America's Perpetual War in the Greater Middle East

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. 


In my conversation with Hannah Marcus, a few key points are worth noting. First, Galileo's life and work are enduring reminders of the value in challenging systems of thought. Galileo pushed against the Aristotelian understanding of the cosmos. In doing so, he found conflict with another entrenched system of thought - the Catholic Church. Galileo's support for the Copernican universe moved early science forward. Revisiting the life of Galileo is also timely. Today, in the United States, we see science under attack. Although torture is not a threat, attempts to extinguish knowledge persist. Galileo's persistence against dogma makes him a germane historical figure in our present moment. 

The second point deals with the illusion of historical inevitability. Galileo's confrontation with the Catholic Church was not preordained. As Professor Marcus notes in our conversation, the events leading to Galileo's condemnation by the Church would not have been predictable in the 1620's.  In this period, Galileo was on good terms with Pope Urban VIII. But we tend to look for neat causal contexts when formulating narratives born of dramatic confrontation. These contexts generate an oversimplified version of events. In this way of doing history, a binary conflict emerges where two sides appear destined to clash. (Example: Galileo versus Catholic Church).

In historical research, the origins of the 'inevitability' problem emerge from a few areas. A bias toward a specific outcome is certainly one.  Another area is a failure to consider the contingency embedded in human affairs. Lastly, there is the habit of poorly framed questions. (Of course, the latter contributes to problems that go beyond the fallacy of historical inevitability.) Historical research questions that begin with "Why" tend to produce less than desirable results. Why did the Catholic Church condemn Galileo?  This question demands an answer. Implied but not stated, one hears: What happened and who is to blame? Well, the Church is to blame, of course. And so, it goes.  The narrative generates a sequence of events that 'inevitably' leads to Galileo's trial and punishment. "Why" questions seek something specific and narrow our field of vision.

A better approach is to frame a question around the adverbs: who, when, how, or what. These lines of inquiry encourage the researcher to confront the complexities inherent in human affairs. (David Hackett Fischer calls out "why" questions in his book. Historian's Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. Readers of this blog will see this reference again. ). 

The final point is simply the advantages of using digital technologies with primary sources. The Stanford Galileo Project and efforts like it produce valuable insights. These projects illuminate our understanding of the early modern era. 

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Galileo Correspondence Project