U. S. professor says it’s time to reassess policy on Middle East
BOSTON — Since 1980, when former U. S. president Jimmy Carter declared the Persian Gulf a “vital interest,” the United States has bombed, invaded, or occupied pretty well every country from Pakistan to Libya — 14 in all. In the process it has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, lost thousands of its own soldiers, incubated numerous terrorist groups and drained its treasury. Yet the Middle East arguably is less stable than it was when Carter announced his new foreign policy doctrine 34 years ago.
You might think such a dubious record of military intervention might provoke some sober second thoughts. But as the U. S. begins the latest chapter of its war in the Middle East, targeting the Islamic State jihadist group, what is surprising is the almost total lack of opposition from anywhere in America.
“We have been doing this for 34 years and it’s not working,” says Andrew Bacevich, a professor in international relations at Boston University. “Maybe we should take another approach. But that notion has no political traction, which is a sign of how bankrupt our politics are. … There has been no serious high- level effort to ask the most simple questions: what were we trying to do, how did we do it, and how did it come out.”
Bacevich, 67, has asked those questions since the first of his five books on America’s post-Cold War adventurism was published in 2003. The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, The New American Militarism and American Empire, have shown him to be an eloquent and quite devastating critic of the military, U. S. Middle East foreign strategy and what he argues is the complicity of every American citizen in that “failed” policy.
What sets him apart from the standard academic, however, is the fact that he is a product of what Americans proudly call the warrior class ( although he rejects the term “warrior” as anathema to the true nature of a soldier). Bacevich is a West Point graduate, a Vietnam veteran and a retired U. S. army colonel. He knows war first hand. He knows its unpredictability, its devastation and its personal costs. His son was killed in Iraq in 2007.
“When ( my son) was killed, I received some genuinely hateful emails from people who basically said, ‘ Well, I’m glad your son was killed because, you know, you deserve it,’” he says. “At that point it was very difficult to bear.”
Bacevich’s portrait of America is essentially a denunciation. Its politics are corrupt, its military leadership incompetent and its people venal, selfcentred and robotic. Caught up in their messianic, almost religious mission to bend the world to their self- image, Americans have “no actual ability to think independently,” he says.
“One of the reasons that I think we persist in this war for the greater Middle East, despite the obvious evidence that it’s not working, is that to give up the effort will be to acknowledge that we are not really the global leader, we are not the sole superpower, that we are not, to use the phrase that’s bandied about, the indispensable nation, and Americans are not prepared intellectually for that admission,” he says. “From my point of view,
We have been doing this for 34 years and it’s not working. … There has been no serious high- level effort to ask the most simple questions: what were we trying to do, how did we do it, and how did it come out.” ANDREW BACEVICH PROFESSOR AND AUTHOR
such an admission would be liberating towards coming to a more reasoned, practical, realistic understanding of how the world works and our place in that world.”
Bacevich argues war for the United States not only has no end but also has no strategy. Former president George W. Bush talked about a generational war and then imposed a doctrine of preventive war, which Bacevich calls horrifying given such an open- ended justification. Equally serious was the Bush claim that the “survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” This gave the U. S. the unquestioned right of regime change as a method of homeland security.
“Forget about exit strategies,” former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld once said. “We’re looking at a sustained engagement that carries no deadlines.”
That Americans quickly bought into this policy is partly due to the fact that so few Americans have any skin in the game, Bacevich says. Only 0.5 per cent of Americans have been in the military. No American family is in danger of having sons and daughters conscripted. And no one’s taxes have been raised to pay for the Middle East ventures. To the vast majority of Americans, true sacrifice is a stranger, known only to soldiers on the front lines, Bacevich says.
America’s military involvement in the Middle East since the Carter doctrine has to be seen as one war, the author says. The recent rise of Islamic State is but the latest chapter.
“Only if we see it as one war does it become possible to stand back and ask those fundamental questions: what do you think we were doing,” he says.
Bacevich’s thinking grew out of a miscalculation. When the Cold War ended, he expected the U. S. would stand down, the military would decline in importance and America would concentrate on putting its own house in order.
“We simply kept doing what we had been doing before, absent this great existential threat, and in many respects we did even more of it with grander claims of our missions and of our responsibility and with an ever greater propensity to rely on military power as the principal expression of how we were going to fulfil these responsibilities,” he says.
The U. S., he says, should close its bases and pull out of the Middle East. A policy of containment, similar to the one applied to the former Soviet Union, would be sufficient to protect U. S. interests. After all, he says, Middle Eastern oil is no longer a vital interest. America has more than it can use.