America's War for the Greater Middle East: Does US Meddling Ever Improve Matters?
August 7, 2016
Marwan Bishara / Al Jazeera & Dan Hind / Al Jazeera & Eric Garland /Al Jazeera
Andrew Bacevich's new book offers a fierce and fearless critique of US military strategy. Most of the lessons that should have been learned in the pre-9/11 Middle East went unheeded. Bacevich's balance sheet of US wars in the Muslim world is a testimony to Washington's military failures in the Greater Middle East. if the US is to become a positive force for world security, antiseptic, antiquated myths about American power must be modified or replaced entirely.
America's War for the Greater Middle East
Marwan Bishara / Al Jazeera
(August 5, 2016) -- America's War for the Greater Middle East is a remarkable book. Andrew J Bacevich, a military historian and an American patriot who served in the United States military, and who lost his son in the Iraq war, is a no-nonsense no-warmonger.
Sober and comprehensive, Bacevich's balance sheet of US wars in the Muslim world is a testimony to Washington's military failures in the Greater Middle East.
Throughout the book he employs an analytical razor to dissect the doctrines and dogmas behind direct US military intervention in the Middle East, which he dates back not to Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower, but rather to Jimmy Carter.
The Carter doctrine can be summarised by the following declaration: "Any 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."
Andrew cuts Carter some slack, but shows how his doctrine paved the way for future interventions. He scrutinises each and every one of the dozen US military campaigns in the Greater Middle East and Muslim world, but connects them all into one strategic mindset spanning over four decades.
And then critiques the rationale behind the use of force since 1980 through a dispassionate evaluation of US military strategies from the first to the fourth Gulf wars and from Bosnia to Afghanistan through Lebanon, Syria, Somalia, Lebanon, and Yemen and others.
Delusional Leadership, Oblivious Public
For Bacevich, US wars in the Middle East are driven not only by oil and the military industrial complex. He sees a collective illusion or naivete leading to more of the same blunders and mistakes.
And he shows how despite the proven failures, US leaders and strategists have continued to use the same Washington playbook.
Among others, ignoring the simple lesson that starting wars is nothing like ending them, and what Washington portrayed as military victories or "missions accomplished" have consistently mutated into different sorts of prolonged conflicts.
The victory against the Soviets in Afghanistan later revealed itself as a major loss. For Washington, Soviet withdrawal meant that the US won, but that was a short-sighted reaction. The first Afghan war paved the way towards a second one in 2001.
Bacevich reckons supporting Iraq in the 1980s first Gulf war (the Iran-Iraq War) was also short-sighted, even though the US declared it a victory when Iran basically folded.
Iranian hostility continued to brew while Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, leading to greater US involvement in Iraq -- to undo the Vietnam syndrome.
The 1991 war might have been a profitable war -- Colin Powell later claimed America made money out of it -- but it only paved the way for the 2003 war, which in turn paved the way for yet another more recent intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
And so on and so forth.
Bacevich doesn't spare any of the politicians or generals involved in making the case for war. From Carter to Barack Obama through Ronald Reagan, Clinton and both the George Bushes, and from the performances of former generals Wesley Clark to David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal and numerous others, Bacevich shows how the US political and military leadership has consistently overpromised and under-delivered.
And with the mainstream media utterly complicit in selling the war enterprise, Bacevich doesn't hesitate to point the finger at an oblivious American public that's too preoccupied with trivia as their country is stuck in the quagmire of the Greater Middle East.
In a passage of refreshing candour, Bacevich argues that the US might support freedom, democracy and prosperity in the Middle East, but only as long as it gets the lion's share of it -- everything else is an afterthought.
Wrong Wars, Wrong Lessons
As a military historian, Bacevich argues in his opening chapter that the Carter doctrine paved the way for decades of US military intervention in the Greater Middle East, allowing subsequent administrations to expand it to include many countries in the region.
Since then American leaders have ignored the lessons of history and the experiences of other imperial powers. As a secular enterprise, Bacevich reckons, the US military has also ignored religion and its complex influence in the region
Indeed, most of the lessons that should have been learned in the pre-9/11 Middle East went unheeded after the September attacks. The US doubled down and went on to use more military force to foster the illusion of shaping the Greater Middle East region.
Instead of policy dictating the military's role, the US' military enterprise began to dictate policy and diplomacy in the Middle East.
Its military missions went on to creep, as the US became incapable of extracting itself from the region. In the process, it failed miserably to fulfil any of its objectives either in Iraq, the Gulf or against al-Qaeda.
Even the most sensible of the US presidents over the past four decades, Obama, couldn't help repeat more of the same mistakes in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq.
Like his predecessors, he resorted to a rhetoric that is disconnected from reality, claiming the US' longest war ended responsibly in Afghanistan -- when it didn't -- and portending to leave behind a democratic and stable Iraq -- when it's anything but that.
Can the US Change?
Bacevich laments the lack of creative non-military thinking in Washington and the absence of a peace-oriented political party that advocates fewer military answers to challenges in the US and across the world.
And he emphasises the high stakes for the military industrial complex in prolonged military campaigns, against the backdrop of an oblivious public.
For change to happen, Americans must show more interest in their foreign policy and military interventions in the Middle East and beyond.
Most Arabs and many Muslims have little or no say when dictators and extremists resort to war and violence to satisfy their ambitions and greed.
But Americans have a choice and do have a say, and therefore must take responsibility for their leaders' choices and blunders.
Does this mean President Obama was right not to intervene in Syria? Especially when the majority of Americans opposed direct military intervention after Iraq and Afghanistan?
Bacevtich certainly agrees. And so do I. But it's not as simple as that -- not after the death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
In the absence of direct military intervention, the US, the de facto regional policeman, should have done more than witness as genocide was carried out under their watch. And it could have done more to deter Assad, protect civilians and reach a diplomatic solution.
Leaving it to Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia to take care of business -- such as military interventions -- is hardly the solution for an exploding region.
Americans need to pay attention not only when Americans die, but also when countless Arabs and Muslims pay the price of the US' follies in the region.
Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera. Follow him on Facebook. The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
Western Intervention, Is It Ever Helpful?
Dan Hind / Al Jazeera
(September 21, 2011) -- Last week I wrote about Libya and expressed the hope that the country would be able to find its own path in a future without Gaddafi. The rebels have received important help from France and Britain among other foreign powers.
Those foreign powers will be eager to establish a regime in Libya that suits them. Only the Libyan people can create a country whose natural resources support the freedom and prosperity of the many.
Plenty of people will be on hand with advice for the Libyans in the months ahead. I thought it might be useful to think a little more about how best people outside the country might be able to contribute.
I turned to Greg Muttitt, a London-based writer who has made an intense study of the politics of Western intervention and Iraqi resistance in the years since the invasion of 2003.
In the interests of transparency I should add that I commissioned Greg's book, Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq when I was an editor at Random House.
I began by asking Greg about what he made of the reporting about Libya he'd seen in the Western media in recent weeks. "Reporters and commentators have been assuming that Britain, France, and the US should somehow take the lead in helping Libya's transition, as though the occupation of Iraq has taught valuable lessons and that the West should somehow take responsibility of nation-building.
The clear lesson from Iraq should instead be that the West should stay out of Libyan affairs. At every stage US-UK involvement in Iraqi politics played a negative role."
Another thing that's striking in Western coverage, according to Greg, is the low level of knowledge about Libyan culture, society and politics. There's a lesson to be learned from Iraq. Starting with a very vague understanding of the country and its politics the Western powers created a system that emphasised sectarian identities, even though Iraqis themselves didn't think that way.
"We should watch out for Western interpretations about what Libyan society is like. It is in the West's interests for the Libyan political class to be weak and isolated, so it can be easily influenced from outside.
That doesn't mean that officials and generals have to sit down and work out a 'divide and rule' strategy. But everyone is tempted to see things in terms that suit their interests. Western policy-makers are no exception. There's ample evidence of that in recent history."
The Western powers, in other words, will find the Libya that suits them in the months ahead. They might find that it is divided tribally, or between 'moderates' and 'Islamists'. Those of us who wish Libya well should resist the temptation to believe what plausible voices in the mainstream media tell us about the country.
Advice and Interests
I wanted to ask Greg a bit more about the way that Western governments tried to influence events in Iraq after the invasion in 2003.
"The word most commonly used in Iraq in this context was 'advice'".
Governments have interests and the 'advice' they offer is inevitably shaped by those interests. Greg explains:
"I put this point to a British civil servant working on the Iraqi economy. He accepted the argument and said, 'well we don't go around advising countries to set up cooperatives and hold big consultations' . . .
"I looked at this in relation to former senior executives of major oil companies 'advising' Iraq on its oil policy. It wasn't that they were corrupt or doing favours to their old employers or anything like that. From the way they saw the world, foreign multinationals were obviously the best placed to run the Iraqi oil industry."
The Americans and the British will aim to support Libyan politicians that they feel they can do business with. They will tend, quite naturally, to think that they helping moderates, but these moderates will also be willing to work in ways that suit the Western powers.
"In Iraq Bremer said he promoted exiles because they understood democracy better. What that meant in effect was that they were also more likely to be pro-American. Everyone likes to think they are promoting democracy and human rights."
So the most useful thing the European powers can do is to leave Libya well alone. I wanted to ask what foreign citizens can practically do to support Libyan self-determination and to frustrate their own countries' attempts to meddle.
"The key thing here is to connect, to listen to Libyans and to learn about the country. If all we have is government relaying its perspective, or mainstream media reporting with all its shorthand and sensationalism, a Libyan voice, apart from the elites chosen by the West, will be absent from the debate about the country's future."
A handful of independent and mainstream journalists did crucial work in Iraq, helping people outside the country to know what was going on.
Greg singles out Ahmed Mansour at Al Jazeera, Jonathan Steele at the Guardian and Anthony Shadid at the Washington Post in the established media: "The independent ones were especially important; Dahr Jamail, Rahul Mahajan. There were activists, too, people like Ewa Jasiewicz, Jo Wilding."
These people did the crucial work of finding out what Iraqi society was actually like. They found people who were struggling to make the best of things in the chaos after the invasion. People on the ground were able to find grassroots activists. And the relationships built then had a huge significance later.
"I did most of my work with the oil workers' trade union, which has been the target of much government repression. A lot of this is because the union has played a central role in the (so far successful) campaign against a new oil law. At various times the Iraqi government tried to arrest the union's leaders, seize their equipment, transfer them, and so on.
The union has been very effective at building the right connections within Iraq, but at those times of crisis, international solidarity made a real difference. The AFL-CIO and the TUC wrote to the Iraqi government in their defence, for example, when the Iraqi government was threatening to attack them."
Those who want to help Libya, Greg is clear, will be most effective if they learn as much as they can about the country and take their lead from the Libyans themselves.
"We should reject the agenda of the military and of civil servants in our own countries, but strengthen our cultural links and our solidarity with grassroots Libyan civil society. Those independent journalists and activists who bravely travelled to Baghdad in 2003 to meet Iraqis and make sense of the culture and politics -- they were heroes, in fact the only non-Iraqi heroes of the whole episode.
Meanwhile, parts of the anti-war movement worked very closely with members of the Iraqi diaspora in Britain who could help interpret events and guide campaigning. If we are serious about helping the Libyans, that's the lesson to learn -- that we should show humility in learning from Libyans about their country rather than bombarding them with lectures about democracy and how to run an economy."
There's a chance for Libya now that Iraq didn't have. There is no foreign army of occupation in the country. Those of us who want to see an end to Western meddling in the region have a responsibility to pay attention to what our own governments are doing and to do what we can to learn about a country that is emerging from decades of dictatorship.
Real Libyan democracy will be the achievement of the Libyan people, not a gift from outside. And it will be a reversal for the foreign powers, who have so little time for 'cooperatives and big consultations'. Make no mistake, whatever happens in Libya will reverberate around the Middle East and the wider world.
Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is this year's winner of the Bristol Festival of Ideas Prize.
The 20th Century Myths Driving US Intervention
The logic behind a possible US strike in Syria is anachronistic
Eric Garland /Al Jazeera
(September 16, 2013) -- In the past few weeks, I have fielded phone calls from exasperated young colleagues in Washington DC. As strategic thinkers, they are flabbergasted that the same cohort of leaders could possibly present a casus belli for Syria that is so risk-blind and mindless, lacking any evidence of a longer-term vision. More than once I have heard the phrase, " How can it be that people with such authority could possibly still think this way after the last twelve years?"
Even if you aren't a young American policy analyst in DC, you might be equally bewildered how the United States could be considering yet another intervention in the Middle East with limited moral justification, flimsy legal cover, and no clear strategic endgame.
There is a logic here to the proposals of Kerry, Power, McCain, Graham and company -- but that logic is driven by the myths from another age. To understand the mentality of the current crop of US leaders as they claim the right to enter the Syrian civil war on behalf of morality, look to the myths that drive people who grew up in another time.
The Tenacious 20th Century Myths of Today's Leaders
The Post-World War II era was a transformative moment for the United States. As America fit into its new role in the global balance of the Cold War, its culture had to evolve to meet the new requirements of the era. Entirely new myths were brought to bear after the events of the early 20th century that had given the United States military, economic, and cultural power that has only rivaled the great empires of history.
The men and women currently in power in the United States government were instilled with those powerful new myths that have guided how it handles national power.
As you witness statements and actions from these people, think to the following notions that seem completely normal to Americans of this specific generation.
Myth 1: America has to act. The Post-War era divided the entire planet into two distinct camps: The Free World and the Communists. World War II completely rewired the global power balance. Whereas Britain, France, Germany, Japan, the US and Russia used to all be great powers, now there stood but two countries able to carry on a global fight -- the US and the Soviets.
Both nations had highly defined ideologies, America from an older liberal tradition, and the Soviet Union from a new and vigorous communist doctrine. The Soviets made clear their plans for this ideology soon after 1945. They told the world that they would bring communism to all people -- at the point of a gun, if necessary.
The United States became the only nation-state with the power to counter the immediate Russian strategic onslaught, given the destruction in the rest of Western Europe. Thus was born the phrase "Leader of the Free World," and the notion that if America doesn't act, who will?
Myth 2: America's actions are benevolent. The United States found itself in a unique position in 1945. Its factories were bashing out destroyers, aircraft carriers, fighters and tanks at a terrific pace. The rest of the world was on its knees, exhausted and with broken infrastructure.
If the US dreamed of global conquest, it could have had it within 5-10 years, had it pressed its exponential advantage over much of the rest of the world. The nation opted instead to press its soft power across the world, saving its hard power for a Soviet conflict it hoped to avoid entirely.
After seeing the pictures of Abu Ghraib, or of the disfigured children born amidst the depleted uranium dust of Fallujah, it may seem fantastical for non-Americans to think of the US as a country which uses its power uniquely for good.
But the culture of mid-20th century America revolves around telling each other -- and the world -- that we are the good guys. We freed Paris. We stopped Hitler. We went on to become the bulwark of liberty in the face of Soviet totalitarianism.
The things we did along the way to defending liberty -- financing death squads in Central America, carpet bombing innocents in Cambodia during our most famous intervention in a civil war -- all those things are excused in the 20th century American mind because of the way we characterise our actions in WWII and the Cold War.
Myth 3: America can win wars. Americans of the 20th century have a peculiar mindset about war because of our history of "winning" armed conflicts. While the rest of the world knows the shifting borders, uneasy truces and horrific bloodshed that is the only outcome of most wars, American history features a number of clear-cut successes.
The Revolutionary War -- We beat the world's biggest empire despite the odds and founded our nation.
The Civil War -- As long as you are from north of Virginia, it represents total victory against slavery and the salvation of "a house divided." (South Carolinians, of course, have a different narrative.)
World War II -- It ended with Hitler dead, Hirohito capitulated, and global fascism stopped in its tracks. We won.
Those who came of age after World War II thus see war as a winnable thing -- and winnable by the "good guys." This didn't work out in Vietnam as planned -- but many people excuse this failure as all part of defeating the Soviets, which came to fruition in 1989. Even as America enters a new and complicated century, the myth of the winnable war prevails.
Outdated Myths Have Been
Damaging American War Efforts
Every nation has myths. Most are based in truth, albeit with significant omissions that are glaringly evident to people from other countries. A culture's myths, images and symbols are still useful, even if not completely accurate, because they serve to unite people in a common journey.
Thinking back to the America of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the events of World War II demanded new myths. America in 1920, for example, was something of a backwater in most places. Paris dwarfed even New York's culture and Germany was the place for science.
Britain had the largest navy and an impressive empire to its name. Suddenly, America went from a hardscrabble group of immigrants to a world power, and new understandings were required to guide the nation in its new chapter.
Here is where this connects to the absurdities of the paltry debates about firing missiles at Syria -- those myths still drive our policymakers, but they no longer accurately describe Americans or the world.
It's 2013, ten years after the invasion of Iraq and twelve years after America entered Afghanistan. The 20th century myths have been front and center in the last decade-plus of military misadventure, and they are the specter over the current administration push toward military strikes on Syria.
An uncritical acceptance of mid-20th century mythology is what led to such catastrophic strategic errors in America's wars of adventure. The United States led a cadre of allies into what is historically known as the "Graveyard of Empires" -- Afghanistan.
While removing the Taliban from the failed state was an imperative, supported by moral justifications and realpolitik , we should have known that the task of securing the country would require total focus and dedication. After all, President Jimmy Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski suckered the Soviets into doing the exact same thing as a way to ruin them.
In the middle of a global war on terror and regime change in a lawless state, the Bush Administration began its sales job for Iraq. The country is already fighting a two-front war -- one against a nation-state and one against a shadowy network of terrorists, but the neoconservatives decided to invade a second, larger nation-state on the other side of Iran, America's persistent strategic adversary.
All the myths are at work here: we have to act against every adversary that seems plausible. We know we're doing the right thing, because it's us, and we always do the right thing. And we know that we can achieve success in Iraq while fighting global terror networks and creating a stable nation-state in Afghanistan, because our wars culminate in victory!
Ergo, there is no reason to verify the vague intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons capability, or to create a detailed plan for the post-invasion, or to wait until Afghanistan has been secured -- because we're the United States. We're the decisive, competent good guys who win wars.
You all know how this turned out.
It's Time for New Realisations
To gGuide American Power
As the US contemplates a possible military strike, Americans and the world are hearing about secret intelligence that proves the use of weapons of mass destruction, and how a dictator must answer for his actions.
This rhetoric not only seems identical to the last decade of reckless American adventurism, it seems driven by exactly the same myths, unadulterated by any perspective or skepticism that might have come from the evident failure of our leadership in recent years. Listening to Kerry and McCain, the Syria operation will be about decisive good guys doing the right thing -- and winning.
This pitch sounds clueless at best. These antiseptic, antiquated myths about American power must be modified or replaced if the country is to become a positive force for world security -- and its own. Here are some visions that might guide us moving forward:
The US is a country full of good people, but is capable of strategic mistakes like any other. Despite our pretense of exceptionalism, the US is a country like many others. It is big; it is powerful; it is capable of great things and filled with wonderful people from around the world.
But like all peoples of the world, we must remain aware of the corrupting influence of power, which can allow even good people to do foolish things. Bogus intelligence, torture regimes and gargantuan surveillance systems show that we can become unbalanced. We must be aware of this human foible as we act on the world stage.
American military power is a mixed bag. Military force has its time and place. Indeed, without overwhelming destructive force from the United States, the Third Reich may have held Europe indefinitely and the Soviets would have run roughshod over democracy.
That said, while war sometimes results in decisive wins for the cause of justice, it just as often leads to destruction, poverty and an insecure future. America, still the world's military hegemon by a large measure, needs to be sceptical about the use of military power to cure all ills.
America isn't the only country in the world, despite its power. While it is tempting to take leadership of many of the world's crises, this moment, 2013, seems ripe for the rest of the world to take leadership positions in global security. America needs to be as good at partnership as it seeks to be at leadership. Sometimes, it can sit one out.
The next culture of American power is already being crafted by the next generation of leaders, waiting in the wings. For the time being, the last generation is still in power. Some of them think firing missiles at a country with little to show of a long-term vision is the right thing to do, and will lead to victory.
Time will tell which vision of the future holds sway in the world.
Eric Garland is a strategic analyst for business and government executives around the world. Eric is the author of three books on strategic trends and how leaders think about them. He holds a Masters in International Affairs and began his career as a translator. Find out more at http://www.ericgarland.co
You can follow Eric on twitter @ericgarland
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