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.