Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (New York: Random House, 2016), 453 pp., $30.00.
ANDREW J. BACEVICH and President Barack Obama share a number of things in common. Both are convinced that the United States has relied far too heavily on its military forces to intervene in the Middle East. Both assert that these interventions have not addressed, much less resolved, the deep-rooted challenges that confront the region. Both refer to Reinhold Niebuhr as a source for national-security policy formulation. And both evince complete disdain for the “establishment,” whose first instinct, they assert, is to apply military force.
But there is a difference between the two. Obama is cerebral; Bacevich, angry. Obama does not hesitate to use force; Bacevich sees America as a militarized state constantly “hell bent on war.” Obama considers today’s national-security establishment—the nexus of think tankers, Hill staffers, pundits and professors that congregate along the Boston-Washington axis—to be enthralled by military solutions to every problem, and therefore to have it all wrong. Bacevich goes much further. As he reiterates ad nauseam in his latest tract, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, no one in the past forty years—with the possible exception of David Petraeus, who he says “proves the rule”—has lived up to his standards of either civilian leadership or military generalship, especially with regard to the region he terms “the Greater Middle East.” Lastly, Obama is no neoisolationist; Bacevich is.
BACEVICH’S TAKE on Franklin Roosevelt is particularly revealing in this last regard. He asserts that Roosevelt
“maneuver[ed] his country toward war by relying on demagoguery while playing fast and loose with the facts. . . . Prior to U.S. entry into World War II, Franklin Roosevelt had slandered anti-interventionists as ‘Copperheads,’ a Civil War–era term equivalent to calling someone ‘pink’ or a ‘fellow traveler’ in the 1950s.”
Apart from not specifying with which facts Roosevelt played “fast and loose,” Bacevich gives himself away by citing as his source an article in the Chicago Tribune (then an anti-British, isolationist paper) headlined “Wheeler Flays FDR smear of Col. Lindbergh.” The Wheeler in question was Montana Sen. Burton Wheeler who, like Robert McCormick, the Chicago Tribune’s publisher, was a notorious figure in the America First movement. As for Charles Lindbergh, he was America’s best-known isolationist, an anti-Semite and a vocal supporter of America First. Indeed, at one point Bacevich himself approvingly employs “America First” to make his case, though he no doubt knows full well how loaded that term really is.
While Bacevich only gives Roosevelt (and Woodrow Wilson, whom he also labels a “warmonger”) a cameo role, Bacevich reserves most of his venom for presidents from Jimmy Carter onwards. He holds them collectively responsible for leading America into an endless war. As it happens, there is no such place as “the Greater Middle East.” It is a George W. Bush–administration creation. The “Middle East” was a term employed by the British in the nineteenth century to connote Persia, Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf, in contrast to what it termed “the Near East,” which encompassed the Levant and Egypt. As Bacevich would have it, “the Greater Middle East” stretches from the Balkans (which even the Bush team did not include in the region) to Libya to Somalia to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and American intervention is to blame for virtually all their troubles. But just as his geography needs some correction (neither Somalia nor Afghanistan nor Pakistan can truly be considered part of the Middle East) so does his deeply flawed thesis—that everything America has done over the past several decades is flat wrong.
It was Carter, he asserts, whose so-called doctrine committed the United States to intervene in any Middle Eastern conflict that might thwart America’s insatiable appetite for oil, who paved the way for America’s constant interventions in the region throughout the remainder of the twentieth century and well into the twenty-first. Bacevich notes that Carter originally proposed that America become energy independent. In the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, however, Carter succumbed to Washington’s conventional wisdom that America should defend its interests through a stepped-up military presence that invariably led to intervention in the region’s internal affairs. Bacevich further asserts that in so doing Carter essentially reversed Dwight Eisenhower’s noninterventionist policies, as well as Richard Nixon’s reliance on the shah of Iran.
In one of the many disingenuous statements that permeate this volume, Bacevich claims:
“Ever since World War II, apart from the brief intervention in Lebanon that Dwight D. Eisenhower had ordered back in 1958 . . . America’s military had by and large steered clear of the region, leaving it in the hands of diplomats and spooks.”
On its face, that statement is true. But it was those very “spooks” that had perhaps the greatest long-term impact. Shortly after taking office in 1953, Eisenhower reversed Harry Truman’s noninterventionist policy toward Iran and supported the coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, restoring the shah to his throne after he had fled the country. The memory of that coup, which had been carried out in coordination with British intelligence, was a major factor not only in the 1979 Iranian Revolution that deposed the shah once and for all, but continues to reinforce the ayatollahs’ anti-American prejudices to this day.
Moreover, the overthrow of Mossadegh was not the only American intervention in the region prior to the Carter years. In 1956 Eisenhower threatened to cut off all American energy supplies to Israel if it did not withdraw from the Sinai, which it had captured in a rapid operation coordinated with France and Britain. And, as Bacevich does note, two years later—just over eighteen months after electing not to respond militarily to the Soviet invasion of Hungary—Eisenhower dispatched Marines to Lebanon, in order to quell that country’s emerging civil war. The Eisenhower years were hardly a period of American passivity in the region.
Nixon, too, was not shy about flexing American military muscle in the Middle East, if he felt American interests demanded it. He did not hesitate to put America’s strategic nuclear forces on Defense Condition Three (DEFCON3) when it looked as if the Soviets would deploy airborne forces to Egypt during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. No doubt Nixon essentially subcontracted to the shah of Iran the preservation of American interests in the Gulf to fill the vacuum left by the British after they announced their withdrawal from “East of Suez.” Yet America was not entirely absent from the Gulf; a small Mideast force based in Bahrain has operated continuously in the Gulf since 1948—a symbol of the reality that it was Washington, not Tehran, that was the ultimate security blanket for the Gulf emirates and kingdoms.
WITH TWENTY-TWENTY hindsight, Bacevich regrets that Carter backtracked from his objective of weaning America off Middle Eastern oil. With the fall of the shah and the invasion of Afghanistan, he asserts, the president capitulated to the overwhelming body of opinion, including that of Vietnam dissenter George W. Ball, that only a beefed-up American military presence, and willingness to fight, in the Middle East would deter future Soviet adventurism and preserve American access to the region’s oil. Bacevich further asserts that the Pentagon, particularly Paul Wolfowitz, who was at the time a deputy assistant secretary, seized upon the fall of the shah to press for an American buildup in the region. In fact, Wolfowitz had for some time been primarily concerned about a Soviet thrust through Iraq to the Persian Gulf. Indeed, nearly two years before the shah fell, he and I shared an initial focus on a combined Soviet-Iraqi attack on the shah. After consulting with Wolfowitz and many others, I completed a study for the Congressional Budget Office that addressed that very scenario. I certainly did not see Iraq as the primary threat to a much larger and better-equipped Iranian military, nor for that matter did Wolfowitz at the time. Bacevich is reading too much into what happened in the 1970s based on Wolfowitz’s actions a quarter century later.
Bacevich would have had Carter persist with his effort “to consider changing the American way of life, trading a shallow freedom for true freedom and dependence for autonomy.” That Americans did not see their freedom as shallow, that they did not view Carter’s half-serious suggestions for wearing sweaters or turning down the heat as an effective way to achieve energy independence and that they resoundingly rejected him in the 1980 presidential election only indicate to Bacevich how misguided the American people were at the time. Yet Bacevich offers no viable alternative that Carter could have proposed, and that the American people and its representatives in Congress might actually have supported.
Ronald Reagan fares even worse at Bacevich’s hands. Reagan’s policies towards the region (to include Afghanistan) were, as Bacevich sees it, “confused, slapdash, and inconsistent . . . a dog’s breakfast.” In his opinion, Reagan should never have sent troops into Lebanon in 1983—even though it was on a mission that did not fundamentally differ from the American intervention of 1958. He should never have authorized the bombing of Libya in 1986, since it was American “provocations” in the Gulf of Sidra that particularly enraged Muammar el-Qaddafi. He should never have pursued a “reflagging” policy that protected Kuwaiti and other Gulf shipping from Iranian attacks.