Why Are We in the Middle East?

America’s devotion to the Middle East did not make much sense in 2003, Bacevich argues; but it did in 1980, and the reason was oil.

Adel Abdessemed, From Here to Eternity. 2015, black stone on military tarpaulin, 106 x 87 ". Courtesy VENUS.

Andrew J. Bacevich. America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. Random House, 2016.

I was too young and my parents too politically moderate to attend demonstrations protesting the invasion of Iraq in 2002 and 2003, but I knew the protesters’ signs from watching the news. The most powerful one, by far, read NO BLOOD FOR OIL. Its effect rested on its ability to make two arguments at once: that the Bush Administration’s pious rhetoric about spreading democracy and its dark warnings about nuclear weapons were insincere, and that the thirsty gas tanks of America’s SUVs did not justify a war. The war’s real purpose was to remove a belligerent dictator whose erratic behavior threatened US access to Middle East oil. If Saddam Hussein lacked weapons of mass destruction, and if his alleged connections to al Qaeda were unsubstantiated, then the US had no business invading a sovereign nation. For me, the sign’s appeal did not depend on its being correct. What mattered was that it identified Bush as a liar — this obviously was correct — and tried to make sense of a war that otherwise struck me as inexplicable.

According to Andrew Bacevich’s new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, the NO BLOOD FOR OIL people were correct — and thirty years too late. Unlike many journalists and historians who see the wars in the Middle East as a series of isolated conflicts that happen to have taken place in a single region over several decades, Bacevich, a career Army officer turned military historian and foreign policy critic, sees a sustained military campaign that began with Jimmy Carter and continues today. “From the end of World War II to 1980, virtually no American soldiers were killed in action while serving in [the Greater Middle East],” Bacevich writes. “Since 1990, virtually no American soldiers have been killed in action anywhere except the Greater Middle East.”1 In attempting to explain why and how this happened, he describes the US’s current situation in the Greater Middle East as the product of many errors of many kinds: strategic and tactical blunders, fashionable military theories that did not live up to their billing, failures to appreciate the political limits of what military force can accomplish, and missed opportunities to restrain a military apparatus that expands the scope of its mission whenever possible.

A self-described Catholic conservative, Bacevich attended West Point, served in the Vietnam War, and in 1991 was the commanding officer at Camp Doha in Kuwait when an accidental explosion injured dozens of GIs and severely damaged the base. The circumstances surrounding what followed are unclear — some veterans online have praised Bacevich’s handling of the explosion, while others have criticized his leadership — but he was not the commanding officer at Camp Doha for long. It was around this time that Bacevich’s doubts about American military and foreign policy orthodoxy began to emerge. In one essay, he recalls an October 1990 visit to East Germany, the place his teachers and military commanders had always described as “the most advanced and successful component of the Soviet Empire.” What he found “more closely resembled part of the undeveloped world”: decrepit infrastructure, “forlorn” villages, “inedible sausages,” and remnants of the Soviet military force driving around in trucks that “dated from the 1950s.” The American portrayal of the enemy had been a hollow one. His worldview crumbling, Bacevich embarked on an academic career.

Since 2002, Bacevich has written six disciplined, focused, and coolly analytic books about the failures of US foreign policy. America’s War for the Greater Middle East is unique among them in bringing more than half a century of foreign policy into a single framework. It describes a conflict that started over material resources and evolved into a complex and wearying imperial adventure. America’s devotion to the Middle East did not make much sense in 2003, Bacevich argues; but it did in 1980, and the reason was oil.

America’s devotion to the Middle East did not make much sense in 2003, Bacevich argues; but it did in 1980, and the reason was oil.

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In 1970, domestic production of crude oil peaked, with an average of nearly 10 million native-born barrels entering the world market every day. Domestic production then steadily declined through the rest of the century — in part because Europe, which had depended on American oil during World War II, began to look toward the Middle East for imports — and bottomed out at 5 million barrels per day in the final year of Bush II’s presidency. The ’70s also saw the beginning of an increase in US oil imports from abroad, especially the Middle East, making for the American economy’s now notorious dependence on “foreign oil.” The aspirations of the average American depended on that oil’s availability: “an unspoken premise underlying that way of life was that there was more still to come.”

When America backed Israel in the Yom Kippur War, Arab OPEC members, along with Egypt and Syria, proceeded to shut down oil exports to the US. The embargo posed what felt like a “direct existential threat” to the American economy, Bacevich writes, and it provoked some clamor for military action among hawkish pundits and political scientists. But it wasn’t until the upheavals of the late ’70s — the Iranian Revolution, the subsequent hostage crisis in Tehran, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — that the US fully militarized its relationship to the Middle East. Afghanistan had represented a buffer zone between the Soviet Union and the Middle East, but now it looked more like a staging ground for a sustained Soviet presence. In his 1980 State of the Union address, Carter accused the Soviets of “attempting to consolidate a strategic position” that could impede US access to “more than two thirds” of the oil available worldwide. “Let our position be absolutely clear,” he said. “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” This statement, Bacevich writes, “subsequently enshrined as the Carter Doctrine, inaugurated America’s War for the Greater Middle East.”

The war began as a project in regional management. In 1980, Carter established a task force to monitor and respond to the Soviet threat. Three years later it was replaced by US Central Command, or CENTCOM, which was assigned an “area of responsibility” — Bacevich is aware of the phrase’s imperial connotations — that included the countries of the Persian Gulf plus much of North and East Africa, as well as Afghanistan. Early plans focused on repelling a massive Soviet invasion of Iran. That invasion never took place, but the new bases and upgraded ports that the Pentagon scattered throughout the Middle East served to embed US military infrastructure in the region. The tools required for military solutions to future problems in that part of the world were now close at hand.

If an imaginary threat justified US military buildup in the region, real threats prompted military action. In 1980, Saddam Hussein, who had formally assumed Iraq’s presidency a year earlier, incorrectly calculated that Iran’s post-revolution vulnerabilities would make one of its oil-rich border provinces easy pickings for a land grab. The resulting Iran-Iraq War, which Bacevich refers to as the First Gulf War, with the US backing Iraq, continued until 1988, making it the longest conventional war of the 20th century. It was the first major military conflict to occur in the era of the Carter Doctrine and the first in what Bacevich calls “a series of armed conflicts . . . to determine who will exercise dominion over the core of the Islamic world.”

The reasoning behind America’s involvement in the Middle East — protect the oil — was perfectly coherent, but as Bacevich shows, the strategy and tactics employed in the service of oil protection were confused from the start. With the 1986 bombing of Libya, for example, the US wanted to provoke a confrontation: Operation El Dorado Canyon dropped bombs on Libya’s airfields, important components of its air-defense network, and Muammar Qaddafi’s compound. The deployment of American marines in Lebanon, by contrast, was ostensibly a peacekeeping mission, although it’s not clear why Ronald Reagan believed marines would help to relieve the sectarian strife of the Lebanese Civil War. Ultimately the marines became targets themselves; the 1983 suicide bombing of a barracks in Beirut killed more than two hundred of them.

Bacevich reserves special contempt for America’s conduct in the Iran-Iraq War. Content to watch Saddam beat up on the Iranian clerics, the US was disturbed to see Iran repel the invaders. Scattered anticolonial terrorist attacks were one thing, but a revolutionary Islamic republic with regional standing presented serious problems. In 1983, the US sent Donald Rumsfeld to Iraq to be videotaped shaking Saddam Hussein’s hand, and diplomatic relations were reestablished in 1984. When France and the Soviet Union organized the sale of advanced weaponry to Iraq, the US did not object. Israel, meanwhile, was secretly selling American-made arms to Iran. “Israel and the United States,” Bacevich writes, “thus found themselves supporting opposite sides in a war in which both warring parties were stridently anti-Israel and anti-American.” In 1985, the US would begin to divert arms secretly to Iran without abandoning its maintenance of the Iraqi army.

American involvement in the Iran-Iraq War culminated with Operation Praying Mantis, in which US forces, no longer willing to work through proxies, destroyed much of Iran’s navy. A few months later, the USS Vincennes shot Iran Air flight 655, which it mistakenly identified as an attacking fighter jet, out of the sky, killing 290 passengers. “I will never apologize for the United States,” said vice president George H. W. Bush, providing his son with a template for future use. “I don’t care what the facts are. I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.” None of the pundits who congratulated Reagan on America’s “decisive” intervention in the conflict seemed to notice that in terms of its original purpose — the maintenance of regional stability — the intervention had decisively failed.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the US no longer had any fig leaf to hide its naked pursuit of oil. Nonetheless, the image of an encroaching Middle Eastern tyranny overrunning the world’s oil resources proved an adequate excuse for the US to conduct its most significant military operation since the Vietnam War. Offended that Kuwait’s ruling family wanted him to repay the billions Iraq had borrowed during its war with Iran, Saddam Hussein invaded the tiny country. This posed a major threat to Saudi Arabia, a country that, as Bacevich notes, “every US president since Franklin D. Roosevelt had vowed to protect” on the basis of its status as the world’s preeminent oil-producing state. And protect Saudi Arabia America did, with Operation Desert Storm, which succeeded so quickly and decisively that one pundit identified the Nazi invasion of France as its main historical analogue.

And yet, Bacevich writes in his customary deadpan, “loose ends abounded.”

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On February 27, 1991, just four days after American marines and light infantry entered Kuwait, Bush I declared the country liberated. The next day, superstar general Norman Schwarzkopf spoke to reporters for nearly an hour. Schwarzkopf’s appearance, sometimes called “The Mother of All News Conferences,” is probably the high point of postwar America’s confidence in its status as the global hegemon. Barrel-chested and dressed in fatigues, Schwarzkopf used charts and a pointer to explain troop movements. He compared one maneuver of which he was particularly proud to “the Hail Mary play in football.” The maneuver wasn’t like that at all, but it sounded good. Schwarz­kopf talked tough to journalists in ways that flattered them. “You ever been in a minefield?” he asked one reporter, who had asked whether Saddam’s defensive capabilities had been overrated. “’Cause all there’s gotta be is one mine. And that’s intense.” The Second Gulf War — also Bacevich’s term — seemed to confirm America’s place at the head of what Bush I famously called a “New World Order,” and the Schwarzkopf press conference was a victory lap that the general and the adoring reporters all took together.

And yet, Bacevich writes in his customary deadpan, “loose ends abounded.” The loosest of these was Saddam himself. Having decided not to remove Hussein from power, Bush publicly hoped that Iraqis would rise up and liberate themselves. When Shiites and Kurds tried, Saddam’s response was so brutal that Bush eventually launched a campaign to defend fleeing Kurds and provide them with humanitarian aid: Operation Provide Comfort. This operation ended only when a no-fly zone was established in northern Iraq under the name Operation Provide Comfort II, which existed solely to protect the Kurdish minority from the dictator Bush I had not destroyed. Bush’s controversial decision has any number of reasonable explanations, among them the fact that Saddam’s fall would have allowed Iran to assume a place of regional dominance, and Bacevich sees the Second Gulf War as largely successful on its own terms: it protected the Saudis and temporarily disabled Saddam as a military threat to the Middle East. But he also sees it as exemplary of a US tendency: “while intently focusing on solving one problem, to exacerbate a second and plant the seeds of a third.”

In August 1992, the US added a no-fly zone in the south to snuff out any military activity on Saddam’s part. By the time Bush II invaded Iraq, American air units enforcing these no-fly zones had flown more than 225,000 sorties. “What we have effectively done since 1992,” said US Air Force chief of staff Ronald R. Fogleman, “is conduct an air occupation of a country.” Nineteen ninety-eight saw the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act, which made it the explicit policy of the US to support regime change. Two thousand US bombs and missiles hit Iraqi targets during the following two years. It is hard to see how all this did not amount to an undeclared conventional war, a war that suggests the extent to which the executive branch and the military establishment were now pervaded by what Bacevich calls “a heedless absence of self-restraint.”

Bill Clinton’s unprecedented latitude in conducting military affairs did not totally absolve him of the need to justify his decisions. And with the Soviet menace having disappeared as a catch-all threat, the era of humanitarian intervention now came into its own. If the US was to be the guardian of freedom around the globe — if it was to credibly lead the “New World Order” — then it had to be able to stop human rights abuses in their tracks. Sometimes this position led the US into conflicts that it clearly should have avoided from a strategic perspective. It is hard to see the two-year peacekeeping campaign in Somalia, for example, as anything but a disaster, Hollywood’s subsequent romanticizing of a helicopter crash notwithstanding.

The US intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo because, as the guarantor of European stability, it worried about the spillover effects of the conflict. War threatened business interests, and the US wanted to expand NATO’s membership and sphere of influence to the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Winning the international community’s approval for an intervention there would be a key test of US and NATO credibility, and to win that approval, the case for intervention was made in terms of genocide prevention. Its true purpose, as Bacevich argues, was to reaffirm the viability of NATO, but humanitarianism made for a nice icing on the cake.

This is not to say that the humanitarians were just deluded, that there wasn’t something awful happening in Bosnia. But as a style of foreign policy thinking, humanitarian interventionism can only be reactive, because it is wholly at the mercy of the emergency; there is no intervention that doesn’t need to happen right now. This persistent panic and desperation prevents humanitarian interventionists from thinking about the fact that after the emergency has been averted, the intervention will have consequences requiring humanitarian solutions of their own. Meanwhile, the traditional hawks to whom the humanitarians must make their case simply do whatever they were going to do in the first place.


The War for the Greater Middle East grew more ambitious after September 11. In the immediate wake of the attacks, secretary of defense Rumsfeld made notes that indicated what he thought would be the appropriate response: “Need to move swiftly . . . go massive — sweep it all up, things related and not.” Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden helped the Bush Administration decide that America was finished “managing” the Middle East via client states and airstrikes and sanctions. Now the region would be remade in America’s image — a Wilsonian Pax Americana in our time. In the Weekly Standard, Max Boot, a reliable cheerleader for military action of almost any kind, hoped that the invasion of Iraq would be “the moment when the powerful antibiotic known as democracy was introduced into the diseased environment of the Middle East, and began to transform the region for the better.” Yet the invasion would also allow the US “to provide the Middle East with effective imperial oversight.” What began as a war for oil decades earlier was now an attempt to ensure that the original American century would have a sequel. The burden of justifying US military involvement in the region had passed from petroleum to liberal ideology.

Given America’s overwhelming military superiority, Bush’s failures in Afghanistan and Iraq can be puzzling, and this is where Bacevich’s expertise in military history is most helpful. The second half of his book is a long description of how America’s fighters failed to realize Bush’s vision of democracy in bloom on the banks of the Euphrates. One development that comes in for major criticism is the Revolution in Military Affairs, or RMA. This was the body of theory that emerged in the late 20th century to process the implications of the US military’s massive technological advantage. A “counterpart” to the “neoliberal utopian­ism” of the 1990s, the RMA “posited that information technology was transforming war’s very nature.” Instead of massed soldiers clashing on the battlefield and leaving behind a pile of death and debris, there would be precision, instantaneous communication, operations conducted with blinding speed. There would be the pursuit of “information dominance.” And crucially, there would be “disengaged combat,” war conducted remotely via computer screen, which held out the prospect of reducing American casualties to zero. Eliminating US casualties from the calculus of war would make it politically feasible for the executive branch to make war anywhere at any time.

Rumsfeld was the administration’s most devoted RMA acolyte. Where previous operations in the Middle East had seen lengthy air campaigns prepare the way for ground troops, Rumsfeld wanted everything to happen at once. “What [gradualism] doesn’t do,” he said, “is shock and awe, and alter the calculations of the people you’re dealing with.” Rumsfeld was also dissatisfied with a pre–September 11 plan for the invasion of Iraq that required 500,000 troops. He made this dissatisfaction clear to Tommy Franks, the general ostensibly in charge of planning, and eventually talked Franks down to 170,000. This speedy, streamlined force was extremely well suited to removing Saddam from power, but not at all suited to the problems that were sure to follow. As Iraq spiraled into chaos, the US simply had too few soldiers there to do much about it. Franks had made a similar miscalculation in recommending a force of just 10,000 troops to stabilize Afghanistan following the installation of Hamid Karzai in Kabul.

The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were both officially advertised as nation-building projects, so it makes little sense that the people who planned them shortchanged the nation-building part. The US failed to appreciate the full depth of the difficulties facing democracy’s emergence in those countries. “Time and again,” Bacevich writes, “when confronting situations of daunting political complexity, the United States has personalized the issue.” Saddam, bin Laden, Qaddafi, Slobodan Milošević, Mohamed Farrah Aidid in Somalia, and recently Bashar al-Assad have all had their moments as villain of the hour. But in no case has “the decapitation strategy,” as Bacevich calls it, delivered the promised results.

As politicians and journalists credit the villains who come in for decapitation with too much influence, so do they inflate the importance of the general-heroes who do the decapitating. After Desert Storm, Schwarzkopf was hailed as “the heartthrob of America,” and in 2007, as it became difficult for even the staunchest hawks to deny that the Iraq war was failing, David Petraeus was summoned to salvage victory from the quagmire. Though Petraeus had been a media darling throughout his time serving in Iraq, his most important assignment came when he was asked to implement FM 3-24, the counterinsurgency manual he drew up in December 2006. His implementation of that manual came to be known as “the surge,” a total (if tacit) repudiation of RMA theory that called for a “persistent presence” of US troops in violent regions and neighborhoods, where they would carry out standard counterinsurgency tactics. By 2007, with civilian casualties having dropped by 45 percent across Iraq, it was being described in the New York Times as “the greatest American military comeback late in a war since Sherman’s march to the sea in 1864.” Bacevich argues that other developments were more responsible for halting Iraq’s descent into chaos. One was the Sunni Awakening, in which tribal leaders abandoned al Qaeda and instead formed alliances with the local US commanders who were patient enough to hang around and build relationships. Another was the successful US special operations campaign to assassinate al Qaeda leaders throughout Iraq. Bacevich argues that the surge had no long-term accomplishments except for staving off a domestic revolt over the war’s continued existence. This went largely unnoticed in the rush to canonize America’s new military savior. “God,” according to a writer for the Weekly Standard, “has apparently seen fit to give the US Army a great general in this time of need.”

The second savior, Stanley McChrystal, came to redeem what had become Barack Obama’s war. By the end of Bush’s second term, excitement over an improved situation on the ground in Iraq was tempered by worsening conditions in Afghanistan. Obama entered the White House with promises to turn that situation around, and McChrystal was handed the job. The media received him just as warmly as it had received Petraeus: the new commander was a “Zen Warrior” who ran seven miles before dawn and was “fit as a tuning fork.” He ate one meal a day; lunch was a “sign of weakness.” After some conflict with the new administration over mission scope, McChrystal implemented Obama’s version of the Iraq surge in two of Afghanistan’s southern provinces. He focused on Marja, a city that he hoped to clear of insurgents and then hold while aid workers and government agencies came to rebuild. “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in,” he said, a statement that should tell you everything about how well the plan worked. “McChrystal’s attempt to pacify just one small Afghan city by applying the latest counterinsurgency principles,” Bacevich writes, “came nowhere close to succeeding.” Months into the effort, the bloody insurgency churned on. McChrystal resigned after making disparaging remarks about the President in a Rolling Stone article. The Taliban now operates in more regions of Afghanistan than it has at any point since 2001.

Bush’s efforts to get Americans to think of terrorism in false historical terms succeeded.

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In some ways, Bacevich exaggerates the continuity of his long war. He fails especially to appreciate the depth of the rupture created by September 11. The attacks totally altered how the war was thought about and discussed domestically, and they transformed the terrorist into a monstrous figure that could be used to justify a sprawling domestic surveillance program. Bacevich doesn’t register these transformations, let alone process what they might mean. But his insistence on the war’s continuity is a useful means of rebutting one of the Bush Administration’s most insidious political feints. Addressing a joint session of Congress and the nation on September 20, 2001, Bush said the following of al Qaeda:

We have seen their kind before. They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions — by abandoning every value except the will to power — they follow in the path of fascism and Nazism and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends, in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.

The most obvious purpose of comparing a stateless terrorist organization like al Qaeda to Stalin and the Nazis is to exaggerate the extent of the terrorist threat. America’s two great 20th-century antagonists both assembled war-making operations of awe-inspiring sophistication and power, whereas terrorist suicide missions are carried out exclusively by groups that fight from a position of utter weakness. The comparison’s second function — the one Bacevich’s long-war theory rebuts — was to hide the real origins of the Middle East conflict. Bush did not mention the Carter Doctrine, the country’s history of alternately building up Saddam and then grinding him down, Israel and Palestine, oil, Iran, the Saudi nationality of most of the September 11 hijackers, or anything else that might have been relevant. Instead he talked about Nazis and Communists, two groups that had nothing whatsoever to do with radical Islamic terrorism. “Whatever the United States may have done militarily in the Islamic world during the previous twenty years,” Bacevich writes, “counted for less than what it had done in Eurasia from the 1930s to the 1980s.”

Bush’s efforts to get Americans to think of terrorism in these false historical terms succeeded; they are largely the terms in which most Americans understand terrorism today. During his campaign, Obama promised to drastically reduce US military involvement in the Middle East. He didn’t keep that promise. Instead he reduced the number of US Army troops stationed in the region and replaced them with drones and the US Special Operations Command, or SOCOM. Bacevich points out that SOCOM is well on track “to surpass the entire British Army in overall size,” and it is also easily the most widely deployed military force in the history of the world. In 2013 alone, SOCOM carried out operations in 134 countries, including Canada, Italy, and Uruguay. Drones have been controversial, especially since the revelation that some 90 percent of people killed by them are not the intended targets. But overall, their political benefits to the current administration have far outweighed their costs, and Obama has enjoyed extremely wide latitude in conducting military operations in the Middle East. As the war on terror has not been a topic of serious debate in the current presidential campaign, it is probably safe to assume that the next President’s policy in the region will be similar to Obama’s.


Bacevich criticized the invasion of Iraq from the beginning, but the war took on an especially personal cast after 2007, when his son, Andrew Bacevich Jr., was killed by a suicide bombing while on patrol in Saladin province. In an essay for the Washington Post published a couple months after the attack, Bacevich wrote that while his son served in Iraq, he found himself contemplating the question, “What exactly is a father’s duty when his son is sent into harm’s way?” His answer, at least for a time: “As my son was doing his utmost to be a good soldier, I strove to be a good citizen.” In writing his books, however, he repeatedly found that big money greased the wheels of American militarism and strangled efforts to criticize the war machine or check its power. Money “negates democracy,” he wrote, “rendering free speech little more than a means of recording dissent.” Taking stock of what all his recorded dissent had actually accomplished, Bacevich arrived at a conclusion that I found very painful to read. “I know that my son did his best to serve our country,” he wrote. “Through my own opposition to a profoundly misguided war, I thought I was doing the same. In fact, while he was giving his all, I was doing nothing.”

His experiences, politics, and faith make Bacevich an odd member of what might be described as a dissident counterestablishment in American foreign policy thought. The counterestablishment can be traced back to William Appleman Williams, who produced revisionist critical histories of American diplomacy while working at the University of Wisconsin–Madison from 1957 to 1968. Williams argued that since the late 19th century, the United States has depended on commercial expansion to alleviate racial and ethnic tensions that would otherwise have destabilized the country from within. In response to an unprecedented domestic economic crisis that helped fuel the rise of populism, the US pursued what secretary of state John Hay referred to as an “Open Door” policy of encouraging an open international economic system, backed when necessary by force of arms. When markets closed, the American domestic system — everything connoted by “the American way of life” — was threatened. Williams convincingly argued that this quest to make the world safe for American capital was not some unconscious desire seething underneath the more innocent, openly stated desire that the world’s peoples exercise self-determination, but rather had become the country’s entire raison d’être. The founding work of the Wisconsin School, Williams’s The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, was published in 1959, just as the US began a predictable overreaction to the Communist revolution in Cuba, confirming Williams’s thesis, as would the war in Vietnam, and the war for the Greater Middle East.

What the Wisconsin School identified was not just the power of economic interests to drive American foreign policy but an essentially American worldview based on these interests, in which American primacy became a good in its own right. Williams’s descendants include the historians Marilyn B. Young and Gabriel Kolko, the late social and political scientist (and former CIA consultant) Chalmers Johnson, Bacevich, and good old Noam Chomsky. As a young conservative cold warrior studying Williams’s theories at Princeton, Bacevich initially considered Williams his “personal nemesis.” But by the publication of his book American Empire (2002), he came to share the essential contours of Williams’s theory of the Open Door. (Bacevich contributed an admiring afterword to a reissue of The Tragedy of American Diplomacy in 2009.)

The basic problem with this group is that they do not influence the practice of American foreign policy in any tangible way. They work outside the complex of think tanks and State Department posts from which the government draws its ideas. The inside of that complex, as Perry Anderson outlined in his 2013 New Left Review essay “Consilium,” has been inhabited by people like Walter Russell Mead, Henry Kissinger, Michael Mandelbaum, Samantha Power, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Robert Kagan, just to scratch the surface. This is a somewhat motley collection of neoconservatives, liberal internationalists, and humanitarian interventionists, but for all of them, the necessity and rightness of American hegemony has been and remains the key article of faith.

An Open Door worldview serves the corporations and investment banks interested in overseas markets. These corporations and banks, in turn, fund the foundations that funnel policy analysts into and out of government and business. Figures like Henry Kissinger, who gravitate between business consulting and the foreign-policy mandarinate, are emblematic rather than exceptional. One might think that after fifteen years of failed military intervention in the Middle East, on top of mixed results over the preceding two decades, the question preoccupying foreign policy thinkers would be obvious: Why doesn’t the US military get out of there?

Some of the dissenters answer the question by rejecting its premise. While acknowledging that military intervention has been a moral disaster with severe antidemocratic consequences for the American political system, Anderson recently argued that the pursuit of America’s raw strategic interests is actually going fine. “Militarily and politically,” he wrote in “Imperium,” another essay in the NLR, “US objectives were achieved” in Iraq. He called the disintegration of Syria “a golden opportunity” for Israel, “the chance of helping to knock out Damascus as a remaining adversary in the region, and neutralize or kill off Hizbollah in the Lebanon.” The Syrian civil war might also provide the US with the “prize” of “tightening . . . the noose around Iran.” More broadly, the region’s Sunni-Shia divide provides the US with the same strategic opportunities that the “Sino-Soviet dispute” provided Nixon — carefully managing one side and then the other will keep both in check. Meanwhile, the “weight and influence of the oil-rich dynasties of the Arabian peninsula that have always been the staunchest supports of the American system in the Middle East” are only increasing.

These are grim calculations. In light of them, Bacevich’s insistence that the US’s military campaign in the Middle East has been a strategic as well as a moral blunder reads as an attempt to find reason for hope. The misguided assumptions that undergird US foreign policy came into being, Bacevich argues, because of the unchecked arrogance of the executive branch and a military-industrial complex that successfully strangled democratic deliberation in order to pursue its own power. Check that arrogance and diminish that power, and it will become clear that America is no longer pursuing its best interests in the Middle East. “In the ultimate irony,” Bacevich writes, “the circumstances that had made the Persian Gulf worth fighting for in the first place [have] ceased to pertain.”

He means oil. Since September 11, presidential candidates have repeatedly made the case that America needs to secure its “energy independence,” that it could no longer afford to depend on the Middle East for its petroleum. Though it often goes unmentioned, the US did embark on that project, and it succeeded. Imports from the Middle East have steadily declined since 2004, while the share of petroleum produced in North America has increased just as steadily. If the US is going to insist on organizing its foreign policy around the quest for oil, Bacevich writes, then “defending Canada and Venezuela should take precedence over defending Saudi Arabia and Iraq.”

Why hasn’t the declining importance of Middle East oil produced any changes in US military policy?

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There is a lot of truth in Bacevich’s analysis. The oil-focused military campaign of the 1980s did balloon into an attempt at regional transformation. And while Obama quickly abandoned the transformation part of Bush’s agenda, intense US involvement in the region is outlasting the Middle East’s status as an indispensable source of oil. But Bacevich never asks — much less answers — the question that naturally follows: Why hasn’t the declining importance of Middle East oil produced any changes in US military policy? Nor does he ask why American politicians haven’t spent any time celebrating an impending energy independence that they spent more than a decade demanding. Here the limits of Bacevich’s argument come into view. Identifying oil as the long war’s cause allows him to begin his narrative in 1980. This obscures the ideological roots of a commitment to the Middle East that doesn’t look to be disappearing in the foreseeable future.

The US loves to see itself as a noncolonial power. As the country assumed a global leadership role after World War II, it was eager to be viewed as a new kind of leader, a successor to the European colonial regimes that were rightly disappearing. But in many instances, such as its inheritance of the Vietnam War from France, the US simply perpetuated colonial wars. America’s quest for Middle East oil was as predatory as the British Empire’s. During the wind-down of World War II, the US sought an oil concession in Iran, which was England’s largest source of overseas oil, and it sought to keep British oil companies out of Saudi Arabia, which the US considered its own. All the while, the US declared that its entire rationale was “anticolonial.”

Today, the US’s hypocritical stance on colonialism is exemplified in its support for the state of Israel. Since the 1970s, Israel has received massive amounts of US aid, much of which has gone toward maintaining its military advantage in the region. (It is also largely thanks to US efforts against Iran and Iraq that Israel remains the only nuclear power in the Middle East.) Today the two countries enjoy a famously “unbreakable” bond. Bacevich mentions Israel’s role in various episodes of the long war, with an especially caustic passage devoted to Benjamin Netanyahu’s bizarre 2015 address to Congress. But as compared with other forces and nations that have shaped the Middle East over the past half-century, Israel plays a consistently marginal role in Bacevich’s telling, a choice that begins to seem weird over the course of the book’s 480 pages. Israel is widely perceived across the Middle East as an anachronistic settler colony in a postcolonial age. The US has abetted Israel in its resistance to a two-state solution that would end the Palestinians’ current conditions of occupation. This makes Israel one of the primary engines of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. It is also a key motivating force for many of the most notorious terrorist groups of the past forty years. Israel may not be more important to the US than oil, but it should be recognized as one of the main factors structuring US military policy in the region.

In recent years, the unbreakability of the US-Israel bond has begun to strike foreign policy observers as strange in its own right. Why would the US keep making apparently unconditional commitments to a country that generates so much anti-American sentiment? Why would it so effusively praise a right-wing government that is openly working against the two-state solution favored by most of the rest of the world? Isn’t this bad strategy? John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have tried to answer this question by suggesting that a powerful “Israel Lobby” operating in the US has successfully pressured the US government into acting against its true interests. Though Bacevich doesn’t specifically endorse the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis, his emphasis on the bad effects of big money and an unchecked executive place him in a similar position of blaming distorting influences for the strategic contradiction.

As a political conservative looking to criticize the kind of military excesses that are usually identified with the right, Bacevich employs the rhetoric of a moderate Republican governor campaigning for President. America needs to put its own house in order by “restoring effectiveness to self-government” and finding “something to hold in common of greater moment than shallow digital enthusiasms and the worship of celebrity.” The long war is something that the US “can ill afford.” That sort of thing. But because this kind of temperamental centrism likes to congratulate itself on being reality-based, on paying attention to details and facts on the ground, it can undersell the role that ideology plays in determining what a country chooses to do with its soldiers and guns and planes. Bacevich shows that the United States really does overestimate the depth of its historical insight and the power of its military to pave the way for future peace, but he does not quite identify the assumption that makes these ideas possible, which is that the US should and can lead and shape the rest of the world. Despite recent setbacks, this idea remains a core component of American national identity. Although a 2014 poll found that the country’s self-regard had deteriorated slightly over the previous three years, it also found that only 12 percent of Americans believed that any country in the world was better than the US.

Some might say that, whether one likes it or not, the US simply has become an “indispensable nation,” that it has no choice but to play its starring role in world affairs. In many of his public pronouncements and especially in his long, revealing interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, Obama has given voice to this ostensibly tragic view, lacing it with Niebuhrian wistfulness. But even on the narrow terms of maintaining an “American way of life,” American policy abroad has been disastrous, and Bacevich’s is now one of many volumes arguing that the US would have been better off had it abandoned its quest for world hegemony long ago. The paradox of American power is its luxury. The US enjoys, geographically as well as militarily, a form of superiority and safety that has never been truly threatened. Hegemony is now a choice, and the US has indulged that choice extravagantly. Trillions have been spent on mishaps and catastrophes: even Dwight Eisenhower acknowledged that “every gun that is made . . . signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

What would happen if the US were to abandon this rationale — if, for a moment, the dissident counterestablishment occupied the halls of power and began setting policy? The essential prescriptions have been set out by Christopher Layne in his book The Peace of Illusions (2006). Like Bacevich, Layne is a conservative — he is the Robert M. Gates Chair in National Security at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University — and a descendant of the Wisconsin School. For Layne, the US’s indispensability is a big problem for the world, and a big problem for the US. Abandoning it begins to set more sensible terms for the world order. Under Layne’s more or less realist rubric, the US could begin by leaving NATO and allowing the European Union to take responsibility for its own interests. It would then terminate its security treaty with Japan and withdraw from South Korea, similarly allowing those countries the ability to set the terms of their own foreign policy.

It was always folly for the US to attempt to secure Middle East oil — even an embargo by a single country would simply mean increased production by another, and in any case the US hegemony over Saudi Arabia has increased, not diminished, the possibility of instability there. But now that the US no longer depends on that oil, its continuing military presence in the region is not only indefensible but dangerous, increasing the threat of Islamist terrorism that it exists to tamp down. It should withdraw entirely, as it should encourage the withdrawal of Israel’s forces and citizens from the settlements, to help foster the creation of a Palestinian state.

The fact that these sensible prescriptions strike the foreign policy establishment as totally insane stems from a persistent belief in America’s exclusive prerogative to reorganize and remake the world, which the members of that establishment euphemistically refer to as the country’s “credibility.” Politicians defend this prerogative just in case someone comes up with a new and better idea for remaking the world somewhere down the line. Solving this problem can’t just be a matter of the US realizing its “true” interests. The country would have to learn to give up the colonial mandate that it took up decades ago, well after the colonial era was already passing into history.

  1. Bacevich appends the term “Greater” to the region’s name so as to include Somalia, where Bill Clinton waged a disastrous two-year campaign in the early ’90s. 

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