Andrew Bacevich: America's War for the Greater Middle East Cannot Be Won

April 08, 2016


Andrew Bacevich

historian and author of the new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. He is professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University.

When will the United States realize a military victory is impossible in the Middle East? Military historian Andrew Bacevich asks this question in his latest book. He writes, "As an American who cares deeply about the fate of his country, 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."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich, Vietnam War veteran, professor emeritus at Boston University. His latest book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. Andrew Bacevich, you have called Donald Trump—said he is to American politics what Martin Shkreli is to Big Pharma. Explain.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, I think he has the same sort of—his attitude is the same sort of smirking cynicism that we saw in that pharmaceutical scandal. I have a five-year-old grandson, who I love dearly, and he’s a wonderful boy. He also has a tendency to blurt out whatever happens to be passing through his mind. And it seems to me that Donald Trump, who is not five years old, suffers from the same sort of inclination. And it suggests that he would be an enormously dangerous commander-in-chief. And I think we all recognize people say things on the campaign trail that may not actually reflect their intentions were they to be in office, but there does come—there are moments when the gap between what’s being said and what ought to be done by any responsible person, when that gap is so broad that the rhetoric itself, I think, becomes a disqualifying factor. But let me quickly add, it’s not clear to me that Senator Cruz, who is the apparent alternative, is, by any inclination, any better. And if you take a look at the people Cruz is surrounding himself with as foreign policy advisers, that, to my mind, is deeply troubling.

AMY GOODMAN: Like who?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, we’ve got Islamophobes. We’ve got General—retired Lieutenant General Boykin, who, for all practical purposes, sees the war for the Greater Middle East as an exercise in Judeo-Christian jihad. I mean, he is keen to go slay the Muslims and, clearly, views Islam itself as the enemy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what do you make of the selective choice of our government in terms of where it intervenes? It’s perfectly willing to bring down regimes or to intervene militarily, but in those countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates, that are so dictatorial toward their own people, we—as long as they’re our allies, we have no problems.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think one of the things that strikes me about this, trying to understand and describe the larger military enterprise, is the extent to which, that once it began, it was kind of on autopilot. And even today, there appear to be, in official circles, remarkably few people who are willing to just pose that kind of basic question. Why are the people that we call our friends—why do they qualify as our friends? Why are security commitments, that may at one time in the past—the security commitment to Saudi Arabia may at one time in the past have made sense, at least from the point of view of national interest—do they make sense today? And if they don’t, if we’re not dependent upon oil from the Persian Gulf—and we’re not—then why isn’t it permissible at least to revisit and re-examine policy assumptions that simply are no longer valid? But there’s such an absence of creativity and imagination in the national security apparatus, such a determination to keep on doing what we did last year and the year before, that that, too, I think, is quite troubling.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Andrew Bacevich. He has written a new book called America’s War for the Greater Middle East. I wanted to turn to Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch is reiterating its call for the United States to stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, after the group said it found evidence the Saudi-led coalition used U.S.-supplied bombs in the deadly airstrikes on a crowded market in Yemen last month. The strikes killed at least 97 civilians, including 25 children. Medical clinic worker Othman Saleh spoke out about the aftermath of the attack.

OTHMAN SALEH: [translated] We received 44 wounded in total, including women, children and elders. Of those 44, two people died. Three others were in critical condition. They had to be taken to the ICU.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Yemen, the ongoing drone strikes there. In just our headlines today, speaking of drone strikes, Afghan officials saying at least 17 civilians killed in U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan on Wednesday—first strike reportedly hitting a truck of a local elder going to resolve a land dispute, killing the elder and 11 others; the second drone reportedly striking and killing two people going to collect the bodies; and a third strike reportedly killing three men who went to see what happened. This expanded drone war, which is President Obama’s?

ANDREW BACEVICH: There’s no question about it. I mean, and it has to be one of the most disappointing parts of his legacy, I think. You know, the president—we elected the president because he said that he was going to end the Iraq War responsibly. Sadly, he also said that he was going to escalate the Afghanistan War. He did that, without any particular success. My assessment of the president is that he understands that invading and occupying countries in the Islamic world basically doesn’t work, and so he is—he is refraining from trying to repeat that mistake. Alas, he has now turned to other methods of employing American military power, with missile-firing UAVs one very good example. And there is little evidence that those alternatives are all that much more effective, albeit, at least from a U.S. point of view—a U.S. point of view only—they aren’t as costly.

For some reason, I mean—I’m with Clausewitz: War is the continuation of politics by other means. War makes sense only if you are able to achieve your political purposes at some reasonable cost. And we have been fighting a war in the Greater Middle East without achieving, in any conclusive sense, any positive political outcomes. And yet the tendency is to evaluate our conduct there in operational military concerns, of winning fights as opposed to accomplishing political objectives. And that’s yet another problem.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And take that a little further now to the fight against ISIS and—or ISIL. To what degree is that a military battle that must be waged? And can it succeed?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, it’s a military battle that probably must be waged; it’s just not by our military. I mean, this is—in my count, this is the fourth Gulf War in which we have been involved—supporting Saddam Hussein in the first, kicking Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in the second, overthrowing Saddam Hussein in the third, and then occupying that country for eight years, hoping that when we departed in 2011, Iraq could stand by itself. That hasn’t happened, and so we’re back in it again, with the proximate adversary, ISIS. Yes, ISIS needs to be destroyed. One of the lessons, it seems to me, of America’s War for the Greater Middle East is that American power, American military power, doesn’t fix the problem, tends to worsen the problem. So the responsibility for the destruction of ISIS should fall on the shoulders of those who are most threatened by ISIS. That happens to be the countries in the region. Were they to recognize that they have a common interest in destroying ISIS, they could in fact do so. But our insistence that somehow it’s our responsibility, that American leadership, so-called, needs to be the decisive element, simply lets them off the hook.

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