Before reading Andrew Bacevich's book, I had developed my own narrative for U.S. failures in the Middle East over the past three decades. My interpretation began with the First Gulf War undertaken by George H. W. Bush in 1990. In these events (and not for the first time), the U.S. decided to punish a dictator, in this instance, Saddam Hussein, who once enjoyed America's support. For those unaware of how the U.S. handles dictators, here is a quick lesson. In general, the U.S. allows dictators to do as they please. However, if the dictator finds himself in an untenable position − civil war, revolution, etc. − the U.S. hails democracy and abandons the leader. In Saddam Hussein's case, the U.S. decided to invade as a means to protect the oil fields. In this way, America was 'liberating Kuwait.'
Bacevich designates the Iranian hostage crisis (1979) as the point of departure for American misadventures in the Middle East. In parallel with the hostage crisis, the U.S. began to support the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. In Washington, the Afghanistan gambit was spearheaded by Zbigniew Brezinski. Brezinski sought to ensnare the Soviet Union into a quagmire akin to what the U.S. had found itself in during the Vietnam War. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 brings up another element of U.S. foreign policy not often discussed − the history of U.S. interference in other governments. Since the end of the World War II, the U.S. attempted to destabilize many governments. Some U.S. targets were democratically elected leaders. In 1953, the CIA and the British orchestrated a coup to overthrow the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. For Americans upset about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, I suggest a quick refresher on U.S. meddling in democratic outcomes.
From the 1970's to the present day, the Greater Middle East has occupied the attention of U.S foreign policy. Unfortunately, this attention did not inspire U.S. leadership to question motives or reflect on strategy for the region. The single variable that drove U.S. involvement in the region was access to cheap oil. It was the view of political elites that only by guaranteeing the flow of black gold could the American way of life be sustained. As a result, the lives of U.S. soldiers and innocent civilians were sacrificed. Trillions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted in this effort. Worse, by acquiescing to a state of perpetual war in the region, Americans stand guilty of the same crimes we once fought against.
Of course, wars require money. The industrial supply chain that supports the Defense Department benefits from continuous conflict. But defense firms profiting from war is an effect and not a cause of our wars. The cause…the reason we engaged in the Middle East for this period is access to cheap oil.
Bacevich's book is a thorough and compelling account of America's drift into perpetual war in the Middle East. The evidence is clear and overwhelming. Despite repeated military engagements to manage the region, the U.S has achieved nothing. Indeed, the evidence indicates matters are worse in the region because of U.S. violence. But there is more. As indicated above, the reflexive use of force in the region represents a larger problem in the body politic. Perpetual war with a compliant public. When establishing culpability for these wars, one must also indict the American people.
As Bacevich points out, President Carter asked the American people to make a choice in his much misunderstood "malaise speech." Carter asked the American people to reconsider what they value most as a nation. He called for sacrifice. In the speech, Carter requested that America relinquish its dependence on foreign oil. He called for the funding of alternative energy sources. The American people responded by electing Ronald Reagan as President in 1980. In the moment, cheap foreign oil reigned supreme for businesses and consumers alike. Implied in this sentiment was the notion of American exceptionalism. The demand for cheap oil drew the U.S. into a moral black hole. We entered the abyss and have yet to find a way out.