I recently finished reading what turned out to be a timely book, titled America’s War for the Greater Middle East, by military historian and retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich.
The book opens with an intriguing premise:
From the end of World War II until 1980, virtually no American soldiers were killed in action while serving in the Greater Middle East.
Since 1990, virtually no American soldiers have been killed in action anywhere except the Greater Middle East.
The book explains why.
Bacevich connects the dots between a dozen military inventions since 1980 and weaves them into a single war: America’s War for the Greater Middle East. Although he tries a bit too hard to make the facts fit the large narrative, the book is one of the most incisive—and brutal—accounts of how the war in the Middle East became a permanent fixture in the American way of life.
In the book, Bacevich argues that with each intervention, while intent on solving one problem, the United States exacerbated another. On-the-ground realities mocked theories emerging from Washington about the indomitable American military might as a quick-fix to all problems plaguing the Middle East. With each intervention, the conflict resumed after the Americans left. With each intervention, the anti-American sentiment of the local populations grew stronger.
Bacevich doesn’t mince his words. He blames the “deeply pernicious collective naïveté” at the highest levels of civilian and military establishments for the misguided conflicts in the Middle East. No one is above reproach, including the American public. “Ensuring that Americans enjoy their rightful quota (which is to say, more than their fair share) of freedom, abundance, and security comes first,” Bacevich writes. “Everything else figures as an afterthought.”
The book will question everything you thought you knew about American interventions in the Middle East. The book also serves as a broader rebuke of the “We should do something!” approach and a timely reminder that every brilliant idea generates a dozen unintended, and often disastrous, consequences.
What follows are my personal notes from the book. I took the liberty of adding additional facts where they bolstered the narrative.
The book attributes the beginning of America’s War for the Greater Middle East to Jimmy Carter, a president ordinarily known for being more wimpish than hawkish. During his presidency, Carter cultivated close ties with the Shah of Iran, and in a speech that surely belongs in his blooper reel, told the Shah in 1977 that Iran stood as “an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world” (The Shah was toppled two years later in the Islamic Revolution of 1979). In what would become the precursor to the Iranian nuclear program, Carter then provided nuclear reactors to the Shah.
Following the Iranian Revolution, on July 15, 1979, Carter delivered a foresightful speech to the American people. He argued that the American appetite for consumption is the fundamental threat to American democracy—worse than energy shortages or inflation. In a passage that particularly resonated with me, he continued:
In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.
The speech flopped. The American people wanted more oil, not less. They rejected Carter’s invitation for minimalism.
Influenced by public sentiment, Carter backtracked. He tied the American way of life to control over the Persian Gulf, which inaugurated America’s war for the greater Middle East. Bacevich argues that if the American way of life depends on oil—a questionable assumption—the United States would have been better served in defending Canada and Venezuela over defending Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Carter blamed the Soviet Union for attempting to consolidate control over Afghanistan, thereby posing “a grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil.” He supported guerrillas fighting the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan—a move that would later fuel the spread of radical Islam.
Sleeping with the enemy
In September 1980, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran, hoping that the 1979 Islamic Revolution had left Iran militarily weak. The United States, under President Reagan, threw its weight behind Saddam, concerned about the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a regional power.
Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein
At the same time that it was publicly supporting Iraq, the United States was also diverting weapons to Iran—in other words, arming both sides—in an episode known as the Iran-Contra affair. The motive was to free the American hostages in Iran and cozy up to the Iranian moderates.
Unhappy about the American support of Iran, Saddam sunk the American warship USS Stark, killing thirty-seven Navy personnel. According to Saddam, this was a lamentable but honest mistake since the warship had strayed into the Iraqi “exclusion zone.” The U.S. government found Saddam’s explanation fully persuasive and blamed—not Saddam—but Iran’s aggressive moves in the region.
The War on Terror
In 1982, Reagan dispatched the Marines to Lebanon to serve as peacekeepers amidst growing tensions between Israel and Palestine. He ended up with a bigger problem on his hands when a suicide bomber from the Islamic Jihad (later called Hezbollah) claimed the lives of hundreds of Marines, allowing the terrorist organization to claim victory over the world’s superpower.
Two months after the attack on the Marines in Lebanon, terrorists blew up the U.S. embassy annex in Kuwait. Kidnappings of Americans in Lebanon became commonplace.
Reagan then launched an attack against Libya for sponsoring acts of terrorism. He hailed the operation as a victory even though it didn’t damage anything that couldn’t be repaired. Libya retaliated by blowing up Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland, killing 259 passengers and crew.
The U.S. didn’t retaliate.
Reagan also embarked on a campaign in Afghanistan to stick it to the Soviet Union. Under Reagan’s leadership, the United States armed the mujahideen (holy warriors) in Afghanistan in their violent jihad against the Soviet Union, turning a blind eye to their deeply anti-American outlook. After the Soviet-installed regime in Afghanistan was toppled in 1992, the mujahideen turned against each other, unleashing a civil war that continued until 1996. The civil war allowed the Taliban to gain control of the country and impose a draconian order.
Reagan meets Afghan “freedom fighters”
The Gulf Wars
In 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait after Kuwait refused to forgive the loan it extended to Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War. The U.S. abandoned its former ally, sided with Kuwait, and launched Operation Desert Storm. The Americans successfully kicked Saddam out from Kuwait, but didn’t chase Saddam’s Republican Guard back to Baghdad. This “victory that might have been” promoted future fantasies.
In the meantime, Shiites and Kurds in Iraq seized the opportunity created by Operation Desert Storm to rebel against Saddam’s Sunni dictatorship. Saddam responded with brute force, slaughtering thousands.
During Operation Desert Storm, American troops were stationed on the Arabian peninsula to protect Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden, a native of Saudi Arabia, rejected the intrusion of infidels to Muslim holy land and fled Saudi Arabia in pursuit of violent jihad against the United States.
In the 1990s, the United States also launched an intervention in majority-Muslim countries in the Balkans. Yugoslavia had been formed as a multiethnic country after World War I. When the Cold War ended, the ethnic conclaves within Yugoslavia began to secede. NATO, with the United States at the helm, created a no-fly zone after the Serbian army laid siege to Sarajevo and began to commit numerous atrocities against the Bosnians—including rape, use of concentration camps, random shelling of civilian areas, and the massacre of 8,000 Bosnians in Srebrenica.
The NATO bombing was too little, too late. By the time NATO came to the rescue, the tide had already turned against the Serbs who were on the verge of defeat.
Serbia’s leader Slobodan Milosevic then went after Kosovo just as he had gone after Bosnia. NATO intervened again and Milosevic relented. Kosovars returned home and began to inflict on the Serbians the same treatment they had suffered in Serbian hands.
Even though the United States fought on behalf of Muslims in both Bosnia and Kosovo, both wars increased anti-American resentment in the region.
September 11 brought home America’s war for the greater Middle East. Even though 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, President Bush “wasn’t interested in examining the potential implications of that damning fact.”
In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq, citing the putative dangers posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. After that theory turned out to be false, the American leadership reverted to a ready-made fallback position: Liberating Iraqis from Saddam’s oppression. The administration expected democracy, once planted in Baghdad, to spread like wildfire throughout the entire Middle East. As one Bush administration official remarked, “The road to the entire Middle East goes through Baghdad.”
Rather than produce stability, the U.S. military presence incited anti-American sentiment. The Americans became the Redcoats and the Iraqis the rabble determined to get rid of the occupiers.
During Saddam’s reign, al Qaeda had been unable to gain a foothold in Iraq. Thanks to the 2003 intervention in Iraq, al Qaeda firmly established itself in that country. This al Qaeda franchise later became known as ISIS or the Islamic State.
What’s more, seizing the vacuum created by the American intervention, Iran began to support the Shia extremists in Iraq and emerged as one of the principal beneficiaries of the Iraq war.
Under President Obama, America’s war for the greater Middle East extended to places like Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and West Africa. For policymakers pining to punish terrorists without the complications associated with “boots on the ground,” drones offered a more palatable alternative. Drone attacks increased dramatically during the Obama administration, even though some senior U.S. military officers believed that they were creating more anti-American jihadists than they were eliminating.
In 2011, President Obama authorized the bombing of Libya to aid the rebels fighting against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. “We came, we saw, he died,” Secretary of State Clinton gloated. Once Gaddafi was toppled, the factions that had joined together to overthrow him turned against each other, leading the country into outright anarchy. Libya became the site of al Qaeda’s newest franchise.
The Libyan intervention also had dire consequences for Mali, which was then the paragon of democracy in Africa. After Gaddafi’s fall in nearby Libya, the Tuareg rebels who had been fighting on behalf of the Gaddafi dictatorship returned to Mali along with the weapons they had seized from Gaddafi’s armories. They used the opportunity to reinvigorate a long-simmering Tuareg rebellion against the Malian government. In March 2012 the resurgence of the Tuareg rebellion prompted a military coup just one month before what most observers assumed would be another democratic presidential election.
President Trump’s recent bombing of an airfield in Syria serves as a poignant reminder that America’s conflict in the greater Middle East is far from over.
No dictator should get away with using chemical weapons on its population. At the same time, a unilateral bombing of an airfield—with no congressional or international backing—seems to me a misguided slap on the wrist that will accomplish next to nothing. Just hours after the bombing, Syrian warplanes took off from the same airfield to attack rebel-held areas.
In the end, one thing is clear: The Middle East is a messy place. But it’s been made only messier by our blundering attempts to clean it up.