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Why Obama — and every president since Carter — failed to transform the Middle East

“We are not a people to whom and nation to which limits don’t apply.” —Andrew Bacevich

Chinook helicopter prepares to touch down photo by DOD

What are America’s strategic objectives in the Middle East? How consistently have they been defined and pursued over the past three decades? What are the metrics of success? Are we better off today than we were 15 or 20 years ago?

For Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and a professor of international relations at Boston University, the answers to these questions are muddled at best, depressing at worst.

Among the sharpest critics of American foreign policy in recent years, Bacevich has authored a number of books (including The Limits of Power and The Long War) documenting America’s entanglements abroad. His latest book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, offers a sweeping look at America’s policies in the Middle East since the Carter administration.

The book begins with the Carter administration because two events in 1979 set America on its current course in the Middle East: the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Together these events cemented the view among American political leaders that access to Persian Gulf oil, then seen as indispensable, had to be protected.

A weak president at the time, Carter projected strength, declaring the Persian Gulf a vital national security interest. Every president since Carter, in his own way, has upheld this conviction. And much of America’s subsequent actions in the region have aimed to preserve this strategic stronghold.

Bacevich’s diagnosis of this multi-decade project is damning. “As an American who cares deeply about the fate of his country,” he writes on the opening page, “I should state plainly my own assessment of this ongoing war, now well into its fourth decade. We have not won it. We are not winning it. Simply trying harder is unlikely to produce a different outcome.”

The “ongoing war,” as Bacevich defines it, is America’s perpetual effort to impose its will on the Middle East, to use hard power to shape outcomes and bend history in our favor. It was believed that America could, if not quite reshape the region in its own image, at the very least render it more amenable to American interests.

In the end, though, what we got was less security, more fruitless interventions, and a region continually in chaos.

For Bacevich, America’s militarism is fueled by a false assumption about the reach and efficacy of military power. The presumption is that force, sufficiently employed, can achieve desired political goals across the world. This is a dangerous myth, Bacevich argues, and one our foreign policy establishment can’t seem to shake.

I sat down with Bacevich earlier this week to talk about his book, his criticisms of American interventionism, and his broader assessment of American foreign policy over the past three decades.

Sean Illing

The guiding thesis of your book is that America has waged what amounts to a 35-year war in the Greater Middle East. What’s the premise of this war, and why are we not winning it?

Andrew Bacevich

At the outset, it was a war for oil. What triggered the war for the greater Middle East was a couple of events that occurred in 1979. First, the Iranian Revolution and the creation of the Islamic Republic, which was hostile to the US. Secondly, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.

Those two events together suggested to American political leaders that US access to the Persian Gulf was now in jeopardy, and this at a time when virtually everybody believed that the future well-being of the United States was directly dependent on our having access to Persian Gulf oil.

There was an additional factor related to domestic politics, and that factor related to Jimmy Carter's weakness and vulnerability. At the turn of that year, from 1979 to 1980, Carter was very much perceived as a weak president, and thus needed to make a show of strength and determination. And when he promulgated the Carter Doctrine in 1980, in what turned out to be his last State of the Union address, he was attempting to show that he was strong, and he was also drawing a line indicating that the Persian Gulf was now a place that we were willing to fight for. It was a vital US national security interest.

I think it's important to realize, however, that although this undertaking begins as a war for oil, over time it becomes something much more than that. And although we no longer need Persian Gulf oil, this larger enterprise still exists, and I think the most important explanation for why it persists is that the war for the greater Middle East has become a war to demonstrate that we are a people to whom and a nation to which limits don't apply. But we are not a people to whom and nation to which limits don’t apply.

The idea, though, that America could fail in its foreign policy in this region brings into doubt this belief.

Sean Illing

Is that to say we're losing the war because the war itself is founded on a faulty premise, which is that American military power is essentially limitless in terms of its capacity to shape outcomes abroad?

Andrew Bacevich

Yes. Perhaps I'd rephrase that a little: The war has become unwinnable and misguided because it's a war to affirm the notion of American exceptionalism, and of course that's a notion that many Americans and virtually everyone in Washington is deeply committed to.

Sean Illing

It’s worth noting that this has been a bipartisan failure. Every president since Carter has, in their own way, doubled down on this strategy.

Andrew Bacevich

Absolutely. That's exactly right, and I think you phrased it correctly. Every president since Jimmy Carter has embraced and indeed doubled down on this strategy. That said, virtually every president, confronting the absence of success, has devised his own particular approach to waging this war. So over the course of three-plus decades, we've tried "shock and awe." We've tried invade and occupy with expectations of remaking societies. We've tried counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. We've tried working through proxies. We've tried just about every conceivable means of employing military power.

It's hard to see how any of these methods have yielded anything like success.

Sean Illing

You claimed in a recent article for the Nation that Obama’s foreign policy record is, to put it mildly, complicated. What’s his legacy on this front?

Andrew Bacevich

Well, it's mixed. To the extent that the war for the greater Middle East, which he inherited, remains the principal focal point of US policy, it's hard to say that he's done very well. We can credit him with not doing as badly as his predecessor, and it's certainly the case that the costs we've shouldered under Obama are less than the costs that we shouldered under Bush, whether you measure those costs in terms of blood or treasure.

But if the measure of merit is achieving political purposes, then it's hard to see that Obama has done any better than Bush.

Sean Illing

Can you cite specific examples of Obama failing to achieve stated political purposes?

Andrew Bacevich

Obama ran for the presidency promising to bring the Iraq War to a "responsible end" and promising to win the Afghan war. He will leave office having done neither of those. So if we grade him based on his management of the war for the greater Middle East, he gets a low grade.

The argument I try to make in the Nation piece is that if we set that aside and consider some of the other aspects of his approach to foreign policy, then potentially I think he's going to end up with a much higher grade. But we'll have to see how things unfold over time.

The Paris climate accord, the Iran deal, the opening up of relations with Cuba — these could produce some very positive outcomes in the future.

President Obama Meets With Japanese P.M. Shinzo Abe In Hawaii Photo by Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

Sean Illing

If Obama’s foreign policy vision is marked by anything, it’s his reliance on special forces and drones to prosecute the war on terror. I think it’s obvious enough why he did this, but do you think it was a mistake?

Andrew Bacevich

You're right, but I would add manned airpower to that list. Obama has conducted quite a bit of airstrikes in places like Syria and Iraq, and it's not all drones.

Now, do I think this strategy was a mistake? I think it was certainly prudent to try to reduce the costs, and he should get credit for that. But what he failed to do is come up with an alternative to what I think he himself recognizes has become a futile military enterprise in the Middle East.

Sean Illing

I’d say his willingness to strike a deal with Iran represents something like an alternative to militarism.

Andrew Bacevich

That's a great point. This is why the Iran nuclear deal is potentially promising. On the face of it, the purpose is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But I believe the actual purpose looks well beyond that. The real purpose is to begin a process of bringing Iran back into the international community and allowing Iran to play a responsible role in regional politics if the Iranian government chooses to do so.

Again, we don't yet know if this gamble will bear fruit.

Sean Illing

You credit Obama with abandoning the utopian fantasies of neoconservatism, but you also reproach him for failing to recognize the limits of American power.

Where do we draw that line between overreach and isolationism? America is not the world’s dictatress, but most people grant that we have a unique role to play. Is it a matter of relying on soft, not hard, power?

Andrew Bacevich

It's not that we either run the world or are isolated from it. It's not that we rely entirely on hard power or entirely on soft power. Where's the happy medium? That's what we ought to seek, and that's part of the art of statecraft. It's a very difficult art, to be sure.

Sean Illing

As you put it earlier, we now have an "unfortunate" successor replacing Obama next month. What most concerns you about Trump's foreign policy so far: his pro-Russia posture or his cavalier approach to China?

Andrew Bacevich

Wow, I don't know. How do those stack up against his cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons or climate change? It's so difficult to judge at this point how seriously to take the things he says.

When someone's running for office, you cut them some slack. People say things on the campaign trail to get elected. But he's not campaigning anymore, and he continues to say strange and bizarre things. So it's difficult to know what to make of all that.

Sean Illing

I take it you saw Trump’s tweet last week suggesting that America needs to expand its nuclear capabilities until the world “comes to its senses.”

Andrew Bacevich

Who knows what it means? My hope is that the rest of the world will learn to take Trump's tweets with a grain of salt, and will at least wait for the sun to come up in Washington the following day before responding. And that Trump will have proxies who will be able to explain what he meant — or should have meant. This off-the-cuff policymaking is obviously stupid and troubling.

Sean Illing

Trump is obviously a dilettante without a discernible geopolitical vision. Who will define his foreign policy? Is it clear to you what it will look like?

Andrew Bacevich

This is why many of us are watching so closely the formation of his inner circle. The fact that [retired Lt.] Gen. [Michael] Flynn is his national security adviser cannot be viewed as good news. Flynn is an ideologue and an Islamophobe. To the extent that he has a worldview, the view would seem to be that the world is hostile and that the United States needs to redouble its efforts to slay the dragons, as it were.

On the other hand, we've got the appointments to head the Defense Department and the State Department, and those people do seem to be adults. But what do they stand for? I obviously don't find it promising to put the CEO of a major oil company in charge of the State Department.

[Retired Marine Corps Gen. James] Mattis, by all accounts, is widely respected within the military. He's a smart guy, someone who, unlike Trump, reads books, takes ideas seriously. But what does it mean to have a four-star general who has spent the last 15 years managing wars in charge of the Defense Department?

It's not clear what to expect.

Donald Trump Holds Thank You Rally In Fayetteville, NC Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

Sean Illing

Let me ask more directly about China, a great power that has yet to define its ambition in the 21st century. How do you see the tumult and uncertainty in America influencing their thinking? And what are the long-range consequences?

Andrew Bacevich

I hesitate to say, as I'm not a China specialist. You summarized my view very accurately, which is that the big question moving forward is what does China want? Where do they see themselves fitting into the international order? What are their ambitions? My guess is they probably haven't figured it out themselves.

The task of the United States is to do what we can to ensure that the rise of China to the status of great power is minimally disruptive. That we don't deny China the respect that it likely expects as a great power, and find some way of accommodating their ambitions with ours and with those of Japan and South Korea and a variety of lesser countries.

Sean Illing

We’re just about out of time. I’d like to hear your macro perspective on where things are heading. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the global order that was solidified after the end of the Cold War seems to be eroding.

Where does that leave us moving forward? Are we looking at an international system defined by bipolarity or multipolarity or something else?

Andrew Bacevich

I think we're headed into a multipolar order. We will continue to be the most important and the strongest actor on the international stage, but the notions that were trotted out at the end of the Cold War about a unipolar order with a single super power at the top are already discredited, and rightly so.

What we're looking at is an international order in which there will be a number of major players, all of whose concerns have to be taken into account. There's America and China and the EU and Japan and Russia and several other important secondary actors, i.e., Turkey and South Korea.

And so the challenge we face is figuring out how to maintain a semblance of stability, how to make it possible for these various actors to tolerate one another. Mutual coexistence needs to be the goal. Not peace on earth or goodwill toward men. Mutual toleration has to be the realistic goal.

This will be an immense challenge, but it's the challenge the international system has to meet.