In an interview Andrew Bacevich explains why every president since Carter has tried and failed to transform the Middle East

Historians in the News
tags: Middle East, foreign policy, Andrew Bacevich

What are America’s strategic objectives in the Middle East? How consistently have they been defined and pursued over the past three decades? What are the metrics of success? Are we better off today than we were 15 or 20 years ago?

For Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and a professor of international relations at Boston University, the answers to these questions are muddled at best, depressing at worst.

Among the sharpest critics of American foreign policy in recent years, Bacevich has authored a number of books (including The Limits of Power and The Long War) documenting America’s entanglements abroad. His latest book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, offers a sweeping look at America’s policies in the Middle East since the Carter administration. ...I sat down with Bacevich earlier this week to talk about his book, his criticisms of American interventionism, and his broader assessment of American foreign policy over the past three decades.

Sean Illing

The guiding thesis of your book is that America has waged what amounts to a 35-year war in the Greater Middle East. What’s the premise of this war, and why are we not winning it?

Andrew Bacevich

At the outset, it was a war for oil. What triggered the war for the greater Middle East was a couple of events that occurred in 1979. First, the Iranian Revolution and the creation of the Islamic Republic, which was hostile to the US. Secondly, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.

Those two events together suggested to American political leaders that US access to the Persian Gulf was now in jeopardy, and this at a time when virtually everybody believed that the future well-being of the United States was directly dependent on our having access to Persian Gulf oil.

There was an additional factor related to domestic politics, and that factor related to Jimmy Carter's weakness and vulnerability. At the turn of that year, from 1979 to 1980, Carter was very much perceived as a weak president, and thus needed to make a show of strength and determination. And when he promulgated the Carter Doctrine in 1980, in what turned out to be his last State of the Union address, he was attempting to show that he was strong, and he was also drawing a line indicating that the Persian Gulf was now a place that we were willing to fight for. It was a vital US national security interest.

I think it's important to realize, however, that although this undertaking begins as a war for oil, over time it becomes something much more than that. And although we no longer need Persian Gulf oil, this larger enterprise still exists, and I think the most important explanation for why it persists is that the war for the greater Middle East has become a war to demonstrate that we are a people to whom and a nation to which limits don't apply. But we are not a people to whom and nation to which limits don’t apply.

The idea, though, that America could fail in its foreign policy in this region brings into doubt this belief. ... 

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