Andrew Bacevich: America’s War for the Greater Middle East

How do you end an endless war? Thirty years ago Jimmy Carter declared the Persian Gulf a “vital” focus of American foreign policy. Since then, U.S. forces have invaded, occupied, garrisoned, bombed or raided 18 nations, absorbing thousands of casualties and getting little in return in terms of peace or goodwill.

Andrew Bacevich, the military historian, veteran and professor of international relations at Boston University calls it America’s War for the Greater Middle East and says there’s no end in sight. This fall he’s teaching a twelve-week online course on the history of that long war: he begins it in the Iran hostage crisis during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, through stages of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the first Gulf War, then September 11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Jump into our timeline and suggest your own alternative policy approaches or argue the premise.

Guest List
Andrew Bacevich
military historian and professor of international relations at Boston University, former officer in the United States Army, author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism
Hugh Roberts
professor of North African and Middle Eastern History at Tufts University, former director of the North Africa project at the International Crisis Group
Melani McAlister
professor of international affairs at George Washington University, author of Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945
Reading List

We're taking as a point of departure Andrew Bacevich's piece in Notre Dame Magazine. His simple thesis:
Here’s another possibility. Since 1980, back when President Jimmy Carter promulgated the Carter Doctrine, the United States has been engaged in what we should rightfully call America’s War for the Greater Middle East. The premise underlying that war can be simply stated: with disorder, dysfunction and disarray in the Islamic world posing a growing threat to vital U.S. national security interests, the adroit application of hard power would enable the United States to check those tendencies and thereby preserve the American way of life... Only in retrospect does this become clear, of course. At the time President Carter declared the Persian Gulf a vital national security interest — that was the literal meaning of the Carter Doctrine — he did not intend to embark upon a war. Nor did he anticipate what course that war was going to follow — its duration, costs and consequences. Like the European statesmen who a hundred years ago touched off the cataclysm we know today as World War I, Carter merely lit a fuse without knowing where it led.
Bacevich favors broad disengagement from the region, and the online course this fall, offered through BUx, will be the place to pick up the hard foreign-policy lessons of the war.

Of course there are still voices urging that we stay involved, especially Robert Kagan's much-criticized piece in The New Republic, "Superpowers Don't Get to Retire."

What is the force that keeps Americans deployed or deploying to Middle Eastern locales? Is it oil? A clash of civilizations? One account of the Iraq War that stands out came from our friend Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, in his new book, The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative WarIdrees writes:
The Iraq War cannot be explained by reference to economic or ideological structures alone. It had its agents (the neoconservatives) and its trigger (9/11). It was executed by Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, but Iraq in the end was a neoconservative not only because the neoconservatives had wanted it longer, but also because without their specific contributions to the case for war... the war would not have happened... The neoconservatives succeeded because they operate within a political consensus that sees US global dominance as the desired end and military force as the necessary, if not preferred, means.

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  • Jasoturner

    Dear NPR and BUR. Will you please start advertising and promoting this show? The Connection was great and I cannot believe I have been missing Chris Lydon since he returned! Or a show featuring Andrew Bacevich – one of the most relevant and insightful commenters on the military in America. This is truly great stuff. Let your listeners know about it for Pete’s sake!!! The fact that I seem to be the only person to even comment on this episode – and I am off topic technically – is crazy.

    • Stan Duncan

      I agree. I do catch the show each week, but you’re absolutely right that WBUR does not promote it. It’s one of the most incisive, thoughtful, probing shows on the radio, but I doubt that most people, even in Boston, know that it exists.

    • mary

      Hi Jason,
      BUR actually does promote the show. They run a couple of promos throughout the day. If you wanted to send a love note to the GM, Charlie Kravetz, or the Programming Director, Iris Adler, you could email them. 🙂

  • Pete Crangle

    I’m looking forward to this conversation. I enjoy Professor Bacevich’s candid and lucid words. “How do you end an endless war?” Probably the same way you begin one with no beginning? Or perhaps, the same way you begin one based upon false, misleading, inaccurate, mendacious propositions? “What is the force that keeps Americans deployed or deploying to Middle Eastern locales? ” These are excellent questions. Simply stated problems, nearly intractable solutions. Somehow, Beckett and Orwell come to mind.

    I suspect Geo-political-economic interests play a significant role in the external focus, concern, and mischief in this region. As the saying goes “that’s our oil, under their sand.” Energy sourcing is a primary force for organizing monumental activities in the effort to secure and maintain its continual acquisition. These actions run the gamut from economic to political to military to covert operations.

    The general public is somewhat insulated from the military and covert operational consequences of policies executed in its name. Observing a post 9.11 policy zeitgeist indicates a precipitous erosion of due process and civil jurisdiction (e.g. NDAA sections 1021, 1022). We observe a lamentable failure to honor commitments to Geneva Convention protocols (a quaint idea from a not so distant past). We observe a treatment of detainees in Gitmo and Abu Ghraib that demonstrate a flagrant disregard for basic custodial procedures of prisoners, call them what you will. Not to mention the brutal treatment and sentencing of whistle-blowers, such as, Chelsea Manning, a political prisoner of conscience.

    Furthermore, we should note the refinement of killing-at-a-distance. Drone assassination is the du jour x-factor for killing-at-a-distance. We should note the dark operations of extraordinary rendition (née kidnapping) and enhanced interrogation (né torture). Kidnapping and torture are pure old school techniques. The strategy is pacification, intimidation, and humiliation. In such methods, we find the old meets new. Up close-and-personal works in tandem with far-away-and-deadly. These are the tools intended to beat down adversarial blow back (aka karma). Add a clash of civilization into the mix, and you have two important ingredients for continual, publicly supported aggression. Though, the evidence of civilization is the thinnest of veils for law-of-the-jungle methods and various meta-physical fanaticism.

    Obfuscation of state security behavior is of primary necessity for the ‘informed’ public. There are no imbeds for kidnapping and torture. Little to no footage escapes demonstrating the killing of U.S. citizens. The deployment of these tactics in a war theatre that is located in a civil society front in some cases, has the added impact of conditioning the public at home for its domestic policy implementation and acceptance.

    And so, the poisoned chalice that has been brought to our lips, has now been tasted. To quote Robert H. Jackson, within the Nuremberg context: We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well. We’ve drank from it, many times over. The U.S. government is reduced to a criminal enterprise in foreign policy matters, it’s citizens the key enabler. These are the stains for which history is loathe to forget and will squander few opportunities for reminder and recrimination. The record of U.S. policy has become, and will continue to be, a breeding ground for ongoing and future contempt towards it and its allies. It has become a recruiting tool for its adversaries. The dread of history’s reckoning will not stay on the horizon forever. Punctuality is history’s hole card played on it’s terms. Eventuality is it’s trump card.

    Professor Bacevich considers various names for the current war. I suggest, with apologies to Gore Vidal, Perpetual war for perpetual domination and perpetual profits. Or simply, quagmire.

  • steve s

    Did anyone mention oil? Seems like that is the key factor.

  • Excerpted from Gil Scott-Heron’s 1994 album ‘Spirits’.

    “Work For Peace”

    Back when Eisenhower was the President,
    Golf courses was where most of his time was spent.
    So I never really listened to what the President said,
    Because in general I believed that the General was politically dead.

    But he always seemed to know when the muscles were about to be flexed,
    Because I remember him saying something, mumbling something about a Military Industrial Complex.

    Americans no longer fight to keep their shores safe,
    Just to keep the jobs going in the arms making workplace.
    Then they pretend to be gripped by some sort of political reflex,
    But all they’re doing is paying dues to the Military Industrial Complex.
    The Military and the Monetary,
    The Military and the Monetary,
    The Military and the Monetary.
    The Military and the Monetary, get together whenever they think its necessary,

    They turn our brothers and sisters into mercenaries, they are turning the
    planet into a cemetery.
    The Military and the Monetary, use the media as intermediaries,
    they are determined to keep the citizens secondary, they make so many decisions that are arbitrary.
    We’re marching behind a commander in chief,
    who is standing under a spotlight shaking like a leaf.
    but the ship of state had landed on an economic reef,
    so we knew he was going to bring us messages of grief.
    The Military and the Monetary,
    were shielded by January and went storming into February,
    Brought us pot bellied generals as luminaries,
    two weeks ago I hadn’t heard of the son of a bitch,
    now all of a sudden he’s legendary.
    They took the honour from the honourary,
    they took the dignity from the dignitaries,
    they took the secrets from the secretary,
    but they left the bitch in obituary.

    The Military and the Monetary…..

  • Tinkersdamn

    Thoroughly enjoyed the show and the link to the many thoughts expressed by Bacevich in Notre Dame Magazine. Though, inasmuch as he begins his critique with the Carter Doctrine, he might have demonstrated that the line from that statement to subsequent actions seem considerably less than straight, especially in light of Carter’s communications to the UN Security Council in 1990 asking that they not support the use of force against Hussein, and that he wrote in the NY Times prior to the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom:

    “It is clear that unilateral action in Iraq does not meet these standards [for a just war]:
    *The preeminent criterion for a just war is that it can only be waged as a last resort, with all non-violent options exhausted.
    *Weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants.
    *Violence used in war must be proportional to the injury suffered.
    *The attackers must have legitimate authority sanctioned by the society they profess to represent.
    *The peace established must be a clear improvement over what exists.”

    Carter’s earlier words may have been utilized by others for an agenda, but it doesn’t seem it was Carter’s agenda, or his understanding of his words.

  • Good show – a semi-polemic was achieved.

    Fascinating how well assembled words create a perspective.
    Andrew Bacevich starts off sounding spot-on but in critique seems confused.
    His basic thesis is correct though, the military approach is not working out – obviously,
    and thanks for that intel. Seriously, our 4 allies are acting independently?. …Say
    it ain’t so. (Btw, Pakistan is not an ally – they are a sucker bet.)

    Melani McAlister says people are enthusiastic for the military budget, but not its deployment. Of course, because it means jobs. I guess military = monetary is a passé perspective .

    Did anyone watch the recent Frontline episode on the Iraq war? The surge cost us $400,000,000 in cash distributed to the Sons of Iraq. David Petraeus made the decision on his own without telling anyone. So we have field generals with access to 400 million in cash?

  • sk

    Oil – Oil – Oil. Contrary to your guest, there is a strategy. The purpose of all this is keeping the oil fields functioning and the sea lanes open. That is the first, last and only strategic objective, and it has been achieved spectacularly well. The policy remains unchanged because, in that sense, it’s working, thank you. One hopes there could be a better way to protect the oil supply, or that mid-east oil could be made obsolete, but no policy change will come until that happens.

  • DMS

    My first reaction is that Bracevich exaggerates the objective impact of western imperialism. It was short-lived and with the exception of Algeria, was overcome easily by native populations.

    Subjectively, there may me a lot of resentment and we have to take it into account. But let’s acknowledge w/o guilt.

    And to bring in the Crusades, as Lydon does — which were simultaneous with the Arab invasion and occupation of the Iberian peninsula — is a bit comical.

  • Potter

    Hugh Roberts is absolutely right about the army of professionals, privatization,outsourcing ( making war more of a business) as opposed to involving citizens. This leaves citizenry out of the equation with regard to moral responsibility.

    On the other hand when I look at Israel, the citizens are very much involved but they are fed propaganda, war rationales ( even religious ones, versions of jihad), and are prevented from seeing the damage to the other side. Nationalism gets a big boost and the peace movement dies a little more.

    What was not mentioned is the current operation in Kurdish Iraq against ISIL and ISIL in general, if allowed to grow and capture more land/peoples. Apparently Obama really had a red line.

  • Bobertbobert

    We are ” hooked ” as Ezekiel termed it; Obama tried to cut the line but it has drawn us back into that Cancerous conflict…………Ezekiel 38