Review of Bacevich, America's War for the Greater Middle East

By Joseph Stieb / May 25, 2017

Andrew Bacevich. America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. New York: Random House, 2016.
Reviewed by Joseph Stieb

From 1945 to 1980, almost no American soldiers died in action in the Middle East. Since 1990, virtually all American military casualties have occurred there. This startling fact frames Andrew Bacevich’s newest work, which poses two essential questions: how did the US become so militarily involved in the Middle East, and why has it been so difficult to break this pattern of intervention?

His answer centers on President Jimmy Carter’s response to several Middle Eastern upheavals in 1979 and 1980. First, the Iranian Revolution removed one of the twin pillars protecting America’s regional interests, creating an anti-American foe in place of a reliable ally. Second, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan put the USSR on the doorstep of the Persian Gulf, an outcome that American policy had sought to avoid throughout the Cold War. Carter and his successors saw these developments as threats in an age of growing dependence on foreign oil. They responded with the Carter Doctrine, declaring that the US would treat any attempt by an outside power to gain control of the Persian Gulf as a threat to America’s vital interests and counter these attempts with military force if necessary. Carter then built a military infrastructure called the Rapid Deployment Force, which later evolved into Central Command, which enabled the US to intervene quickly in the region. Bacevich concludes that Carter gave later presidents the rationale and the tools for an expansive role in the Middle East. Curiously, he does not justify his focus on the Carter Doctrine at the almost total exclusion of the 1958 Eisenhower Doctrine, which also promised military and economic aid to Middle Eastern countries facing Communist aggression.

Bacevich’s central thesis is that these acts and principles engendered a host of negative consequences that have kept the US military engaged in the Middle East since 1980. The most obvious of these consequences was the founding of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which emerged in part from American support for the Afghan Mujahedin. Bacevich further notes that while the Carter Doctrine originally focused on the Soviet threat, policy makers soon came to see hostile, radical regimes within the region, like Iraq and Iran, as additional threats to the free flow of oil from the region. The Carter Doctrine thus unintentionally laid the groundwork for future US attempts to stabilize the region and prevent a regional hegemon from emerging. These efforts included support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War, the protection of Kuwaiti oil tankers, increased aid to pro-American regimes, and the Persian Gulf War. These actions had their own consequences, especially the exhausting faceoff with Iraq in the 1990s and increasing anti-Americanism in Islamist circles. From there Bacevich follows the road to 9/11 and US interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

Scholars of foreign policy will find this story familiar, but non-experts will benefit from this readable, thorough account. However, Bacevich’s claim that historians should understand the last 35 years as a single conflict is not analytically useful. One problem with this argument is   that the rationales for the individual conflicts have changed significantly. The reasons for military involvement in the Gulf from 1980 to 1991 mainly related to preventing a single state from dominating oil resources. Post- 9/11 interventions may have emerged from the consequences of the Carter Doctrine conflicts, but their justifications were quite different. The Iraq War rationale focused on the nexus of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and rogue states as well as the opportunity for regional political transformation. Interventions in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria also have been more about terrorism, humanitarianism, and the global consequences of state failure than either oil or regional balance of power, especially as American dependence on Middle Eastern oil has declined. Moreover, the US has waged post-9/11 interventions mainly against non-state actors, compared to the struggles against states envisioned in the Carter Doctrine. It is unclear what new understanding scholars gain from Bacevich’s single war concept.

The deeper problem with this book is that the single war concept allows the failures of post-9/11 foreign policy to distort Bacevich’s analysis of pre-9/11 policy. Was American foreign policy in the Middle East such a disaster on September 10, 2001? On the one hand, the Arab-Israeli conflict still stewed, Iraq remained a problem, and the US was deeply unpopular in the region. On the other hand, the US had stymied Soviet, Iranian, and Iraqi attempts to dominate the region, maintained global access to oil, helped resolve the Bosnian and Kosovar crises, and avoided overly bloody entanglements. Presidents before George W. Bush may have steadily deepened US involvement under the logic of the Carter Doctrine, but they also exercised restraint, avoiding excessive commitments and respecting the limits of American power in addressing certain problems. However, Bacevich’s account subsumes this complex mixture of success and failure under the disasters of post-9/11 policy, allowing the shadow of the last 15 years to darken his view of the previous 20. Far from continuing a legacy of failure, the Bush administration broke with its predecessors’ restraint and adopted an agenda of regional transformation that far exceeded America’s means or knowhow, leading to several disasters. If this book’s goal was to give Americans a better sense of what went wrong, Bacevich missteps from page one in saying that the US was simply wrong from the beginning.

Bacevich’s extensive work on foreign policy remains vital for students of modern American history. His best critiques are not of policy but of American culture. In previous works like The New American Militarism and Breach of Trust, he rightfully condemns a system in which a tiny, underprivileged minority bears the burden of military service while the remainder, with no skin in the game, ignore the wars into which faulty policies thrust these soldiers. As a policy scholar, however, he is far too insensitive to the reality that foreign policy makers often lack good options and rarely achieve clear victories. For all his criticism, he rarely suggests what better route the US could have followed. In sum, much of Bacevich’s fame as a critic reflects his tendency to highlight the negative, which far too many scholars equate with incisive analysis. This new work fits exactly into that pattern.