Every year the United States seems to be torn between further retreat from the Middle East and deeper military involvement in it.
Over the past four decades, America has bombed pharmaceutical plants in Sudan and cars from Yemen to Afghanistan. It has promoted democracy in the Palestinian territories, then subterfuge and civil war in Syria. In Iraq alone, it has tried war, sanctions, no-fly zones, shock-and-awe, regime change, withdrawal, and, now, bombing again.
Instead of seeing these and other conflicts as numerous and distinct, former U.S. Army Colonel and current professor emeritus at Boston University Andrew J. Bacevich describes it as a unified four-decade-plus struggle in his new book. In America's War for the Greater Middle East, Bacevich covers the military failures and the near-successes as a military historian. But he engages the entirety of Middle East policy as something of a prophet, where the power fantasies of America's elite and American society's decadence are as much to blame for military failure as bad planning.
In Bacevich's telling, our long war in trying to shape the Middle East was precipitated by the oil shocks of the '70s, the Iranian Revolution, and the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan. President Jimmy Carter, looking at Soviet power just a few hundred miles from the Strait of Hormuz, announced 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." Perhaps more darkly, this war has been impelled by a concept of freedom that has gripped American thought, one that identifies America's existence almost exclusively with power, riches, and consumption.
Bacevich casts a dark eye on American policymakers, blinded by their own ideological priors about American power and the direction of world history. America's elite have tried to "shape" parts of the Islamic world according to American notions. American policy is made by leaders who share a view that history has an ineluctable direction, toward American-style freedom and managed market economies, who believe that America's system of meritocracy and America's preeminent military power empower them with the wisdom and wherewithal to shape events on a global scale. And perhaps most fatally:
A final assumption counts on the inevitability of America's purposes ultimately winning acceptance, even in the Islamic world. The subjects of U.S. benefactions will then obligingly submit to Washington's requirements and warmly embrace American norms. If not today, then surely tomorrow, the United States will receive the plaudits and be granted the honors that liberators rightly deserve. Near-term disappointments can be discounted given the certainty that better outcomes lie just ahead. [America's War for the Greater Middle East]
The word for this is hubris. And hubris, along with a cultivated lack of America's sustained public interest in this ongoing conflict, has led to chaos and indecision. In contrast to the victory and unconditional surrender effected by WWII, or the long-term effect of the Cold War military buildup that kept the Soviet Union contained, Andrew Bacevich concludes that the U.S. has tried multiple military strategies in the Middle East, most without a rational basis:
In the War for the Greater Middle East, the United States chose neither to contain nor to crush, instead charting a course midway in between. In effect, it chose aggravation. With politicians and generals too quick to declare victory and with the American public too quick to throw their hands up when faced with adversity, U.S. forces rarely stayed long enough to finish the job. Instead of intimidating, U.S. military efforts have annoyed, incited, and generally communicated a lack of both competence and determination. [America's War for the Greater Middle East]
Bacevich's book has an almost Solomonic authorial voice. America's War can feel at times like a book written 50 years from now and narrated by a historian from a country that has succeeded America in world pre-eminence. He covers each discreet conflict and the illusions that impelled it or were birthed from it with an exacting and grave precision. Like John Quincy Adams, Bacevich longs for a doctrine that rationalizes America's power and its purposes in the world. But like the famous Cold War diplomat George Kennan, there is something of a prophetic small-r Republican kicking around in Bacevich's critique, a desire for an America with a truly engaged and self-governing citizenry.
And although the book is sweeping in its scope and gains a towering moral authority by its conclusion, Bacevich stops short of making any direct plea for the kind of introspection and even spiritual renewal that would lead to a different foreign policy, perhaps by cultivating a different ethic in the American people and their leadership class. Instead he points out that while the Middle East will still be an irritant to America for some time to come, the energy that the world depends on is now found in abundance in the Western hemisphere and the balance of economic power is shifting dramatically to Asia. The unstated and perhaps morally unsatisfying conclusion is that while America's expansive military policy in the Middle East may reveal itself to be a bad deal in the near future, geopolitical forces may conspire to push America to move on without ever truly reckoning the cost of its folly.