The book America’s War for the Greater Middle East is a four decade chronology of America's military involvement in the Middle East, taking military and civilian leaders to task for a strategy that has cost trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives, with little to show for it. Colonel Bacevich does not offer any easy solutions to the crisis in the Middle East today, but argues persuasively that the efforts of the past four decades has produced no discernable positive results, likely creating more problems that it has solved. Colonel Bacevich joined us for about forty minutes of our two-hour discussion, adding depth and a personal connection. For me personally, it moved the needle on my perspective toward military action in the Middle East.
The war began with the Carter Doctrine, based on the premise that American demand for predictable oil out of the Middle East had to be protected from outside interests, at the time primarily Iran and Russia. As Rob pointed out, the gas lines of the mid-70’s made Americans feel vulnerable to foreign forces that threatened our way of life. Efforts to prevent disruption in oil were politically defensible. While Bacevich begins his timeline with President Jimmy Carter, several agreed that the time line could have begun decades before or after Carter. Reagan pursued military involvement as an extension of the Carter Doctrine and was president when a force of U.S. Marines in Beirut were bombed in 1983, resulting in over 300 deaths. Reagan pursued his own small scale war against Libya' Moamar Gadhafi for his involvement in the Lockerbie and Berlin bombings, and played both sides of the long running Iran - Iraq war, including the convoluted and illegal affair known as “Iran-Contra”. As an aside, one of our member’s brother was a U.S. Navy fighter pilot painted by a U.S. manufactured air defense missile system operated by Iran during Operation Preying Mantis naval battle in the Persian Gulf (1988), illustrating the absurd complications present in the Middle East even in the 1980’s. In retrospect, the 9 year Iran-Iraqi war stalemate might have been one of the most stable times for the region in the past 40 years, an idea resurrected in our conclusion. George H.W. Bush was at the helm when our former ally Saddam Hussein decided to annex Kuwait, violating the premise of the Carter Doctrine, and placing the supply of Saudi oil in jeopardy. Desert Shield was employed to protect Saudi oil fields (though tactically limited to Kuwaiti fields), soon followed by Desert Storm, all under the same basic premise of the Carter doctrine: the political demand for a predictable oil supply.
Clinton took a different approach, siding with Muslims in Kosovo during the Balkans conflict, while never securing Islamic appreciation for U.S. engagement there. To his credit, the focus on air support limited U.S. casualties unlike any previous conflict. George W. Bush went back to Afghanistan and Iraq big: After 9-11, Congress’ transfer its constitutionally derived war powers through the “Authorization to Use Military Force” Act (AUMF) to remove Saddam Hussein from that country and to remove the Taliban and Islamic militants from safe havens there. The Bush Doctrine took a step beyond Carter Doctrine with a focus on pre-emptive action, taking the war on terror to them. George Bush's greatest mistake in Iraq may have been the false optimism that we could impose or insert democracy into a place like Iraq. The ‘nation builders’ never adequately considered the impact of religion, cultural, tribal and ethnic forces. More recently Obama turned back to Afghanistan, while trying to disengage from Iraq, but returning there and making the same mistakes Johnson made in Vietnam, gradual escalation by half steps. Obama also amped up use of drones as tools of assassination inconceivable thirtty years ago, while opening up new fronts in Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, and Libya, and offering US military assets to over 50 African nations in an attempt to preempt radical Islamic influence. His legacy was to expand the fronts of war geometrically. The story behind the detailed and meticulously referenced chronology is consistent: continued involvement of United States military assets, for objectives rarely clearly articulated to the American people.
The book spares no one. Civilian leaders never took a long view, often swept along by political winds and politically motivated decisions, and military planners focused on military solutions, killing or degrading, while Middle Eastern societies crumbled and new leaders, often worse than their predecessors, emerged. The demonstrable effects of this decades long war has been political instability, social degradation in, and most recently, a humanitarian disaster of migration from the area. One of the known sources of instability are the legacies of western incursion.
Much of the book reads as Monday morning quarterbacking, with scathing criticisms of many American military leaders including Stan McCrystal, David Petraeus, Norman Schwartzkopf, to name just a few. Mal wondered whether Colonel Bacevich is still on the Christmas card list of anyone at the Pentagon. Not likely.
The premise of the wars’ earliest justification, predictable oil, has since been turned upside down, as American engineering ingenuity and competitive solutions to oil price pressure have given us a $60 bbl oil price ceiling. The Bakken Shield in North Dakota alone has rendered imported oil merely a pricing mechanism. The original need for oil price stability and supply predictability have been solved, without the military.
Could we roll back to Carter's famous malaise speech, and question whether disengagement would have produced any better results for America? Had we let market forces develop alternatives thirty years earlier, would the Middle East be a better place? And more relevant, now that oil predictability is not held hostage by foreign nations, can we leave now? American armies have a way of showing up but not leaving. Should this always be the case? Looking forward, the candidate Trump was critical of wars in the Islamic world: America First. But the Syrian tomahawk missile strike was a questionable legal act, and accepted by Congressional leaders from both parties. Dare we hope that this strike in Syria and the MOAB in Afghanistan will be the closing bell on militaristic solutions to the Middle East?
As a group, we discuss and ague about paths forward to help us define our own positions on these topics. While the book offers a few closing thoughts on how diplomacy and military disengagement are better solutions, they lacked depth. Our discussion with Colonel Bacevich on what a successful strategy would look like in his mind was much clearer from him directly. Simply stated, success looks like the absence of war and a balance of power contained within the region. This balance, with an absence of a broader war does NOT necessarily include democratic governments, respect for human rights, or tolerance for many of what many Americans consider social imperatives. Nor can we expect an ambitious Iran or adventurist Russia to play along. A strategic objective should be to persuade and facilitate countries to manage their own affairs better, without spilling out broadly beyond the region. Change to a region skeptical of any change happens at a slow pace. In the west we’ve figured out how to reconcile faith with politics. In the Islamic world, that social contract appears unrealistic. At best, it will be a long time before any peace comes to the area, but great limits of American military solutions would be a good starting point.
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