America's War for the Greater Middle East is a valuable book flawed by trying to cram too much into a single thesis, by focusing too much on the United States and its military, by omitting discussion of available alternatives, by dismissing America's need to lead in the world without discussing whether the world would be better off without such leadership, and by relying too much on a scathing tone as a substitute for analysis. Despite these flaws, however, the book makes important points that are worthy of serious consideration as America goes forward in the greater Middle East.
Certainly, there has been too much overreach in America's policies, some of which has produced long-term chaos. There is far too much focus in American policy on short-term goals without enough thought to either long-term consequences or broader political purposes. This has been clear for years in Syria. The focus has been on the destruction of the Islamic state without any conception of how the country is to be stabilized or how the creation of another radical movement is to be avoided. We simply bomb a political hole without any idea of what is to fill it.
Bacevich is spot on in condemning not only the overuse of the military to solve political problems but the lack of unified command within the military and between civilian and military chains of command. There has been too often a "heedless absence of self restraint with shallow moralistic impulses overriding thoughtful strategic analysis," although this has not been quite as universal a phenomenon as the book presents.
Two of his most salient criticisms involve the failure to understand the local political and social context in which policies will have to be implemented. On the strategic level, this is a criticism of failure to "adequately calculate the human, material, fiscal and political capital required" to carry a policy through to success. On the military level, this has been magnified by a recurring lack of understanding of the culture in which operations are carried out. One very simple example: in many trips to Afghanistan over the years since my retirement in 2007, I never found our military collecting useful biographical information on Afghan civilian and military leaders. Biographies were focused on positions held, usually since our war started in 2001. The political leanings of leaders, the network loyalties of power brokers in and out of government, their histories of alliances and betrayals — in short, the information needed to understand the motivations for their actions — simply were not collected. On the small-unit level, such collection did occur, but at the initiative of individual leaders, often in the special-operations community. From my observation it was not ever collected or retained on a theater level. The problem was well captured in the harsh criticism of then Major General Michael Flynn, when he wrote in 2010, after nine years of war:
The highly complex environment in Afghanistan requires an adaptive way of thinking and operating. A new way of leveraging and applying the information spectrum requires substantive improvements. [Flynn, Pottinger, Bachelor, "DIA Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan," Center for New American Security, January 2010]
No major change resulted from this criticism.
Last, but far from least, Bacevich raises these questions: "Why can't we win? If we can't win, why can't we get out?" That his prose may suggest the answer is simple, which I doubt, should not detract from the need to seriously address this highly political issue.
Somewhat oversimplified, the basic thesis of the book is that operations across the Middle East, from the failed military intervention of 1980 to liberate the hostages in Iran to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, constitute a single war in which America has been engaged for over 30 years. That war has been characterized by ever increasing efforts to reshape the region into democratic states; failure has ensued, in large part due to ignorance of local political and social conditions. The demand for oil has been a contributing and unjustified basis for many of the mistakes made. Adding to the strategic problems has been the acceptance since the George W. Bush administration of the doctrine of preventive war, which has led to a steady expansion of military action across the region (there is no discussion of the difference between preventive and preemptive war, in which a state may act first if it is just about to be attacked). There has also been an excessive, at times singular, focus on the threat from states, without taking into account broader political movements and changes within the region, exacerbated by looking only at immediate problems with no concern for long-term challenges.
The U.S. military is held to have a major share of responsibility for repeated failures due to its excessive tactical and operational focus, lack of sound strategies, and a promotion system that produces senior leaders who mirror the intellectual flaws of their predecessors. The military is graded harshly for seeking repeatedly to apply concepts that are doomed to failure in the cultural and political context in which they are applied and for too little capacity to learn from failure.
All this, in Bacevich's view, is a single narrative in which the same points recur throughout history. The responsibility appears, from the lack of discussion of other factors, to be almost entirely a U.S. problem. To understand both the strengths and limitations of this approach requires working through the various crises covered in the book.
The starting point is the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79, particularly the failure of Operation Eagle Claw. This was an American effort to rescue hostages with a raid that came to grief when the refueling operation in the Iranian desert ended in the accidental collision of an aircraft and a helicopter, resulting in the loss of lives and embarrassment for the United States. Bacevich covers effectively the often recounted failure to understand the weaknesses in the shah's regime, the over reliance on Iran to provide stability in the Persian Gulf, and the blindness to the consequences of allowing the shah entry into the United States for medical treatment. This is largely correct, although he neglects to note that the U.S. embassy in Tehran correctly warned of the likely consequences of allowing the shah into the United States.
As to the failed Eagle Claw operation, there are two problems. Bacevich characterizes the raid as the first effort at massive intervention in the region, though no evidence is presented for this conclusion, which goes well beyond the record on the mission's objective of liberating the hostages. My memory of the period is one of overriding concern for their safe release. Certainly the vast bulk of the criticism of President Carter at that time was of his perceived weakness in not looking beyond that to what some argued were greater issues of U.S. credibility in the region.
Second, the operation is characterized as being portrayed by the U.S. military as a strategic success in demonstrating military reach, even though the raid failed. From this, Bacevich draws the conclusion that nothing was learned. It is possible that some drew the conclusion that military intervention should be used more often in the future, although no evidence is presented to support this. Here, as generally throughout the book, the sourcing is heavily tilted to news reports of the time without much delving into more scholarly analysis.
In fact, the raid's failure led to long-term efforts to improve U.S. special-operations capabilities. One could argue that the stunning success of the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden was part of a trajectory of improvement that began with analyzing the failures of operation Eagle Claw. This is tactical but, in fairness to our military, worth mentioning.
Considering events thereafter, including the Iran-Iraq War, the American reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Bacevich paints a rather uniform American policy: seeking control of oil and imposing order on the Persian Gulf. Some parts of this discussion ring true, but many exceptions, alternative explanations, and issues of the particular choices available to policy makers at the time are ignored.
There is very little discussion of the effects of the Arab oil embargo of 1973 on the U.S. economy. This might have been a place to discuss the importance of oil and whether its place in U.S. strategy is exaggerated. Was the safe passage of oil from the massive supply of the Persian Gulf essential to the U.S. and world economy? Were policy makers wrong to believe that not protecting this resource would lead to critical risks for American citizens' wellbeing? One can argue these points, but the subject is too important to pass by with a sneer rather than an analysis.
There is a considerable difference between safeguarding the transport of oil, essentially a free-market approach, and seeking to control the area from which the oil originates. The first is a defensive policy; the second, while it may spring from the same intentions, is far more intrusive. Bacevich conflates the two, and in so doing I think he errs. Nixon's "twin pillar" policy of relying on Saudi Arabia and Iran to safeguard the Gulf with U.S. support beyond weapons sales was clearly defensive, seeking to minimize U.S. risk and intervention.
The Carter policy of defining the free passage of Persian Gulf oil as a vital interest was important, sparked in part by fears of Soviet expansion after its invasion of Afghanistan. But there was little expansion of force into the region. When, in 1985, I first called on the commander of Middle East Force, the U.S. naval presence in Bahrain that would later grow into the Fifth Fleet, its headquarters was in an ancient tank transporter (LCT), and its assigned forces were almost non-existent except for a few ship visits from elsewhere to bolster its presence from time to time.
In my diplomatic assignments in Washington and Abu Dhabi in the mid-to-late '80s, I saw no sign of the more aggressive policies Bacevich describes. Most of the discussions of force revolved around the need to keep U.S. forces "over the horizon" and off the mental map of Gulf populations.
Bacevich's discussions of U.S. support for the Afghan mujahedeen and for Iraq in its war with Iran are singularly lacking in regional context, the absence of which he repeatedly faults the United States. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was, as he says, more defensive than was understood at the time. However, he pays no attention to how shocking to the West, in general, and Carter, in particular, was this first Soviet expansion outside its borders since the end of World War II. Nor does he explain on what basis it should have been seen as less of a challenge than it was, since real insight into Soviet decision making came largely after the end of the Soviet Union, when Russia opened its archives.
Our supplying arms to the mujahedeen did lead to the empowerment of radical Islamic movements and leaders that would later cause us much grief. Fair enough, but this is scarcely the whole story. In Afghanistan, a great deal of control over who got arms was imposed by Pakistan. One can discuss at length how much of this could have been avoided or how well we should have understood the long-term consequences to those who got our weapons. But there were other major players whose assistance was essential to the anti-Soviet operations. Pakistan had multiple political goals, and the United States did not have full freedom of action. The Saudis were a major funder of anti-Soviet operations, both for U.S. actions and directly to various resistance groups. Ignoring this complex landscape for a simple narrative of U.S. folly distorts the lessons to be learned.
The United States did tilt toward Iraq in its aggressive war with Iran, and much criticism of this is justified. But Bacevich's description of the event leaves out a good deal. Iran was in the most revolutionary phase of its foreign policy, full of threats to rally the Islamic world, expand its revolution, threaten Bahrain and so on. Washington rightly understood that Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states were far too weak to withstand an assault, should Iraq collapse and allow the Iranians to wheel south into Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This apparent threat by Iran to reach for control of Persian Gulf oil was seen as a major danger to America's economic security. One may argue that the threat was overdrawn, or that there were other policies available, or that Iraq was such an evil power that no risk justified supporting it. However, one also needs to understand that, at the time, Iraq posed no threat to U.S. interests. Iran, on the other hand, had recently violated all diplomatic norms by holding diplomats hostage in Tehran, was continuing to support hostage takers in Lebanon, and was viewed as having been behind the bombings in Beirut of the Marine barracks and embassy and the torture and death of America officials. Moreover, Iran had made anti-Americanism a staple of its policy. To note these facts is not to support all the decisions made at the time; it is to underline that those decisions deserve a fuller discussion than Bacevich provides.
The George H.W. Bush response to Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 does not fit the tenets of the Bacevich model: desire for state building, a too-tactical focus or a lack of knowledge of the regional situation. The first phase, the reinforcement of Saudi Arabia, was entirely defensive. Oil did play a role, but so did the broader conception of acceptable international behavior. Margaret Thatcher's famous warning, "Remember, George, this is no time to go wobbly," is a useful reminder that Bush was not set on war from the start. And the goal of the war was limited to the liberation of Kuwait. Two historical warnings were explicitly invoked: the Korean War's expansion to the Yalu River that brought China into the war, and the infamous "mission creep" of Vietnam. The limited U.S. goal recognized regional realities and was essential to forming a broad coalition that included Syria and Egypt as well as the Gulf states and many Europeans. In further recognition of regional sensitivities, the Bush administration pledged to renew its effort at Arab-Israeli peace making after the war. It did so, convening the Geneva Peace Conference. Nothing came of it, in part due to the preoccupation with the fall of the Soviet Union and German reunification, and in part because of Bush's defeat after a single term.
All sorts of "might have been better" choices may be debated, but the war was defensive, maintained a limited goal to the end, and was broadly popular among Arabs (with the exception of the Palestinians and Yemenis, who paid dearly for their support of Saddam by being thrown out of employment by the wealthier Arab states). The pledge to reopen peace negotiations showed a grasp of regional sensitivities. Failure to examine the Arab elements of Bush's policy is in keeping with the narrow U.S. centric focus of the Bacevich analysis, a mirror of the criticism that U.S. commanders focus too much on their own actions and not enough on other players.
The war's end did lead to further instability in Iraq, the long policy of containment, the interventions to protect Kurds in the north and the much more limited operation later for protecting the Shia in southern Iraq. Bacevich acknowledges that the war had some success. Kuwait was liberated (he does not note that it became considerably although not totally democratic), Saudi Arabia no longer faced the threat of attack from Iraq, and American prestige was riding high. It failed to produce the larger goal of a more peaceful world. In the context of "America's expanding military involvement in the Greater Middle East...[it] accomplished next to nothing." But that criticism pertains to the book's thesis, not to an explicit goal of the war. Bacevich makes many just points, but his account also leaves out much.
Here, as in other cases, it excludes any discussion of the choices available to policy makers and the risks of alternatives. Should the United States have left Saddam in possession of Kuwait with Saudi Arabia exposed to threat? Should American forces have marched on to Baghdad, an approach that would have splintered the coalition and might well have brought about the many problems of the subsequent Iraq war? Should America have gone on slaughtering Iraqi soldiers to destroy the Republican Guard or intervened to support the Shia and Kurdish uprisings? Answers are impossible to prove. But the author's refusal to address the actual alternatives weakens the discussion of lessons to be learned.
The critical approach comes into its own in the discussion of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Had Bacevich kept his focus there instead of on a significantly flawed broader theory, his attack would have been much more solidly grounded. In Afghanistan, war goals did expand without adequate consideration. In Iraq, they were grandiose nonsense from the beginning. The problems of split chains of command, of unwillingness to make an effort to understand the cultural and political context, the short focus particularly of military leaders, and many more criticisms are all accurate and need to be studied.
Yet the account of the two wars is superficial and leaves out important considerations. The George W. Bush administration came into office solidly opposed to nation building. This approach governed much of the early approach to Afghanistan. In turn, this may have had consequences as serious as the later expansion of goals. It led to losing the golden early days, when the country was largely peaceful, Karzai trusted us, and much more could have been accomplished to strengthen the state instead of the warlords. Whether that would have made much difference in the long run is debatable, but worth considering.
In fairness to Bush and Rumsfeld, the belief that a heavy use of force would arouse Afghan xenophobia was shared by many academics and commentators who reasoned from the various British disasters in Afghanistan. As it turned out, the population was extremely welcoming, though it took a long time to adjust to this fact. By that point, much of the gloss was gone from the intervention, and Iraq was sucking up too many resources. When we began to realize that the war was worsening and Afghanistan's people largely wanted more help, rather than less, we couldn't get the resources to meet the challenge. (Full disclosure, I was ambassador to Afghanistan and am still unhappy that our efforts to expand aid and forces just as the insurgency worsened were largely unsuccessful.)
The discussion of Obama's policy in Afghanistan leaves out whether his timelines were ever realistic. Most of those who have worked there and studied the situation believe these constraints were a significant reason for later problems. This, too, is debatable, but it does not form part of Bacevich's discussion.
On Iraq, the book's criticisms are even more justified, but the account remains unbalanced. It focuses on the terrible relations between Ambassador L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez but ignores the close cooperation between their successors, Ambassador John Negroponte and General George Casey (I witnessed both situations firsthand). The discussion of the surge is true as far as it goes, but it completely ignores the efforts of both Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Generals David Petraeus and, subsequently, Raymond Odierno to embed the new Sunni forces into the Iraqi political process. Even worse, it ignores the actions of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that squandered years of comparative peace, vastly deepened the sectarian splits, and in many respects opened the door to the Islamic State. There is no guarantee that even a very different and more far-sighted leader could have brought Iraq together. The U.S. endeavor was deeply flawed from the beginning, and the early period with its lack of advance planning and ignorance of what was happening around us made everything worse, as Bacevich observes. Still, the account would profit from more balance and attention to actors other than the United States.
The book concludes with a quick survey of Libya, Yemen and our various other ongoing wars. Bacevich criticizes the constant focus on counterterrorist attacks and the lack of a longer-term policy for creating anything but temporary threat suppression. There may be no solution; he doesn't suggest an alternative. But it is worth noting that America has not been successfully attacked by al-Qaeda since 2001. Is the policy responsible, along with intelligence and law enforcement? One can debate the answer. The question of alternatives is the essence of the policy discussion and deserves attention.
Bacevich's criticism of the lack of follow-up in Libya is just. Relegating the discussion of the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) to a couple of dismissive sentences is unfair, however; the idea influenced thinking far more that any U.S. desire to control oil or reshape Libyan society. Personally, I find the R2P doctrine deeply flawed, but a great many liberal thinkers all over the world see it as a major advance in the twenty-first century. It deserves more discussion, as do the actions of the European states and the Libyans themselves.
Bracevich is correct that we have had too many wars backed by too little strategy, and have learned too little from our experiences. My regret is that he is more interested in attacking than in discussing the alternatives of the past. I wish he had devoted some attention to what alternatives he would now choose, what role he thinks America should play in the world, and what the costs and risks of those choices would be.