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Empire’s Chain Reaction

In 2002, Andrew Bacevich published the first and in many ways most important history of the 9/11 era. Except that book, American Empire, was written before the 9/11 attacks. What Bacevich had done—by looking at the continuity of U.S. foreign policy under the first President Bush and (the first?) President Clinton—was to discern the fundamental habits, ideology, and institutional arrangements that would lead us into the wars of the George W. Bush years and beyond.

Bacevich’s ideas stood on their own (with acknowledged debts to Charles A. Beard and William Appleman Williams). But the ideas were reinforced by a credible biography—Bacevich was a soldier-scholar who had served in the U.S. Army for 23 years before becoming a professor of international relations. He had seen combat. And he was an eloquent writer as well as a scholar—a combination not to be taken for granted. American Empire and Bacevich’s subsequent books read as if they were written by a man who lives by his pen. Which is now the case, following Bacevich’s retirement from Boston University in 2014.

Along with these qualifications comes a moral vision. Bacevich is a conservative and a Catholic, though not a “Catholic conservative” in the sense in which that term is usually meant. In drawing upon progressives like Beard and Williams for his critique of a republic that was corroding into empire, Bacevich made the connection between consumerism as a way of life and the foreign policy of liberal hegemony. His is an old American voice, warning not only against going abroad in search of monsters to destroy but also against the loss of civic virtue. He has given his readers cause to reconsider the ethics of accumulation and expansion, as well as to rediscover the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr.

This is worth stressing because of the nature of the war we are in—not this war or that war, in Afghanistan or Syria, but the ongoing war to tame the world for American ideals and markets. The spirit that drives Washington’s post-Cold War foreign policy—and drove much of our earlier foreign policy, too—arises from a view of history and a set of concepts that are compelling, flattering to ourselves, and wrong. To challenge this national orthodoxy, embedded as it is in our elite institutions and popular culture, takes courage and talent of an unusual kind. The task demands a historian with a feel for ethics and history as an organic whole, one who can tell the real story not just accurately but convincingly. That’s what Andrew Bacevich does.


Even his friends may not agree with him on every point. He favors a return to conscription to restore the citizen-soldier ideal—and to raise the cost of war high enough that more citizens will take it seriously. Whether that would be enough to dissuade their leaders from launching more wars like the one in Iraq is open to question. Other admirers of Bacevich are more sanguine than he is about global trade and consumer prosperity enduring—indeed flourishing—absent an imperial foreign policy. But even these optimists stand to learn something from the ethical restraint of Bacevich’s prescription. The lesson he imparts is one of self-discipline, not socialism.

Bacevich’s latest book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, is a bookend of sorts to American Empire. The earlier work was heavy on theory and institutional development, the groundwork for the wars of the early 21st century. The new book covers the history itself—and argues persuasively that the Afghanistan, Iraq, and other, smaller wars since 9/11 are parts of a larger conflict that began much earlier, back in the Carter administration.

Whatever the character of America’s involvement in the Middle East before 1980, when Bacevich’s account begins, it was not a war, at least not in terms of American casualties. “From the end of World War II to 1980, virtually no American soldiers were killed in action while serving in that region,” he notes. “Within a decade,” however, “a great shift occurred. Since 1990, virtually no American soldiers have been killed in action anywhere except in the Greater Middle East.”

Operation Eagle Claw, Carter’s ill-fated mission to rescue Americans held hostage in Iran, was the first combat engagement in the war. Iran would continue to tempt Washington to military action throughout the next 36 years—though paradoxically, attempts to contain Iran more often brought the U.S. into war with the Islamic Republic’s hostile neighbor, Iraq.

The sequence of events, lucidly related by Bacevich, would be a dark absurdist comedy if it weren’t tragically real. To check Iran, the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–88, whose final phase, the so-called “Tanker War,” involved direct U.S. military engagement with Iranian naval forces. (Bacevich calls this the real first Persian Gulf War.)

Weakened and indebted by that war, and thinking the U.S. tolerant of his ambitions, Saddam then invaded Kuwait, leading to full-scale U.S. military intervention against him: Operation Desert Storm in 1991. (By Bacevich’s count, the second Gulf War.) President George H.W. Bush stopped American forces from pushing on to Baghdad after liberating Kuwait, however, because—among other things—toppling Saddam would have created a dangerous vacuum that Iran might fill.

A decade of sanctions, no-fly zones, and intermittent bombing then ensued, as Washington, under Bush and Clinton, would neither depose Saddam Hussein nor permit him to reassert himself. Finally, George W. Bush decided to risk what his father had dared not: invading Iraq with the objective of “regime change,” he launched a third Gulf War in 2003. The notion his neoconservative advisers put into Bush’s head was that, with only a little help from American occupation and reconstruction, the void left by Saddam Hussein’s removal would be filled by a model democracy. This would set a precedent for America to democratize every trouble-making state in the region, including Iran.

Yet the first Bush had been right: Iran, as well as ISIS, reaped the rewards of regime change in Baghdad. And so America is now being drawn into a fourth Gulf War, reintroducing troops—styled as advisors—into Iraq to counter the effects of the previous Gulf War, which was itself an answer to the unfinished business of the wars of 1991 and the late 1980s. Our military interventions in the Persian Gulf have been a self-perpetuating chain reaction for over three decades.

Iran released its American hostages the day Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president: January 20, 1981. So what accounts for another 35 years of conflict with Iran and Iraq? The answer begins with oil.

Bacevich takes us back to the Carter years. “By June 1979, a just-completed study by a then-obscure Defense Department official named Paul Wolfowitz was attracting notice throughout the national security bureaucracy.” This “Limited Contingency Study” described America’s “vital and growing stake in the Persian Gulf,” arising from “our need for Persian-Gulf oil and because events in the Persian Gulf affect the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

“Wolfowitz adhered to an expansive definition of the Persian Gulf,” notes Bacevich, which in that young defense intellectual’s words extended from “the region between Pakistan and Iran in the northeast to the Yemens in the southwest.” Wolfowitz identified two prospective menaces to U.S. interests in the region: the Soviet Union—this was still the Cold War era, after all—and “the emerging Iraqi threat”; to counter these Wolfowitz called for “advisors and counterinsurgency specialists, token combat forces, or a major commitment” of U.S. forces to the Middle East.

(Bacevich is fair to Wolfowitz, acknowledging that Saddam Hussein was indeed an expansionist, as the Iraqi dictator would demonstrate by invading Iran in 1980 and seizing Kuwait a decade later. Whether this meant that Iraq was ever a threat to U.S. interests is, of course, a different question—as is whether the Soviet Union could really have cut America off from Gulf oil.)

Wolfowitz was not alone in calling for the U.S. to become the guarantor of Middle East security—and Saudi Arabia’s security in particular—and President Carter heeded the advice. In March 1980 he created the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF), predecessor to what we now know as the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which has military oversight for the region. The RDJTF’s second head, Lt. Gen. Robert Kingston, described its mission, in admirably frank language, as simply “to ensure the unimpeded flow of oil from the Arabian Gulf.”

Iraq and Iran both posed dangers to the flow of oil and its control by Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies—to use the term loosely—of the United States. And just as the U.S. was drawn into wars with Iran and Iraq when it tried to play one against the other, America’s defense of Saudi Arabia would have grave unintended consequences—such as the creation of al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden was outraged when, in 1990, Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd declined his offer to wage holy war against Saddam Hussein and instead turned to American protection, even permitting the stationing of American military personnel in Islam’s sacred lands. “To liberate Kuwait,” writes Bacevich, bin Laden had “offered to raise an army of mujahedin. Rejecting his offer and his protest, Saudi authorities sought to silence the impertinent bin Laden. Not long thereafter, he fled into exile, determined to lead a holy war that would overthrow the corrupt Saudi royals.” The instrument bin Laden forged to accomplish that task, al-Qaeda, would target Americans as well, seeking to push the U.S. out of Muslim lands.

Bin Laden had reason to hope for success: in the 1980s he had helped mujahedin defeat another superpower, the Soviet Union, in Afghanistan. That struggle, of course, was supported by the U.S., through the CIA’s “Operation Cyclone,” which funneled arms and money to the Soviets’ Muslim opponents. Bacevich offers a verdict on this program:

Operation Cyclone illustrates one of the central ironies of America’s War for the Greater Middle East—the unwitting tendency, while intently focusing on solving one problem, to exacerbate a second and plant the seeds of a third. In Afghanistan, this meant fostering the rise of Islamic radicalism and underwriting Pakistan’s transformation into a nuclear-armed quasi-rogue state while attempting to subvert the Soviet Union.

America’s support for the mujahedin succeeded in inflicting defeat on the USSR—but left Afghanistan a haven and magnet for Islamist radicals, including bin Laden.

Another irony of Bacevich’s tale is the way in which the end of the Cold War made escalation of the War for the Greater Middle East possible. The Carter and Reagan administrations never considered the Middle East the centerpiece of their foreign policy: Western Europe and the Cold War took precedence. Carter and Reagan were unsystematic about their engagement with the Middle East and, even as they expanded America’s military presence, remained wary of strategic overcommitment. Operation Eagle Claw, Reagan’s deployment of troops to Lebanon in 1983 and bombing of Libya in 1986, and even the meddling in Iran and Iraq were all small-scale projects compared to what would be unleashed after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The military bureaucracy took advantage of the removal of one enemy from the map—Soviet Communism—to redirect resources toward a new region and new threats. As Bacevich observes, “What some at the time were calling a ‘peace dividend’ offered CENTCOM a way of expanding its portfolio of assets.” Operation Desert Storm, and all that came afterward, became possible.

thisarticleappears julaug16 [1]The Greater Middle East of Bacevich’s title centers strategically, if not geographically, upon Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. But its strategic implications and cultural reach are wide, encompassing Libya, Somalia, and other African states with significant Muslim populations; Afghanistan and Pakistan (or “AfPak,” in the Obama administration’s parlance); and even, on the periphery, the Balkans, where the U.S. intervened militarily in support of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. That Clinton-era intervention is examined in detail by Bacevich: “Today, years after NATO came to their rescue,” he writes, “a steady stream of Bosnians and Kosovars leave their homeland and head off toward Syria and Iraq, where they enlist as fighters in the ongoing anti-American, anti-Western jihad.”

Much as George W. Bush believed that liberal democracy would spring up in Saddam Hussein’s wake, the humanitarian interventionists who demanded that Bill Clinton send peacekeepers to Bosnia and bomb Serbia on behalf of the Kosovars thought that they were making the world safe for their own liberal, multicultural values. But as Bacevich notes, the Balkan Muslims joining ISIS today are “waging war on behalf of an entirely different set of universal values.”

Bacevich’s many books confront readers with painful but necessary truths. The final lesson of this one is simple: “Perpetuating the War for the Greater Middle East is not enhancing American freedom, abundance, and security. If anything, it is having the opposite effect.”

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Empire’s Chain Reaction"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 1, 2016 @ 3:05 am

I don’t believe it was ever this benign, if mistaken:

“Much as George W. Bush believed that liberal democracy would spring up … the humanitarian interventionists … thought that they were making the world safe for their own liberal, multicultural values.”

Rather, there was a hegemony of power sought, an entirely different value from the fig leaf for public consumption. Public deception excused by self-deception, except for key figures like Cheney who were completely aware of the real motives.

“But as Bacevich notes, the Balkan Muslims joining ISIS today are ‘waging war on behalf of an entirely different set of universal values.’”

And ours are entirely different from the way they are styled for our public consumption.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 1, 2016 @ 6:56 am

“Even his friends may not agree with him on every point. He favors a return to conscription to restore the citizen-soldier ideal—and to raise the cost of war high enough that more citizens will take it seriously.”

Absolutely spot on. I spoke about free education with some students. On the net day wen I spoke about two years of service for that investment, the room was chilled.

Yet, I think the idea of citizenship requires investment by it’s citizens and conscription is spot one.

#3 Comment By Steve On August 1, 2016 @ 11:15 am

I have long thought Bacevich is magnificent but disagree utterly with conscription. Conscription is slavery.

Plantation slaves were forced to work the plantations. They were given food, housing, clothing, and even small allowances to buy and sell things. Drafted soldiers are forced to work for the military. They are given food, housing, clothing, and allowances to buy and sell things. Even if we were to pay drafted soldiers $1 million a year, it would still be slavery because it would be work the soldiers are forced to do. Of course, at $1 million a year, a lot more people might volunteer for duty. And that, of course, is the essence of freedom.

Bacevich wants the public to feel the costs of war and believes the way to do that is conscription. I believe a much better way is for the government to charge the costs of war. In other words, no budget deficits. Charge in taxes and fees every nickel needed to pay for the military (and the rest of government). End income tax withholding. Make everyone write a check to Uncle Sam each quarter as self-employed people must do. If people had to pay the full costs of government each and every year, we would soon see how many military adventures and other government programs people really want.

#4 Comment By LouisM On August 1, 2016 @ 1:15 pm

Would a liberal democracy or republic have sprang up in France if it was surrounded by a hostile spain, Britain and Germany?

Would a liberal democracy or republic have sprang up in Germany if it was surrounded by a hostile france, Poland and Russia?

Would a liberal democracy or republic have sprang up in Russia if it was surrounded by a hostile france or Germany, China, etc?

Would a liberal democracy or republic have sprang up in France while the Jacobins were chopping off everyone’s head, or in Britain under Bloody Mary or in Germany with the Nazis or in Russia with the Bolsheviks and Marxists and Communists or in China with the Maoist Cultural Revolution mass murderers.

It would take an intelligence lower than a snail to think that by cutting off the head a new and better one would grow back. The external and internal environment need to change before change can take root. If the same environment exists externally and internally then only the players will change but the fruit of the crop will contain the same poisonous weeds.

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 1, 2016 @ 1:22 pm

“Charge in taxes and fees every nickel needed to pay for the military (and the rest of government). End income tax withholding. Make everyone write a check to Uncle Sam each quarter as self-employed people must do.”

There are a lot of practical problems here. But I will only name one.

Deciding who pays what share of those costs. Even if everyone pays the same amount, there is no guarantee it would over the costs or that enough people could actually afford that bill.

I can easily a reasonable objection, that the interests being served has no benefit for some. Someone driving a electric vehicle might simply say, hey not only are those not my oil fields, I ride a bike or drive electric car.

A draft/conscription is the great equalizer.

#6 Comment By Chris On August 1, 2016 @ 2:04 pm

Comparing chattel slavery and military service is a false equivalence. By that logic jury duty is also slavery. If nothing else, I’d say my 13 weeks of Marine boot camp were certainly better than the lives of slaves, let alone the good working conditions thereafter.

I agree with the author; war must be far more costly to wage, and mandatory service will make it unbearable in most cases.

#7 Comment By Philip Giraldi On August 1, 2016 @ 3:37 pm

That everyone should participate in the defense of the country when it is actually necessary is not slavery – it is an obligation that comes with the privilege of being a citizen of this country. The libertarian mantra that conscription is somehow slavery is highly offensive and symptomatic of their inability to function as part of a community. When a country goes to war the whole nation must be a participant, which raises the bar considerably for going to war in the first place.

One other benefit that I obtained from my military service consisted of mixing with all kinds of Americans, people that I never met coming from a middle class background and spending four years at an elite university. That was not a bad thing and many Americans who grow up in a cultural cocoon would benefit from it.

#8 Comment By Steve On August 1, 2016 @ 4:18 pm

Did mandatory service make the Korean War too costly? Did it make Vietnam (where one of my friends’ older brothers was killed and two neighbor kids were severely injured) too costly? (I was in high school when the draft ended.)

My father was drafted to fight in Korea. He tells a story about two guys he was with in boot camp. They had no worries about being sent to Korea because their fathers were politically connected businesspeople. The fathers contacted their congressmen to keep their kids out of the war. My father and the rest of his unit went to Korea. Those two guys did not go. So not even a draft is an equalizer.

Chris, if you were in the Marines, that means you volunteered. I don’t know what you do for a living but I assume you have also chosen your career.

What would you do if the government forced you to quit your job for two years and leave your friends and family and spend time thousands of miles away doing something you absolutely loathe — even if you get an air-conditioned apartment, cable TV, comfy bed and other amenities? (Not all slaves picked cotton and sugar cane. Some worked the plantation houses and lived comparatively well. When New York and other northern colonies still had slaves, many of them also led lives more comfortable than the cotton/sugar cane pickers. But they were still slaves.)

And yes, jury duty is slavery . . . unless you willingly want to serve on a jury.

Any labor forced on us by government threats of punishment is slavery.

#9 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 1, 2016 @ 4:18 pm

“I agree with the author; war must be far more costly to wage, and mandatory service will make it unbearable in most cases”

Some of those whose conscience wouldn’t allow them to fight the elites’ foreign wars, perished while imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Why is “service to country” seen as submission to the will of elites who have designs on foreign resources? As Mark Twain put it, why does loving my own country always devolve into having to hate someone else’s?

Isn’t this continent, which isn’t threatened militarily in any way, except through our own foreign provocations, enough for our elites?
Greed knows no bounds and it is the root of all these evils.

#10 Comment By Steve On August 1, 2016 @ 5:15 pm

Phil Giraldi writes:

“The libertarian mantra that conscription is somehow slavery is highly offensive and symptomatic of their inability to function as part of a community. When a country goes to war the whole nation must be a participant, which raises the bar considerably for going to war in the first place.”

Did it raise the bar enough to stop Hitler’s Germany from going to war? Or did the idea that the whole nation owes it to the government to follow it into war make going to war easier?

I would say war is the very embodiment of an “inability to function as part of a community.”

Peaceful exchanges of goods and services, voluntarism, minding one’s own business, refraining from forcibly imposing ourselves on others, etc., seems to me to be signs of an ability to function as part of a community.

#11 Comment By Rurik On August 1, 2016 @ 5:38 pm

Daniel, it seems to me you have left one major player in the Middle East unnamed in your article. (Hint: The country is allegedly our “ally.”) Was this omission deliberate?

#12 Comment By Buzz Baldrin On August 1, 2016 @ 7:47 pm

In “The Power of Nightmares,” Adam Curtis uses BBC archival clips to narrate the lead up to these Greater Middle East wars.

Long, detailed contemporary BBC interviews with many neoconservatives, jihadists, and critics expose the motives and machinations of humanity at its worst.

Thanks to youtube, Americans can now see the post-Nixon war party unapologetically BSing the world into deadly chaos.

Naked power may not be Bacevich’s thing, but, in these clips, it’s the neoconservatives’ reason to live.

#13 Comment By Commenter Man On August 2, 2016 @ 12:01 am

Thank you for this review. Looks like a very good book.

I have deep respect for the military, but as an immigrant (naturalized citizen), I see a dichotomy between our reverence of the military — note the trouble Trump got himself into by criticizing the Khans — and the reluctance, particularly among the educated, the wealthy or the middle class (of course there are large exceptions), to join the military. We put the “Support our troops” magnets on our cars, but leave the hard work and sacrifice to others. I strongly agree that conscription would put a damper on our military adventures, as all sections of the citizenry would bear the responsibility.

#14 Comment By Richard W. Bray On August 2, 2016 @ 2:21 am

Thank you for covering this excellent book, Daniel McCarthy. I am a huge fan of Andrew Bacevich and I usually polish off his books in just a few days:



But I keep leaving America’s War for the Greater Middle for other books and then returning to it. It just hurts so much, reliving the bloody stupid of my country’s recent foreign policy decisions.

Here’s Bacevich on George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address:

“Yet the speech also bears the unmistakable imprint of self-indulgent fantasy, of sobriety overtaken by fanaticism. Bush’s expectations of ending tyranny by spreading American ideals mirrored Osama bin Laden’s dream of establishing a new caliphate based on Islamic principles. “

I read those words last night and then I abandoned Bacevich again, this time for The Fifth Queen by Ford Madox Ford. Bygone bloody foolishness is so much easier to digest.

#15 Comment By bozhidar balkas On August 2, 2016 @ 11:34 am

Don’t know of a steam of “bosnians” joining IS. I know only of some ultra-islamists from bosnia and kosovo joining ISIS.
Albanians are largely islamic, but i don’t know how many of them have joined the wahhabis.

Bosnia has been extremely dysfunctional since serb and croat imperialists had attacked bosniaks ’92 and ’93 respectively.
It had ben de facto split in three entities since ’92.

In ’92, EU and US seemed not to have cared what happened to bosnia. But early ’94 US decides not allow a greater croatia or serbia.

#16 Comment By ek ErliaR On August 3, 2016 @ 11:41 am

To my friends here who think that conscription would somehow limit US military adventurism; I ask them to examine the historical facts.

Since the Militia Act of 1903 subordinated the states’ ready militias to the federal government, the US has gone to war with conscript armies four times, WW I, WW II, Korea and Viet Nam.

WW II was exceptional in that it was certainly a just, necessary and constitutional war.

WW I was constitutional but the justice of the war was hazy and it was certainly unnecessary. Korea and Viet Nam were unjust, unnecessary and clearly unconstitutional.

Moreover, when the regular army got to play with conscript lives it appears that Gen. Pershing’s chief objective was to get at least as many Americans killed in the Fall of 1918 at the British lost on the Somme in 1916.

In Korea and Viet Nam, the US Government committed conscripts for purely political reasons and cared not how many were killed. Moreover, in contrast the current crop of highly favored mercenaries, the veterans of those wars were simply ignored after they were discharged.

What was the public’s response to WW I, Korea and Viet Nam? Mindless approval!

#17 Comment By Jim Houghton On August 4, 2016 @ 4:27 pm

“Our military interventions in the Persian Gulf have been a self-perpetuating chain reaction for over three decades.”

And a great source of jobs in hundreds of congressional districts and profits for our “Defense” industries (clearly should be renamed the “Offense Industry”). Any analysis of why a seemingly pointless and brutal policy continues to be pursued — in this case over and over — that doesn’t delved deeply into the question of “Who’s making money? Where’s the money?” is a woefully incomplete analysis.

#18 Comment By Ralph Fucetola JD On August 4, 2016 @ 8:33 pm

US government soldiers have been on combat duty somewhere on this planet for about 95% of the history of the republic. [4]

Whether there is a draft or not, the imperative of empire will guarantee continuing war. No easy way out.

As libertarian posters used to say at peace demonstrations, “Taxation is Theft; War is Murder and Conscription is Slavery.” In each case, of course, the political action is based on coercion. Coercion is the very heart and soul of empire.

When you justify coercion, you will cry out, “Caesar, Caesar!” and you’ll get Caligula.

#19 Comment By Russell On August 5, 2016 @ 1:08 am

What’s new under the imperial sun is breeding monsters abroad to provide interventionists with something to pursue.