“No administration has ever devised a global strategy to achieve America’s aims, but simply reacted to the given situation on coming to power.”
Retired US Army colonel and now Professor Andrew Bacevich had much to say about America’s involvement in the Middle East region since 1983. Bacevich was speaking on “America’s Endless War for the Middle East,” based off his recently published book “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.” A professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University, Bacevich brought a valuable dual perspective to the hotly debated issue of American intervention overseas.
Professor Bacevich started by asking questions to pique the audience’s interest: “Does waging war across a large swath of the Islamic world make sense? Is that war winnable? If not, why are we there? And for the most powerful country in the world, is there no alternative? Have we no choices?” He went on to give an overview of themes studied in his book, starting from the US’ motivations for acting in the Middle East, the people and ideas that guided policy, actions that were actually taken, and their real world consequences.
His thesis rests on misplaced ideas of American exceptionalism that motivated bad decision making, causing America to enter wars and situations that it’s finding hard to extricate itself from. “Getting out of a war is far harder than getting into one,” said Bacevich. “It’s not simply that we’ve not prevailed. Obviously we’ve not prevailed. Rather, through a combination of naivety, short-sightedness, and hubris, we have actually made things worse—at very considerable cost to ourselves and to others.” In trying to “shape” the Middle East, by invading, occupying, and trying to undertake sustained “nation-building,” America ignored regional dynamics and historical contexts of the societies being occupied. In the post Cold War era, faced with the option of either waiting out political issues in other parts of the world, or undertaking direct, sustained military action, the establishment decided to choose the latter option.
The talk concluded by tracing the four reasons due to which, according to Professor Bacevich, the war in the Greater Middle East has become an almost permanent fixture in American life. First, the lack of a significant anti-interventionist movement in the country. Second, a lack of courage amongst candidates running for office, to question the efficacy of war, instead of simply declaring support for troops. Third, the benefits that some parties garner from perpetual war, in the form of jobs, publicity and the furthering of a political agenda. Lastly, the insulation of the general public from the war’s negative effects.
During the question and answer session, Bacevich talked about issues that were not addressed in his talk. Though according to Bacevich, American involvement in the Middle East truly began in 1983, the CIA has been undertaking covert operations in the region since much before that. The staging of the 1953 Iranian coup d’état, the funding of the mujahideen to fight the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the propping up of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party in 1963 have all been linked to the CIA. When asked if such covert operations have led to drastic unforeseen ramifications, Bacevich agreed and went on to disclaim that his book has focused on military involvement in the region, whose notable origins lie in 1983.
Though insightful and logical, Bacevich’s arguments seem to paint a limited picture of the dynamics of US-Middle East relations, focusing on US military and US government policy. I was left with questions about the significance of aspects including covert operations, trade partnerships, humanitarian issues and local leadership in the Middle East. However, as Bacevich repeated during his lecture, his book aims to study precisely the ideals of American exceptionalism, lying in misguided policy and military strategy.
Bacevich concluded on a cynical yet realistic note “Perpetuating the war for the Greater Middle East is not enhancing American freedom, abundance, and security. If anything, it is having the opposite effect. And one day, the American people may awaken to this reality. Then, and only then, will the war end. When that awakening will occur however, is impossible to say. For now, sadly, Americans remain deep in slumber.”