Bacevich's Middle East Misdiagnosis: Everyone is Terrible

Bacevich's Middle East Misdiagnosis: Everyone is Terrible

When it comes to U.S. Middle East policy, hindsight is 20-20.


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.

Most of all, Reagan should never have supported the mujahideen war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. In this case, hindsight once again proves to be invaluable—Bacevich expects Reagan to have foreseen that the mujahideen would go on to fight the West once the Soviets were defeated. Evidently, it is of little consequence to Bacevich that it was that very defeat that seriously undermined the authority of the Kremlin and contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union. Nor does Bacevich offer any alternative to the policy that Reagan pursued.

Even George H. W. Bush and his team of realists do not measure up to Bacevich’s exacting standards. He questions whether the United States should have supported Kuwait at all after it was seized by Saddam. As he sees it, Saddam’s aggression against Kuwait was at least partly justified by that country’s refusal to forgive Iraqi war debts. He sees no difference between the invasion of Kuwait and America’s annexation of Hawaii in 1898, ignoring post–World War II developments in international law, as well as the creation of the United Nations and the ratification of its charter, which outlawed exactly the kind of aggression that Saddam had perpetrated. In fact, he sarcastically minimizes the imprimatur that “the so-called international community” in the form of a UN Security Council resolution gave to Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Finally, fully armed with hindsight, Bacevich argues that Bush should have ordered the destruction of Saddam’s Republican Guard. That he did not was due to the fact that “concern for appearances was displacing serious strategic analysis.”

Bush deliberately did not want to become enmeshed in a prolonged conflict precisely for the reasons Bacevich himself offers, namely, that “it’s hard to imagine how any victory over Iraq, no matter how complete, could have remedied” what Bacevich terms

“the vacuum left by . . . [the British]; intractable economic backwardness and political illegitimacy; divisions within Islam compounded by the rise of Arab nationalism; the founding of Israel; and the advent of the Iranian Revolution.”

Bush was not seeking to “remedy” these challenges; with the support of a coalition ranging from Britain and France to Egypt and Syria, his aims were limited. He wanted to roll back an aggressor, and that is what he did.

Bacevich not only criticizes Bush; he smears all the major actors in the war and, almost parenthetically in the course of doing so, lambasts other otherwise venerated figures as well:

“Schwarzkopf [the field commander who led the operation against Saddam] . . . shared MacArthur’s penchant for theatrics. As with Patton, maintaining his emotional balance required a constant struggle. Like Eisenhower, Schwarzkopf had a volcanic temper. . . . And like the thin-skinned Bradley, he was quick to take offense at any perceived slight. Generalship in wartime requires foresight, equanimity, and a supple intelligence.”

Apparently, these were qualities that MacArthur, Patton, Eisenhower and Bradley—those failed commanders of yesteryear—all did not possess.


AS BACEVICH sees it, the quality of American policymaking continued to deteriorate once Bill Clinton entered the White House. He argues that the American excursion into Somalia—it too is part of Bacevich’s “Greater Middle East”—was a debacle (which it actually was). In this case, Joseph Hoar (CENTCOM commander), Thomas Montgomery (commander of U.S. Forces Somalia) and William Garrison (commander of a special task force that included special-operations units) are all found wanting by Bacevich. “More than anything else,” he writes, “the Somalia campaign revealed severe deficiencies in American generalship”—in this case, their failure to gauge the political environment in which they operated. In fact, the generals were simply doing the best they could under impossible conditions and muddled political leadership in the White House. In any event, once again Bacevich does not outline what he would have done had he been in charge.

The American intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo (which readers may be surprised to learn are also part of the “Greater Middle East”), spurred on by the same liberal interventionist impulse that led to the fiasco in Somalia, perhaps need not have been undertaken at all. Bacevich certainly has a point when he posits that by supporting the Kosovo Liberation Army, which was little more than a terrorist organization, the West offered “a case study in how to make terrorism work, with the United States . . . both assisting and subsequently ratifying the results.” But its objective was not primarily, as Bacevich asserts, “to shore up NATO’s credibility.” Madeleine Albright, the administration’s leading advocate for intervention in both conflicts, truly believed that force was called for wherever there was a “responsibility to protect.” Blinded by his disdain for any military operation the United States or the West has undertaken since Vietnam, and determined to link every operation involving Muslims to his thesis about the Greater Middle East, Bacevich cannot bring himself to see what actually motivated Clinton and his team to intervene in the Balkans.

Bacevich considers the Clinton administration’s response to Al Qaeda’s bombing of both the World Trade Center in 1993 and the USS Cole in 2000 to have been laughable. But he reserves most of his spleen for the Bush administration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of the team of veteran policymakers that Bush brought with him into office, Bacevich writes, “They arrived knowing everything they needed to know. They just didn’t know enough to avert a horrific attack on the World Trade Center.” Certainly counterterrorism czar Dick Clarke, in particular, tried to warn of an impending Al Qaeda attack on an American target, but Bacevich goes too far in conveying the impression that Bush and his national-security team somehow could have both forecast the exact nature of 9/11 and prevented it and that, therefore, someone should have “lost his or her job . . . [been] reprimanded or demoted.” As the 9/11 Commission made clear, the failure was systemic, not individual.

Bacevich opines that none of Bush’s predecessors had made a large-scale military commitment to the region, ignoring the fact that his father had deployed 425,000 more troops in 1990 than the combined maximum ever deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. He claims, without providing any source (in his otherwise heavily noted book) or accounting for Congressional support, that Bush administration policymakers “saw public involvement as inconvenient, more likely to infringe on their own freedom of action.” He asserts that the protracted war in Afghanistan was “waged in a country where the United States was without vital interests against an adversary that . . . did not directly threaten U.S. national security.” His argument flies in the face of the fact that the perpetrators of 9/11 had trained in bin Laden’s Afghan camps. Surely if Al Qaeda and their Taliban protectors were allowed to remain in place in that country, the threat of a repeat performance on American shores would have been very real.

Bacevich’s assertions appear far more frequently in his discussion of the American operation in Iraq. With no real evidence, he claims that once it was clear that Saddam had no nuclear weapons, the administration “insisted that good intentions should count more than mere veracity.” He asserts that “no other country” removed regimes “that Washington deemed odious,” though in fact France had done exactly that in West Africa for decades—with Washington’s blessing—and would do so again, together with Britain and other NATO allies, in the 2011 operation that enabled the overthrow of Qaddafi. He criticizes Donald Rumsfeld for directing all questions about planning for the Iraq operation to Tommy Franks, the field commander, “effectively excluding the Joint Chiefs of Staff from playing any meaningful advisory role,” though in fact the chairman, Gen. Dick Myers, was involved in all aspects of war planning, and as provided for in the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols legislation, the chain of command ran directly from Rumsfeld to Franks, and not through the service chiefs or the chairman.

Bacevich claims that once initial combat operations had ended, and the American military confronted a growing insurrection and civil war, it adopted the “get tough” posture of the Israeli Defense Forces. Bacevich argues that the IDF’s tactics “reflected an Israeli determination to maintain a permanent grip on the West Bank,” while the similar practices of American forces “raised the specter of the United States maintaining permanent control of Iraq.” He is wrong on both counts. The IDF has never taken a political position on retention of the West Bank, no doubt because much, if not most, of its officer corps supports a two-state solution. IDF tactics, while harsh, and perhaps too harsh, have always been intended to deter future acts of terrorism; on balance, Israel does a much better job in this regard than, for example, Western European forces. In any event, just as the IDF’s operations have no impact on Israeli political decisions regarding the future of the occupied territories, so American counterinsurgency operations in Iraq were in no way a signal of American long-term intentions. Indeed, as Bacevich himself points out, it was George W. Bush who signed an agreement for the withdrawal of American combat troops from that country.

One claim in particular goes to the heart of Bacevich’s argument. Buttressed by no source higher than Douglas J. Feith, merely the eighth-ranking civilian official in the Pentagon, Bacevich alleges that Iraq was only a prelude to greater things—the remaking of the Middle East via the overthrow of the likes of Qaddafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Beyond the fact that Feith did not necessarily speak for his Defense Department superiors—and certainly did not speak for the White House—his list of targets did not include Egypt’s Mubarak, the Gulf kingdoms and emirates, and the kings of Jordan and Morocco, for the simple reason that these countries and their rulers were all allied to Washington and, in the case of Egypt and Jordan, had peace treaties with Israel.

Bacevich does quote “one Bush Administration official,” who says, “The road to the entire Middle East goes through Baghdad.” But who was that official? And how senior was he or she? We don’t know, and Bacevich doesn’t tell. In a similar vein, his criticism of the Iraq War, as with many of his assertions throughout the book, relies far too heavily on pundits and columnists. He cites journalists as sources for what policymakers thought (Bob Woodward, whose own books have no notes, is a particular favorite) and employs them as putative spokesmen for a government in which they never served. In this regard, Max Boot in particular is a frequent Bacevich foil. Unfortunately, Bacevich’s passionate opposition to the war simply overwhelms what might otherwise have been a reasonable critique of an operation that most analysts now agree was woefully misdirected from its very inception.


WHICH BRINGS us to Barack Obama. One might have thought that America’s sitting president would have received gentler treatment from the author. After all, Obama more or less succeeded in pulling combat troops out of Iraq. He surged troops into Afghanistan, underscoring the Bush administration’s belated recognition that it had lost its compass in that country, enabling a Taliban revival that threatened to overwhelm the manifestly corrupt regime of Hamid Karzai. Obama then began to withdraw troops, so that by the time Bacevich’s book was finished, fewer than ten thousand American troops remained in Afghanistan.

But Bacevich finds fault with Obama and his team as well. He dismisses with dripping sarcasm Obama’s desire to turn a fresh leaf with the Muslim world: “Good-bye conflict and suspicion, hello harmony and understanding. . . . Obama began his presidency declaring that the War for the Greater Middle East had become redundant, as if the product of some unfortunate miscommunication.” It is as if no policy, much less good intentions, can satisfy Bacevich. He blames Obama for not ending the “War for the Greater Middle East,” and for expanding and perpetuating it by surging troops to Afghanistan, a place that he describes as, in words that echo Neville Chamberlain’s shameful characterization of Czechoslovakia, “a distant country about which most Americans knew little and cared even less.” He assails David Petraeus, “arguably the most overtly political senior military officer . . . since MacArthur” for launching a “veiled challenge to the authority of the commander in chief” by publicly supporting Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s case for a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Bacevich goes on to say that Petraeus and McChrystal successfully pressured “the green-as-grass commander in chief without personal military experience” to surge more troops into Afghanistan. Yet the green-as-grass Obama did not hesitate to sack McChrystal over an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, pressure or no. That Obama not only did not fire Petraeus, but appointed him to head the CIA, clearly demonstrates how Bacevich has misunderstood the president’s relationship with his generals.

Bacevich’s primary critique of the way Obama, his advisers and his generals have conducted the war in Afghanistan is that they have not questioned the wisdom of a counterinsurgency strategy, which, he argues, has never succeeded. Actually it did—for the British in Malaya, against the very sort of Muslim extremists that Obama and his predecessors have faced. But this inconvenient fact is one that Bacevich ignores.

Bacevich asserts that “Washington’s bipartisan appetite for armed intervention in the Islamic world . . . had become tantamount to addiction.” As proof he cites the Libya intervention, which he calls “the Bush Doctrine of preventive war in humanitarian drag.” Bacevich covers no new ground in his discussion of Operation Odyssey Dawn, yet for once his critique may actually be on the mark, and not merely because Libya has since become yet another ungovernable state. The United States has had no real strategic interest in Libya since Qaddafi shed his nuclear ambitions and cut back, if not eliminated, his support for terrorism. Moreover, it is not clear how long the insurrection against him would have persisted had his forces attacked Benghazi. The intervention was predicated on what might have happened, not on what actually already had taken place.

Bacevich rightly criticizes Obama’s posture, or more accurately, the absence thereof, vis-à-vis the Syrian Civil War. As he puts it, “Libya represented a model of thoughtful planning and competent execution in comparison with Obama’s one other foray into regime change [namely, Syria].” Once again, he offers no new insights, much less alternatives to Obama’s policies. Moreover, his argument that the administration’s use of drones and special-operations forces against Islamic terrorists in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere is a sign of the administration’s “confusion” seems itself confused. What might intervention in Syria have to do with fighting terrorists elsewhere? The former, if fully implemented, could have resulted in regime change; the latter actually is in support of regimes seeking to govern their unruly nations.

In any event, Obama’s worst sin appears to have been a willingness to reinsert American forces into Iraq. After having asserted, inaccurately, that “the last non-U.S. foreign troop contingents pull[ed] out of Iraq during the summer of 2009” (the British stayed on until mid-2011), Bacevich asks, “Why did Washington choose to reengage militarily in Iraq?” He answers, “Because it couldn’t think of anything better to do.” It is as if the emergence of ISIS as a new terrorist state, with an expanding geographical base and recruits from the world over, including the United States, should not have merited an American response. Once again, Bacevich offers no new real insights, other than to criticize whatever Obama and his team have done.


A RESPECTED military historian recently remarked to me that Bacevich constantly rewrites the same book. He has a point. In recent years Bacevich has written The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2009); Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (2011); The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2013); and Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (2014). Bacevich’s latest volume is simply a rehashing and updating of these other books.

There is considerable merit to the argument that the United States needs to be more discriminating in its involvement in overseas conflicts, particularly civil wars that pose no clear threat to America’s vital national interests. Over the past several decades, the United States has been far too prone to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries, often to remove and replace their leaders. On the other hand, the very fact that Americans have grown tired of overseas conflicts, and that Obama for all his faults—and there are many—at least prefers not to enmesh the country in new foreign adventures, belies the assertion that America is addicted to armed intervention in the Islamic world. But Bacevich suffers from his own addiction: he cannot bring himself to modify the case against America and its “establishment” that he has been making year after year. His anger is still there; his insights are unoriginal; and his policy prescriptions are as superficial as they ever were. Shades of Donald Trump.

Dov S. Zakheim is vice chairman of the Center for the National Interest. He was under secretary of defense (comptroller) from 2001 to 2004 and deputy under secretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985 to 1987.

Image: An Iraqi T-54, T-55 or Type 59 and T-55A during Operation Desert Storm. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy.