“From the end of World War II until 1980, virtually no American soldiers were killed in action while serving in the greater Middle East. Since 1980, virtually no American soldiers have been killed anywhere else. What caused that shift?”
That stark question appears as a blurb on the back cover of my edition of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, Andrew J. Bacevich’s ambitious, brilliantly conceived if flawed chronicle which seeks to both answer that question and place it in its appropriate context. It is, of course, quite the tall order: how is it that a geography ever on the periphery of an American foreign policy that for decades could best be described as benign neglect came to not only dominate our national attention but be identified as central to our strategic interests? And how is that as this review goes to press—nearly four years after the publication of Bacevich’s book—America’s longest war in its history endures beyond its eighteenth year … in Afghanistan of all places?!
The short answer, I would posit, is oil. Bacevich is older than me, and I wasn’t yet driving at the time in 1969 when he notes dropping three bucks to fill up the tank of his new Mustang at 29.9 cents a gallon. But I was on the road just a few years later, and I recall sitting in long lines at the pump for fuel priced nearly ten times that, as well as the random guy who threatened to shoot a certain long-haired teenager for trying to cut line, and that same teen later learning how to siphon gas from parked cars. It was a time.
That tumultuous time stemmed, of course, from the 1973 oil embargo placed on the United States by OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) in retaliation for its support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Because he has styled his book “A Military History,” the author does not dwell on the gasoline shortage that so shook American self-confidence in the early 1970s, nor on the related and still unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict that remains as central to the theme of Middle East unrest as slavery was to the American Civil War. Instead, after a brief “Prologue,” Bacevich rapidly shifts focus to the Iran hostage crisis and the 1980 debacle that was Operation Eagle Claw, the aborted mission to rescue those hostages that resulted in those first American casualties referenced in that jacket blurb. This decision by the author to not accord oil and Israel their respective fundamental significance in far greater detail proves to be a weakness that tends to undermine an otherwise well-researched and well-written narrative history.
That author certainly has both the credentials and the skills worthy of the task before him. Andrew Bacevich is a career army officer, veteran of the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, who retired with the rank of colonel. He is also a noted historian and award-winning author, someone who has described himself as a “Catholic conservative,” but defies traditional labels of parties and politics. He is a pronounced critic of American military interventionism, George W. Bush’s advocacy for so-called “preventive wars,” and especially of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In a kind of tragic irony, his own son, an army officer, was killed in combat in Iraq. I have read two of his previous books: Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, and The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, both magnificent treatises that reflect Bacevich’s ideological opposition to spending American lives needlessly in endless wars. But treatises don’t always translate well into narrative history—in fact these are and should be entirely separate channels—and Bacevich’s tendency to blur those boundaries here comes to weaken America’s War for the Greater Middle East.
The author points to repeated epic fails in Middle East policy that take us down all the wrong roads, while experts in and out of government shake their heads in bewilderment, yet one administration after another nevertheless presses on stubbornly. Bacevich is at his best when he underscores a series of unintended consequences on a road paved with occasional good intentions that not only exacerbate bad decision-making but cement unnecessary obligations to fickle, illusory allies that then put up almost insurmountable roadblocks to disentanglement. Two salient and substantial examples are: the poorly-conceived U.S. support for rebels opposed to the Russian-friendly regime in Afghanistan that was to spark Soviet intervention in 1979; and, subsequent U.S. backing for the Islamic fundamentalist Mujahideen that was to later spawn Al-Qaeda.
There is much more to come—more perhaps intended and incompetent rather than unintended—and much of that is either utterly unknown or long forgotten for most Americans, including the 1982 suicide-bombing of the Marine compound in Beirut that killed 241 but somehow failed to tarnish the “Teflon” presidency of Ronald Reagan, who retreated while euphemistically “redeploying.” From the vantage point of Washington, the greater enemy remained the Ayatollah, and all efforts were made to enable the brutal despot Saddam Hussein in his opportunistic war upon Iran, a decision that was to fuel Middle East instability for decades and lead to two future US conflicts with our former ally. And Reagan was still President and still all-Teflon in 1988 when the US shot down through either negligence or spite Iran Air Flight 655 over the Persian Gulf, a commercial airliner with 290 souls aboard. George H. W. Bush led a coalition to liberate Kuwait from our erstwhile ally Iraq, but then left a wounded, isolated and still dangerous Saddam to plague our future. But, of course, it was under George W. Bush that the tragedy that was 9-11 was hijacked and turned into a fanciful “War on Terror” that ultimately was to embolden Islamic fundamentalism, served as a pretext for an illegal invasion of Iraq that strengthened Iran and utterly destabilized the region, and later bred ISIL to terrorize multiple corridors of the Middle East. You can indeed draw almost a straight line from the Afghan Mujahideen of 1979 to ISIL suicide bombers today.
Bacevich is masterful with a pen, and his history is so well-written that there are literally no dry spots. The problem I found was with the tone, which while legitimately critical of American missteps is often needlessly arrogant, eye-rolling, even snarky—all of which detracts from the primary message, which is indeed spot-on. My politics often align closely with those of MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, but I simply cannot watch her show: I find her breathless exhalations and intimations of “How-could-anyone-be-so-stupid?” and “We-told-you-so” coupled with lip-curling grimaces intolerable. Bacevich is not that bad here by any means, but there is certainly a whiff of it that puts me off. Moreover, while he makes a cogent case for why just about every policy we put in place was wrong-headed, I would have much welcomed the author’s alternative recipes. Bacevich is a brilliant man: I truly wanted to know what he would have done differently if he was sitting behind the Resolute Desk instead of Carter or Reagan or Bush or any of the others.
Bacevich does deserve much credit for his far more panoramic view of what he rightly calls the “Greater Middle East,” as he widens the lens to focus upon the often neglected yet certainly related periphery of the Balkans and the Muslim population in the former Yugoslavia subjected to ethnic cleansing. Few mention Eastern Europe in the same breath as the Middle East, but for some five hundred years much of that geography was integral to the same Ottoman Empire that ruled over present-day Syria and Iraq. There is a common history that cannot be ignored. But just as I was disappointed elsewhere that Bacevich failed to highlight the background noise of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that truly informs every conversation about Middle East affairs, in this case little was made of the bond between post-Soviet Russia and Slavs of “Greater Serbia,” which not only deeply influenced the Balkan Civil Wars but soured emerging US-Russian relations in its aftermath and resounded across the Islamic landscape. Likewise, the narrative swerves to take a peek at “Black Hawk Down” in Mogadishu, but the long history of ties between East Africa and Arabia remains unexplored.
America’s War for the Greater Middle East is divided into three parts: the first takes the reader to the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War (which Bacevich brands as “Second Gulf War”), and the second wraps up on the eve of 9-11. But it is the last part, dominated by the Iraq War, that strikes a markedly different tone and smacks of the more somber, perhaps coincidental to Bacevich’s own deeply personal loss, perhaps not. Alas, none of the sections are large enough to bear the weight of the material.
Rarely would I lobby for any book to be longer, but in this case the 370 pages in my edition—plus the copious notes and excellent maps—is simply not enough. The topic not only deserves but demands more. This book should either be three times longer or, better still, should be a three-volume series. A more comprehensive historical background—including the echo of the greater Ottoman heritage and the Russo-British grapple for Central Asia—of this entire milieu is requisite for getting a grasp upon how we got here. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict demands more focus. As does the Shia-Sunni division. And the relationships between Arab and non-Arab states, as well as the ties that transcend the regional to extend to Africa and Europe and beyond. There is no hope of a better grasp of all that has gone wrong with American entanglement in the Middle East without all of that and much more.
Given all these reservations, the reader of this review might be surprised that I nevertheless recommend this book. Warts and all, there is no other work out there that connects the dots of America’s involvement in the Middle East as well as it does, even as it cries for more depth, for more complexity. I would likely be less critical of this book if my admiration for Bacevich was less pronounced and my expectations for his work was not so high. Even if America’s War for the Greater Middle East falls short, it deserves to be on your reading list.
NOTE: I reviewed Bacevich’s earlier book here: