Magazine | May 23, 2016, Issue

The Costs of Retreat

America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, by Andrew J. Bacevich (Random House, 480 pp., $30)

America’s very long war in the Middle East has been an expensive, bloody mess; on that point, virtually all can agree. But has it been a failure? Has it been a waste? And what are the credible alternatives?

Andrew Bacevich’s ambitious new book attempts to answer these questions by examining the intentions and outcomes of every significant American military conflict in the Muslim world — he defines the “Greater Middle East” as stretching from Afghanistan to North Africa, and even into Bosnia and Kosovo — beginning with the failed attempt to rescue American hostages in 1980 and stretching into the present conflict against ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and beyond.

Though Bacevich’s book is full of potshots against Charles Krauthammer, Max Boot, and other conservative writers and politicians, I found myself nodding along with his analysis time and again. While the sheer number of conflicts covered means that he can’t do an in-depth analysis of any single war, he does an effective job of comparing expressed goals with chosen tactics and real-world outcomes. Moreover, unlike many critics on the left, Bacevich knows and understands the American military, its culture, and its capabilities. He’s a graduate of West Point and a retired colonel — and a man who lost his only son in the Iraq War. He’s given far, far more than most to the country he loves.

The book reveals a number of critical truths, exposing deep flaws that have persisted for decades in American strategic thinking — flaws that have led successive American presidents to ask the American military to accomplish the impossible, often while barely providing it with the resources to accomplish even the most modest of goals.

The first truth is that American leaders have committed American forces to the Middle East while barely understanding the history, culture, and faith of the region. It is simply remarkable to contemplate the extent of American naïveté. American leaders have been unwilling to confront or seriously grapple with the full implications of the reality that the Middle East is a maelstrom of conflicting tribes, conflicting strains of the Islamic faith (some apocalyptic and jihadist), and brutal strongmen. The desire for freedom does not, in fact, beat in the heart of the Middle East — or, at least, that desire takes a back seat to the quest for vengeance or domination.

Because we fail to understand the cultural forces in play, we’ve obsessed over leaders — believing that a succession of bad men are primarily responsible for the region’s ills. Remove Saddam Hussein, and Iraq can flourish. Remove Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaeda will wither. Remove Moammar Qaddafi, and Libya will revive. But as Bacevich notes, these men are products of history, culture, and faith. They do not spring up sui generis, and they are easily replaced. (The obsessive focus on the “bad guy” isn’t just an American political and strategic failing, it’s a media failing as well. Barrels of ink have been spilled tracing the particular rise of Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. American forces keep cutting off the “head of the snake,” but the snake stays alive.)

The failure to understand the local culture, like the belief that killing leaders can destroy popular movements, leads to persistently under-resourced military efforts. Bacevich is effective in laying out how, time and again, American forces have been given sweeping goals but provided with limited resources. A striking number of times, American forces have found themselves outnumbered, and occasionally they have even found themselves outgunned, in battles with Somalis, Afghans, and Iraqis. Even the most ambitious military efforts — including the invasion of Iraq — were under-resourced. America has proved unwilling either to leave the Middle East alone or to commit the overwhelming resources that would at least have given American forces a fighting chance to accomplish our somewhat grandiose goals.

Indeed, with the partial exception of the Gulf War — in which the U.S. committed overwhelming resources but stopped short of achieving decisive victory — the recent American interventions represent one long story of war on the cheap. Not even after 9/11 were Americans truly mobilized for war. In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pressed commanders to present him with options for an ever-smaller invasion force. Ultimately, American forces charged to Baghdad with less than half the forces initially recommended.

Finally, with the exceptions of the “Carter Doctrine” — which declared that protecting the Persian Gulf from Russian and Iranian aggression was in the national interest of the United States — and George W. Bush’s strategic effort to remake the Middle East through the Iraq invasion, America has too often pursued military conflict with no real strategy beyond ameliorating the crisis at hand. The military action against Libya is a textbook example — a bloodless (for Americans) air war helped depose Qaddafi but led to chaos on the ground, subsequent American casualties, and now a safe haven for the world’s worst terrorists.

Bacevich looks at this reality and rightly asks Americans to reexamine their priorities, to ask whether the Middle East’s natural resources or even the prevention of mass slaughter are worth the price we’ve paid or worth the mistakes we’ve made. It is here where I begin to part company with him. Despite his call for Americans to better understand the region — including its potent religious influences — I fear that he underestimates the consequences of withdrawal.

The region’s ills long predate American involvement, and American intervention has had only a marginal effect on Middle Eastern culture. If the Greater Middle East were little more than an oil-soaked zone of competing strongmen, it would present a challenge to American interests (the global economy is key to American prosperity, even if our nation depends little on Middle Eastern oil), but it would not truly endanger our way of life. But the region is home to a militaristic, expansionist, and apocalyptic strain of Islam — the same strain that has empowered jihad for over a thousand years — and it is that challenge that commands our attention.

Jihadist Islam sweeps away national boundaries, raises the specter of genocide, and creates refugee crises that destabilize our allies. Jihadist Islam seeks to develop and use weapons of mass destruction in the heart of America. America did not create the threat of jihadist Islam, and American retreat will not eliminate the threat. Violent expansionism has been a central fact of Islamic existence, and the Ottoman Empire’s fall after World War I did not result in a change in Islamic theology so much as a call among Islamists for Islam to return to its jihadist roots — to reclaim what it had lost and resume its (allegedly rightful) march to world domination.

Israel has faced jihad from the first moments of its founding, and it has had to confront the bloody reality that there are no permanent answers; there is, however, permanent self-defense. Americans look at the challenge of the Middle East and seek to remake the region, believing that the right combination of diplomacy, military effort, and cultural engagement can create a new version of Western Europe or Japan — enemies-turned-friends in an interconnected world. Wise Israelis look at the Middle East and see something else entirely — a region populated by millions of people committed by faith and tradition to jihad. Thus the need for eternal vigilance and a permanent posture of self-defense.

This vision is a hard sell for idealistic Americans. We want solutions. We want answers. I’m frequently asked, “How do we defeat ISIS?” By that, the person means, “How do we solve the problem of jihad?” The first answer is relatively easy. ISIS — to the extent that it exists as a battlefield power — can be crushed with a fraction of American military might. But jihad — as an idea — is deeply embedded within the Islamic world and will continue to exist independent of any American military effort.

Consequently, we will continue to fight. We will have no choice. Wars do not end simply because we want them to end. But we should fight with cold-eyed clarity — aware that one act of self-defense will spawn a fresh round of grievances that will necessitate the next military response. The effective use of military force can suppress jihad, sometimes for years, but it cannot end jihad. Nor can American retreat and withdrawal. As Samuel Huntington noted, “Islam has bloody borders”; and in an interconnected world, those borders now stretch into the heart of the West.

Read Bacevich — not for the solutions he proposes but to be sobered by the challenge. Our long war is just beginning. The least we can do is learn from our mistakes.

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