We Make an Endless War and Call It Peace
Andrew Bacevich rightly rejects the idea that there was ever a Pax Americana in the Middle East:
“It took many decades to build a Pax Americana in the Middle East,” X writes. Not true: it took only a handful of hours—the time he invested in writing his essay. The Pax Americana is a figment of X’s imagination.
Defenders of U.S. hegemony like to make what they think is a flattering comparison between the U.S. and the Roman Empire, but where the Romans made a desert and called it peace the U.S. has gone to war in the desert again and again with no end in sight. Not only has the U.S. not brought peace, but there is little reason to think that our government is capable of doing so. More to the point, the U.S. has no right to keep meddling in the affairs of these nations. It would also be accurate to say that the more American involvement there has been in the region, the less pax there has been there. There is nowhere else in the world where our foreign policy is as intensely militarized, and it is no accident that it is also where our foreign policy is most destructive. If the U.S. genuinely desired stability and the security of energy supplies, it would not be waging an economic war on Iran, and it wouldn’t be fueling a disgraceful war on Yemen. The author of that piece, William Wechsler, notably has nothing to say about either one of those policies.
Opponents of U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East make two major claims: that withdrawal would harm U.S. interests and that it would make the region worse off than it already is. The second point is wrong but debatable, and the first one depends on an absurdly expansive definition of what U.S. interests are. The piece that Bacevich is answering asserts that “it would be a terrible mistake and deeply harmful to the United States” to withdraw from the region, but the author does not show that current troop levels of more than 50,000 people are necessary or even useful for securing U.S. interests. The U.S. didn’t have and didn’t need a large military presence in the Middle East for the entire Cold War, and it doesn’t need to have one now. Having a military presence in the region has directly contributed to increased threats to U.S. security through terrorism, and it made the Iraq war debacle possible. The greatest harm to U.S. security has come from our ongoing extensive military involvement in this part of the world.
Neither does the author demonstrate that U.S. foreign policy up until now has actually been doing the job he thinks it has. For instance, he mentions “supporting a delicate balance of power that promotes regional stability and protects our allies,” but looking back over just the last twenty years of U.S. foreign policy in the region there is no evidence that the U.S. has been supporting a balance of power or promoted regional stability. On the contrary, to the extent that there was a balance of power at the start of this century, the U.S. set about destroying it by overthrowing the Iraqi government, and it has further contributed to the destabilization of at least three other countries through direct or indirect involvement in military interventions. The clients that the U.S. has in the Middle East aren’t allies and we aren’t obliged to protect them, but the U.S. hasn’t done a terribly good job of protecting them, either. The U.S. has managed to indulge its clients in reckless and atrocious behavior that has also made them less secure and undermined our own security interests. Support for the war on Yemen is a good example of that. Enabling the Saudi coalition’s war has bolstered Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), devastated and fractured Yemen, and exposed Saudi Arabia to reprisal attacks that it had never suffered before.
The other major flaw with the Wechsler piece is that he is warning against something that isn’t happening:
As campaign promises tend to become governing realities for American foreign policy, the prospect of a full U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East now stands before us.
If only that were true. The U.S. has more troops in the region than it did at the start of this year. There is no sign that those numbers will be reduced anytime soon. Support for the war on Yemen continues, and the president has gone out of his way to keep arming the Saudi coalition. Even in Syria, there will still be an illegal U.S. military presence for the foreseeable future. Full withdrawal is nowhere in sight right now. The U.S. is heading in the opposite direction. The author pretends that withdrawal is in the offing and then urges the next president to “reverse this course,” but there is nothing for the next president to reverse. So why rail against something that hasn’t happened and isn’t likely to occur? This is an old tactic of making the option of withdrawing from the region seem so extreme and dangerous that it has to be rejected out of hand, but these scare tactics are less and less effective as we see the mounting costs of open-ended conflict and deep entanglement in the affairs of other countries.
The author wants the next administration “to reestablish American leadership in the Middle East, restore deterrence with our adversaries, and begin renewing trust with our partners and allies,” but he has not made a persuasive case that “American leadership” in the region is worth “reestablishing” even if it were possible to get back to the way things were before the Iraq war. Many of the “partners and allies” in question are themselves unreliable and have become liabilities, and many of the adversaries do not really threaten the U.S. Bacevich concludes that there needs to be a radical overhaul of U.S. foreign policy in the region on account of its colossal failures:
Given the dimensions of that failure, the likelihood of resuscitating X’s illusory Pax is essentially zero.
There is no going back to an imagined Golden Age of American statecraft in the Middle East. The imperative is to go forward, which requires acknowledging how wrongheaded U.S. policy in region has been ever since FDR had his famous tete-a-tete with King Ibn Saud and Harry Truman rushed to recognize the newborn State of Israel.
Once we acknowledge those errors, the next step is not to fall into the same patterns out of a misguided desire for “leadership” and domination. Instead of chasing after a fantasy of imposing peace in some other part of the world, we need to stop our destabilizing and destructive policies that perpetuate conflict and make new wars more likely.