Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Empire’s Chain Reaction

Andrew Bacevich explains our decades-long war for the Greater Middle East.

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 julaug16The 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.



Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here