The British philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously divided intellectuals into two categories. “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” Berlin wrote, borrowing the line from the Greek poet Archilochus.
Andrew Bacevich is a hedgehog. He knows one thing: The United States has used its military too frequently since the end of the Cold War. Over the past 15 years, Bacevich has written six books that are variations on this theme. “America’s War for the Greater Middle East’’ is the seventh.
A political scientist at Boston University, Bacevich identifies President Carter’s 1980 pledge to protect US oil interests in the Persian Gulf from outside intervention — which meant the Soviet Union — as the beginning of America’s military conflict in the Mideast. “[I]mplementing the Carter Doctrine implied the conversion of the Persian Gulf into an informal American protectorate,” writes Bacevich. “Defending the region meant policing it.” The Carter Doctrine marked a major shift in policy that was little-noticed at the time, according to Bacevich. A region that had been deemed peripheral to American interests was now considered essential.
Bacevich’s history posits a direct relationship between Carter’s decision and current US military efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen. “With no end in sight and little prospect of achieving success, that war continues to the present day,” Bacevich writes. His book, broken into three sections (Preliminaries, Entr’acte, and Main Card), leads us on a guided tour from the oil crisis in the early 1970s to our contemporary attacks on ISIS.
Along the way come chapters recalling every military skirmish the United States has been involved with in the region. These include well-known episodes, such as the Persian Gulf war waged by George H.W. Bush, and the Iraq war waged by his son. And then there are more forgotten excursions, such as Ronald Reagan’s bombing of Libya in the 1980s and the Somalia intervention. Bacevich also throws in America’s bombings in Yugoslavia, which are far from the Middle East but justified as relevant because the Balkan wars found the United States on the same side in Bosnia and Kosovo as future jihadists.
Despite its subtitle, the book isn’t a traditional military history. There is very little on tactics or the experiences of those in the armed forces.
What it does offer is an impressive listing of mistakes. In Bacevich’s telling, America’s Mideast policy has been one debacle after another. Successes have been few and partial; failures many and lasting. The primary problem with US foreign policy is that it attempted to transfer our relative success in managing Europe post-World II to a region where American power is unwanted and unwelcome. Worse still, policymakers have been unprepared to support ambitious plans to reshape the Middle East with the vast amounts of resources such a task would require to succeed, if it could succeed at all. The result has been the worst of both worlds: far-reaching aims but scant follow-through.
Bacevich is a paleoconservative, and this marks him as different from those on the radical left, who are his natural allies in thinking US foreign policy causes far more harm than good. He is unfortunately prone to unsupported sweeping statements about the illiberal nature of “the Islamic world,’’ as if such a coherent thing concretely exists.
As with most hedgehogs, Bacevich simplifies some events in order to fit them into his overarching theory. The early 1990s intervention in Somalia, for example, is marked as a “self evident failure” on the part of America. But some estimates have put the lives saved because of the US-led efforts there as high as 100,000. Similarly, American efforts to end bloodshed in the Balkans helped broker peace in the region. “That was something,” Bacevich concedes. Yes, it was. It was something significant, and “America’s War for the Greater Middle East’’ would have been a stronger book had Bacevich reckoned with the agonizing moral choices that confront policymakers when dealing with humanitarian emergencies, suffering peoples, and threats from terrorists.
Still, it is hard to argue with the overarching argument: The US report card in the region has been dismal. If Bacevich gets some details wrong, he gets the big picture right. And that’s what hedgehogs do well.
AMERICA’S WAR FOR THE GREATER MIDDLE EAST:
A Military History
By Andrew J. Bacevich
Random House, 453 pp., illustrated, $30
Jordan Michael Smith is the author of the forthcoming Kindle Single “Humanity: Jimmy Carter and The Transformation of the Post-Presidency.’’