Lessons From America's War for the Greater Middle East

tags: Middle East

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University He was formerly a visiting fellow at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

For well over 30 years now, the United States military has been intensively engaged in various quarters of the Islamic world. An end to that involvement is nowhere in sight.

Tick off the countries in that region that U.S. forces in recent decades have invaded, occupied, garrisoned, bombed or raided and where American soldiers have killed or been killed. Since 1980, they include Iraq and Afghanistan, of course. But also Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Pakistan. The list goes on.

To judge by various official explanations coming out of Washington, the mission of the troops dispatched to these various quarters has been to defend or deter or liberate, punishing the wicked and protecting the innocent while spreading liberal values and generally keeping Americans safe.

What are we to make of the larger enterprise in which the U.S. forces have been engaged since well before today’s Notre Dame undergraduates were even born? What is the nature of the military struggle we are waging? What should we call it?

For several years after 9/11, Americans referred to it as the Global War on Terrorism, a misleading term that has since fallen out of favor.

For a brief period during the early years of the George W. Bush administration, certain neoconservatives promoted the term World War IV. This never caught on, however, in part because, unlike other major 20th century conflicts, it found the American people sitting on the sidelines.

With interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan dragging on inconclusively, some military officers began referring to what they called the Long War. While nicely capturing the temporal dimension of the conflict, this label had nothing to say about purpose, adversary or location. As with World War IV, the Long War never gained much traction.

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.

Choose whatever term you like: police, pacify, shape, control, dominate, transform. In 1980, President Carter launched the United States on a project aimed at nothing less than determining the fate and future of the peoples inhabiting the arc of nations from the Maghreb and the Arabian Peninsula to the Persian Gulf and Central Asia.

Since the end of World War II, American soldiers had fought and died in Asia. Even when the wars in Korea and Vietnam ended, U.S. troop contingents continued to garrison the region. In Europe, a major U.S. military presence dating from the start of the Cold War signaled Washington’s willingness to fight there as well. Prior to Carter’s watershed 1980 statement, no comparable U.S. commitment toward the Islamic world existed. Now that was going to change.

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.

Partly for domestic political reasons (1980 was a presidential election year) and partly to counter perceptions that America itself was flagging (the Iran hostage crisis was a continuing embarrassment), Carter wanted to make a show of drawing a line in the sand. Along with plenty of oil, the Persian Gulf region had plenty of sand. Here it seemed, prompted by the successive surprises of the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, was the place to draw that line.

Neither Carter nor his advisers foresaw what awaited 10 or 20 years down the line. They were largely clueless as to what lay inside the Pandora’s box they insisted on opening. But what they and their successors in government found there prompted them to initiate a sequence of military actions, some large, some small, that deserve collective recognition as a war. That war continues down to the present day.

Look closely enough and the dots connect. Much as, say, the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the invasion of Grenada (among many other events) all constitute episodes in what we call the Cold War, so, too, do seemingly disparate events such as the Beirut bombing of 1983, the “Black Hawk Down” debacle of 1993 and the Iraq invasion of 2003 (among many others) all form part of a single narrative. Acknowledging the existence of that narrative — seeing America’s War for the Greater Middle East whole — is a prerequisite to learning.

Let me state plainly my own overall assessment of that war. We have not won it. We are not winning it. And simply pressing on is unlikely to produce more positive results next year or the year after — hence, the imperative of absorbing the lessons this ongoing war has to teach. Learning offers a first-step toward devising wiser, more effective and less costly policies.

The “10 theses” that follow constitute a preliminary effort to identify the most important of those lessons...

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