By “Greater Middle East,” Bacevich is referring to the oil states and the countries surrounding the Persian Gulf. Not all of these people are Arabs, and not all of the Muslims in this Islamic part of the world believe in the same things. Muslims consist of different and often violently opposed sects, but many Americans just think of all these peoples as “Arabs” – even the Iranians and Turks, the two most obviously non-Arabic states of the region. As a map in the front of the hardcover book shows, the geographic area of interest in the book extends from Turkey in the north to Somalia in the south, and includes Turkey, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan, as well as the relatively small area near Israel. Because the U.S. has had recent military involvement in the Balkans, this area also figures into Bacevich’s narrative, but largely to illustrate the points he makes about fighting in and for the Greater Middle East.
This book is not only a history; it is also a polemic. However, I enjoyed it precisely for that reason, and undoubtedly because the author and I are in agreement about many issues.
Bacevich received a Ph.D. in American diplomatic history from Princeton but is also a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy who served for twenty-three years as an Army officer. He is not against war generally: he is against wars fought for bad reasons; wars fought ineptly without thoughtful, strategic analysis by a unified command; and wars fought with a mistaken assessment of the enemy, and a “faulty grasp of underlying political dynamics.”
Bacevich begins with the sentence, “From the outset, America’s war for the Greater Middle East was a war to preserve the American way of life, rooted in a specific understanding of freedom and requiring an abundance of cheap energy.” Oil that is: black gold, Texas tea. (Although in this case, the “tea” was from the Greater Middle East.)
The author then discusses the American desire for oil and the widespread conviction that since we want it, and we will use it more than those who actually reside on top of the oil fields, we have the right to make sure we have access to it. It’s a bit like the attitude of early Americans toward Native Americans. On what basis, aside from sheer and shameless audacity, can we claim rightful dominion over the resources of another people? In the early years of America, colonists made the same arguments one hears now about oil: these people aren’t exploiting these great resources to the maximum extent, and we will, so we deserve to have them. Early Americans then proceeded to remove the Native Americans from their lands by laws backed by force. They killed many of them by intention or inadvertently but not innocently, and sent the rest to reservations in land too undesirable to be coveted by them.
These days, Americans cannot commit the same crimes outright, but their attitudes haven’t changed, and in some ways, their behaviors have just acquired a more politically correct patina. The U.S. now claims its’ scope has expanded to “spreading freedom in the broader Middle East” and to “liberating the oppressed.” The U.S. continues in its pattern of “marginalizing or distorting the role of others and ignoring details that don’t fit into an America-centric narrative.” It tends not to have an understanding of peoples in the Greater Middle East, nor of their religious beliefs, nor of their sectarian conflicts, nor of the fact that U.S. intervention often means aiding one side against the other, as in Lebanon.
More importantly, there is, as Bacevich claims, a fundamental misunderstanding in the assumptions pervasive throughout the U.S. national security establishment, one of which “counts on the inevitability of America’s purposes ultimately winning acceptance, even in the Islamic world. The subjects of U.S. benefactions will then obligingly submit to Washington’s requirements and warmly embrace American norms.”
Don’t we see all the young people wearing blue jeans and carrying IPhones? Doesn’t that mean they aspire to democracy?
[“Democracy” of course was and is always understood to mean rule by those who would carry out U.S. policy; when the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh had the gall to challenge British control of Iranian petroleum reserves, the U.K., aided and abetted by the CIA (under a force led by senior CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., grandson of Teddy), helped engineer the 1953 Iranian coup d’état, overthrowing Mosaddegh in exchange for the tyrannical Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Iranian people never quite forgave the U.S. for their part in this coup, eventually resulting in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and capture of hostages from the U.S. Embassy.]
Alas, outside of the West, as Bacevich points out, “the superiority of cosmopolitan secularism as a basis for organizing societies is not necessarily self-evident.”
Bacevich begins his history with the Carter Administration and the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, a big concern of the U.S. was that the Kremlin’s “real objective” was “control of the West’s largest reservoir of oil in the Gulf,” according to columnist Joseph Kraft in “The Washington Post.” The “Boston Globe” concurred, accusing the Soviets of positioning itself “one giant step closer to the biggest strategic prize in the postwar world, the Persian Gulf oil tap.” Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan agreed, calling the Soviet Union “a hostile, imperial power” and promising to make America strong again. And Carter’s National Security Advisor from 1977-1981, Zbigniew Brzeziński, who was born in Poland and carried a deep resentment of the USSR, pushed for arming the mujahideen to repel the Soviet invaders; his hope was that a protracted war would help topple the Soviet government.
No one seemed to have the slightest interest in the Afghan people themselves, except to characterize them as “freedom fighters” for the purposes of anti-Soviet propaganda. (And because, why wouldn’t the Afghanis share the same “universal values” as Americans?) But in fact, as Bacevich points out:
“…those opposing the Soviet occupation consisted of disparate and mutually antagonistic tribes, many of them deeply anti-American in their outlook. Willingness to accept U.S. assistance [and a great deal of weapons] did not imply that xenophobic Afghan leaders shared Washington’s outlook on anything other than a desire to oust the Soviets. In practice, supporting the mujahedin meant promoting a hidebound and intolerant brand of Islamism that viewed non-Muslims with suspicion if not out outright contempt.”
In addition, no one noticed or cared about the hypocrisy of the position that it was okay if the U.S. wanted control of the “strategic prize” of [someone else’s] oil fields, but any other country with an interest in that area was “hostile” and unacceptably imperialistic. Meanwhile, Afghans saw their country invaded, decimated by war, and their religious concerns mocked or ignored. We didn’t even respect them enough to consider that there would be serious “blowback” for our actions.
After the Soviet and subsequent U.S.-aided conflict was over, there were hundreds of thousands of Afghanis dead (estimates range from 1 to 1.5 million), injured, and displaced (an estimated 6 million fled to refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran). The economy was devastated, and drug warlords took over. Bacevich writes:
In this environment, a radical strain of Islamism spread like a virus. The Afghan mujahedin, still equipped with all the U.S. military materiel left behind, became ‘the vanguard of a transnational jihad.’”
(Years later, Bacevich reports, when Brzeziński was asked if he had any regrets about Afghanistan, he “reacted with astonishment” because intervention had helped destroy the Russians; he discounted any consequences but that one.)
As an aside, journalist and scholar Peter Bergen, in a recent article on the most likely causes of 9/11, credits in part the Afghan War, writing:
While there is no evidence that the CIA trained or funded Bin Laden or his followers, the Afghan war against the Soviet Union nonetheless radicalised a generation of Arab militants. They swapped business cards, gained battlefield experience and came to believe that they had played a big role in the destruction of the Soviet Union. All of these factors would lead to the founding of al Qaeda in 1988, established to take the jihad to other parts of the globe.”
A very notable event during the Reagan Administration was also illustrative of American hypocrisy. In 1988, the USS Vincennes, a guided-missile cruiser, shot down a commerical Iranian plane, killing all 290 passengers and crew. The Vincennes was not in “international waters” as Washington later claimed, but was inside Iranian territorial waters, in violation of international law. The airliner was climbing in its assigned flight path, a clear indication that it did not pose a threat, as also claimed.
But the Reagan Administration would not admit to any wrongdoing and blamed Iran for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thus, the U.S. once again promulgated the policy that it is okay for us to kill innocent civilians, but it is terrorism if anyone else does it. Bacevich reports that Vice President George H.W. Bush, interested in winning the upcoming presidential election, remarked:
“I will never apologize for the United States – I don’t care what the facts are.”
Efforts to spread “democratic governments” and “open economic systems” were carried out, according to Bacevich, by the counterproductive techniques of bombing, raiding, invading, occupation, and use of proxies. America’s stated goals and U.S. military policy have never aligned in the region, and “U.S. military power, unleashed rather than held in abeyance, has met outright failure, produced results other than those intended, or proved to be largely irrelevant. The Greater Middle East remains defiantly resistant to shaping.”
Unfortunately, as Bacevich laments, a succession of American leaders has persisted in the belief that the determined exercise of U.S. military power will somehow put things right. But it hasn’t worked that way. The Iraq mission in 2003 was no different, Bacevich declares:
“. . . .the George W. Bush administration had indubitably broken Iraq. Subsequent efforts to restore that country had proven a bust, the very existence of ISIS testifying to that fact. Here was the second harvest of poisonous fruit resulting from Operation Iraqi Freedom, the first harvest having produced Al Qaeda in Iraq.”
There is also another (ongoing) contributing factor. Bacevich argues that the military-industrial complex pushes for such engagements:
The Greater Middle East was to serve – indeed, was even then already serving – as the chosen arena for honing military power into a utensil that would maintain America’s privileged position and, not so incidentally, provide a continuing rationale for the entire apparatus of national security.”
Bacevich also recounts the history of the ISIS movement and the U.S. response, and quotes various officials again wanting to try to solve the problem with a show of military might. “Would defeating ISIS actually solve anything?” he asks. Probably not, he opines, because the conditions leading to the rise of ISIS are still there.
What about the future? Bacevich suggests that different problems emerging in the 21st Century, such as climate change, are going to take most of our attention. And since these are global problems, they will require global cooperation. In addition, geopolitically, Asia is eclipsing all other regions in importance, he observes, noting: “The War for the Greater Middle East [is] a diversion that Americans can ill afford.” He argues that perpetuating this war “is not enhancing American freedom, abundance, and security. If anything, it is having the opposite effect.” It’s time, he advises, for Americans to awaken to this reality.
Unfortunately, the U.S. continues to think that its concerns are “legitimate” as opposed to those of other peoples and countries. Even worse, by declaring the necessity for a global war on terrorism, the U.S. pretty much has given itself carte blanche to assert its military might anywhere in the world. Our ultimate goal is to render any area of the world with resources we want, into places congruent with American interests and American values. In practice, as argued above, this amounts to rolling all over the interests and values of anyone else.
Evaluation: This is an excellent book, and I can only say that Bacevich has a lot of guts to call out so many actors still on stage. Would that more political actors paid heed to the many lessons he imparts about engagements in the Greater Middle East that just keep repeating the failures of the past.
As a bit of an aside, I would also argue that the vast amounts of money spent on this now continuous, ongoing war is absurd. [Just to take a few examples: an F-16A/B fighter plane had an average cost in 1998 dollars of $14.6 million. We use hundreds of them. A UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter has an average cost of $21.3 million, each. A 2012 article on the high cost of war in The Economist pointed out that one Tomahawk cruise missile cost about $1.5 million, one Hellfire air-to-ground rocket $115,000 each, and so on. The F-22’s we now have in Syria? $150 million each. And all this is not including costs of fuel, tanks, jeeps, or of the costs of training and sustaining manpower to make and operate these weapons.] Imagine if we had even a part of this money to use for improving the infrastructure, or our education systems, or alleviating poverty!
A Few Notes on the Audio Production:
In general, the narrator, Rob Shapiro does a fine job, and imbues his reading with passion. A few very small cavils about his pronunciation, because he is terrific with so many foreign names. He says “internecine” as in-TER-nuh-cine – I have to say I never heard that done before. Foray, correctly pronounced with emphasis on the first syllable, is said as for-AY by Shapiro. Notre Dame the university is definitely pronounced as “noter dame” not “no-trah dahm.” And of course he, like so many other people today, uses “air” when he means “err” (properly pronounced to rhyme with “her”). I know it is now widely accepted, but it still sounds like fingernails on the blackboard to me.
There are some disadvantages to listening to this book on audio. The hardback book has excellent maps, detailed footnotes, and a section of photographs.
Published in hardcover by Random House, an an imprint and division of Penguin Random House, 2016. Audio version available (923 minutes) from Random House Audio, read by Rob Shapiro, 2016.