If We Can’t Win in the Middle East, Why Don’t We Just Leave?
Andrew Bacevich asks the question everyone else ignores
by ANDREW DOBBS
By 1982, Lebanon’s civil war had raged for seven years. Responding to PLO fighters raiding Israel from their base in southern Lebanon, the Israeli Defense Forces laid siege to Lebanon’s capital city in August of that year.
U.S. president Ronald Reagan ordered 800 U.S. Marines to Beirut the same month. They were supposed to act as peacekeepers as the IDF and the Palestinians withdrew from the city.
Shortly after Yasser Arafat himself left, the Marines also shipped out under a banner bearing those inauspicious words —
In fact, Lebanon’s civil war only escalated. Reagan sent an even larger force of Marines back to the country. For nearly a year the 1,200 Marines were subject to attacks by various parties. And on Oct. 23, 1983, Hezbollah suicide-bombers struck a Marine barracks, killing 241 Americans.
Washington retaliated but only managed to get two Navy fighter jets shot down and a pilot captured. The Marines withdrew in February 1984.
This episode — vivid in the memories of some Americans but largely forgotten by most of the public and media — features prominently in Andrew Bacevich’s new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.
Bacevich plainly describes the misconceptions and lazy thinking that have characterized the United States’ involvement in the Muslim heartland over the last four decades. Consider Bacevich’s summary of one U.S. government report on the Beirut attack.
“Focusing on operational shortcomings, it studiously avoided any more fundamental questions,” Bacevich writes:
So the commission concluded, for example, that the attack on the Marine barracks “was tantamount to an act of war using the medium of terrorism.”
Verily. But what exactly was the nature of this “war”? Who were the belligerents? What were the stakes? What would winning entail? Was the war even winnable?
On these questions, the report had little to say. Instead it offered anodyne statements such as “state-sponsored terrorism poses a serious threat to U.S. policy … and thus merits the attention of military planners.
What becomes clear in retrospect is this: Among U.S. policymakers, Beirut ought to have set off alarm bells. Failure there might have suggested that dabbling in the use of U.S. forces to “fix” the Greater Middle East was to collide with complexities that even Miles Ignotus [a pseudonym of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger] could not wish away.
Presence, especially by token forces occupying stationary positions, amounted to an incitement. Rather than contributing to stability, it did just the opposite.
These themes — absence of strategy, poor understanding of the actual effectiveness of U.S. military power and America’s general cluelessness about the true impacts of its actions on other countries’ long-term security — come up time and again in Bacevich’s narrative.
Bacevich has become one of the most prominent critics of U.S. foreign policy. A Princeton-educated retired U.S. Army colonel, Bacevich lost his son, a U.S. Army captain, in Iraq in 2007.
Bacevich makes no pretense of objectivity. “We have not won it,” he writes about the war in the Middle East. “We are not winning it. Simply trying harder is unlikely to produce a different outcome.”
Bacevich’s argument might annoy those who continue to see victory just around the corner, or who believe that American can solves it problems with more firepower. But staunch defenders of the status quo would do well to confront the mass of evidence Bacevich presents.
Bacevich embeds his main argument in the book’s title, asserting that the United States’ various conflicts across the Muslim world since 1980 can best be understood as a single unfolding campaign — beginning with America’s failed attempt to rescue its hostages in Iran that year and continuing to our current wars against Islamic State in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan plus the drone wars in Libya, West Africa, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan.
The retired colonel and foreign-policy skeptic devotes chapters to the U.S.-Soviet proxy war in Afghanistan, the aforementioned American involvement in Lebanon, what he calls the “First Gulf War” between Iraq and Iran, the U.S.-Libya conflicts of the 1980s, his “Second Gulf War” — Operation Desert Storm — and the ensuing decade of low-grade combat involved in enforcing the no-fly zones, the fiasco in Somalia the Balkans wars of the late 1990s the Al Qaeda-U.S. conflict culminating in 9/11 and the initial invasion of Afghanistan, his so-called “Third Gulf War” — a.k.a., Operation Iraqi Freedom — and finally Pres. Barack Obama’s escalation of the Afghan campaign, his farces in Libya and Syria and his regional expansion of drone warfare.
Bacevish describes the current war against ISIS as the “Fourth Gulf War.” Alongside these specific conflicts, Bacevich recounts the formation and evolution of U.S. Central Command — begun as an understaffed task force in 1980 and now responsible for most of the theaters the U.S. has fought in over the last 35 years — and the ominous recent founding of U.S. Africa Command.
The most useful accomplishment of Bacevich’s ambitious undertaking is the context it provides for the War as a whole and for the various conflicts it contains. The news can be disorienting, as it tends to focus on one narrow aspect of the overall conflict, without a lot of context.
That’s how we are able to forget that America’s involvement in the Middle East did not get underway with Pres. George H.W. Bush, his son or even Reagan, but is in fact an outgrowth of the so-called Carter Doctrine — Pres. Jimmy Carter’s declaration that the United States considered the security of the Persian Gulf to be a matter of national interest.
Our dominant media narratives suppress our memory. We forget that Iran’s surface navy “all but ceased to exist as even a minimally capable fighting force” after the U.S. Navy sank or destroyed three warships during Operation Praying Mantis in 1988. As long as Americans reliably forget what happened just a few decades ago, the United States can keep doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.
The most insane quality of the War for the Greater Middle East is the lack of any coherent strategy that also includes realistic objectives. Over time, American objectives have ranged from the initial Carter Doctrine aim of merely protecting oil infrastructure in the Persian Gulf to facilitating humanitarian aid in Somalia to ridding the world of “evil” and transforming all of the region’s countries into secular liberal democracies.
Each of these and the myriad other objectives — not to mention the conflicts that had no clear objectives, including America’s return to Lebanon in 1982 or our 1980s-era harassment of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi — share in common certain unspoken assumptions that Bacevich identifies over and over throughout his book.
One is a function of the colonialist “Great Man” theory of history — the idea that neutralizing certain specific individuals is tantamount to strategic victory. We have been told that the death or disabling of Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, Slobodan Milosevic, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, Osama Bin Laden, various ISIS, Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders, Somali warlord Muhammed Farrah Aidid and many others was the key to finally making their respective countries peaceful, “free” places.
In every case, these men have been replaced and their nations and movements are still either problems for the United States or for the people who live there today.
Following along with this delusion has been the idea that the problems of the Greater Middle East can be summed up in a single nation’s pathologies, and that the next victory will be the last one we’ll need. Desert Storm was supposed to bring peace to the Middle East, and so was its agonizing sequel.
Now we are being told that defeating ISIS will be the end of the line, but readers of Bacevich’s book should realize that this is a reflection of our national condition, that same insanity that says that maybe things will be different this time. Bacevich demonstrates conclusively that they never are.
Yet despite the purported importance of each of these conflicts, there has been a curious lack of willingness on the part of American leaders to secure the public investment — in service and in money — that it might take to actually win any of them, in any meaningful sense of the word “win.”
This calculation certainly never takes into account the possibility that perhaps the U.S. military is not capable of achieving these goals at any cost — or that military power in and of itself is ineffective for solving the problems at hand.
The result is that the United States continues to commit to conflicts it cannot or will not win, and yet it refuses over and over again to simply stop trying. Bacevich concludes his book by asking the obvious question. “In short, why can’t we win? And since we haven’t won, why can’t we get out?”
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