America has been deeply engaged with the Islamic world for more than 30 years, and there is no end in sight, historian and author Andrew Bacevich told the crowd of 100 at Trinity University on Tuesday night.
“Surely, the events of the past week or so reinforce that reality,” he said.
The timely discussion was part of the Maverick Lecture Series on the intersection of political and military decisions facing America, and our options relating to the extremist militant group ISIS. As a West Point graduate and the professor of International Relations and History at Boston University, Bacevich brings his personal and academic expertise to the series.
He asked the audience to consider the Islamic countries that have been invaded, occupied, garrisoned, bombed and raided by American forces since 1980.
“The list includes Iraq and Afghanistan,” Bacevich said before listing nearly 20 additional countries. “And the list just keeps getting longer.”
He introduced the audience to the concept of “mission creeping,” or the extension of a mission outside of the original goals.
“Now to judge by official explanations coming out of Washington, the mission of the troops dispatched to these various quarters has been to defend, or deter, or liberate, punishing the wicked, protecting the innocent, while sprouting liberal values and generally keeping American safe,” Bacevich said.
The name of our conflict should change, he said. The Global War on Terrorism has become World War IV.
“With interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan dragging on inconclusively, some military officers in the middle of the last decade began referring to what they called ‘The Long War,’” Bacevich said, who considers the Cold War to be World War III. “While nicely capturing the temporal dimension of the conflict, this label had nothing to say about purpose, adversary or location.”
Bacevich served during the Vietnam War, and held posts in Germany and the Persian Gulf, retiring as a colonel in the early 1990s. He referenced his own experiences when speaking about America’s current conflicts.
“We have not won it. We are not winning it,” he said. “It will not end anytime soon. It has become self-perpetuating.”
Many people believe we embarked upon our war in the Middle East to preserve the American way of life, while others think the United States embarked upon wars in the greater Middle East to ensure access to Persian Gulf oil.
“Both of those statements are true,” Bacevich said. “Just as the American Civil War was about slavery, America’s war for the greater Middle East from the very outset has been about oil.”
Our involvement in the Middle East has a major fault.
“Neither Carter, nor Reagan, nor the elder Bush had devised anything remotely like a strategy to guide policy,” Bacevich said. “George W. Bush responded (to the Sept. 11 attacks) by declaring a Global War on Terrorism but that war began less as a global war than an effort to punish Afghans who had given sanctuary to Al Qaida.”
Bacevich told the audience that America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 was imperative, not because danger that it posed, but the opportunity that it presented.
“Although the invaders, or if you like, the liberators, quickly got to Baghdad and overthrew the Saddam Hussein regime, they proved unable to assert control over that county,” he said. “Instead, by their very presence, U.S. forces incited and then found themselves enveloped by a complex multi-sided conflict that was part civil war, part ancient sectarian squabble and part anti-Western jihad.”
Bacevich said that even as Obama was struggling to extricate the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan, American military activities in other quarters of the Islamic world were actually expanding.
“The Obama administration’s chief contribution to the ongoing war for the greater Middle East has been to enlarge it,” he said. “Prior to 9/11, the abiding defect of U.S. military policy in the Islamic world had been naiveté. After 9/11, it became hubris.”
These operations aim to depose or suppress these efforts.
“All share a common determination to minimize risk, keep down costs, and above all, avoid anything approximating a quagmire,” he said.
The ongoing civil war in Syria has morphed into a multi-sided affair involving a new entity bent on carving out of Syria and Iraq the beginnings of a new pan-Islamic caliphate.
“This new entity, variously referred to as ISIS, is to demolish the state system created in the early 20th century by Europeans who reconfigured the greater Middle East to suit their own imperial purposes, leaving us holding the bag,” Bacevich said.
According to Bacevich, Americans have exhausted their enthusiasm for rescuing Iraq. He is not sure that ISIS poses an immediate danger to the United States itself.
“Here in the fall of 2015, no one can say with certainty how the fighting against ISIS is going to turn out,” he said. “But victory, if achieved, is likely to come at the expense of Iraqis and Syrians. Iran is going to end up being the principal beneficiary.”
Bacevich said there was one issue missing from the 2016 Presidential campaign to date.
“It’s hard to imagine anybody running for president in either party who would stand behind a podium like this and say, ‘I believe we are one nation among many,’” he said. “I believe that the world of the 21st century is going to be a world in which there will not be one nation presiding over the international order but there will in fact be a number of nations, there will be a multi-polar order in which the prospect of stability and peace will derive not from one nation insisting that it has all the answers but from the ability of several nations to come to some sort of a mutual accommodation.
“If you said that, you could never get elected to anything.” be said. “And yet, I personally believe that is the world in which we live and that is the circumstance that will define the 21st century.”
Terrorism has become a part of contemporary politics, and cannot be eradicated he said. “The best we can hope for is to reduce it to tolerable levels.”
The ISIS crisis could offer an opportunity to get the major powers in the Middle East to manage the region on their own, he said. “I’m talking about Saudi Arabia and Iran and Turkey and Egypt and Iraq, if it ever gets its act together. And you might say, ‘Come on, they all hate each other; Sunnis, Shiites, Persians, Arabia, monarchies, republics, all these rivalries, these deep-seated resentments.”
But Bacevich believes the nations share an interest in preserving the state system created by Europeans after World War I. The countries struggle with individual issues, but they can work together to defeat ISIS, a group that is attempting to erase existing boundaries.
A major priority of the American diplomacy is to help those nations recognize the importance of that common interest and get them to act on it, he said. “Saudi Arabia and Iran are not going to hug and kiss, but they can collaborate in order to achieve the purpose that they hold in common.”
The full lecture can be viewed online here.
*Top image: Andrew Bacevich, veteran and military historian, offered his views on the threat of ISIS during a lecture Tuesday at Trinity University. Photo courtesy Trinity University.