By LAZARO MONTEVERDE
“America’s War for the Greater Middle East,” by Andrew J. Bacevich. (New York: Random House) 2016.
In Joe Haldeman’s award-winning 1974 science fiction novel “The Forever War,” elite United Nations troops fight an alien enemy that they don’t understand for reasons that are obscure. Haldeman based the novel on his own experience as an infantry solider in Vietnam. Recently, U.S. troops and officers have started to use the phrase “forever war” to refer to the U.S.’s seemingly endless wars in the Middle East. As military historian Andrew Bacevich, a graduate of West Point and former army officer who served in Vietnam, argues in his sweeping history of U.S. intervention in the region this is not a metaphor: The U.S. has been fighting a single and continuous war in the region since 1980.
As in Vietnam, the U.S. got in slowly but intentionally. And like Vietnam, Bacevich maintains, the U.S. does not understand what it is doing and, consequently, is losing the war. Two imperialist powers dominated the region for much of the 19th and 20th centuries—France and Britain. France’s influence waned first, followed by Britain’s. Britain decided to effective abandon the region east of Suez in 1968 (p. 13). The U.S. and the USSR had already moved to fill the void, but after 1968, these efforts increased.
The U.S. was bogged down in Vietnam and faced significant unrest in Latin America at this time. Nixon and Kissinger articulated the Nixon Doctrine of heavily arming regional partners to help maintain U.S. interests. These partners were Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, whose dictator had been installed via a CIA coup in 1953. Then came the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and the Nixon Doctrine collapsed. President Carter, abandoning his earlier push for renewable energy and energy independence, responded with the Carter Doctrine (pp. 28-29) proclaiming the right and responsibility of the U.S. to intervene in the broader Persian Gulf region to defend “our” vital interests to control the oil.
The Carter Doctrine was expansive, aimed at both external agents who might want to intervene such as the USSR, and internal agents: the governments and people of the region who opposed U.S. dominance. The intellectual author of the Carter Doctrine was a young defense department official who was destined to play a key role for the next several decades, Paul Wolfowitz. Wolfowitz authored a study published in June 1979 later called the Limited Contingency Study (pp. 16-17). It argued that the greater Middle East had to be a key U.S. military priority.
Coming at the end of the Carter presidency, the Carter Doctrine had limited effects at first. The most notable change was the organization of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, intended as a tool for quick and small-scale interventions in the region. Within a year, this temporary hodge-podge of military units grew and morphed into the U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, joining the four other commands, Europe, Latin America (SOUTHCOM), the Pacific (which included parts of Asia), and the Atlantic. Each of these commands represented an area of U.S. imperialist domination.
The 1980s under Reagan saw a continuation of the Carter Doctrine. CENTCOM and the CIA carried out a number of campaigns. The longest lasting of these campaigns, carried out by the CIA, was Operation Cyclone, the arming of Afghan rebels from 1980 to 1989 against the USSR. The other protracted intervention was the military aid given to both Iran and Iraq in their war, which lasted from 1980, when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in an effort to seize an important oil producing region, to 1988. The U.S. covertly supported both sides.
Covert support for Iran led to the Iran Contra Affair. Bacevich refers to the Iraq-Iran War as the First Persian Gulf War, a useful way of conceptualizing the war and labeling it in light of subsequent events in the region. In addition to these two large-scale interventions, the U.S. also intervened in Lebanon from 1982 to 1984 and attacked Libya in 1981.
If the Iranian Revolution was the real start of the U.S.’s war for the Greater Middle East, the fall of the Soviet Union was the next crucial turning point in that war. Without a counterweight to U.S. power in the region, President Bush Sr. felt free to act. The opportunity came on Aug. 2 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Responding immediately, President George H.W. Bush ordered a massive military buildup in the region.
From that point onward, Bacevich notes, “U.S. military engagement in the Greater Middle East became permanent and sustained, rather than occasional and episodic” (p. 112). He refers to this war as the Second Persian Gulf War, which he characterizes as a medium-size conflict, by modern standards, fought for clear objectives. While the U.S. seemingly won the war, it in fact created more problems than it solved as the U.S. Empire waded further into the “Big Muddy.”
The Second Persian Gulf War was the start of the second period of the forever war. This second period included a decade-long economic embargo against Iraq, with intermittent air strikes and a northern and southern “no-fly” zone in which the U.S. destroyed any and all Iraqi aircraft. The second period also included an extended intervention in the Balkans, an area Bacevich characterizes as part of the Middle East in Europe (this area also includes Turkey), because of the Muslim inhabitants, and military intervention in Somalia under the pretext of humanitarian intervention. This middle period is described in great detail in Part II of Bacevich’s history.
By the time the reader has completed the first two parts of the book, a clear pattern emerges. The U.S. uses a combination of missile and air strikes against its enemies, along with the use of special forces or military contractors (a euphemism for mercenaries) whenever possible but with U.S. ground troops if necessary. The presence of the U.S. military is permanent and, whatever the imperial alibis the U.S. concocts for propaganda purposes, designed to ensure U.S. hegemony in the region and over its resources. While these military interventions are often tactically successful, in terms of killing people and destroying an area’s infrastructure, they are strategically and politically failures.
Following the Iranian Revolution and the fall of the USSR, the next crucial turning point in the war was the terrorist attacks against the imperial homeland on 9/11. This ushered in the third period of the forever war, commencing with the invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq, labeled the Third and Fourth Persian Gulf Wars, respectively.
Bacevich provides a fascinating detailed account of these invasions, showing how each apparent success is followed by further political failures. Every time the U.S. tries to withdraw, it gets sucked back in. He also traces the spread of the war into parts of Africa (and the newly organized Africa Command of AFRICOM) and describes the attacks on Libya that killed Gadhafi and resulted in further chaos in the region.
“America’s War for the Greater Middle East” is a valuable analysis and reference for all antiwar activists. To me, Bacevich’s conclusions are clear: The U.S. seeks to dominate the region militarily for geopolitical reasons related to the control of oil and shipping lanes; the various interventions are part of a single large-scale war, the longest the U.S. has ever waged; the war has been fought by six presidents (seven if we include Carter) and has the support of both parties, the military industrial complex, and the foreign policy elite; and finally, the U.S. is losing this war and will continue to lose.
In politics, the most pressing question is, as Lenin wrote, “What is to be done?” Bacevich has an answer. In the July 16/23, 2018, special issue of The Nation, he wrote, “For anyone disturbed by the militaristic trajectory of US policy, the political challenge of the moment is to harness the energy of those 63 million pissed-off Americans [here he is referring to Trump voters]—even a fraction of them would suffice—and thereby forge a broad coalition favoring a less bellicose approach to policy” (p. 16).
While we can disagree with the author about who would make up a broad mass movement against the ongoing war in the Greater Middle East, I think we can all agree that a mass antiwar movement is the only thing capable of stopping the forever war.
Ultimately, Bacevich’s book left me with important questions to ponder. If Afghanistan was once the graveyard of empires, will the Greater Middle East be the graveyard of the U.S. Empire? With the economic decline of the U.S. and the economic rise of China, will the Middle East and its oil be the “prize” that the two empires struggle over? Or will China take advantage of the war in the Greater Middle East in the same way the U.S. used the Soviet war in Afghanistan, to bankrupt a competing power?
And finally, what is the way forward for revolutionary socialists given the forever war of the United States and the increasing inter-imperialist struggles around the planet for resources against a backdrop of the devastation wrought by global warming? Read Bacevich’s “America’s War for the Greater Middle East.” Use it. Ponder its implications.