Andrew Bacevich’s new book America’s War for the Greater Middle East was recently published by Random House. In this work, Bacevich argues that starting in 1980, the United States started a war in the greater Middle East – an almost four decade long war. He argues this war started with Carter’s Malaise Speech. This led the President to declare the Middle East a vital area of interest for the United States following the oil embargo and the Iranian Revolution. Since then, the USA slowly entangled itself into a war for the Middle East.
The book delves into the policies, key points, and wars of the US efforts to shape the Middle East, but in a recent talk he distilled the most important features of this four decades-long war. In the book and his talk, he contends that America’s war for the Middle East started with oil, but that it is also fundamentally about asserting American preeminence and projecting it forward into the 21st century. Carry the “American Century” into the 21st century.
Although his talk does not delve into each successive administrations machinations in the Middle East (you have to read the book for that), Bacevich argues that they all tried to shape, or bring the Middle East into line. However, no administration developed a plausible strategy to bring about the desired American results and none made the means available to bring about significant change. All dabbled. Some more than others. Moreover, providing the means would mean making the American people sacrifice, but each administration sought to maintain normalcy on the homefront. Something learned from Vietnam. Keep Americans fat and wealthy and they will not question the wars fought by the all-volunteer force.
This is another thrust of talk. These conflict are a product of the disinterested American people who are easily distracted by the newest technological gadget or celebrity gossip. American support freedom and democracy around the world as long as we are able to enjoy our own abundance, freedom and security. Us first. Then you. These demands are met by successive administrations that fight wars on the cheap to ensure the people remain fat and happy.
In handling the Middle East, Bacevich suggest that the US had two options. First, Washington could wait and promote non-violence with no guarantee of success. Second, Washington could try and eliminate the problem through Military Actions and greater sacrifice among the American people. However, Bacevich believes the US took a Middle Ground strategy. They United States intervened when necessary. This allowed the war to continue on auto pilot and made war in the Middle East normal. Americans no longer question the stationing of thousands of US military personnel in the Middle East just as they no longer questioned those in Europe during the Cold War.
Why does American have a never ending war and commitments in the Middle East? Bacevich emphasizes four factors. First, there is no antiwar or anti-interventionist party in the United States. The war for the greater Middle East is a bipartisan war. And both are deeply entrenched. Second, Politicians would much rather support the troops and the war than question the war and US presence in the Middle East. This involves asking hard questions and challenging the American people. Third, institutions benefit from never ending war. The military-industrial-complex gets to continue manufacturing weapons for both sides and make large profits. Fourth, most Americans are oblivious to the war’s negative effects. They are too busy with their lives or uninterested in their country’s actions to question and think about war.
For Bacevich, the war for the greater Middle East has been wasteful and unsuccessful. Moreover, the 21st century is changing. The United States is not a singular world power and must learn to live in a multi-polar world. American wants of freedom, abundance, and security are changing. Asia is eclipsing everything, but remains out of the lime-light even with the so-called Asian pivot. The Middle East is not crucial to American security and the US cannot shape the Middle East. The US must allow the region to reshape itself.
Lastly, Bacevich offered three alternative strategies for the Middle East. First, the US should self-protect. Terrorism is a modest threat. 9/11 occurred because of a break down in the United States. If the government agencies such as the FBI, CIA, and TSA are operating correctly, terrorism not a significant threat. Second, to restore stability to the Middle East, the US should use diplomatic power, not military power. As Ambassador Ryan Crocker once said wingtips and heels on the ground, not boots. Finally, promote agents of change. Support those states seeking to bring peace and balance to the Middle East.
In terms of current events, Bacevich made several comments. First, he believes that President Obama’s easing of tensions with Iran is the most creative diplomatic action the United States has taken in the Middle East in decades. By restoring Iran into the world of nations, Iran can act locally and internationally. It also acts as a balance to Saudi Arabia. He does not think Iran will have nuclear capabilities soon and that the monitoring process is working. Discussing the current election, Bacevich seems disappointed with both candidates, like many Americans. He does not think that Trump has the capacity to understand the complexities of the Middle East. Concerning Secretary Clinton. Bacevich believes that she will continue current polices and is more hawkish then most believe. He sees her encouragement to intervene in Libya, rather than Benghazi as her major flaw that foreshadows her future foreign policy.
For the most part, this talk was well received and most seemed to agree with his positions, particularly from the point that the United States disengage from the Middle East militarily. This, he seems to believe, will force the nations in the region to reach mutual understandings. However, this seems flawed. First, this seems to significantly overlook the role of religion in the region. Those states that are stable, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel, are dominated by a single religion or branch of Islam. The other states are rife with sectarian violence, even Turkey which he identified as a stable nation. The answer to this question may lay in the book where denounces the belief that intermingling of cultures is good. In this case, he seems to support the idea of Middle Eastern states dominated by a either Sunni or Shia, not nations with both branches of Islam.
Yet, Bacevich does not seem to be one for nuance. In neither his book nor his talk did he discuss the complex tapestry of faiths and peoples of the region and the wars they are fighting amongst themselves. Moreover, while he acknowledges that the British essentially created the modern Middle East after the First World War with no regard to the peoples and their traditions, he accepts the fact that the Middle East should develop modern sovereign nations like the West, though few have any history of sovereignty. This is a region dominated by tribal and religious loyalties. Can peoples of different tribes and religious factions even work together to form stable states? Do they even want stable states?
In analyzing and critiquing US policy, military intervention, and naïveté, Bacevich is insightful and sharp, but when thinking about the Middle East as a place where different peoples live, he often generalizes. Ignoring this diversity seems the flaw of most politicians and generals. They see the Middle East, but they ignore its unique culture and history. Understanding the range of peoples and cultures that Bacevich lumps into the Middle East seems essential to Bacevich’s call for a diplomatic involvement in the Middle East.