Essential Reading: America’s War for the Greater Middle East

As the first discouraging hints of the new Trump Administration’s military mindset emerge, I would urge President Trump and his staff to stop watching television and tweeting long enough to read one book: “America’s War for the Greater Middle East” by Andrew J. Bracevich. It is essential reading for anyone interested in peace in the Middle East. Bracevich, a 23-year officer in the U.S. Army, reviews the tragic story of how we got into the mess we’re in today. For the past third of a century America has sent troops to the Middle East in over dozen large and small actions only to find again and again that our expenditures of blood and treasure have only made the situation worse.

The profound folly and sheer wrong-headedness of the last 35 years of U.S. military attacks in the Middle East is perhaps best illustrated by the comments of Lieutenant General Ricardo Sachez shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq when it became clear that U.S. troops were being met not with a hero’s welcome but with armed resistance.

As the occupation brought increasing U.S. casualties and widespread chaos in Iraq, Sanchez told CNN that “‘America, being present here in Iraq, creates a target of opportunity.’ In effect, rather than producing stability, the U.S. military presence was inciting and attracting anti-American jihadists. That was fine with Sanchez. ‘This is exactly where we want to fight them,’ he said. ‘The key that we must not lose sight of is that we must win this battle here in Iraq. Otherwise America will find itself taking on these terrorists at home.’” (p. 259)

Tragically, many Americans still believe what Lt. Gen. Sanchez believed: that if we just send enough troops “over there” to destroy a finite number of terrorists, we will “win” and be safe. What Sanchez did not understand is that the insurgents saw themselves as brave patriots defending their country and their families against U.S. invaders. By unjustifiably attacking Iraq, Lt. Gen. Sanchez was not only not decreasing the number of terrorists there, but inciting the outrage of local Iraqis and thus actually increasing the number of terrorists, some of whom formed an evil new group called ISIS which had not existed before the 2003 U.S. invasion.

The conclusion I drew from this highly intelligent and very readable book is simple: war is not the answer. In fact, it’s part of the problem. Among the many excellent points Andrew J. Bacevich makes which led me to that conclusion are these:

–Our military officers, quite understandably, put a positive spin on our various military excursions, even when, as is often the case, they are less than successful. The old adage that “truth is the first casualty of war” is repeatedly re-affirmed here. For example, we learn that “The Pentagon did its best to portray Anaconda [in Afghanistan] as a victory. General Franks pronounced it ‘an unqualified and absolute success.’” However, Mr. Bracevich concludes, the Afghanistan war was far from over. “Consigned to the back burner, Afghanistan became yet another phony war, a conflict that the United States had ignited but failed to extinguish and then left to simmer.” (p. 238)
–What looks like a quick, decisive American military victory soon turns into a long, protracted military engagement. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Bacevich writes, “As was so often the case during America’s War for the Greater Middle East, the outcome of a fight thought to be definitive turned out to be anything but. Like Desert Storm in 1991 or Enduring Freedom in 2001, armed intervention meant to solve a particular problem served chiefly to create new problems of a different order. . . . [W]hen U.S. forces thought that they had finished fighting, the decisive phase was just beginning.” (pp. 252-3)
–Again and again we don’t understand the cultural and political realities of the countries we keep invading.
–Even though the American public has clearly tired of the idea of large numbers of American troops to the Middle East after Afghanistan and Iraq, we just keep fighting on with no clear overall strategy. “Indeed, Washington’s bipartisan appetite for armed intervention in the Islamic world . . . had become tantamount to addiction.” (p. 321)

“America’s War for the Greater Middle East” is a brilliant, highly readable and timely book from a major publisher (Random House) by an established author with excellent credentials and an established publishing career. So why hasn’t it received more visibility? I suspect that a large part of the reason is that Mr. Bracevich’s unflinching criticism of U.S. military failures over the last third of a century is a very bitter pill to swallow. In this era of feel-good “alternate facts” it’s easier to ignore the enormity of the massive catastrophe we’ve created in the Middle East in the past third of a century.

One thing I wish Mr. Bracevich would have included was a look at the U.S.’s endless and unquestioning support for Israel’s war against the Palestinians, which most people in the Middle East see as part of the same overall war. And as a military expert, he might have addressed the issue of any possible connection between Israeli army tactics and U.S. army tactics.

In the end, Mr. Bracevich concludes, “Perpetuating the War for the Greater Middle East is not enhancing American freedom, abundance, and security. If anything, it is having the opposite effect.” (p. 370.) So if war isn’t the answer, what is? I work with an organization called Common Humanity where our motto is “Peacemaking through understanding, respect and friendship with the Arab and Muslim world.” That’s the answer.

Mel Lehman
New York City
February 4, 2017

Mel Lehman

Mel Lehman is the director of of Common Humanity. He has worked in international humanitarian issues for several decades, inducing two decades at the National Council of Churches. He has traveled extensively in the Middle East and has published a number of articles about his experience.