A retired Army colonel, Andrew Bacevich served in Vietnam, Europe, and the Persian Gulf. He has authored numerous books on U.S. military history and foreign policy, including America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. He is currently a professor at Boston University, and recently stopped by the offices of The Progressive for a chat.
Q: In the book, you say all of our policies in the Middle East have been ill-advised, based on missed opportunities, misread signs, and a failure to take religion and local culture into account. How could we be so wrong for so long?
Andrew Bacevich: Well, let me explain first why the book begins with Jimmy Carter. In January 1980, Carter promulgates what we have come to call the Carter Doctrine, which says the Persian Gulf is a vital U.S. national security interest—a place we will fight for. That statement initiates the militarization of U.S. policy [in the region]. Beginning in 1980, we have had endless military involvement.
My book tries to tell the story of these continuing American military campaigns, big and small. It argues that this militarization of U.S. policy has led to disastrous consequences and results. Whatever we thought we were doing in the region—whether trying to democratize it or liberate it or stabilize it or bring it to heel—we have not achieved those purposes, and in many respects have made things worse. It’s time for us to recognize that this military effort is a failed one. It’s time to abandon it and base our policies toward this part of the world on entirely different premises.
Q: What drives U.S. policy in the Middle East? Is it control of the oil in the Persian Gulf? Or is it, as some say, about bringing democracy and changing cultures?
Bacevich: There’s no question in my mind this began as a war for oil. When Carter promulgated his doctrine, it was in direct response to the Iranian revolution and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Those two events were misinterpreted as suggesting that U.S. access to Persian Gulf oil was at risk. But I argue that, even at the outset, it was about much more than that.
I think the real explanation for the persistence of our military interventions despite the absence of success is that this is a war to uphold the notion of American exceptionalism. It is intended to demonstrate that we are, and remain, a nation to which limits don’t apply.
The real explanation for the persistence of our military interventions, despite the absence of success, is that this is a war to uphold the notion of American exceptionalism—that we are a nation to which limits don’t apply.
What we have encountered through this long succession of military interventions, especially in the post-9/11 phase, is that there are limits to American power. There are limits to our ability to reshape the world in our own image. There are limits to the capacity of our American military, which is certainly very powerful. I think at some deep, psychological level, there’s something deeply upsetting about this evidence, especially to people in Washington.
Q: You talk in the book about multiple Iraq wars, beginning with what we call the Iran-Iraq War.
Bacevich: I think there have been four of them. There was the Gulf War of 1980-1988, where we supported Saddam against Iran, I think it should be called the First Gulf War. Then there was the Second Gulf War, the one in response to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Then we have the Third Gulf War, which George W. Bush initiated in 2003, which ended in 2011 when President Obama withdrew the last U.S. forces. Now, alas, we have the Fourth Gulf War, which is the war against ISIS, which President Obama has been drawn into, however reluctantly. We’ve got significant U.S. forces, mostly air power, once more engaged in a Gulf War.
So the standard dating of things, it seems to me, both disguises the duration of our military efforts and conceals how unsuccessful they’ve been. We spilled a lot of blood, spent trillions of dollars, and have achieved next to nothing.
Q: During the Clinton years, there was an interesting sort of distraction—you call it the entr’acte—where suddenly we’re involved in the former Yugoslavia, and the connections between that and what’s going on in the Middle East are not immediately obvious.
Bacevich: I have to concede that’s the part of the narrative people push back on. But I argue that we need to see the Balkans as part of the Greater Middle East. Historically, this has been a zone of conflict between what we used to call Christendom and the Muslim world. There are many causes for the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the conflicts that ensued, but one of those causes is the renewed antagonism between the local Muslim community and the local Christian community.
Both the Saudi government and the Iranian government (who of course are antagonists) saw the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo as wars in which Islamic interests were at stake, and both provided support for Bosnian Muslims, and for the Kosovars. These are not the central theaters of America’s war for the Greater Middle East, but I’m pretty well persuaded that they deserve to be incorporated in the narrative.
Q: The Joint Special Operations Command, which you mention briefly, seems to have become the key executor of U.S. policy in the region, with not just the killing of Osama bin Laden but many of the raids that are going on in Afghanistan, Yemen, and so on.
Bacevich: Obama ran for office vowing to end the Iraq war responsibly and to win the Afghanistan war. He tried to make good on the Afghanistan promise by approving an Afghanistan surge, derived from the Petraeus surge in Iraq of 2007. But the Afghanistan surge didn’t work and I think that by the end of 2010, the President had concluded that occupying countries and expecting to transform their political system doesn’t work. But he doesn’t give up on the idea that American military power can somehow fix things.
Obama showed a very significant aversion to large numbers of U.S. combat troops on the ground. He showed no aversion whatsoever to aggressively employing U.S. Special Operations Forces and aggressively employing U.S. airpower. Especially where that airpower comes in the form of unmanned aerial vehicles—missile-firing drones—where there’s no risk of a U.S. casualty. So Special Operations has become a prominent instrument for projecting American power.
Q: In the book, you look at the trajectory from Carter, to Reagan, to George H.W. Bush, to Clinton, to George W. Bush, to Obama. And it’s sort of a continuum in which the policy remains the same.
Bacevich: Although the differences between one administration and the next are interesting, it is the continuities that really tell us something about the way our political elites think. Each successive administration has been committed to the proposition that the application of American military power to this part of the world is going to yield a positive outcome. They just differ with one another on how to get it done, or on the rhetorical justification for intervention. And they’ve all been consistently wrong.
Q: You cite the shortage of politicians questioning the wars. Here in Wisconsin, we have the great tradition in the 1960s of Robert Kastenmeier and his hearings on the Vietnam War, and more recently, Senator Feingold, who stood up against the Patriot Act and the Iraq War. But a few isolated politicians can’t seem to change the political system.
Bacevich: Where is the Senator chairing the Senate Foreign Relations committee who is going to call hearings and pose the basic questions: What do we think we’re trying to do? How’s it going? What are the prospects of success? To bring in, on a nonpartisan basis, people from various walks of life, of various persuasions to reflect on that. It hasn’t happened.
Q: You point out that individuals and institutions actually benefit from these wars.
Bacevich: The military-industrial complex today doesn’t look like the military-industrial complex of 1961, when Ike gave his speech, but there are powerful institutions—corporate institutions, the military, the Congress itself—that share a common interest in sustaining a basic approach to national security that finds expression in a huge military and the continuous churning out of new weapons.
Q: You note, perhaps most importantly, that the American people are oblivious to what is occurring. Where do we go from here?
Bacevich: I’m pessimistic on whether we’re going to go anywhere because I believe that for change to come, for us to reorient our approach to national security, to come to a more prudent understanding of what military power can do, the pressure for change has to come from the bottom up. And that’s only going to come when large numbers of Americans recognize the need for change and demand it. And the American way of war today lets the American people off the hook, in two ways.
First, we don’t pay for the wars; taxes don’t go up. I firmly believe that if there’s a war that we think is worth fighting for, we the American people should pay for the war. That doesn’t happen. The other reason is the volunteer force. We are a nation that now is perpetually at war, and only roughly 1 percent of us are at risk as a consequence of that. We maintain this reliance on military professionals, and the American people therefore are not called upon to sacrifice.
So there are never significant numbers of Americans saying the war for the Greater Middle East itself is a misguided proposition, and U.S. policy toward that part of the world needs to have a different basis. And because there’s not that popular outcry, those who are invested in this war get their way.
I’m pessimistic on whether we’re going to reorient our approach to national security because the pressure for change has to come from the bottom up. And that’s only going to come when large numbers of Americans recognize the need for change and demand it. And the American way of war today lets the American people off the hook.
Q: What are the implications of Donald Trump winning the presidency?
Bacevich: It’s difficult to say. As a candidate, Trump displayed little understanding of U.S. foreign policy. I sense that he has little appreciation of what the U.S. military has been doing in the Greater Middle East, whether last year or twenty years ago. So he is a cipher. We must hope that he demonstrates a capacity to learn and to curb his tendency to shoot from the hip, which was so vividly on display during the past year or so.
Q: Now that Donald Trump has begun to fill out his cabinet appointments, what are your thoughts so far—particularly on his choices for CIA Director, National Security Advisor, Secretary of Homeland Security, and Secretary of Defense?
Bacevich: I find Trump’s appointment of retired military officers to senior posts troubling. As individuals, some may be very fine fellows indeed. But we don’t need a military junta running the country. The principle of civilian control appears to be among the matters that Trump either does not understand or is choosing to disregard. In either case, that’s not good news.