Andrew Bacevich Discusses America’s War for the Greater Middle East

U.S. foreign policy in the Greater Middle East has been a costly and counterproductive train wreck. But the elites who are responsible can’t see what is plainly apparent to the rest of us. Why is this?

Historian Andrew Bacevich has a few ideas. He’ll be at Cato next week to discuss his latest book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, and he previewed the book this past weekend at Politico Magazine.

Bacevich focuses on two key questions, and offers one big answer:

Why has the world’s mightiest military achieved so little even while absorbing very considerable losses and inflicting even greater damage on the subjects of America’s supposed beneficence? Second, why in the face of such unsatisfactory outcomes has the United States refused to chart a different course? In short, why can’t we win? And since we haven’t won, why can’t we get out?

The answer to these questions starts with questioning the premise. The tendency to see the region and Islamic world primarily as a problem that will yield to an American military solution is, in fact, precisely the problem. To an unseemly and ultimately self-destructive degree, we have endorsed the misguided militarization of U.S. foreign policy. As a consequence, we have allowed our country to be pulled into the impossible task of trying to “shape” the region through martial means.

We should dwell in particular on this idea of “shaping” the region, and the rest of the planet, generally.

The concept appears prominently in an early draft of the Pentagon’s Defense Planning Guidance of 1992. “The new international environment has…been shaped by the victory of the United States and its coalition allies over Iraqi aggression.” That was both “the first post-cold-war conflict” and “a defining event in U.S. global leadership,” going forward.

Then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz, who helped supervise the drafting of the DPG, believed that the application of U.S. military power would deal with the “sources of regional instability in ways that promote international law, limit international violence, and encourage the spread of democratic government and open economic systems.” 

But Wolfowitz and other leaders of the foreign policy establishment vastly exaggerated the U.S. military’s capacity for shaping the global order. The Middle East has proved particularly resistant to U.S. “shaping.” Instead, the presence of U.S. forces has engendered considerable resistance. This often manifests itself in the form of violence against our military personnel in the region, as with the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, or the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. But it also comes in the form of acts of terrorism against Americans and U.S. interests, including the attacks on embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and, of course, right here at home on 9/11.

Foreign policy elites may have wanted to reshape the Middle East, and then the world, but our responses to the threat of Islamist terrorism emanating from the region have mostly shaped us.

Even Wolfowitz appreciated the danger of terrorist blowback. In making the case for war with Iraq in 2003, he admitted that resentment over the stationing of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, had “been Osama bin Laden’s principal recruiting device,” and he predicted that the removal of U.S. troops from the kingdom would have positive effects throughout the region. “Just lifting that burden from the Saudis is itself going to open the door” to a more peaceful Middle East, Wolfowitz told interviewer Sam Tannenhaus in the spring of 2003.

Looking ahead to the post-Hussein period, Wolfowitz implied that the removal of Hussein would enable the United States to withdraw troops from the region. “I can’t imagine anyone here wanting to … be there for another 12 years to continue helping recruit terrorists.”

But that was 13 years ago. And, of course, U.S. troops did stay in Iraq for nearly nine years. Bacevich discusses the shifting rationales with his typical flair. Some foreign policy elites now think that U.S. troops never should have left Iraq, and a few want them to go back in (plus Syria, just for good measure). The interventionists appear just as committed to trying to shape the Middle East as they were before we spent trillions of dollars, suffered and/or caused tens of thousands of deaths, and bequeathed to the people of Iraq, and the wider region, chaos, civil war, and despair.

I discuss Bacevich’s article and book in a recent post at The National Interest blog The Skeptics. And if you’d like to hear more from Prof. Bacevich, be sure to sign up to attend next week’s discussion to be held at Cato on Wednesday, April 13th, at Noon. For more details, and to register, visit here