Small Wars Journal

Book Review - America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History

Thu, 04/28/2016 - 5:58am

Book Review - America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History

Jeong Lee

America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History by Andrew J. Bacevich. Published by Random House, NY, 2016 (Kindle E-Book Edition).

The United States has botched its grand strategy for the Middle East. Consequently, the U.S. armed forces and policymakers are unable to extricate themselves from the quagmire of their own making. Thus, according to the Boston University historian and a retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich in his latest book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, the central question to be investigated is, how and where did we get our grand strategy for the Middle East wrong?

Bacevich addresses the above question by tracing the origins of the U.S. involvement in the Greater Middle East, a vast expanse of territories spanning from Central Asia to Africa, from the late 1970s until the present. Throughout the book, Bacevich argues that America’s insatiable thirst for foreign oil provided the rationale for its involvement in the Middle East with devastating consequences both at home and abroad.

Bacevich’s comprehensive account of what transpired in the ongoing war in the Middle East forces his reader to pause and ponder the implications of a poorly planned and executed grand strategy where the United States suffered from the mismatch between means and ends. However, the book will not likely be well-received by those tasked with planning and implementing our grand strategy.

To trace the origin of the grand strategy gone awry, the author takes his readers back to the mid-1970s shortly after the Vietnam War. Although in the 1970s, the Department of Defense (DoD) did not believe that the U.S. needed to send troops to the Middle East to secure its energy needs, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was to inexorably upend the American strategic calculus. Bacevich argues that the ouster of the Shah, coupled with the hostage crisis in Tehran, led to a “second oil shock” which adversely impacted the struggling U.S. economy. However, Operation Eagle Claw, where the Carter administration sought to rescue hostages held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1980 using special operations forces (SOFs), portended an ominous fate awaiting the misbegotten U.S. enterprise in the Greater Middle East. According to Bacevich, Eagle Claw proved to be a “warning from the gods or from God: Do not delude yourself.”

Then as now, Bacevich contends that U.S. policymakers and the public alike were oblivious to such warnings to not attempt to meddle in the affairs of the Islamic world with its military might. To buttress his argument, he adduces as his proof the effects of Carter’s so-called “Malaise Speech.” Bacevich writes that although Carter, as the nation’s putative “pastor-in-chief,” “call[ed] for a new Great Awakening” to desist from the nation’s collective “worship [of] the Golden Calf and return to true religion” in the aftermath of the ill-fated Eagle Claw, the president unwittingly escalated the U.S. involvement in the Greater Middle East when he promulgated the Carter Doctrine to replicate the Vietnam War for the Soviets in Afghanistan. In short, Bacevich argues that the Malaise Speech, which the president delivered so that the American public could decide for themselves how they wanted to live their lives, in effect, circumscribed Carter’s option for maneuver.

For this reason, the author contends that the American enterprise in the Greater Middle East was doomed to fail from the get-go. Indeed, the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, Operation Praying Mantis undertaken to punish the small Iranian navy in 1988, Desert Storm in 1991, the Battle of Mogadishu, better known as Black Hawk Down, in 1993, and the peacekeeping mission in former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s offered glimpses of the ominous quagmire awaiting the United States in the 21st Century. Taken together as a whole, Bacevich avers that America’s brief forays into the Islamic world prior to 9/11 showed that “As the Soviet Union faded from the scene, Washington began entertaining visions of policing the entirety of the Greater Middle East.” According to Bacevich, these events also exposed America’s ignorance of the role of history and religion in the Islamic world.  The author contends that one manifestation of such ignorance has been that “rather than the military serving as the handmaiden of diplomacy…diplomacy now took a backseat to military imperatives.” Thus, the author echoes his 2002 book, American Empire, when he argues that throughout the history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, the one overarching theme has been the continuity in the miscalculation of U.S. grand strategic objectives.

Not surprisingly, throughout the book, Bacevich is scathing towards policy elites who define and execute the nation’s grand strategy. For instance, the author charges that, as early as the mid-1970s, the young Paul Wolfwowitz sought to steer the United States towards a preemptive war against Iraq. Bacevich also criticizes the former Central Command (CENTCOM) commanders, Generals George Crist (USMC), and Norman Schwarzkopf  (USA), for conjuring up non-existent threats to justify CENTCOM’s raisons d’être in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The willful ignorance of the dynamics at play in the Islamic world, coupled with U.S. policymakers’ desire to spread Wilsonian ideals to supposedly secure U.S. strategic interests culminated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq where, according to the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the putative objective of the preemptive war was “to change the way the terrorists live…to put them on the defensive.” Moreover, where the Bush administration sought to decapitate Saddam Hussein with ground troops, Bacevich charges that the Obama administration, despite its desire to not repeat the mistakes of the previous administration, replicated Operation Iraqi Freedom in Libya. When I emailed Bacevich to elaborate on his assertions vis-à-vis the parallels between Iraq and Libya, he replied that, despite differences in methods employed, in the end, both Bush and Obama “inadvertently destabilized two very different countries.”

Bacevich’s book falls short for two reasons. First, given the author’s biases against powers that be, America’s War for the Greater Middle East is perhaps culpable of downplaying the official accounts of the events that transpired. For instance, regarding the early tactical victories in the initial phase of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Bacevich chastises Gen. Tommy Franks for having “unleashed upon Afghans forces of anarchy and [being] oblivious to what the restoration of order [in Afghanistan] was now likely to require.” However, Joseph Collins of the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University wrote in his latest edited volume, Lessons Encountered, that the U.S. “plan [in Afghanistan] also featured making humanitarian food drops and, later, having U.S. and coalition conventional forces mop up and go after the remaining Taliban and al Qaeda elements.” When I asked Collins to clarify the above statement, he told me that the nation-building was “was done for its own sake.  Afghanistan had nothing... [dating back to the Saur Revolution in] April 1978. It was devastated and even in Kabul, many did not have enough to eat...[Thus], humanitarian urge was leading here.” Second, as with Bacevich’s previous books, America’s War for the Greater Middle East falls short because it fails to offer a workable alternative course of action for remedying the extant flaws. For instance, where the author recommends “defending Venezuela and Canada” where “it would likely enjoy greater success, to boot,” he blithely ignores the possibility that these two sovereign countries also might resent U.S. military occupation within their own respective borders. When I later pressed him for possible remedies to redress the current woes in U.S. grand strategy, he answered: “On that subject, I am merely a historian.”

Nonetheless, on its own terms, America’s War for the Greater Middle East succeeds in dissecting the factors at play that continue to bedevil U.S. involvement in the Islamic world. Bacevich’s latest book is to be lauded for providing a comprehensive revisionist account of how the United States inextricably found itself stuck in a quagmire of its own making. Indeed, the book leaves its readers to ask how we may refrain from repeating elsewhere the strategic failures consequent to the ongoing war in the Middle East.

Strategic ambiguity is something we still grapple with. At this juncture, I am afraid that we may not have definite answers to the above question.

About the Author(s)

Jeong Lee is a freelance writer and an MA candidate in International Security Studies Program at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. His writings on U.S. defense policy issues and inter-Korean affairs have appeared on various online publications including the Small Wars Journal.


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What about Obama’s recent murder by drone of the Taliban leader?
I cannot imagine anything more stupid and criminal.
Drones are as scary as A-bombs.
Will everyone have them?
Islamism is not going away.
With whom will America negotiate?

delete duplicate

What about Obama’s recent murder by drone of the Taliban leader?
I cannot imagine anything more stupid and criminal.
Drones are as scary as A-bombs.
Will everyone have them?
Islamism is not going away.
With whom will America negotiate?

Bill M.

Sun, 05/01/2016 - 4:09am

In reply to by jleeblogger

True, I had to rely on your review for the most part; however, I have read two of his books, at least three of his articles, and listened to a couple of his presentations on YouTube. I am quite familiar with author's arguments, they tend to follow a common theme that America is always wrong, our Generals are incompetent, and that we're not an exceptional country. It is quite clear what he is against, it would be nice to know what he stands for, and when he thinks military force should be applied. As for ad hominem attacks, this is certainly not an area the professor shies away from in his writing.


Sun, 05/01/2016 - 1:33am

In reply to by Bill M.

I think you have to read the book first before you resort to ad hominem attacks against the Professor. He does acknowledge oil and the Soviet containment as the drivers behind U.S. interests. But let's not conflate interests with a viable strategy.

Bacevich is a bitter man who seeks every opportunity to criticize American foreign policy. He thinks any use of American power is hubris, and doesn't hesitate to extrapolate partial facts out of context to make his case. While there are few among us that can defend our hubris post 9/11, especially the policy to remove Saddam (fair goal) and then establish a democratic government on a shoestring budget (not enough troops on the ground, and other agencies outside of DOD invested less because they had less) was pure hubris. We certainly transformed the Middle East, but it wasn't into the vision the neocons anticipated.

Contrary to Bacevich's claim, I think we did have a grand strategy for the ME prior to 9/11. It was to maintain relative stability so the oil would flow, and to keep the Soviets out. What we apparently failed to do was detect the indicators and warnings in the human domain that led to the revolution in Iran and the ousting of the Shah. In 1979 there were serious issues related to extremism in Saudi also that were suppressed in Western news reporting based on the coverage of Iran. If Bacevich actually wrote that the subsequent Operation EAGLE CLAW was a “warning from the gods or from God, then he was half right. It wasn't a warning not to intervene, especially when American lives are at stake, but a warning not to under invest in defense, and to maintain a small persistent footprint of military and intelligence operatives (this happened after the Halloween Massacre that gutted the CIA) globally dispersed globally to enable operations for the range of unforeseen events that could threaten U.S. interests. If he focused our comments on our involvement with the Shah prior to the Iranian Revolution, it would have made sense. To focus his comments on the military operation EAGLE CLAW is misleading and self-serving.

Then he apparently confuses Afghanistan and Somalia as being in the Middle East. Trivial point I know, but if his intent was to criticize CENTCOM instead of U.S. policy in the Middle East, then he should have titled his book as such. His criticism directed against GEN Franks in Afghanistan may have some merit, but it was his mission to remove the Taliban government that was providing protection to Al-Qaeda. Yes, when you remove a government chaos will ensue, just as it ensued in much of post WWII Europe. Failing to deal effectively with that points to the inability of our interagency to work effectively together and the unrealistic goals of the Bush administration. As for the mission in Somalia, Bacevich writes like a junior journalist seeking the sensational report. In the UN and DOD the operation there was not known as Black Hawk Down, that was one incident in what was other wise a relatively successful mission to deliver humanitarian aid to the Somali people. The military enabled that, but it didn't stop the warring factions from fighting one another.


Sun, 05/01/2016 - 1:38am

In reply to by Bill C.

His key point in citing the Wilson speech per Appleman's argument in American Empire was that Wilson deliberately led the U.S. into a European war. This was contrary to the beliefs and principles which the Founding Fathers ardently fought for.

The following from our reviewer's referenced earlier (2002) COL Bacevich book entitled: "American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy (the below Wilson quote is to be found at the end of the "preface" of this earlier book):


We did not of deliberate choice undertake these new tasks which shall transform us ... all the world knows the surprising circumstances which thrust them upon us came ... as if part of a great preconceived plan ... The whole world had already become a single vicinage; each part had become neighbor to all the rest. No nation could live any longer to itself ... [It has become] the duty of the US to play a part, and a leading part at that, in the opening and transformation of the East ... The East is to be opened and transformed whether we will or no; the standards of the West are to be imposed upon it; nations and peoples which have stood still the centuries through ... [will be] made part of the universal world of commerce and of ideas ... it is our peculiar duty ... to moderate the process in the interests of liberty ... This we will do ... by giving them, in the spirit of service, a government and rule which shall moralize them by being itself moral.

Woodrow Wilson October 1900.


Following the Old Cold War of yesterday; wherein, "containing the spread of communism" was our strategic imperative, the above (advancing the spread of market-democracy) became our strategic focus.

In this light to ask:

a. Given the clear lack of such things as "universal (western) values," can the task, outlined by Wilson above and embraced by the U.S./the West following the Old Cold War; can this task be accomplished (in any reasonable time-frame) minus (1) the use of military force and, indeed, without (2) military force being in the lead?

b. Given the clarity offered by Wilson above, to ask whether "strategic ambiguity," as suggested by our reviewer in his last paragraph below, actually exists?

(Herein to suggest that while the war in the Greater Middle East may have begun as a war to preserve the American way of life -- which had become, in large part, based on the availability of cheap oil -- the war in the Greater Middle East, following the Old Cold War of yesterday, this appears to have been based more on resurgent Wilsonian ideals.)


Sun, 05/01/2016 - 1:40am

In reply to by dkolva



Sat, 04/30/2016 - 1:38pm

In reply to by dkolva

It is certainly structurally true, as you note, that "Without a clear vision of what the Middle East should look like 10-20 years from now and how the region can best interact with the international community, we will not get there anytime soon."

However, it also begs the question What party is going to decide "what" the area of Southwest Asia known in the U.S. and Britain as the Middle East "is going to look like 10-20 years from now?"

Should we believe that any Western Nation or combination thereof is willing to invest the vast sums and make the political and military investment to enforce that result on what surely be a resisting population of millions?

Is there any nation in the West or the so-called Middle East sufficiently strong enough (militarily and financially) to make that determination and produce that result -- presuming that vision is one wherein we attempt to force upon the resident populations the form of government and culture we deem acceptable?

When looking for local allies we must remember that there is no love lost, to say the least, between Arabs, Turks, Persians, etc -- something the Iranians will eventually find out when their Arab allies turn on them when they no longer need them. The Arabs themselves are secularly, religiously, and culturally divided; and in fact large numbers of the Middle Eastern Population will advise one their country does not speak "Arabic," but instead has their own language. And, the cultural differences among, and often within, the various Nations of that area are radically diverse. Those facts seem to preclude Middle Eastern populations ever adopting a common culture, form of government, and political process.

Also, where does the Mahan / British Colonial Office denoted / named Middle East geographically begin and end, at least as concerns our strategic interests?

Literally untying the Gordian Knot (sans Alexander's method) would be far simpler than developing an agreed up vision for what the Middle East should look like accepted by all its parties.

Perhaps it would be simpler to instead determine / define our (the Western World's) economic and accompanying political interests in that area and have sustaining that interest as our strategic vision -- and then plan to act accordingly?

You certainly are correct, this nation needs to define from our perspective "vision of what the Middle East should look like 10-20 years from now." Developing that "vision" is going to require a pragmatic and realistic approach from the strategic thinkers in our government -- an approach they seem never to be able to adopt bbecause too many of them are from academically oriented environments and function intellectually guided by that textbook type of thinking.

Great review. We have been lacking a grand strategy for quite a while now. What we have are a series of 2-4 year "strategies" that deal with the enemy of the day. Without a clear vision of what the Middle East should look like 10-20 years from now and how the region can best interact with the international community, we will not get there anytime soon.