Norman Schwarzkopf, Tommy Franks, Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus, or others, the reader is exposed to personalities and egos that dominated military policy planning and implementation in an overly honest and blunt fashion.

(February, 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City)

Bacevitch leaves his most scathing analysis of American policy for the George W. Bush and Barrack Obama administrations.  As the 1990s evolved with terrorist spectaculars at the World Trade Center in 1993, Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, attacks in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the outgoing Clinton administration explained that these events resulted from American leadership responsibilities in the world, and because we acted to advance peace and democracy.  This explanation as most offered by the government during the period under discussion were “designed not to inform but to reassure and thereby to conceal.”  The “Greater War for the Middle East” now widened to include Osama Bin-Laden and al Qaeda.  As the United States exaggerated the threat it posed, it ignored the underlying circumstances that created it.  What developed was a pattern, if we could decapitate al Qaeda and kill Bin-Laden all problems would be solved.  We tried that with Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moamar Gaddafi in Libya and look what resulted.  For the United States “policy formulation was becoming indistinguishable from targeting.”

(US bombing of al Shabaab, an al Qaeda offshoot in Somalia)

After 9/11 the United States immediately shifted from crushing al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan to the invasion of Iraq.  Bacevitch argues that the Bush administration was fixated on Saddam Hussein, and did not accept or ignored the fact that the battle in Afghanistan was far from over.  Afghanistan reverted to the back burner, another “phony war” that the United States ignited, but failed to carry to fruition and let simmer.  Many have pondered why the United States invaded Iraq – was it about oil, weapons of mass destruction, or humanitarianism?  Bacevitch correctly places these reasons aside and concentrates on the American intent on establishing the efficacy of preventive war.  Washington was going to assert the prerogative that no other country had – overthrowing any government the United States found wanting or as it is better known as, the Bush Doctrine.  This premise was based on the fallacious conclusion that the Islamic world could easily adapt to democracy, limited government, a market economy, and respect for human and woman’s rights no matter what their opponents argued.  For the Bush administration Saddam and Iraq fit this paradigm perfectly.  The United States invaded Iraq not because of the danger it posed, but because of the opportunity it presented.  Bacevitch explores in detail all the key aspects of the war from its outset, to the capture of Saddam, the Shi’ite-Sunni civil war, to the “surge,” and again what is clear is American incompetence be it the fault of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bremmer, Franks, or others.

Bacevitch’s overall evaluation of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy is harsh, but extremely accurate as the President seemed to continue Bush policies. First, Obama was committed to the withdrawal of American troops by the end of the 2011 deadline that Bush had negotiated with the Iraqi government.  However, as troops returned home from Iraq, many made a “U-turn” and were sent to Afghanistan, or for many who were redeployed once again to Afghanistan!  During the Obama years the “Greater War for the Middle East” was confronted by three important changes that had major implications.  First, after almost 40 years of war, an “Iraqi Syndrome” developed with the reluctance to put American troops in harm’s way.  Second, the turmoil from the Arab Spring.  Lastly, the chasm that developed in American-Israeli relations.  Obama has had a great deal of difficulty navigating these changes.  A surge was tried that accomplished little but increasing American casualties.  Support for aspects of the Arab Spring resulted in little improvement in Egypt and other Arab autocracies.  Problems with Israel became a partisan political football in both countries and an inability of leaders to work with each other.  Further, the Obama administration resorted to decapitation in Libya that has been disastrous.  Finally, the administration dithered over the civil war in Syria and looked foolish when it did little to enforce its own “red line.”  It seems that Obama’s strategy is wrapped up in special operations and drone attacks, not really conducive to improving America’s reputation in the region and the overall Islamic world.

In closing, Bacevitch has written an extremely important book that policy makers should consult very carefully.  Granted, the author has had the benefit of historical hindsight in preparing his arguments.  But one cannot negate the intelligent conclusions he puts forth.  If you would like to gain insight and understanding of the 40 Year War, consult Bacevitch’s narrative because as events in Libya, Syria, and Yemen continue, it does not seem as if this war is going to end in the foreseeable future.  As Bacevitch states in his conclusion; the perpetuation of the “War for the Greater Middle East” is not enhancing American freedom or security.  It is accomplishing the opposite, but hopefully one day the American people will wake up from their slumber regarding its prosecution.  Until that time the wars in the region will not come to an end.

(Statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad after US invasion of Iraq in 2003)

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