[This book review was published in the Winter 2016 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 100-108.]
America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History
Andrew J. Bacevich
Random House, 2016
This book is an odd mixture of iconoclasm and conventionality, but its central point is of such importance and value that we will place it at the start of this review. Bacevich repeatedly criticizes the wisdom and efficacy of the United States’ many interventions into the Islamic world. In a chronological account that goes back well before 9/11, he critiques the U.S. actions as often based on an ignorance of history and culture, shallow moralistic impulses, interventions without thought being given to their end-game, and the false assumption that peoples everywhere welcome being made over into the American image (or, we might add, into whatever has passed for the American image in the ever-changing program of the American opinion-elite).
We regret that Bacevich has not reinforced these criticisms with an in-depth analysis of each, and that he makes them with only the most passing statement of what he thinks a sound approach would be. He is the author of eight other books, and a scholar conversant with all of them would almost certainly know his thinking in greater depth than this book conveys. Because the author assumes the reader already knows the premises that inform his criticisms, this is not a “stand alone” book. For those of us who need to be filled in, it helps that we have found the kernel of his thinking in an opinion piece he wrote for the November 14, 2015 edition of the Boston Globe: “Rather than assuming an offensive posture, the West should revert to a defensive one. Instead of attempting to impose its will on the Greater Middle East, it should erect barriers to protect itself... Such barriers… will produce greater security at a more affordable cost… Rather than vainly attempting to police or control, this revised strategy should seek to contain.” He adds that the indigenous peoples of the Middle East will be better at solving their own problems than outsiders can be.
This explains much that Bacevich is saying. It obviously does not amount to a full exploration of what he has in mind by “containment.” Limiting his book to “a military history,” he makes no mention of the Muslim invasion of Europe, the depth of its cultural impact within Europe, or of the growing Muslim population in the United States. One would presume that “containment” would amount to more than simply “vetting” the mass population transfers to weed out the more palpable cases of threatened violence. It could mean seriously limiting the number of Islamic immigrants into the West. Bacevich, after all, is no friend to “multiculturalism,” as we see when he says that it is “one of the prevailing shibboleths of the present age” that the “commingling of cultures is inherently good.” The implications of containment may for him run the gamut between rather narrow or very broad.
Bacevich doesn’t use this analogy, but we suggest it might be well to think of the United States as having for several years stomped around in a large nest of fire ants, at much cost and pain but without appreciable effect other than seriously to agitate the ants. This suggests that the best alternative may be, as Bacevich suggests, to stop stomping around at all, and simply to let the mound exist on its own.
Andrew Bacevich’s credentials are impressive. He has every reason to “know whereof he speaks.” Now a retired Boston University professor, he entered academic life after 23 years’ service as an Army officer. He is a graduate both of the West Point military academy and Princeton University (at which he earned a doctorate in diplomatic history). A prolific writer, he supplements his nine books with innumerable articles and commentaries, including some in National Review and The American Conservative.
It is not possible anymore to say just what American “conservatism” amounts to, but it is clear that Bacevich is an unorthodox “conservative” in any case, as witness his 2008 support for Barack Obama for president. As a “Catholic conservative,” he takes a view of American life that is at least superficially similar to the Left’s. He praises President Jimmy Carter’s famous “malaise” speech, is critical of Americans’ “demand for a privileged status,” and says Americans have “more than their fair share” of “freedom, abundance, and security.” What keeps us from classifying this as sheer leftism is the recollection that similar sentiments (without the inanity of the reference to a “fair share”) could just as well have been voiced two centuries ago by John Adams and John Quincy Adams, whose religious outlook made them despondent about the American culture of their day. Indeed, the type of Catholic conservatism voiced in our own day by Russell Kirk in his The Conservative Mind is deeply at odds with a bourgeois, commercial, largely secular society.
Readers will find that, in addition to its recurrent point about the futility of the U.S. interventions, the book contains much valuable information (although many items are given without the explication they deserve). It gives, in effect, a chronological narrative of U.S. involvement in what Bacevich calls “the Greater Middle East.” (Surprisingly, he expands “Middle East” so much that he includes north Africa and even farther south into Africa wherever jihadism has taken root). Here are just some of the points mentioned in that chronology:
President Jimmy Carter declared what became known as “The Carter Doctrine,” by which the United States would repel “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region.”
Ronald Reagan wanted “an independent, sovereign Lebanon, free of all foreign forces,” and sought to have the United States “continue to be seen as a fair arbiter of justice in the Middle East.”
The Clinton administration sought the “dual containment” of both Iraq and Iran. At the same time, a “new power to compel” was seen to exist through the transformation of war by technology (referred to as RMA, a “Revolution in Military Affairs”). The United States created a virtual “air occupation” of Iraq by using air power to stop military activity there, both in the air and on the ground. It may surprise readers to be reminded that the United States supported Islamic jihadists in Bosnia and Kosovo; and that, speaking of Bosnia, “several thousand ‘holy warriors’ from Iran, Pakistan, and elsewhere in the Islamic world converged on Bosnia to wage jihad on behalf of their fellow Muslims.”
Bacevich says that after the Cold War a consensus developed among both “ideologues on the right” and the Clinton administration. It held that the United States should impose “a benign global hegemony” that would lead the world toward a new world order based on a “free community of market democracies.” “Humanitarian assistance gave way to nation-building.” (This is one of the things that deserves more explanation. There are many facets to the impulse to make the United States the policeman and social worker of the world. Neoconservative thought and “foreign policy neoliberalism” are important among several.)
After 9/11, the George W. Bush administration, acting in keeping with the presumed hegemony, decided to “transform the Greater Middle East.” In his 2002 speech at West Point, Bush also laid down “the Bush Doctrine” stating the case for “preventive war.”
The “nation building” objective continued under Barack Obama. In Afghanistan, even after declaring a gradual withdrawal of American troops, he spoke of “building capacity,” which Bacevich rightly considers a euphemism for nation building. The effort has spread to Africa, where a New York Times correspondent says the policy has been “to build a society faster than the enemy can take it apart.” On the military side, this has been supplemented by the widespread use of special forces and drones.
The profligate spending has been astonishing. “Cost is no object” would seem in recent decades to be “the American way of war.” Bacevich cites two examples, each relating to just a small fraction of what was done. The first: “Efforts to create an alternative to the drug economy [in Afghanistan] consumed more money in inflation-adjusted dollars than the United States had spent on the Marshall Plan, with precious little to show for it” (emphasis added). The second: A program to train soldiers to fight Assad in Syria produced 54 graduates, “of whom ‘four or five’ actually remained in the field, an achievement entailing the expenditure of $500 million.”
Although, as we have said, Bacevich is sketchy as to background on several important subjects, that is not the case on several others, where readers are amply rewarded. These include the failed helicopter rescue attempt in Iraq in 1980; an account of the U.S. involvement in the Lebanese civil war; the post-World War II history of the Balkans; the lead-up to and aftermath of the invasion of Iraq; and the overthrow and murder of Gaddafi in Libya. Each of these adds considerably to the book’s informational value.
We have many criticisms to make, which we would fly over quickly if they were not springboards for worthwhile reflection. They should be taken into account by anyone giving the book the serious attention Bacevich no doubt wants it to receive.
The book’s title says it is “a military history,” but its attention to the details of the military campaigns is so slight that it hardly qualifies as that. There is, as just two minor examples, only the most passing mention of the Marine Corps’ campaign in Afghanistan’s Helmand province and of the battles for Fallujah in Iraq. One will need to read true military histories to get the details of those and many similar episodes. A major omission has to do with “intelligence,” which has been the life-blood of military action for millennia but is even more indispensable today.
There is much else that the book is not. An important part of the American strategy of regime change in the effort to refashion the world has been to sponsor mass demonstrations in the hope that they will lead (as they sometimes have) to the overthrow of existing governments. Bacevich doesn’t mention it, just as he doesn’t examine the role of diplomacy. The book’s presenting itself as a “military” history has thus served a limiting function, omitting major dimensions of “the war for the Greater Middle East.”
A reader might well be curious about much that Bacevich accepts without pause. Years ago, on reading Herodotus, we smiled incredulously when told of the Greeks’ killing 297,000 Persians while losing only 159 of their own, and we wonder why Bacevich finds it easy to accept without further explanation that “in one engagement [in Iraq]” American forces “demolished an entire brigade of the Medina Division, destroying sixty-one tanks and thirty-nine other armored vehicles at the cost of a single American killed.” Assuming this is true, which we presume it is, it calls for an explanation that may not seem necessary to a career Army officer, but that the rest of us need if we are to understand how it can possibly be that the Iraqis didn’t shoot back at all. We are curious, too, why with regard to Bosnia and Kosovo the European and American preference seems always to have been so reflexively favorable to the Muslims and against the Serbs. It seems the Serbs were always guilty of “machismo.” Perhaps they are inherently more brutish than others in the Balkans. If so, is there an historical and cultural basis for thinking so? Or is it a prejudice?
It would be helpful if Bacevich were to tell us just who the Taliban are in Afghanistan. Apparently they are not coterminous with the Pashtuns. If not, who are they? And in Iraq, how is it that the United States lost its working relationship with the Sunni tribal leaders, so important at one time in reversing a badly deteriorating situation, a loss that must have been instrumental in later allowing the Islamic State to sweep across western Iraq. There is much to be explained.
An important area of confusion in Bacevich’s analysis appears when he gives conflicting explanations of the purposes that have moved American policy. One of these points to the consensus on a New World Order – a “unipolar world, with the United States at the center” and having “the will to shape the world.” Another has him saying that “oil has always defined the raison d’etre of the War for the Greater Middle East.” A third is that the reason for the decision to invade Iraq was not to remove weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or to “liberate oppressed Iraqis,” or to pursue any of the other myriad explanations that were “floated”; it was instead to establish a precedent. The intended precedent, Bacevich says, was to be for “the efficacy of preventive war,” the “prerogative of removing odious regimes,” and for “reversing the practice of exempting the Islamic world from neoliberal standards.” A fourth explanation, applicable to the war in Afghanistan, was “to make clear the fate awaiting any regime providing support or sanctuary to anti-American terrorists, as the Taliban had done.” It would not be unreasonable for us to think it likely that all of these purposes entered into the minds of policy-makers at one time or another, or even simultaneously.
We started this review by observing that Bacevich’s analysis is “a mixture of iconoclasm and conventionality.” We would be remiss if now, at the end, we didn’t discuss some of the quirks that detract from the otherwise favorable impression we have of his thinking.
There is a school of thought that hardly made its presence known during the Cold War but that has since expressed a view that, with a foolish logical consistency, extends the anti-interventionist position to a situation where it didn’t fit. This applies the non-interventionist position to reject the United States’ containment of Communism. Bacevich makes a number of comments from which we can infer that he is of that school. He says it was the United States that “embarked on the Cold War” in 1947, perversely treating the United States as the instigator, brushing aside the long-standing Marxist-Leninist program of Communist expansion and, more specifically, Stalin’s clamping of Communism onto Eastern Europe. Bacevich is among those who denounce it as ousting “a democratically elected Iranian government” when in 1953 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency “helped engineer a coup” that overthrew Mossadegh in Iran. In several places, he doubts whether the Soviet Union’s defeat in its 1980s Afghanistan quagmire “was beneficial to anyone,” as though the later rise of jihadism negated a somehow less-than-important demoralization of the Soviet Union. Indeed, he blames the U.S. support for the anti-Soviet fighters there for having “rendered [the country] ungovernable.”
Bacevich fails to grasp an essential feature of the Cold War when he says that “nationalism rather than international communism” was the “nexus” of the Vietnam War. It would certainly simplify the struggle that occurred in Asia, Africa and Latin America if “nationalism” could be treated this way, just by itself. It was a tragic fact, however, that the nationalist movements allowed themselves to become married to the Communist thrust. This occurred, for example, in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was both a nationalist and a Communist. Ho Chi Minh was both. This marriage had to be borne out of an ignorance of (or insouciance toward) the 80 to 100 million victims of Communism, a blindness facilitated by worldwide leftist ideology. The nationalist-Communist linkage forced the United States, as the leading anti-Communist power, to oppose those movements. Vast numbers of people, including those whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial wall in Washington, D.C. and those who were involved in the nationalist movements themselves, suffered from that perverse marriage.
Bacevich voices a conventional notion when he says that “in 1945, Americans saw in the Axis defeat the prospects of one world united in peace.” That was certainly true of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who looked forward to working with Stalin in a great-power condominium to police the world. It wasn’t true of those who, like Herbert Hoover, took a realistic view of Communism. The conventional perception is essentially ideological and gives primacy to one myopic view. It is a shame to see a man of Bacevich’s intelligence repeat it.
When Bacevich says there is an “urgent need to… respond to the strategic challenge posed by the People’s Republic of China,” he seems not to realize that his statement is pregnant with mischief. One wishes he would have explained in what way China is a strategic challenge. Is “big and powerful” enough to make it one? Maoist movements around the world at one time were one form of Communist aggression, but that was eclipsed by the end of the Cold War. Now, must the United States set itself up as the bulwark against Chinese economic penetration of Africa or against its claims in the waters adjacent to China? For someone who in general abjures America’s policing the world, it is surprising to see Bacevich refer to China, all these years after Mao, in potentially jingoistic terms.
Notwithstanding our criticisms, this is an important book. When America’s War for the Greater Middle East – A Military History proposes the containment of radical Islam, it advances an idea that has been little discussed as one of the options open to the West, but that may be far better than the efforts thus far. A given reader may or may not agree with the criticisms we have made of a number of Bacevich’s judgments on other points, but our admonition that “the book isn’t perfect” is a worthwhile reminder to approach any such book with a questioning mind.
Dwight D. Murphey
1. Herodotus The Histories (translated by Aubrey de Selincourt), Penguin Books, 1954, po. 579.
2. See Herbert Hoover’s Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath (edited with an introduction by George H. Nash) (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2011).
 Hereodotus The Histories (translated by Aubrey de Selincourt), Penguin Books, 1954, p. 579.
 See Herbert Hoover’s Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath (edited with an introduction by George H. Nash), (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2011).