The Boston Review interviews retired US Army colonel turned critic of empire Andrew J. Bacevich, whose latest book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, analyzes the US’s decades-long, self-defeating obsession with the region. In the interview, Bacevich explains the origins of US interest in the Middle East (the short answer: cheap oil) and why that interest will likely continue, despite the havoc it has caused the people of the region and the blowback it has garnered for the US. The interview was conducted by Stephen Kinzer. Here’s an excerpt:
SK: You are suggesting that Americans recognize the limits to American power. Are Americans psychologically prepared for a more modest approach to the world?
AB: No, they are not. The American people are ill informed, and this quadrennial circus called a presidential election makes matters worse, as it becomes a contest in which candidates compete to proclaim their fealty to American exceptionalism while insisting that no alternative to American global leadership can conceivably exist. They all promise if elected to ensure that ours remains not only the best but the strongest military in the world, now and forever, as if a dearth of military power has somehow hampered U.S. policy. We the people have imbibed all these bogus notions. The result is a political atmosphere in which limits—the advantages of restraint, an appreciation for what military power cannot do—do not figure. There is an honorable American tradition that takes into account the limits of American power. It is just that, since the age of Ronald Reagan and the end of the Cold War, it has become politically impermissible to subscribe to that tradition.
SK: Is the war for the Greater Middle East drawing to an end? Do we lose?
AB: We certainly are not winning it. It is hard for me to imagine how anyone could argue that it is going well and the end is in sight. However, predicting where things will go from here is very difficult. Today we are not only fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan but also in Syria. Our military footprint in North and West Africa is expanding. Obama’s efforts to extricate us have not only failed, they have basically been abandoned. His recent announcement that U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond the inauguration of his successor represents a capitulation on his part. So the war in some form is going to continue.
That said, it is pretty clear that the American people don’t have much of an appetite for putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground, which would necessarily lead to significant American casualties. That leaves policymakers scrambling for tactical alternatives that have the effect of keeping things at a low simmer. Nothing gets decided.
How all that is going to play out is impossible to say. We should not discount the possibility of the unexpected. Imagine, God forbid, that we sustain another September 11–type attack. What would the American response be? I don’t know. Imagine that ISIS becomes a real state and a permanent magnet for jihadism. What sort of response would that elicit? Regardless of what the future holds, I don’t see how further U.S. military efforts will succeed where those in the past have come up short. Our military has the capacity to perpetuate this war. Our military does not have the capacity to end it.
Image: US Air Force war planes fly over burning oil wells during Operation Desert Storm, 1991. Via Boston Review.