Roger BergmanSeptember 22, 2016

America’s War for the Greater Middle Eastby Andrew J. Bacevich

Random House. 453p $30

Andrew Bacevich is clear about what he hopes to accomplish in America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. He will link “aims to actions to consequences” regarding the role of the U.S. military from 1980 to the present. Bacevich, a 1969 graduate of West Point who served 23 years before retiring as a colonel, and who recently retired from teaching diplomatic history at Boston University, does not shy away from expressing his own conclusions about this war in the Islamic world, now in its fourth decade. “We have not won it. We are not winning it. Simply trying harder is unlikely to produce a different outcome.”

Readers may wonder why Bacevich’s title puts “war” in the singular and yokes together seemingly disparate presidential actions, like Carter’s attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran, Reagan’s intervention in Lebanon, G. H. W. Bush’s intervention in Kuwait, Clinton’s peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo, G. W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and Obama’s return of troops to Afghanistan last year. Surely this claim would test any author’s powers of comprehensiveness. But the payoff may be salutary. If the leaders and citizens of the United States are to achieve any understanding of why the only remaining superpower, the “indispensable nation,” has been so stymied in our military interventions through six administrations in this world-historical crucible, Bacevich’s book may itself prove indispensable.

Bacevich’s Greater Middle East includes 15 nations and three regions from the west coast of Africa to Pakistan in the east, from Bosnia in the north to Somalia in the south, and most notably Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. Thirty-eight campaigns and operations are identified by scope and type. He counts 17 punitive attacks, of which six were major and two were followed by occupation, and fewer instances of peacekeeping, humanitarian interventions, raids or rescues and recoveries, deterrent actions, demonstrations/trainings and general force projection.

On the other hand, Bacevich repeatedly refers to four Gulf Wars, not only to the war to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein and the war to liberate Iraq itself from the dictator, but also to the war between Iraq and Iran, 1980-88, in which the United States supported Hussein (“thereby emboldening him”), and finally the Fourth Gulf War, dating from 2013, when “the new Iraqi order proved itself unable to stand on its own.” There does seem to be a narrative here, with many twists and turns, but what drives it?

In 1980, our “least bellicose” president observed that “’the region which is now threatened by Soviet troops in Afghanistan is of great strategic importance: It contains more than two-thirds of the world’s exportable oil.… 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...will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.’” This was the Carter Doctrine.

In 2002, George W. Bush carved out an exception to the 1946 Nuremberg Tribunal’s condemnation of preventive war. “‘If we wait for threats to fully materialize,’ Bush warned, ‘we will have waited too long.’” According to Bacevich, “this defined the essence of what now became known as the Bush Doctrine...[which]...traced its lineage back to Carter’s declaration of 1980 that had initiated the War for the Greater Middle East by tying the American way of life to control of the Persian Gulf.”

How did freedom, the quintessential American value, become identified with unfettered access to cheap and abundant oil from halfway around the world? Bacevich points out that in 1948, George Kennan, an influential architect of postwar policy, “noted that the United States then possessed ‘about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population.’ The challenge...was to ‘devise a pattern of relationships which permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.’” What Kennan went on to say, but which Bacevich doesn’t recount, is that we “need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction…. We should cease to talk about vague and…unreal objectives such as human rights and the raising of living standards, and democratization…. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”

This comment is much to Bacevich’s own point because the Bush Doctrine was about more than preventive war. After his re-election, the president made explicit the larger vision of the 2003 invasion. “From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth…. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation…. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.”

Bacevich’s comment on this globalization of American ideals as a matter of American security is withering. “In reality, as the course of the festering war in Iraq had amply demonstrated, indulging the conceit that America is history’s chosen instrument of liberation is more likely to produce grief than glory.” But even more daringly, Bacevich argues that Bush’s “expectations of ending tyranny by spreading American ideals mirrored Osama bin Laden’s dream of establishing a new caliphate based on Islamic principles. When put to the test, the president’s vision of peace gained by waging preventive war had proven to be just as fanciful as bin Laden’s and hardly less pernicious.”

Bacevich mentions only one theologian. “Decades before...Reinhold Niebuhr had chided Americans about entertaining ‘dreams of managing history,’ a temptation to which he deemed his countrymen peculiarly susceptible.” In his introduction to the 2008 republication of The Irony of American History, “the most important book ever written about U.S. foreign policy,” Bacevich asserts that Niebuhr “provides the master understanding the myths and delusions that underpin this new American view of statecraft.“

“Niebuhr once observed,” continues Bacevich, “that the wealth and power of the United States presented ‘special temptations to vanity and arrogance which militate against our moral prestige and authority.’” That is indeed the irony of American history, nowhere more tragically embodied than in America’s War for the Greater Middle East, as so comprehensively demonstrated in this epochal book.

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