Disclaimer: this post was inspired and largely (but not completely) influenced by the book “America’s War for the Greater Middle East” by Andrew Bacevich, a former military officer who started in 1969 in Vietnam and ended as a Colonel after Desert Storm, and has since become a military historian who is critical of American militarism (but possibly not for the reasons you think). For a much more in depth look, read his book, or listen to it on Audible (~15 hours) like I have done over the course of a few weeks (while falling asleep after long days of being a biochemistry graduate student).
With the 2016 election coming up, militarism is something I’ve seen a bit about (with the limited time I’ve been able to devote to politics and current events). I am a self described libertarian (or self confessed, depending on how you view libertarians), so I have no illusions about my anti-war stance. That makes seeing pro-war people much easier – to someone like me, everyone seems pro-war to some extent. That being said, liberals make Trump and Cruz out to be warmongers on the scale of Hitler or Mussolini, and libertarians make Hillary out to be worse than either of them on war, for reasons I’ll go into.
So, the American adventure into the Middle East didn’t start on September 11, 2001. America has been involved with the Middle East since the British after World War I (1914-1918). But the real intervention started during the cold war (1946-1990), most notably after the Iranian coup in 1953 when democratically elected Mosaddegh was overthrown with American help to put American friendly Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in charge. The other notable American intervention was their undying support of Israel after 1948, which saw occasional disagreements, but remained an ally due to A) geopolitical Cold War reasons, B) cultural reasons, such as American Christians identifying more with European Jews than with Middle Eastern Arabs, and C) religious reasons (particularly by the evangelical Christians, who saw Jewish occupation in Christian prophecy).
Although the Israel/Palestine conflict has often been held up as the primary conflict in the region, nationalism has been an enormous part of Middle Eastern culture, although this has sprung from the Israel/Palestine conflict in many ways since the Balfour Declaration during World War I, but even more so since World War II and the winding down of European colonialism (i.e. post-colonialism in Asia, Middle East, and Africa). This has taken two forms. The first has been Arab nationalismArab nationalism, which seeks a pan-Arab nation. Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi (leader of Libya from 1969-2011) was a self-proclaimed Arab nationalist who had run-ins with the USA as early as the 1980s. The second was Islamism, which started as early as the 1700s with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, 1800s with Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, and modernized with Sayyid Qutb for people like Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden.
The events in the Middle East that ramped up America’s interest in the region primarily started in 1979. The first was the Iranian revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi regime and implanted the Ayatollah Khomeini regime. The second was the siege of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. And the third was the Soveiet invasion of Afghanistan. The first and the third had immediate influence on American foreign policy. Iran was at best an American ally, at worst an American colony – such was the motivation for revolution. The third was an immediate threat by then arch-enemy Soviet Union, yet it was also motivated by the Iranian revolution. The American Cold Warriors thought that Soviet intrusion into Afghanistan would quickly and easily bring the Soviets into Iran and give them more control over the Iranian oil fields. This prompted the Americans to give arms and aid to the Mujahedin fighting in Afghanistan, despite the fact that most of them held anti-American views.
Osama bin Laden, a rich citizen of Saudi Arabia, was a huge benefactor in the Soviet-Afghan war. He made many friends with the Taliban by funding their war and participating in the conflict.
The Afghan war happened all during the 1980s. Also in that time was the Iran-Iraq war. Hitler used gas on the Jews during his atrocious, inconceivable, and damnable holocaust. Yet the only two times gas was regularly used on the battlefield was in World War I and during the Iran-Iraq war. The American government sided with the chemical weapon using Iraq, which used chemical weapons on both the Iranians as well as the Shia and Kurds that lived within Iraq (the minority Kurds received American sympathy afterwards for a time, but the majority Shia got the cold shoulder). The Americans looked the other way on the cruel practices of their allys. Even after the USS Stark incident, the American government sided with Saddam Hussein.
And this hardly covers the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Oliver North, working within the Reagan administration, sold arms to Israel, which then sold the arms to Iran, in order to get Iranian help in freeing American prisoners in Lebanon as well as illegally make money under the table for the Contras in Nicaruagua to battle the Sandinistas – which may have also involved the cocaine trade.
The Gulf War (ie Desert Storm), which came only shortly after the Iran-Iraq war, in which America sided with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, happened for three reasons. The first was obviously for oil. Even in the early 1990s the politicians weren’t yet embarrassed enough to admit that, and the public wasn’t yet conscious enough to realize that nations outside of the United States had issues of their own that might influence global trade. The second was because the United States was still embarrassed by what had happened in Vietnam. For more on that second issue, I definitely recommend Andrew Bacevich’s book – I could never make the case he does in this space.
But the real reason is to exercise foreign policy. Here comes the doctrine:
1) Despite the fact that the Nuremberg trials found preemptive war a war crime (Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union preemptively in order to prevent a Soviet invasion of Germany), America will exercise previously decided war crimes and demonstrate that they are necessary and that laws against preemptive war is exempt, but only for America; this is because new technology makes those old preemptive war ideas obsolete, but only for America (which now exercised unrestrained power, with the Soviet Union collapse). 2) America alone has the willingness and capability to exert its diplomatic and military power, now that the cold war is over.
The first is somewhat self-explanatory. It says that America will do what it wants, when it wants, as long as it perceives a threat to its interests. The second has a bit more impact. If America tells you to do something, you had better do it, because nobody is coming to rescue you, and you have no chance of defeating America. It is a lesson taken to heart by the American military machine. This is a conceit seen plainly in America’s involvement in the Iraqi no-fly zone, Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. I could spend an entire blog post on each of these, but it would probably do you better to just click the links and read about them – particularly the Iraqi no fly Zone. I remember hearing about this as a kid, but I simply thought that the Americans and Iraqis had agreed that Iraqis won’t fly in these zones – it turns out that Americans were shooting down Iraqis in these zones and that the Iraqis had never agreed to this; in other words, it was a continued war that few realized, but that went on for more than a decade, along with draconian sanctions that caused the suffering and death of literally millions.
It was an American version of the Siege of Leningrad.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 came as a surprise to everyone aware enough at the time. I think, personally, I was not quite aware enough at the time, despite being sixteen years old. I was in homeroom when I first heard that something was going on, which must have been sometime between 9:30 a.m. and 9:45 a.m. I also remember, throughout the day, rumors that other attacks had happened, in places like LA and Chicago. Obviously, none of them came to pass. I was an asshole in my teens, and about the biggest emotion I remember from the time was boredom. I remember hoping that this would upset each classes normal schedule. The only two classes I remember specifically were my English class, with a teacher I hated, in which the normal class routine went as scheduled, which disappointed me. I also remember my last class of the day, which was creative writing, and we got to sit and watch the news for the whole class period, with the expectation that we would take notes in our journal and then write a few pages about how we felt afterward. That seemed like a sweet deal to me, since it meant we didn’t really have to do anything except watch TV. I remember, after getting home, wishing that every channel on TV would stop talking about the 9/11 attacks and get back to more entertaining programming (the coverage of the 9/11 attacks went on for more than a few days on many channels – and yet I was so far up my own ass I didn’t realize that this meant it was kind of a big deal). I remember complaining about seeing the same footage of the twin towers falling over and over again on TV, rather than showing something I would rather see (reruns of the Simpsons, anyone?). Needless to say, I had no idea the level of impact the 9/11 attacks had, and would have, on both American and world affairs.
The invasion of Afghanistan came soon after. Support for George W. Bush had skyrocketed. Everyone was a super patriot. American flags were everywhere. Nobody questioned that most of the hijackers were Saudi Arabian, nor that Osama bin Laden, the easily fingered ringleader, was also Saudi. And everyone had forgotten that the Soviet Union’s adventure into Afghanistan had ended in disaster. The idea of Afghanistan as the “graveyard of empires” was already in the aether. But it was only a decade after our supposed Vietnam redeeming victory in Desert Storm, and our purported success in the Balkans during the 1990’s, and to boot this was a just war against people who attacked us first.
There was success in Afghanistan at first. The Taliban, having seemingly forgotten the guerilla tactics that won them victory in the 1990’s after the Soviet-Afghan war, attempted to face American forces head on. They were obviously defeated over and over again. But after the distraction of the impending Iraq war had swayed the American attention, the Taliban, alongside al-Qaeda, rediscovered their guerilla/insurgent roots. America forgot about Afghanistan as Iraq loomed on the horizon.
Afghanistan is a war that makes sense to many Americans. Osama bin Laden had been given asylum in Afghanistan after being banished from Saudi Arabia (some time spent in Sudan in there, too). Osama bin Laden was given asylum by the Taliban, whom he had helped during the Soviet-Afghan war. The Taliban had been helped by al-Qaeda in the 1980s and 1990s. Osama bin Laden was in Afghanistan when 9/11 happened.
Although I also imagine that many Americans don’t know that Osama bin Laden is Arabic, but the Taliban is not, and that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are not the same thing. Either way, I think most Americans would see Operation Enduring Freedom as a just war, regardless of their ignorance on the war aims or the local culture being faced; or what it would actually require to ingratiate ourselves; or whether the culture even wanted what the west was offering, despite the propaganda that says everyone wants what Americans have.
However, the war in Iraq was a hard sell. The justification was 1) that Saddam Hussein harbored Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) with the implicit assumption that he had the willingness and capability of using them against the United States (or, at the very least, US allys such as Israel) and 2) that the Saddam Hussein regime had ties to al-Qaeda, despite al-Qaeda despising regimes like Saddam’s for not being Islamic enough. Many in the American public did not buy this, particularly liberal leaning people.
I was one of those liberal leaning people. I remember in March of 2003 when the war began, I had a debate with my co-workers at a restaurant I worked at. It was me and one of my managers against just about everyone else working there, with the two of us voicing our disapproval with the Iraq war – the conversation stayed civil, but it was an ongoing debate throughout the evening that I was working there. This is about the first time in my life I remember ever being political about anything, but I remember being very charged up about the issue. I don’t think I really knew much anything about politics at the time, except that I was against war, especially unjustified war. That is a position I maintain to this day – I am a libertarian, but above all, I am against war.
The Iraq war started in 2003 was supposed to be “shock and awe.” That phrase became somewhat of a punchline after what happened in Iraq, but given what the actual aims of the war were, it makes sense. One has to understand that all sorts of justifications for the war have been attributed to George W. Bush. All of them have some truth, but were almost certainly not the war aims. The first, that I’ve heard from numerous liberals, is that George W. Bush only wanted to go into Iraq because his daddy wasn’t able to finish the job. This is a very pedestrian motive that certainly fits with the liberal notion that GWB was an infantile minded rube that would throw around billions of dollars and human lives for petty feuds like a Roman Emperor. There might be some enmity harbored by the younger Bush, but I hardly see this as a primary motive. Another two motives, which I will combine into one, and one in which I myself bought into for a long time, is that the way the Iraq war went is exactly how the Bush administration wanted it to go – a long-term occupation that benefits a) the military-industrial complex and b) the oil companies. America’s prolonged presence would simply mean bigger profits for arms manufacturers, nation builders, and oil companies.
I don’t discount any of these motives. Primarily the war profiteering motives. I’m sure there are many businesses that saw their profits climb substantially during the Iraq war. But I am saying that this wasn’t the primary motive for this war. Once again, I attribute two motivations: 1) establishing the idea of preemptive war, and the American prerogative to do it and 2) demonstrating that America can easily overthrow a regime and implant a new one.
Let us imagine that the Iraq war had been a resounding success. Imagine if the American military had gone into Iraq and overthrown Saddam within a matter of weeks and installed a functioning democracy a month later. What do you think Syria, Lybia, and Iran would think? What would they do if America had threatened to do the same thing to them that America had done to Iraq?
That is what the American government wanted to achieve. A military preeminence that gave them the Big Stick that Teddy Roosevelt talked about – do as we say, or you know what will happen. Iraq was to be the smoking gun the government could hold to other countries, showing that they mean business. It was supposed to permanently throw off the humiliation that was the Vietnam war, showing that the American military had the teeth to back up its hardline diplomacy.
The biggest failure, as far as the Bush administration is concerned, is that we didn’t win with ‘shock and awe.’ That was the plan. We were supposed to be in and out quickly. We were supposed to take that smoking gun from the chest of Iraq and point it at all over the Middle East and ask who is next. Regimes such as Assad and Qaddafi were supposed to quail at our ability to overthrow regimes and give in to our demands. The fact that the military-industrial complex profited mightily from Iraq may have been part of the plan, or simply just an opportunity that arose, but we can say for sure that that the real war aims were a failure.
At least maybe the first military aim. America has not shown that it is capable of easily overthrowing regimes. But America has shown that it is willing to engage in war preemptively. George W. Bush codified this with Iraq. The Obama administrations have taken this to the next level in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, and West Africa.
But what has changed the most between George W. Bush and Barack Obama is that war itself has become too unpopular. So the new war is the use of drones and special operations, with little approval or knowledge by the American people. This allows the regime to announce minimal ‘boots on the ground’ while obfuscating how militarily involved the US government is.
The American public has forgotten about our wars. The liberals that protested George W. Bush have mostly stayed silent on Barack Obama’s military actions, no matter how much they inflict on war crimes. Foreign affairs have been only a side note to the 2016 elections – Trump’s supposed banning on Muslims entering the US ignores the gargantuan crisis in Europe and the actual conflict in Syria; the focus on ISIS ignores the greater Middle Eastern crisis in places like Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan; both Trump and Sanders promising to close America off from foreign trade is advertised as being America First without any clue of how economics works.
The majority of Americans are behind the drone program without understanding the effect of blowback. The majority of Americans agree with the torture program with no self awareness about how this makes them the bad guy – or at the very best, the good guy that everyone hates.
No matter how you vote, just try to think of yourself as NOT the bad guy.