'America's War for the Greater Middle East' surveys decades of failed policy

The note of precisely controlled anger in this book is nothing short of mesmerizing.

America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History By Andrew Bacevich Random House 480 pp.

Even before readers get to the actual prose of retired Boston University history professor Andrew Bacevich's searing new book America's War for the Greater Middle East, they're confronted with a two-page spread that conveys a good deal of the subject's horrifying reach and scale. The book opens with an illustration of the greater Middle East, stretching from Gambia to the eastern tip of Pakistan, from Bosnia in the Balkans to southern Somalia on the Indian Ocean, and there are symbols denoting America's actions there since 1980, whether it be “Demonstrations/training” or “Counterterrorism operations” or “Punitive Attack” or “Major Punitive Attack” or “Attack Followed by Occupation.”

The map is covered in these symbols.

At the starting point of 1980, Bacevich locates a crucial incident and a crucial political stance. The incident is Operation Eagle Claw, a clandestine mission in which eight US Army helicopters were dispatched in April 1980 to a barren patch of Iranian outback as a station from which to rescue the American hostages then being held in Tehran. A series of technical accidents turned Eagle Claw into a near-immediate debacle. And the political stance, arguably no less a debacle, was struck four months earlier in President Jimmy Carter's State of the Union address, when he first announced what became known as the Carter Doctrine: “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

Bacevich is the latest in a long line of historians to characterize Carter as “the least bellicose of recent US presidents,” but it's worth pointing out that the Carter Doctrine, in which the leader of one country peremptorily laid claim to the natural resources of a sprawling region on the other side of the world, was a breathtaking act of imperial belligerence. As a response, among other things, to America's over-dependence on supplies of cheap oil from the Middle East, it opened the door to decades of mistrust and anger.

"America's War for the Greater Middle East" is a razor-edged chronicle of those decades. Bacevich takes his readers through the doleful highlights, from major attacks in Libya and Sudan and Kosovo to full-scale operations like Desert Storm in Iraq, Cyclone in Afghanistan, and the ominously vague open-ended Inherent Resolve. His accounts of these conflicts are filled with immediacy and some punchy, memorable prose, and they show a dramatic flair for character-drawing that will be familiar to readers of his earlier books.

“Generalship in wartime requires foresight, equanimity, and a supple intelligence,” he writes about Desert Storm General Norman Schwarzkopf. “Whatever his other talents, Schwarzkopf was not especially graced with these qualities.” And about the budgetary restrictions that plagued the 1992 US intervention in Somalia, the backdrop for the infamous firefight in Mogadishu in October of that year, he acidly observes: “Senior US military leaders had never pressed for an answer to the question of how much bringing order to Somalia was actually 'worth.' The firefight of October 3-4 revealed the answer: not much.” In these and all other sections of the book, the note of precisely controlled anger is nothing short of mesmerizing.

“Beginning in 1980,” Bacevich writes, “US forces ventured into the Greater Middle East to reassure, warn, intimidate, suppress, pacify, rescue, liberate, eliminate, transform, and overawe. They bombed, raided, invaded, occupied, and worked through proxies of various stripes.” And at virtually every turn, in virtually every case, he argues, the results have been abysmal failure, with the sledgehammer of American military might almost invariably doing more harm than good. The problem, as Bacevich sees it, is a “deeply pernicious collective naivete” on the part of Washington policy-makers, who continually seem to hope that failed strategies will somehow eventually yield successful outcomes.

Bacevich was an officer in the US Army for 23 years, and there lingers around some of his analysis the soldier's ingrained belief in the clueless stupidity of civilians. To the “collective naivete” he adds a list of problems endemic to the greater Middle East, including “pervasive underdevelopment … and the challenge of reconciling faith with modernity in a region where religion pervades every aspect of daily life.” [367] All of which is true, although throughout America's War for the Greater Middle East, Bacevich tends to ascribe too little importance to one of the proximate prompts of the Carter Doctrine, the 1979 Iranian Revolution which went on to flood the entire Middle East and beyond with an Islamic fundamentalism intractably opposed not just to Western values but to Western civilization itself. Even in an otherwise perfect scenario, the Iranian Revolution looks like a guarantee of unending war.

In the face of such war, Bacevich offers only the slimmest of hopes: In order to end its dangerous fumbling in the Middle East, America must abandon its itch to reshape the world and instead reshape itself. It's a tall order, but at least this book points the way.

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