War, we must always remind ourselves, is the continuation of politics by other means. Understanding any war requires first understanding that war’s political basis. What brings the parties into conflict? What are they fighting for?
The challenge of grasping the politics underlying the “Global War on Terror” begins with its very name: it obfuscates rather than clarifies. To contend that the United States is currently engaged in a worldwide military campaign to root out terrorism is to perpetrate a ruse. Generically classifying our adversaries as “terrorists” or “killers” obviates any need to examine their actual purposes or, for that matter, our own. It encourages politicians to spout clichés about “good” and “evil” while permitting them to dodge any serious discussion of power and interests.
In any war, political purpose finds ultimate expression in geopolitics. This war is no exception. The contest fully joined on September 11, 2001, occurs in a concrete and readily identifiable context: the “Global War on Terror” is actually a struggle to determine who will control the Persian Gulf and its environs.
Although the American public remains stubbornly oblivious to the fact, even today, this struggle commenced well before 9/11. Some observers date it from 1979 when the Islamic Revolution deposed the Shah, or from 1953 when a U.S.-sponsored coup in Tehran restored the Shah to the Peacock Throne. Many Arabs trace its origins to 1948 and the founding of Israel, viewed by them as an outpost of Western colonialism. Others cite the immediate aftermath of World War I when Britain and France carved up the Ottoman Empire to create what the historian David Fromkin has called the “peace to end all peace.”
Long overshadowed by the cold war, this conflict came into its own after the collapse of communism. Operation Desert Storm in 1991 certified the Persian Gulf’s emergence as the cockpit of international politics. For much of the twentieth century, the world’s fate had seemingly hinged on the turn of events in Western Europe. By the 1990s, the Gulf had supplanted Europe: Baghdad had become the new Berlin.
Going as far back as World War II, the United States had maintained a remarkably consistent policy toward the region: to facilitate access to Persian Gulf oil, successive administrations exerted themselves to avert instability, to suppress radicalism, and to prevent any other power from achieving dominance-and to do all of this at minimum cost. It was a strategy of tactics, involving backroom deals and strange bedfellows. Expediency routinely trumped high principle, a practice vividly illustrated by the twists and turns of Washington’s relationship with Saddam Hussein. Still, any qualms about U.S. policy in the Gulf never got very far since there seemed to be a correlation between propping up the political status quo, maintaining the flow of cheap oil, and sustaining the American way of life.
On September 11, 2001, Americans learned that the real costs of this approach were far greater than they might appear at the gas pump. President George W. Bush immediately disowned the policies of his predecessors and promised sweeping change. What change really meant was redoubling efforts to bring the Persian Gulf into conformity with U.S. requirements. The United States had long enjoyed a predominant influence in the Gulf. The Bush administration now aimed for something more.
So it set out to demolish the old order, confident of its ability to erect a new order based on democracy, respect for human rights, the acceptance of Israel, and, above all, deference to the United States. American power would impose American values, demonstrating the irresistibility of both. Essentially, the president and his lieutenants embarked on an experiment in creative destruction.
The invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was intended to jumpstart this process. Four years on, the president’s strategy has produced levels of destruction beyond his expectations. Yet rather than ushering in a new order reflecting American values and conducive to American interests, the administration confronts a situation in which the upheaval in Iraq induced by the United States threatens to envelop the entire region, with potentially horrific consequences.
The military stalemate in Iraq has obliged President Bush to scale back his ambitions. An administration that once articulated its aims in the most grandiose terms-vowing to remake what it called the Greater Middle East-will now settle for considerably less.
The hue and cry provoked by the so-called “surge” has obscured this downsizing of strategic intent. Critics have misread the surge as evidence that the president remains hell-bent on “staying the course.” In fact, the very puniness of this ostensibly major initiative (it qualifies at best as a demi-escalation) speaks to the Bush administration’s reduced strategic appetite. No longer promising to spread freedom across the Islamic world, it is instead searching desperately for ways to prevent Iraq from disintegrating.
The surge amounts to a last-ditch effort to forestall this prospect. Rather than a plan to achieve victory, it is a salvage operation. Administration officials who once spoke glowingly of Iraqi democracy flowering under American tutelage will now be grateful if they manage to ease the mayhem occurring daily in the streets of Baghdad. An administration that once disdained stability now yearns to restore it.
General David Petraeus, commanding coalition forces in Iraq, recently joined the ranks of senior officers who have concluded that there is “no military solution” to the conflict. Petraeus advocates “reconciliation”-which necessarily means cutting deals with perpetrators of terrorist attacks.
In terms of the region as a whole, the Bush administration has itself reverted to a strategy of tactics. The president’s “freedom agenda” is defunct. Iraq no longer figures as “Phase One” of some grand multiphased project. Visitors from Washington no longer hector government officials in Saudi Arabia and Egypt about the need to promote women’s rights or permit freedom of the press. Meanwhile, U.S. diplomats have met in Baghdad with representatives of Iran and Syria, regimes the Bush administration had previously classified as pariahs. Expediency once again supplants principle. Improvisation has become the order of the day. The ongoing effort to prevent the Persian Gulf from descending into chaos could well be called Operation Duct Tape.
The odds of the surge restoring order to Baghdad are not good. It is a case of too little, too late. Yet even those opposing the war must hope for its success: the surge represents what may be the last chance of limiting the disastrous consequences of President Bush’s march to folly in Iraq.
Whatever the outcome, the surge will complete our president’s education. Having sacrificed many thousands of lives, both American and Iraqi, and having expended a half-trillion dollars, he will have learned that American power has limits, that the world is not infinitely malleable, and that stability may not be such a bad thing after all. Seldom has a tutorial in the fundamentals of statecraft come at such an exorbitant cost.
About the Author
Andrew J. Bacevich is the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (April 2016).