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

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

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.”

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.

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.

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.

Comments (45)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 11/20/2015 - 10:09 am.

    So the one thing folks who are concerned about the Mid East can now agree on, there is a faction of extremists who’s goal is to create a Caliphate. That statement brought laughter from not only folks in the media, but by Clinton and Obama 6-8 yrs ago. How can our leaders not grasp a concept that experts in the region were reporting, a Caliphate WAS beginning!! I see where Bacevich wants less involvement in the region and “encourage” local countries to do more. What if they don’t do more? Sounds good and simple but there is a great chance unless the USA leads nothing will stop this Caliphate (nobody is laughing now) from growing and truly turning this region as the starting ground of WWIII.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/20/2015 - 02:32 pm.

      There were many wouldbe/wannabe Caliphates

      starting up in the remnants of the Ottoman empire; they were (and are) as thick on the ground as tech startups in Silicon Valley.
      The question is which (if any) of them posed an existential threat to the United States, and whether military action against them would do more harm than good.
      As for starting WWIII, they are way far from the numbers that would be required.
      The German bombing of Warsaw killed about 25,000, as did the Allied bombing of Dresden.
      There’s no evidence that Daeish has the capacity to kill a tenth of this in Europe, much less the United States.
      A world war would also require a fairly even split between two sides — so far the United States and Russia are both opposed to Daeish, with China sitting on the fence (since a Chinese citizen has already been killed).
      There’s a big difference between causing a minor disruption to a major state and starting up a major state.
      So far, we and the French manage to kill far more of our own citizens through traffic death, medical errors and pollution than terrorists are likely to.

      At best (for them), Daeish might dominate the Middle East, but even that seems unlikely, since so far their main achievement seems to be to unite the United States, Russia, Iran, and possibly (in the background) Israel, which is no mean achievement! It is more likely that they will carve out a small enclave in Syria and use that as a base for their foreign operations.

      Most likely, in a few years Daeish will consist of a few European cells spawned by disaffected Middle Eastern (mostly North African) subpopulations. I suspect that the New York police will spend a lot more time dealing with the 300-400 yearly murders in the city (down from a few thousand in the 1990’s) than they do with foreign terrorists. Unlike Europe, Middle Eastern populations in the United States are small, and don’t provide much of a spawning ground or haven for terrorists.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 11/20/2015 - 04:53 pm.

        Famous last words of those who get caught off guard by a movement: “they are too small to do anything major”. I bet ISIS is happy to have folks not take them seriously. ISIS is just a small group in Syria don’t worry about them. They take over major highways and supply routes in N Iraq, don’t worry about them. They take over major cities, don’t worry about them. What is next? I agree we could smash them in a week or 2 of concentrated effort but that will not happen with liberals saying don’t worry about them. Wait until they walk through a “gun free zone” in NYC killing innocent people, then we’ll see if they are “too small to worry about”.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 11/21/2015 - 11:15 am.

          That was then

          In 1945, transportation and communication was slow… I agree with you that this fire could grow quickly if not handled carefully.

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/20/2015 - 11:55 pm.

      Good point

      I agree. I recently read an article about this idea of the Caliphate in the Atlantic which discusses this issue.

      We are past the point of doing nothing because Daesh, a monster created by US bungling, will only grow into a greater menace over time. It is a genie that needs to be put back into a bottle. Bombs and the sort of big military operations are not going to kill an idea which has deep roots in one of the great faith traditions and tremendous appeal for humans who have an irrational longing to sacrifice their lives for something they feel is greater than themselves.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 11/21/2015 - 11:12 am.


        It seems Paul disagrees with you, the USA may have been in the neighborhood but I don’t think they created the movement.

        “There were many wouldbe/wannabe Caliphates starting up in the remnants of the Ottoman empire; they were (and are) as thick on the ground as tech startups in Silicon Valley.”

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/20/2015 - 10:13 am.

    “… with what consequences?”

    Fundamental harm to the fundamental interests of the United States is the answer.

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 11/20/2015 - 06:47 pm.


      which fundamental interests? what kind of harm? i’m not convinced.

      • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/20/2015 - 10:45 pm.

        this may not satisfy you, but…

        … here is an ordinary person’s ordinary common sense:

        A fundamental interest of the United States is in a stable Middle East. This benefits us in every way . If our actions destabilise the Middle East, then our own actions attack this fundamental interest.

        A fundamental interest of the United States is to have friendly relations with the peoples in the Middle East. When we kill numerous innocents in the Middle East, we create generations of implacable enemies, as we destroy families and everything they hold dear.

        A fundamental interest of the United States is to have collaborative, cooperative relations with States in the Middle East, to help them develop their societies for the benefit of their people. When we regard any nation which disagrees with our foreign policy as an enemy, we foreclose all opportunity for collaboration and cooperation. This mindset and the actions which flow from it, damages our fundamental interest.

        • Submitted by Doug Gray on 11/22/2015 - 12:27 am.

          good prediction

          The fundamental interest of the United States is to live in security and prosperity within its borders. When it squanders 3.5-4 percent of its GDP on a military establishment larger than the next ten largest national militaries combined; then squanders its military and diplomatic assets on international misadventures and quixotic pursuits of “stability,” “friendly relations” or similar chimeras overseas, it continues to ignore its fundamental interest and sink deeper into the quicksands that have claimed every other putative global empire since the days of Gilgamesh.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/20/2015 - 10:23 am.

    He will not be popular

    …with many members of the commentariat. As a certified Old Person, I’ve lived through the whole period in something approaching head-shaking befuddlement over the military responses of presidents since Carter. Bacevich is offering as close to a clear-eyed analysis as I’ve come across during that period, and I look forward to the book. I suspect that a desire to make money will be among the underlying factors in the ongoing militarization of our own society and the application of the military hammer to a series of foreign policy issues that have been characterized by both political parties as various kinds of nails. I’m further reminded of a pair of other unpleasantries: The title of William Fulbright’s prescient book, “The Arrogance of Power,” which dealt with Vietnam, but seems at least partially applicable to more recent events; and a definition of insanity that’s often been attributed to Einstein – doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. The latter seems to me a fair description of what we’ve been doing in the Middle East for much of the 35-year period that Bacevich is talking about.

  4. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/20/2015 - 11:12 am.

    Our country ignores the golden rule…

    and the consequences are predictable and unending. If any foreign power had tried to do to the US what the US regularly has done since WWII to others we would rebel the same way they are. Foreign control breeds hatred and revolt always, in all times and in all countries. I am dumbfounded that Americans don’t see why so many people in the Middle East hate us. Hey, let’s help start a civil war in Syria and then reject the refugees our little war creates. Of course we may make exceptions for Christians, just to help add a little racial and religious bigotry to help ratchet up the hatred even more by our complete obtuse hypocrisy.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/20/2015 - 03:54 pm.

      Isn’t the Golden Rule

      Do unto others first
      as others would like to do unto you?

      Or maybe
      He who has the gold makes the rules.

  5. Submitted by Charlotte Neigh on 11/20/2015 - 11:20 am.


    Thanks for this extensive coverage of the best mind and clearest voice on the mess the US has blundered into. Bacevich’s unfailing ability to connect the dots and elucidate their significance is a refreshing change from the ignorance of the ideologues who get too much attention and too little scrutiny.

    • Submitted by Tim McNamara on 11/22/2015 - 11:10 pm.

      Major dots not connected

      Bacevich mentions the most fundamental recent dot without elaborating on it in this speech: the post-WWI carving up of the Middle East into nation-states that had never existed, completely ignoring religious and ethic population distribution into what the Allies thoughts was good- good for us, not for the Middle East. Many people in the Middle East saw this as a modern extension of the Crusades, maintaining Western control over the region as much as possible- just as they have interpreted multiple other events in the ensuing near-century in the same sort of light. For the radical Islamists, the Crusades are continuing realities and believe that the West has declared war on Islam, not the other way around. Seeing it that way, their fighters are defenders and martyrs and every Western action against any Muslim is a recruiting tool for radicals.

      The Middle East has been repeatedly deprived of self-determination by the West from the 11th century on, initially for religious reasons (maintaining Roman Catholic control of Jerusalem and other sites in the Holy Land) and into to the 20th century when the reason has been almost solely to make sure that we have access to oil. If we had been smart enough 40 years ago to take heed to the obvious realities at the time and to eliminate our dependence on oil, the trajectory of world history would have been vastly different in so many ways.

  6. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/20/2015 - 01:07 pm.

    The fundamental source of discontent is the inability for people to make a livable life in the place where they were born.

    It’s really as simple as that. It’s as human as that.

  7. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 11/20/2015 - 01:35 pm.

    Effect of the draft

    I see a brief reference to the speaker’s support of a draft, with an option for non-military service.

    I have often wondered how our policies and actions with regard to the Middle East would have differed if we still had a military draft over the last 35 years. When neither the policy-makers nor the vast majority of citizens will be putting their loved ones in harm’s way, there is a certain cavalier “Sure, why not invade/attack/intervene in country X, maybe it’ll work” attitude that comes into play. Like impending execution, a draft would concentrate the mind wonderfully and engage the public in a fuller consideration of what the goals are, the likelihood of achieving them, and the costs in blood and treasure. With the current volunteer military, these debates have a quality of unreality and abstraction because the sacrifices made are not widely shared.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/20/2015 - 03:56 pm.


      We’d have to have -really-universal service — not the outs available to many of us during Vietnam.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/20/2015 - 04:24 pm.

      It’s instructive

      that most people who’ve suggested bringing back the draft have never served nor would they. They only think it’s a good idea for someone else.

      I served in an all-volunteer unit and I can assure you that a volunteer does not want to put his life into the hands of someone who, given a choice, would rather not be there.

      The arrangement doesn’t fulfill the desires of the social engineers but it produces a fighting force of people who were actually born with the warrior gene instead of people who are there to reap the benefits upon discharge and who serve no actual military purpose. Not that it matters to your average citizen.

      • Submitted by Doug Gray on 11/23/2015 - 09:48 am.

        most, not all

        Col. Bacevich favors universal national service. And what an all-volunteer force produces is a standing army combined with more, not less, willingness to use it in ways that ultimately harm the national interest.

  8. Submitted by Vici Oshiro on 11/20/2015 - 02:58 pm.

    Middle East

    When is someone going to be brave enough to suggest that we need to address the root causes – prejudice and lack of opportunity for instance?

  9. Submitted by Tom Moore on 11/20/2015 - 03:45 pm.

    maybe “winning” isn’t the goal…

    if the goal is control over oil, cheap oil prices and/or a reason to keep forces in the middle east…. then we’re “accomplishing” our goal(s). middle eastern stability and democracy could be threats to u.s control, low oil prices and/or any reason (or permission) to have u.s troops, ships or bases anywhere near the middle east. is possible (and i think probable) that much of the instability in the region is and has been welcomed by u.s foreign policy makers.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/20/2015 - 06:09 pm.

      Who benefits from instability in the Mideast?

      I can name two:

      1. ISRAEL. While its neighbors are squabbling over internal disputes and civil wars, they are unable to conspire against Israel.

      2. The whole anti-terrorism industrial complex. All those contractors & defense industry suppliers & their hangers-on, including our enormous state security apparatus.

  10. Submitted by Doug Gray on 11/20/2015 - 06:51 pm.

    beyond this place of wrath and tears

    Col. Bacevich, as usual, gets it mostly right on the nose. But the 35-year fiasco in the Middle East is merely the latest in a continuing international misadventure which has been going on since we first declared war on Mexico, with a short break from 1861-65 while we were slaughtering each other rather than recalcitrant foreigners. There never has been any “purpose, adversary or location.” Since 1840, it has only been about “the United States as a nation not bound by the constraints that others were obliged to respect.” Unless and until we begin to change the way we act in the world instead of constantly trying to change the way others do, we will continue down the well-worn path trodden by Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Egypt, Macedonia, Rome, Byzantium, Mongolia, France and Great Britain before us, until we leave our descendants with little but the nostalgic feeling that once the United States was a global power. I look forward eagerly to his book, and with great trepidation to the future it presages.

  11. Submitted by Donald Larsson on 11/20/2015 - 11:03 pm.

    Who are our sons of bitches?

    Here’s a thought: What happens when strong dictatorial rulers collapse? Much of the rise of non/alternate “state” leaders like Al Qaeda and ISIS could be pinned on the removal of the brutal suppression of any kind of dissent from leaders like Saddam Hussein and the Assad family. As seen in Yugoslavia and other states where strong men have died off with no one to replace them effectively, the results can be quite ugly. It’s interesting that the Eisenhower administration helped stage a coup against a democratically elected leader in Iran to prop up the Shah, but managed to scuttle the attempt by Britain, France, and Israel to retake the Suez Canal from Egypt’s Nassar. Gaddafi, even after the Locherbie air sabotage, was preferable to chaos until his rule began to become completely untenable. FDR famously said that Nicaragua’s dictator Samoza was “a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch,” a doctrine that endured as the Reagan administration (and others) propped up other Latin American dictators. The Saudis have continued to serve that role in the Middle East (so far), but “our” sons-of-bitches do eventually find their luck running out. What, then, fills the resulting voids?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/21/2015 - 10:03 am.

      Nation building

      It comes down to the Bush phalllusy of ‘nationbuilding’:
      The idea that the whole world would be democratic (lower case) if only we freed them from dictators.
      That our culture is the best of all possible worlds and it is our duty to spread it.
      The problem is that cultures are different. To that part of the world that has no experience with (Western) democracy, attempts at installing a democracy are seen simply as substituting one corrupt strongman for another, and will be seen at best as the less of evils, and given only very conditional support. The support will be for a specific individual, not for a system.

      Islamic culture (particularly the Arab variety) does not have our distinction between the secular and religious realms (and there’s some question as the whether most Americans even share this Constitutional distinction these days). So that’s why the best we can hope for is “our sons-of-bitches”: leaders chosen through the indigenous cultural systems rather than ours, whom we can work with when there is a shared interest.

      • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 11/22/2015 - 10:12 am.

        Idealism vs realism

        First, the establishment viewpoint can be dismissed. It is couched in terms of “spreading democracy” or “spreading Western values” but it is about domination and global rent-seeking (cf. the PNAC documents).

        However, the liberal (i.e., sincere) notion of spreading democracy, I think, stems from a faulty idealistic outlook that humanity is morally and civically capable of governing itself at the scale of larger communities (nations). Thus, any departure is one that “we” can intervene in and correct in order to “restore” what we implicitly take to be the natural state of affairs of peaceful, self-governing societies.

        A different, realist view is that humanity is, at best, capable of slowly moving toward such a state if conditions are highly favorable. Here, there will be places where conditions have allowed a certain level of reasonable self-government to take hold (e.g., in the U.S., primarily due to a surfeit of land and natural resources). As these outposts of sustainable society create excess social and economic capital, it then must be “invested” in other places, not to exercise dominion but to help slowly advance conditions for self-government there. It is a global project based on the implicit recognition that all of humanity benefits as all of humanity moves toward peaceful self-government.

        This means tolerating authoritarian rule in other nations while supporting trends that ultimately will supersede it thru internal change, whether peaceful or violent, but on that community’s own terms. It recognizes that intervention to depose an authoritarian, whether well-intentioned or otherwise, is not tenable if there is no organically developed civic structure to replace it. It means accepting that some part of humanity always will be suffering under authoritarian rule but that is an unfortunate fact of the world.

        This is different from Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famous 1979 paean to authoritarianism in that she, on behalf of the establishment, lauded it as a permanent condition allowing for efficient Western rent-seeking, whereas the liberal realist accepts it as a temporary (if lengthy) but necessary stage as a human society struggles to build universal conditions of peaceful self-governance.

        Within an extremely narrow lens, this at least suggests why any thinking person understood what would result from deposing Saddam or seeking to topple Assad. The broad lens, however, must start from the atrocious Western sins over a century that destroyed the structures of civic society throughout the Middle East, drew arbitrary lines and installed and sustained authoritarian rulers such as Saddam, Assad, and the emirs in the first place. What would be the present level of strife within the Middle East if not for this century of imperial interference? Unfortunately, the excess social capital of the West has been invested over the past century in undermining civic society in the Middle East for the purpose of domination, rather than supporting it for the purpose of peaceful self-governance, and the genie is not likely ever to go back into the bottle.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 11/22/2015 - 06:25 pm.


          It seems the Ottomans picked the wrong side (ie German ally)… And forced the West to respond, or do you think the West should have ignored their declaration of war?

          “The Middle East was no less affected by the conflict. After four centuries of continuous rule, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, creating a vacuum that contributed to tensions between local inhabitants and external powers or interests. The ‘war to end all war’ had not achieved its aim.

          At the beginning of November 1914, the Ottoman Empire, the world’s greatest independent Islamic power, abandoned its ambivalent neutrality towards the warring parties, and became a belligerent in the conflict, with the sultan declaring a military jihad (holy war) against France, Russia and Great Britain.”

          • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 11/23/2015 - 08:59 am.

            A different subject

            A society/state of course needs to respond to substantial threats to its well-being. My point concerns external intervention into the governing structure of another nation/state. It is that even if well-intentioned, removing an autocrat with the intention of building a nation, where the civic structure doesn’t exist, almost always will result in more chaos and suffering, and the likelihood of significant adverse collateral consequences (like the rise of Daesh due to de-Baathification and the mass influx of Western weaponry intended for the use of an Iraqi military but rapidly moved into informal commerce within the region).

            The point is supported by the BBC history piece to which you link. At the end of WWI, with the fall of the Ottoman empire, Britain found itself in the position of having to draw lines and establish nominal nation-states within the Middle East. I don’t know enough to judge Britain’s good or bad faith in doing so, but either way, we know how that has turned out.

            • Submitted by John Appelen on 11/23/2015 - 10:12 am.


              So the Ottoman Empire joins Germany and declares a holy war and gets destroyed by the allies. What do you think the British should have done differently?

              There was a question above about the Golden Rule. If the USA was dominated by a Dictator who tortured and killed anyone theat disagreed with them. Wouldn’t we appreciate it if someone removed the Dictator, funded our rebuilding, provided security temporarily, helped us set up a government of the people and then released control/went home?

              I think it worked pretty well in Germany, Italy, Japan, etc. There is definitely something different about the Middle East.

              • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/23/2015 - 02:02 pm.

                We forgot to go home in the case of Germany, Japan,…

                … and Korea. We had to be driven out of Vietnam, and we seem to find it very difficult to go home from the Middle East.

                I have heard the Buddhist form of the Golden Rule, which I would paraphrase in the following way: “Don’t do to others what you would not have them do to you.”

                This doesn’t necessarily refute all of what you say, but overall, it certainly illuminates our actions against nations in the Middle East in an informative way. But this requires an introspective look in the mirror, as Mr. Bacevich has suggested , not very popular in our country at this time.

                • Submitted by John Appelen on 11/23/2015 - 03:46 pm.

                  Same question

                  If our country was ruled by a violent tyrannical dictator, would you really be against a foreign power eliminating them, helping us to create a constitution, helping us to rebuild, etc, etc, etc?

                  We would we blame that that foreign power after they left us and we failed to keep it running?

                  • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 11/24/2015 - 09:21 am.

                    First, you’re ignoring the critical element

                    of whether there is a civic structure. Germany and Italy (I don’t know Japanese history) weren’t authoritarian states, they were civil states that had been taken over by authoritarian rulers. There was an extraordinary degree of assisted convalescence needed, but it wasn’t about an external force creating a nation-state from scratch. Your hypothetical about “our country” is unanswerable because you don’t describe the social, political and economic conditions of the hypothetical “our country.”

                    Second, the question isn’t whether those living under a “violent, tyrannical dictator” would prefer violent, tyrannical stability or the chaotic state of nature that would follow his toppling by a foreign power. The question is whether the foreign power has a duty to intervene to depose that dictator and to undertake to create a nation-state where no civic structure exists, at cost of lives, ducats and all of the foreseeable/unforeseeable collateral consequences that will follow, and knowing that the level of local/regional/global well-being that results may be considerably diminished.

              • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/24/2015 - 09:34 am.

                What’s different about the Muddle East

                is that unlike Germany, Italy and Japan, the Arab countries had no common histories as nations.
                Iran and Turkey are Islamic but not Arab, so the Brits may have altered their boundaries, but did not create them as client states (geographic gas stations, as it were).

  12. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/21/2015 - 09:34 am.


    As I’ve stated here before, the U.S. military’s inability to win wars has been because of the restrictive rules of engagement imposed by its political leaders since Eisenhower who have been more concerned about getting re-elected by a citizenry that by and large never served in the military, than in protecting the nation.

    Politicians over the past 50 years have had to pander to an electorate, men and women, that’s never lived through real, no-holds-barred war. Truman’s unapologetic incineration of Japanese cities was the last time a commander-in-chief took his role of defending this nation seriously.

    When the Russians’ civilian aircraft was recently blown up by ISIS, no one recalls what Barack Obama said at the time, but he most likely said, in his best lawyer-in-chief faux outrage, “we will hunt them down and bring them to justice.”

    Conversely, in the immediate aftermath, Vladimir Putin said “we will find them wherever they are on this planet and destroy them. (not bring them to justice, destroy them) He also said, “To forgive them is up to God, but to send them to him is up to me.” – a version of “kill them all and let God sort them out” warrior-in-chief philosophy. (Imagine that, a commie mentioning God)

    Like Truman, Putin has no concern for collateral damage or “rules of engagement.” He does what needs to be done to win and more importantly, MUCH more importantly, his enemies know it.

    I would also let it be known publicly or privately, that the so-called moderate Muslim nations had better join this fight or risk losing Mecca and Medina in twin balls of fire in anonymous retribution. Then maybe Col. Bacevich could write something that made it appear that he served in our army and not someone else’s.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 11/21/2015 - 11:11 pm.

      Per usual

      Some descriptions of the glory of mass murder are not the result of a “warrior” gene (good luck on scientific corroboration of that little gem) but rather the self delusions of grandeur produced by the sociopathic minds of some members of our society. It would be wise for all of us to recognize the difference and to base our judgements of our present circumstances accordingly.

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 11/22/2015 - 12:40 am.

      the strategy that works…until it doesn’t

      As Col. Bacevich points out, the reason the U.S. can’t “win” its many wars of choice is because it is impossible for any one nation or people to long impose its will on another at the point of however many bayonets; a lesson eventually, though tragically, learned by Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Egypt, Macedonia, Rome, Byzantium, Mongolia, France and Great Britain, not to mention less extensive, more brutal tyrannies such as China, Russia and Germany. Our latest near-debacle almost bankrupted the world’s largest economy, threatened to put an end to our standing in the world and is still sucking up American lives and American dollars. Redoubling our efforts while continuing to mistake our aims would be a sign of national insanity, not national might. No nation has ever been able to destroy its way out of a quagmire.

  13. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 11/23/2015 - 06:14 am.

    …and this too, lest we forget the other present danger

    …beyond our vulnerable acts in history do not ignore what is essentially part of our present political climate:

    Do note that one Donald Trump builds his constituency on the backs of our fears? That too is a form of embedded terrorism… embedded in a growing babble of voters sucking on the comfort of electing a future dictator?

    Which is the greater terror?

    If this nation is vulnerable to exploitation from outside, we are also being exploited from within?

    Fear and hate shine like fools gold in the sunlight of one cold winter’s day

  14. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/22/2015 - 07:33 pm.

    How quickly we forget

    On this anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination, I’d like to share a few poignant lines from his inaugural that addresses American exceptionalism. I remember my 6th grade teacher reading it to us with feeling and with a glisten in her eyes. This was before the teachers union came to be, so she could do that.

    January 20, 1961

    “We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom – symbolizing an end as well as a beginning – signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.

    The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.

    We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage – and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

    Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

    We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.

    In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility – I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

    And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

    Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/23/2015 - 10:30 am.

    Liberals finally catch up to progressives… again.

    In other comment threads, one about Bernie Sanders being a socialist, and another about Americans caring or not caring about civilian casualties, we’ve talked about the difference between “liberals” and “progressives” in the US.

    I’ve pointed out that one difference historically is the tendency of liberals to contain criticism within certain boundaries i.e.: “Did Ollie North lie to Congress?” rather than: “Is Ronald Reagan a War Criminal?”

    Liberals typically deride progressives as being unrealistic or naive, but historical liberals tend to trend into progressive analysis over time.

    This discussion is a clear example of that. 35 years after the fact liberals are ready to discuss problems with the Carter Doctrine while Progressives like Chomsky were leveling these criticisms the week after it was announced. The Carter Doctrine has been a central feature of progressive Mideast analysis for decades, an analysis that was deemed out of bounds by mainstream media and most “liberals” in the US. In fact the Carter Doctrine is a central component of the progressive critique of Neo-Liberalism.

    You can see what Howard Zinn, (a progressive historian) was saying about this back in the 1995:

    Of course perpetual conflict, escalation, and destabilization flowing out of the Carter Doctrine were all predicted by progressive scholars in the 80s. So this is just another example of a situation where the guys were wrong got to pretend that the guys who were actually right, are the naive dreamers who don’t understand “reality” on the ground. I just have to point this out because there seems to be a lot of this going around these days… liberals pretending that they’ve just invented ideas and observations for the first time. My point isn’t to embarrass liberals, my point is to ask the question: “Are we still restricting the discourse within ‘liberal’ boundaries, or are people finally ready to listen the guys who’ve been getting it right for decades?”

  16. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/23/2015 - 11:25 am.

    By the way…

    This is why these wars REALLY WERE about oil. Obviously neither Bush was about to invoke the Carter Doctrine as their primary reason for taking the country to war, so they made up other stuff. Some of us kept our eye on the ball, and weren’t distracted by stories of a Hitler-like Saddam conquering the Mideast, or WMDs and mushroom clouds. Again, when we told everyone this was all about oil liberals and conservatives alike derided us for being “simplistic” and “cynical”. We said: “Look at the Carter Doctrine” and people said: “What Carter Doctrine?” and then marched off to find the WMDs. So now somebody else discovered the Carter Doctrine, I wish I could say: “Better late than never” but far too many people have died, and the situation is far too horrible.

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