February 08, 2018

Review of Andrew J. Bacevich’s “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History” 

Forty Years of Failure

A Review of Andrew J. Bacevich’s “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History” 

Jeb Smereck

The Middle East is an erratic, tangled web of tense relationships, and by the time the average American picks up today’s newspaper, the world described within its pages could differ greatly from what they read last week. Currently, ISIS is losing power and territory, Iran threatens Europe with potential long-range missiles, and Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to sponsor civil war in Yemen and Syria. Americans generally show little interest in Middle Eastern politics. Consequently, looming questions remain unanswered or ignored: Why has the U.S. military fought here for 40 years? What has the U.S. done in the past to create its current enemies? Will the U.S. military stay here for the next 40 years? Can the U.S. even win? Andrew J. Bacevich, in his latest book, “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History,” answers these questions in a harsh and thorough analysis of American policy regarding this region.

Bacevich is a former U.S. army colonel and Vietnam War veteran who retired from the military in the 1990s. He attended West Point before entering the army, earned a doctorate from Princeton in American Diplomatic History, and taught at Boston University from 1998-2014. His son, Andrew Bacevich Jr., was killed in Iraq in May 2007, a war which his father had actively opposed since its initiation four years earlier. As a man who served in the military, studied military history, and lost a son in battle, Bacevich has strong incentive for reviewing American policy. As a high school student with no military background, I agree with his conclusions.

The War for the Greater Middle East, the region between North Africa and Pakistan which includes the Balkans and Somalia, began when U.S. President Jimmy Carter deemed the area a vital American resource due to its oil reservoirs. Previous to Carter’s administration, the U.S. government had “…forged ill-advised relationships and made foolhardy commitments while misconstruing actual U.S. interests--even while treating the region as a strategic afterthought.” More specifically, America helped the Shah of Iran stay in power. Carter, inheriting Iran as an ally, overestimated the country’s ability to stabilize the Greater Middle East. The U.S. had funneled millions of dollars worth of weapons into the country, but circumstances changed in 1979, when the Shah fled Iran following a national revolution. Later that year, Iranian students invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held American workers hostage. In April 1980, Carter authorized Operation Eagle Claw, a mission intended to rescue the captive Americans. U.S. planes landed in a remote Iranian area called Desert One, but were attacked nonetheless. The mission was then called off, but while flying away in the low visibility, two of the planes collided, killing eight Americans and causing national embarrassment. Bacevich states that “as the action that initiated the war, Operation Eagle Claw...was a portent of things to come: campaigns launched with high hopes but inexplicably going awry.”

Bacevich claims that the United States only creates more disorder when intervening in the Greater Middle East, mainly due to its ignorance of ethnic and religious tensions, inability to commit to long-term missions, and choosing to engage in conflicts between anti-American regimes. The American government took none of these sensitive issues into account when planning operations, and paid the price. “Simply trying harder is unlikely to produce a different outcome,” writes Bacevich, arguing that “...only by remembering and confronting what we have largely chosen to disregard will Americans be able to choose a different course.”

Understanding ethnic and religious tensions is key to operating in the Greater Middle East. Few of the local factions and governments subscribe to western ideology, and strongly despise those who try and convince them otherwise (Great Britain’s failure in the area, for example). Because of this, the U.S. government often worked with dangerous, anti-American groups in order to thwart less favorable anti-American groups. In Operation Cyclone, America provided Afghan jihadists with weapons with which to resist the Soviets during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from 1980-89. While the United States managed to remove the Soviets, it later re-entered Afghanistan twenty years later to fight the successors of the groups they supported in the 1980s. During the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-88, the United States favored anti-American Iraq (Saddam Hussein’s regime) against anti-American Iran. Even though the war ended in a standstill, Iraq would return as a global enemy two years later when it invaded Kuwait and seized oil fields. U.S. President George H. W. Bush, with the support of the United Nations, sent U.S. troops into Kuwait who quickly removed the Iraqi military. In 2003, the United States would attack Iraq again by invading the country and overthrowing Hussein. After initially allying with Saddam Hussein, the United States later fought two wars against him. This political complexity commonly happened in America’s War for the Greater Middle East.

When Yugoslavia broke up in the early 1990s, the Serbs, the Bosnians, the Croats, and the Kosovars all fought against each other for political control. The creation of Bosnia-Herzegovina led to Serbia, backed by Bosnian Serbs, invading the country and attacking its capital, Sarajevo. Presidential hopeful Bill Clinton, while criticizing President Bush for not responding to tensions in the Balkans “was no more eager than his predecessor to plunge into any Balkan quagmire.” Once Clinton became president, though, he fought against Serbia through relatively ineffective American and NATO air attacks between 1993-95. The war only stopped when Croatia annexed land from Serbia, resulting in a 1995 peace treaty. Eventually, the Serbian region of Kosovo, full of ethnic muslims, fought for its independence through the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which gained traction in 1998. To the KLA, the influx of Serbian, Bosnian, and Croat refugees overwhelmed the Kosovar cultural identity. Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević denied Kosovo’s request for independence, and began fighting against the KLA. President Clinton put General Wesley Clark in charge of preventing Milošević from ethnically cleansing the Kosovars. While he managed to accomplish that, “Clark gave the impression of viewing himself either as an independent potentate or as an agent of the alliance, rather than as someone who took his marching orders from Washington.” His defiance cost him his job. Kosovo eventually gained independence in 2008, which Bacevich labels a “remarkable collaboration between the KLA and NATO--the one employing terror, the other habitually condemning its use--had enabled Kosovars to achieve their long-sought political goal." Members of the KLA returned to Kosovo only to later ethnically cleanse Serbians from the country. This was the level of difficulty the United States often dealt with in its missions in the Greater Middle East.

        Along with ignoring ancient regional tensions, the United States struggled to mend them, engaging in either missions that changed nothing or worsened the conditions of the country it entered. Bacevich writes that while America focuses on one problem, it has a tendency “to exacerbate a second and plant the seeds of a third.” The United States stopped helping Afghanistan after the end of the Soviet occupation, and did nothing afterwards to rebuild Afghanistan or foster a long-term relationship with Afghanistan, leaving it prone to Islamic radicalization under the control of the anti-American groups the U.S. funded for nine years.

Americans had little patience for the time needed to defeat enemies and rebuild a country. The United States either pulled out before total victory or left feeling triumphant while ignoring long-term problems. U.S. President Ronald Reagan initiated a peacekeeping campaign in Lebanon in 1982 intending to halt the war between Lebanese factions and the Israeli government. The mission ended in 1984, driven by a 1983 terrorist attack where a truck bomb exploded outside of two buildings in Beirut (Lebanon’s capital) which housed American and French peacekeepers, killing almost 300 people. Another example concerns Operation El Dorado Canyon, where the United States in 1986 tried to deter Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi from radicalizing the Greater Middle East. Bombing operations occurred, which killed few and damaged little in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, leaving Gaddafi unharmed and unfazed. “U.S. policy makers clung to their belief that armed might could somehow provide the ultimate solution to terrorism. Here was an illusion destined to last for decades to come.”

Bacevich writes that the success of Operation Desert Storm (the removal of Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait between 1990-91), further instilled American aggression towards the Greater Middle East. The United States believed it could win conflicts quickly, and with this mindset came unilateral decision-making and little patience for long-term warfare. Americans wanted a quick and easy war. Soon after Operation Desert Storm, it was clear that America had left a defiant and potentially volatile Saddam Hussein still in total control of Iraq. The Iraqi Kurds used the current political instability to try and create their own country, only for the Iraqi government to respond by trying to ethnically cleanse them. The U.S. government began Operation Provide Comfort, a mission aimed to help the Kurds, and while the U.S. did provide aid, the long-term benefits of Operation Desert Storm became harder to see.

With military overconfidence came American hubris. The native Somali warlords and foot soldiers the U.S. faced in the 1993 Somalia intervention outmaneuvered American troops in combat and with landmines. Bacevich writes that “In the end, Americans overlooked even the most obvious lesson, namely, don’t pick a fight with well-armed, highly motivated irregulars in a large city that they own.” The American soldiers did not fare well, and, along with this, “the Somalia campaign revealed severe deficiencies in American generalship that went far beyond such obvious lapses as acting without adequate intelligence, allowing tortuous command relationships, and disregarding basic operation security.”

The Somalia intervention convinced Osama bin Laden that America was powerless and weak. He decided that he and his organization, Al Qaeda, must stop the United States, the country he deemed most responsible for despair in the Middle East. America failed to recognize how much of a threat Al Qaeda was. Before 9/11, the most notable Al Qaeda attack blew up the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998. The U.S. also made questionable security decisions. The U.S.S. Cole, for example, allowed an unverified ship to approach in 2000. This unknown ship contained a bomb, which exploded and almost sank the Cole.


After the September 11th attacks (which bin Laden planned) that destroyed the World Trade Center in 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush responded with a“war on terror,” and eventually invaded Iraq in 2003, thinking that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. While the American military found no such weapons, it overthrew Hussein, demolished the Iraqi government, and continued to occupy Iraq for the rest of Bush’s presidency, along with Afghanistan. The American military failed to stabilize Iraq or Afghanistan during its tenure in either country. When the United States stayed long-term, it still accomplished little.

Presidential hopeful Barack Obama campaigned to remove the military from Iraq and Afghanistan. He then further sent U.S. troops into Afghanistan after taking office in 2009, but outlined that all troops would leave by late 2014. During Obama’s tenure, America increasingly used drones to attack targets due to their easy ability to enter enemy territory along with little risk in death for U.S. military members. The drones, while effective, fought long, endless wars with anti-American factions that never disappeared and grew stronger due to local resentment after drone attacks killed innocent civilians. Due to instability in Iraq caused by American intervention ten years earlier and the Syrian Civil War, the vacuum of power allowed the jihadist nation-state of ISIS to form. Bacevich finished and published “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: a Military History” by early 2016, and so this history ends in late 2015.

Anyone interested in American history or the Middle East should read this book. It is a poignant and blunt history of the United States’ involvement in destabilizing an already tense region further. America’s habit of entering and exiting wars with little thought for consequences continue to damage the credibility of America’s War for the Greater Middle East. As someone with little previous knowledge of this topic, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History alerted me to an important and overlooked section of American history. My review does not cover all the conflicts contained in this book, nor does it fully explain Bacevich’s opinions on high-level generals and the media during this crisis. My review only hints at the book’s amount of information. What I can say is that Andrew J. Bacevich cares deeply about the future of the United States, and hopes that “One day the American people may awaken to this reality...For now, sadly, Americans remain deep in slumber.”

1 comment:

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