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Military historian Andrew Bacevich’s devastating review of our 35-year war in the ‘Greater Middle East’

Speaking in Minneapolis, the retired U.S. Army colonel says that by almost any measure, the region is less stable and more dangerous than it was in 1980.

Andrew Bacevich speaking at Thursday's Westminster Town Hall Forum.
Westminster Town Hall Forum

In his last State of the Union address, in January of 1980, President Jimmy Carter announced what became known as the Carter Doctrine. The paragraph that enunciated it, reportedly written by Carter’s hawkish national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, stated:

“Let our position be absolutely clear: 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.”

Before that, the United States had a relatively small military presence in the Middle East. Since then, it has grown bigger and bigger. Now, with the Obama administration struggling to find a policy to deal with ISIS, you might say we are marking 35-plus years when U.S. military action revolves more and more around the Mideast and some other nearby portions of the world in which Islam predominates.

And how is that working out?

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Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel, now a professor at Boston University and a frequent critic of U.S. military policy, has a new book coming out in the spring that treats the whole story of U.S. struggles in Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Libya and many other predominantly Muslim nations as one long, complicating, ever-morphing war in which the United States has struggled to impose its will on what he calls the “Greater Middle East.” The book is titled “America’s War for the Greater Middle East.”

In a talk Thursday as part of the venerable lecture series known as the Westminster Town Hall Forum and co-sponsored by MinnPost, Bacevich previewed the book and gave this summary of where we stand 35 years into that war:  

“We have not won it. We are not winning it. And simply pressing on is not likely to produce positive results next year or the year after.”

Perhaps even worse than “not winning it” is not being able to realistically describe what would constitute winning. Toward the end of his talk at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis, Bacevich asserted that even in a presidential campaign when foreign and military policy are on the table:

“One subject in particular remains off limits: The overall prospects of the U.S. military project in the Islamic world. Thirty-five years after Jimmy Carter signed off on the Carter Doctrine, that project appears further from completion than when it had begun. By almost any measure, the region is less stable and more dangerous than it was in 1980. Not only are American purposes unfulfilled, they’re becoming increasingly difficult to define with any sort of specificity.”

Bacevich’s review of the history is devastating to presidents of both parties and the policies they have followed. There were no exceptions to this. Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, another Bush and now Obama come across in Bacevich’s telling as having no clear plan or realistic objective, meandering from one tactic to another without a coherent strategy, and he doesn’t think there’s a plan on the table now that has much chance of leading to a better place.

The latest, says Bacevich:

“Obama announced the beginning of a new air campaign against the Islamic State, even as he assured Americans that: ‘I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.’ Now, in the American military lexicon, ‘Mission Creep’ is a term of opprobrium… It suggests action without clearly defined purpose. But when it comes to ISIS, the mission is unquestionably creeping.

“Here in the fall of 2015, no one can say how the fight against ISIS is going to turn out. But will defeating ISIS actually solve anything? Probably not, since the conditions that have given rise to ISIL continue to exist.”

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I found his overview and analysis nothing short of brilliant. I will confess that I am a big fan of Bacevich’s thinking and writing (and if you have time, I’ve written about his views here, here and here).

I liked his talk Thursday so much that I’ve transcribed his opening remarks and they are appended below. I know that his insights share a lot with anti-establishment scholars of the past who have urged Americans not to worship at the altar of American exceptionalism.

Maybe it’s his former military career that gives his views a little extra zip for me. In the case of his forthcoming book, one of the big elements is to treat the overall military effort by the United States in the Mideast as one long war.

For much of this war, U.S. presidents had no overall strategy, Bacevich said (and it’s not clear to me that there is really a strategy now).

Below is my transcription of his opening remarks:

For well over 30 years now, the United States military has been intensively engaged in various quarters of the Islamic world and an end to that involvement is nowhere in sight. To tick off the countries in that region that U.S. force have invaded, occupied, garrisoned, bombed or raided and where American soldiers have killed or been killed, since 1980, they include Iraq and Afghanistan, of course, but also  Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan and Syria. The list just keeps getting longer.

What are we to make of the larger enterprise in which the United States has been engaged for the past three decades? What is the nature of the struggle we are waging? What should we call it?

In the days after 9/11, Americans called it the Global War on Terrorism, a misleading term that has since fallen out of favor. For a brief period during the early years of the George W. Bush administration, certain neoconservatives promoted the term “World War IV.” This never caught on, however, in part because unlike other major conflicts, this one found the American people sitting on the sidelines.

With the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan dragging on inconclusively, some military officers in the middle of the last decade began referring to it as what they called “the long war.” And while nicely capturing the temporal nature of the conflict, this label had nothing to say about purpose, adversary or location. As with “World War IV,” “the long war” never gained traction.

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Here’s another possibility: Since 1980, back when Jimmy Carter promulgated the “Carter Doctrine,” the United States has been engaged in what we should rightfully call “America’s War for the Middle East.” The premise underlying that can be simply stated: With disorder, dysfunction and disarray posing a rising threat to the U.S. national security interests, the adroit application of hard power should enable the United States to curb those tendencies and thereby foster conditions conducive to U.S. interests.

Use whatever term you like: police, pacify, shape, control, dominate, transform. In 1980, President Carter launched the United States on a project aimed at nothing less than determining the fate and future of the people inhabiting the nations from West Africa and Maghreb, all the way across the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf to central Asia.

Since the end of World War II, American soldiers had fought and died in Asia. And even when the wars in Korea and Vietnam ended, U.S. troop contingents continued to garrison that region. In Europe, a major U.S. military presence dating to the start of the Cold War signaled Washington’s interest to fight there as well. But prior to President Carter’s landmark 1980 statement, no comparable commitment to the Islamic world existed. And now that was going to change.

Only in retrospect does this become clear, of course. At the time, when President Carter declared the Persian Gulf a vital national security interest, he did not intend to embark upon a war. Nor did President Carter anticipate what course that war was going to follow — its duration, costs and consequences. Like the European statesmen who just over a century ago touched off the cataclysm that we now know as World War I, Carter merely lit a fuse without knowing where it led.

As an American, let me state plainly my own overall assessment of that war.   

We have not won it. We are not winning it. And simply pressing on is not likely to produce positive results next year or the year after.

The questions arising from this commitment will continue to occupy and perhaps confound scholars for years to come. In my remarks today, I will limit myself to four of the most fundamental questions.

First, what motivated the United States to act as it has? Second, what have the civilians responsible for formulating policy and the soldiers charged with implementing that policy sought to accomplish? Third, regardless of their intentions, what actually ensued? And fourth, with what consequences?

The United States embarked upon its war for the Greater Middle East in order to preserve the American way of life. The United States embarked upon its war for the Greater Middle East in order to ensure access to Persian Gulf oil.

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Both of those statements are true. Back in the 1980s, the American way of life required bountiful supplies of cheap oil. Even today, whether for good or for ill, that remains the case. Back in the 1980s, the approaching depletion of once-bountiful American fossil fuel reserves appeared to be an irreversible fact of life. The implications of that fact, driven home to the American people by successive oil shocks during the 1970s, vaulted the oil of the Persian Gulf into the first tier of U.S. interests.

Just as the American Civil War was about slavery, America’s war in the Greater Middle East has been about oil. Of course, slavery alone did not define all that divided the North and South. … Similarly, from the outset, oil alone does not fully explain what drew the United States militarily in the Greater Middle East.

At stake were the expectations of limitlessness that many Americans take to be part of their birthright.

In the 1970s, the United States had seemingly run headlong into limits. In Vietnam it encountered a war that it could not win. At home, the golden age of post-war prosperity sputtered to an end. Americans confronted slow growth, high inflation and industrial decline. The oil shocks of that decade were the icing on an unwelcome and unpalatable cake.  

The war for the Greater Middle East was one expression of a collective determination to affirm the singularity of the United States as a nation not bound by the constraints that others were obliged to respect.

In 2001, as the conflict was entering its third decade, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took it upon himself to make explicit the rationale for war that until that moment had been largely implicit.

We have a choice, Rumsfeld explained, either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way they live. And we chose the latter.

We are exceptional and indispensable — so most Americans, even today, believe.

And just as prior victories, notably in 1865 and 1945, had established and affirmed that singular status, so could victory in the Greater Middle East preserve it. Now the resulting war can be divided into four phases. That is, four phases thus far.

Phase One began in 1980 with the failed hostage-rescue mission known as Operation Eagle Claw  and ended in 1991 with Operation Provide Comfort, the U.S. effort to assist the Iraqi Kurds after Operation Desert Storm. In the interim — that is, between 1980 and 1991 — an ill-conceived peacekeeping enterprise in Lebanon contrived by the Reagan administration and ending with the Beirut bombing of October 1983 and inconsequential jousting with Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi that ended with the terrorist attack that destroyed Pan Am flight 103, killing all on-board.

Meanwhile, during the first Gulf War of 1980 to 1988, the U.S. intervened both openly and covertly on behalf of Saddam Hussein, even as the Reagan administration was secretly and illegally providing arms to Iran. Go figure.

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, covert U.S. supplies to jihadists attempting to oust Soviet occupiers ended up creating conditions leading to the rise of the Taliban, while encouraging radical Islamists like Osama bin Laden into the belief that superpowers could be had.

When Saddam Hussein responded to the end of his war with Iran by invading neighboring Kuwait, George Herbert Walker Bush assembled a massive coalition that restored Kuwaiti sovereignty in a campaign that seemed for a time to be a massive victory. Appearances deceived, however. The enduring legacy of that war was to reduce any remaining constraints in Washington’s inclination to use its military power.

U.S. military intervention in the Middle East was becoming a matter of routine.

By the time Phase One ended, the U.S. had committed itself to the Greater Middle East on multiple occasions in multiple places. Yet neither Carter nor Reagan nor the elder Bush had devised anything remotely like a strategy to guide U.S. policy. In Washington, a coherent vision of what the U.S. was trying to do did not exist.

Phase Two of America’s war in the Middle East began in 1992 when the elder Bush ordered U.S. troops to intervene in Somalia and ended a decade later in 2002, when Bush’s son prematurely abandoned Afghanistan, assuming that the overthrow of the Taliban meant that the United States had finished with that country.

In the interim — between 1992 and 2002 — what had begun as a humanitarian intervention on behalf of starving Somalis, morphed into an urban insurgency culminating in humiliating withdrawal when the notorious “Blackhawk Down” incident occurred and persuaded President Bill Clinton to cut his losses.

Clinton did fare somewhat better in two interventions in the Balkans on behalf of besieged Muslim minorities, first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo.

A U.S.-led air campaign, followed by U.S.-led occupation, enabled Bosnian Muslims and then Kosovars to achieve their aims but without improving Washington’s overall standing in the Islamic world.

Of greater significance than these two Balkan interventions were the unintended consequences of the so-called “dual containment policy” inaugurated by the elder Bush and then sustained by Clinton.

Containing both Iraq and Iran in the 1990s required the permanent stationing of U.S. military forces near the Persian Gulf, notably in Saudi Arabia. Low-level hostilities with Iraq continued throughout this decade, albeit with few Americans taking notice.

For his part, Bin Laden himself took offense and declared war on the United States. Sporadic attacks on U.S. assets ensued in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tanzania and Yemen. Clinton responded in desultory fashion with U.S. air strikes. The ineffectiveness of this U.S. response to Al-Qaida then became fully manifest in 2001 with the devastating attacks in New York and Washington.

George W. Bush, now president, responded by declaring a global war that began as less than a global war, but rather as an effort to punish the Afghans for giving sanctuary to Al-Qaida. The early stages of what was then called Operation Enduring Freedom were dramatic and daring, but inconclusive.

But by the time Phase Two ended, the presence of U.S. forces in the Greater Middle East, in addition to U.S. intervention in the Greater Middle East, had now become routine.

Now, however, for the first time since the inception of the war for the Greater Middle East, Washington devised a strategy, which the Bush administration marketed under the label “Freedom Agenda.”

The third Gulf War, begun in 2003 and lasting until 2011, was designed to jumpstart the process of transforming those countries that served as breeding grounds of anti-American violence. Here, the United States set out, in Rumsfeld’s words, to “change the way they live.” This was the vision that animated the U.S. vision during Phase Three of its war for the Greater Middle East.

Now as a venue to begin to implement that strategy to “change the way they live,” Saddam Hussein’s Iraq appeared uniquely attractive. True, Iraq had had nothing to do with 9/11. But Saddam had made his country an international pariah, virtually without allies or even sympathizers. The Iraqi Army was not likely to pose significant opposition, having amply demonstrated its incompetence even before taking into account the effects of periodic U.S. bombing along with a decade of crippling sanctions.

In other words, what made it imperative to invade Iraq was not the danger that Iraq posed, but the opportunity that it presented.

And although the invaders quickly overthrew Saddam Hussein, they proved when they got to Baghdad unable to assert control of that country. Instead, by their very presence, U.S. forces incited and then found themselves enveloped by a complex conflict that was part civil war, part ancient sectarian squabble and part anti-Western Jihad.

We may argue about when to date the demise of the “Freedom Agenda.” Certainly, by late 2006 it had collapsed. Rather than a springboard, Iraq had become a dead end, and Phase Three of America’s war for the Greater Middle East ended.

Phase Four commenced, but, once more, without any unifying sense of purpose. To effect a salvage operation, Bush hired a new field commander. This yielded the so-called “surge,” which created the conditions for the United States to withdraw from Iraq without having to admit outright defeat.

This it did, in December of 2011, with Barack Obama keeping to the schedule that his predecessor had established. Turning his attention back to the much-slighted war in Afghanistan, Obama then sought to apply the very methods that he criticized Bush for employing in Iraq. Obama organized an Afghanistan surge, applying the same counterinsurgency strategy that had supposedly made the Iraq surge such a success. But the results proved to be a bit of a bust.

In June of 2011, while announcing U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, President Obama said:  “We take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding.”

In fact, however, the tide was not receding.

Even as the United States was withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military activities in other parts of the Islamic world were actually expanding. The Obama administration’s chief contribution to the ongoing war for the Middle East was to enlarge it.

Prior to 9/11, the abiding defect in the policy of the U.S. to the Islamic world had been naïveté. After 9/11, it became hubris.

During Phase Four, the problem became one of diffusion. Varying according to purpose, the Obama administration’s campaigns have fallen into three distinct categories. In some, the aim was to depose; in others, to repress; in others still, to retard. All share a common determination to minimize risks, to keep down costs, and above all to avoid anything approximating a quagmire.

In the first category, to depose, was direct intervention in Libya and indirect intervention in Syria. The second category, suppress, including recurring military actions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The third category, retard, expanded America’s war in the Middle East into west Africa, the Pentagon calculating that a modest U.S. military presence there could nip violent jihad in the bud.

Regardless of its intended purpose, little of this activity produced the desired effect. Overall, the number of active fronts in America’s war for the Middle East multiplied. This has been President Obama’s principle contribution to that war.

Yet transcending insignificance, President Obama’s penchant for raids and assassinations was a fourth Gulf War, dating from 2013, which rendered a definitive verdict on the third Gulf War. When tested, the new U.S.-created Iraqi order proved unable to stand on its own, its manifest shortcoming drawing the United States into yet another round of fighting.

Further complicating the situation was the evolving situation in neighboring Syria. There, an ongoing civil war morphed into a multi-sided affair that gave rise to a new entity, bent on carving out of Syria and Iraq a new Islamic caliphate. This new entity, ISIS, ISIL or just the Islamic State, aimed to demolish the state system created by early 20th-century Europeans who had reconfigured the Greater Middle East to suit their own imperial purposes. By the time of President Obama’s second term in office, Americans had pretty much exhausted their enthusiasm for rescuing Iraq. Furthermore, it was not self-evident that ISIS posed an immediate threat to the United States itself.

In December of 2013, ISIS seized the Iraqi city of Fallujah and thereby emerged from Al-Qaida’s shadow. Early the next month, the organization’s supreme leader declared the founding of new caliphate and pronounced himself caliph. Worse was yet to come. June of 2014, fewer than a thousand ISIL fighters captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, with Iraqi defenders offering alarmingly little resistance. In Washington, something akin to panic set in.

Obama announced the beginning of a new air campaign against the Islamic State, even as he assured Americans that: “I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.”

Now, in the American military lexicon, “Mission Creep” is a term of opprobrium… It suggests action without clearly defined purpose. But when it comes to ISIS, the mission is unquestionably creeping.

Here in the fall of 2015, no one can say how the fight against ISIS is going to turn out. But will defeating ISIS actually solve anything? Probably not, since the conditions that have given rise to ISIL continue to exist.

More importantly, in my view, obsessing about this one particular manifestation of a much larger problem allows Washington and perhaps all of us to skip lightly past matters of far greater moment.

In that regard, even in a presidential election year, one subject in particular remains off limits: The overall prospects of the U.S. military project in the Islamic world. Thirty-five years after Jimmy Carter signed off on the Carter Doctrine, that project appears further from completion than when it had begun. By almost any measure, the region is less stable and more dangerous than it was in 1980. Not only are American purposes unfulfilled, they’re becoming increasingly difficult to define with any sort of specificity.

“It’s a generational problem.” So remarked Gen. Martin Dempsey in testifying before a Senate committee in July of this year. Thwarting the adversary that we face, Dempsey said, is “going to entail a very long contest.”

How long? How much longer than it has already run? Wisely, Gen. Dempsey did not hazard a guess. No one has a clue.

That’s the end of his prepared remarks. He responded to a few questions from the audience, but I’ve run on so long already that I’ll give them short shrift.

One questioner asked why he had made no reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bacevich said “it’s important not to overstate the centrality of Israel in the narrative I just described… [It’s] not the issue around which everything turns.” He also said that the interests of the United States and Israel are not aligned on the question of the two-state solution.

He was asked whether the “Arab Spring” made any lasting difference. He said no; American expectations for the emergence of a movement toward democracy in the region were “naïve,” at least in the short term.

He was asked whether his analysis qualifies him as an “isolationist who wants to turn his back on the world?” He said: “That’s not where I am.” He seems to favor remaining engaged in the world but relying less on military force. In response to a related question about protecting the United States from terrorism, he said the best step is “harden our defenses” but rely less on military action in the region.

As far as working against ISIS, he seems to believe the United States should try to persuade the states of the region to do more, thus allowing America to do less. He said ISIS’ dream of caliphate is a threat to the entire state system now in existence, so the leaders of the existing states have a strong incentive to take that threat seriously and respond to it better themselves. If they could set aside for a moment all that they differ over and pool their resources, they have “more than adequate resources to solve the problem” themselves, he said.

He was asked how much of the problem is rooted in Islam. He said he’s no expert on Islam, but every religion has a struggle to reconcile the history and traditions of the faith with the challenges of modernity. We’re not that far past an era when Christians were killing Christians over issues of theology

He called the current backlash against accepting refugees from the Syria crisis “pitiful.”

He said he favored the restoration of something like a draft, but one that offers young people the choice between military and non-military ways of national service.