by Andrew J. Bacevich
Random House, 2016
Andrew Bacevich, Vietnam veteran with a PhD in American diplomatic history and retired professor of history and international relations, has become a well-recognized wise man of American foreign policy. In 2008 he wrote The Limits of Power, a semi-philosophical look at what he calls “American exceptionalism,” a symptom of which is the persistent employment of American military might to exert our will upon the rest of the world. That small, compelling book has reshaped my worldview.
Now, with America’s War for the Greater Middle East, Bacevich has undertaken a history of our modern wars since Vietnam, all of which he convincingly aggregates under a single “War for the Greater Middle East.” With the advantage of hindsight, Bacevich begins with a thorough analysis of the little remembered Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, in which the United States meddled (sometimes on both sides) throughout the Reagan administration. In Bacevich’s lexicon, this was the “First Gulf War.”
He then connects the dots to all of America’s subsequent misadventures in the Greater Middle East. The lack of overall strategy in the Iran-Iraq War – and consequent failure of America’s efforts to achieve its desired results – then sowed the seeds for Operation Desert Storm in 1990-91. Desert Storm is commonly known as the First Gulf War, but in Bacevich’s history it is the Second Gulf War. Desert Storm is also commonly viewed as an American military success, but Bacevich shows how it fell short, in turn sowing the seeds for Bush, Jr.’s ill-advised Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The latter endeavor, also known to us as “shock and awe,” thus became the Third Gulf War. It consumed Bush 43’s entire two terms and much of Obama’s presidency as well. Iraqi Freedom was unique only in that it was undertaken for even more naïve, shortsighted objectives than previous Middle East endeavors, and involved more hubris and incompetence than anything prior. Bush 43 and his arrogant foreign policy advisors doubled down on earlier failures. So much for learning from history.
In this narrative, Bacevich treats Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria as well. The genius of Bacevich’s work is his considered analysis of how each of these misadventures is connected to every other. True, Bacevich has the advantage now of hindsight, but few foreign policy analysts possess either the insight or the courage to explore these unflattering connections.
Since Barack Obama is our current president, and since this is an election year, it is fashionable today to lay the entire Middle East failure at Obama’s feet. Bacevich’s answer to this exemplifies his wit and his depth of understanding. “Washington suffered from the inverse of early-onset Alzheimer’s,” he writes. “Short-term memory going back a week or ten days was perfectly intact; everything else was gone.”
In the end, almost forty years of effort by the nation with the most powerful military on the planet have yielded nearly nothing in the way of progress, whether it be quelling terrorism, spreading democracy, or stabilizing the Middle East as a region. Bacevich argues rather that we’ve achieved the opposite. In the final chapter, “Generational War,” he raises two obvious questions: Why can’t we win? And since we haven’t won, why can’t we get out? I’m sure most of us have asked these questions. For plausible answers I urge everyone to read this excellent history.
I will, though, drop a hint, in Bacevich’s own words:
At the end of the day, whether the United States is able to shape the Greater Middle East will matter less than whether it can shape itself, restoring effectiveness to self-government, providing for sustainable and equitable prosperity, and extracting from a vastly diverse culture something to hold in common of greater moment than shallow digital enthusiasms and the worship of celebrity.
Thus America’s War for the Greater Middle East, too, is about American exceptionalism, not merely a philosophical look, but where the rubber meets the road. Andrew Bacevich tells us the truth, and his keen insight into the destructiveness of our long-held myth of American exceptionalism merits our fullest attention.