Manifest Destiny in the Middle East
Military historian Andrew Bacevich
The book’s themes will also serve as the basis for Bacevich’s talk at the Lensic. “I will be reflecting on why it’s so difficult to extricate ourselves from the wars in the Greater Middle East, despite the obvious fact that they are failing,” he said. “And at least by way of a footnote, I will be addressing what the consequences of a Trump presidency may be for the region and for U.S. foreign policy.”
As Bacevich makes clear, the war for the Greater Middle East has looked remarkably similar under both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations. “To most American observers of U.S. politics, it tends to be the differences between presidents and policies that are worth noting. But in the case of the Middle East, the continuities between presidential administrations are far more important than the differences,” he said.
If anything, Bacevich argues, the Obama administration pushed U.S. military operations into Pakistan in a manner reminiscent of Nixon’s clandestine bombings of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. “By the time Obama unleashed missile-firing UAVs and commandos on Pakistan, few bothered to question the legality of secret attacks in countries with which the United States was not at war,” he writes. “Unless large numbers of U.S. ground troops were involved, the prerogatives enjoyed by the American commander in chief anywhere in the Greater Middle East had by now become pretty much limitless.”
A large part of the problem, Bacevich argues, is that America’s leaders have an unwavering belief in the U.S. military’s ability to solve problems in the Middle East that are actually economic, political, or cultural in nature. “We live in a society in which the majority of the American people are persuaded that we have the greatest military the world has ever seen,” he said. “They believe that if properly prepared, the U.S. military can do anything. Our involvement in the Middle East and Islamic world suggests something to the contrary. No public figure has been willing to acknowledge that.”
While president-elect Donald Trump has signaled that he would reduce U.S. military engagement in the Middle East, Bacevich is hesitant to predict what sort of foreign policy or military engagements in the Middle East the Trump administration will produce. “Had Hillary Clinton prevailed, this war for the Greater Middle East would have continued with the same trajectory,” he said. “But with Trump as president, all bets are off. By no means am I suggesting he is pursuing an alternative course in the Middle East. Who knows what Trump is going to do? But he has suggested he himself may not be particularly enamoured with continuing our military efforts in the region.” Bacevich acknowledges the tremendous difficulty of shifting U.S. foreign policy and military engagements in the Middle East when less than one percent of Americans serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. To attempt to change the course of American policy in the Middle East, he said, would mean changing core beliefs about American exceptionalism and its role as a crusading global police force.
“There is a psychological element to our persistence,” Bacevich said. “There is a collective sense of our place in history. Ever since World War II and the start of the Cold War, there is a sense that we are the driver of history and that history has a trajectory. When it comes to America’s War for the Greater Middle East, there’s a persistent belief that we are a people to whom limits don’t apply.” ▼
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