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