Osama bin Laden is gone, but US war in the Middle East is here to stay

Osama bin Laden's death does not mark a turning point in the 'war on terror' – because this is really the 'war for the American way of life,' which depends on access to foreign oil.

However emotionally satisfying to Americans, Osama bin Laden’s departure from the scene is unlikely to produce definitive results. It does not mark a turning point in history. The conflict commonly referred to as the “war on terror” and thought to have begun on Sept. 11, 2001 will not end with Bin Laden’s death – in large part because that war is not really about terrorism, with the first shots having been fired long before the events of 9/11.

The contest in which we are engaged is one to determine the fate of the greater Middle East, with particular attention to the oil-rich Persian Gulf. That contest began during World War I when Great Britain and France collaborated to dismantle the Ottoman Empire and to replace it with a New Middle East organized to serve the needs of London and Paris. During World War II, the United States became party to this effort when Franklin Roosevelt committed the United States to guaranteeing the safety and well-being of the Saudi royal family, which owned but needed help in exploiting a veritable El Dorado of oil.

By the 1960s, with European power in decline, the United States became the principal Western guarantor of Middle Eastern stability (and therefore of Western access to its riches). Also by the 1960s, with US domestic oil reserves no longer able to satisfy the American appetite for cheap energy – a prerequisite for the personal mobility that defined what Americans meant by the word “freedom” – access to El Dorado and its environs was becoming a categorical imperative.

The real war

The war in which we find ourselves today – honesty should compel us to call it the “war for the American way of life” – was joined in 1980. With the overthrow of Iran’s shah and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the full-scale militarization of US Middle Eastern policy commenced. Jimmy Carter’s promulgation of the Carter Doctrine committed the United States to using all necessary means – diplomatic code for threatening to employ force – to prevent any hostile power from controlling the Gulf. What followed was an ever-escalating penchant for US military interventionism, to which Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton each contributed in turn. Rather than simply preventing others from dominating the Gulf, we sought willy-nilly to dominate it ourselves.

This escalation of US military presence and activities elicited a hostile response, with Al Qaeda in the forefront of those determined to eject the West once and for all from Muslim lands and to put their own imprint on the Greater Middle East. During the 1990s, beginning with the first bombing of the World Trade Center, preliminary skirmishing occurred. Only with the murderous events of 9/11 did Americans grasp the lengths to which Bin Laden and his followers would go to achieve their purposes.

Fatefully, George W. Bush chose to play Bin Laden’s game. He responded to 9/11 by escalating even further the US attempt to impose order on the Greater Middle East, confident that the United States possessed the necessary military power to do so. Instead of quasi-war, there was now all-out war, with no holds barred. Instead of periodic hostilities, there was now open-ended fighting.

Americans have learned little

In Afghanistan and Iraq, the results proved deeply disappointing. They also turned out to be painfully costly. Yet Americans learned remarkably little from their pain and disappointment.

Although in the contest to determine Mr. Bush’s successor Barack Obama offered himself as the candidate who would take a different tack, he has not done so. Since taking office, he has redoubled US military efforts in Afghanistan, while opening up new fronts in Pakistan and, more recently, Libya. Although President Obama avoids the term “war on terror,” that war – and the larger project begun back in 1915 – continues unabated. And although Mr. Obama can rightly cite the killing of Bin Laden as a notable victory, it will not prove decisive, if only because the essential issues giving rise to war in the first place remain unresolved.

IN PICTURES: Osama bin Laden death: reaction

As long as the American way of life – American freedom itself in however warped a form – depends on access to large quantities of foreign oil, US exertions to determine the fate of the Greater Middle East will continue. So, too, will efforts by violent Islamic radicals intent on thwarting the West’s vision of a New Middle East serving the West’s purposes. Bin Laden’s passing – like his entire vile career – will have decided nothing.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book, “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War,” is just out in paperback.

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