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Misuse of American Military Power Leaves the Middle East in Chaos

Posted on Feb 22, 2017

By Danny Sjursen / TomDispatch

    A mural on the abandoned U.S embassy in Tehran. (Desmond Kavanagh / CC BY-ND 2.0)

The United States has already lost—its war for the Middle East, that is. Having taken my own crack at combat soldiering in both Iraq and Afghanistan, that couldn’t be clearer to me. Unfortunately, it’s evidently still not clear in Washington. Bush’s neo-imperial triumphalism failed. Obama’s quiet shift to drones, Special Forces, and clandestine executive actions didn’t turn the tide either. For all President Trump’s bluster, boasting, and threats, rest assured that, at best, he’ll barely move the needle and, at worst… but why even go there? 

At this point, it’s at least reasonable to look back and ask yet again: Why the failure? Explanations abound, of course. Perhaps Americans were simply never tough enough and still need to take off the kid gloves. Maybe there just weren’t ever enough troops. (Bring back the draft!) Maybe all those hundreds of thousands of bombs and missiles just came up short. (So how about lots more of them, maybe even a nuke?) 

Lead from the front. Lead from behind. Surge yet again… The list goes on—and on and on. 

And by now all of it, including Donald Trump’s recent tough talk, represents such a familiar set of tunes. But what if the problem is far deeper and more fundamental than any of that? 

Square, Site wide
Here our nation stands, 15-plus years after 9/11, engaged militarily in half a dozen countries across the Greater Middle East, with no end in sight. Perhaps a more critical, factual reading of our recent past would illuminate the futility of America’s tragic, ongoing project to somehow “destroy” terrorism in the Muslim world.

The standard triumphalist version of the last 100 or so years of our history might go something like this: in the twentieth century, the United States repeatedly intervened, just in the nick of time, to save the feeble Old World from militarism, fascism, and then, in the Cold War, communism.  It did indeed save the day in three global wars and might have lived happily ever after as the world’s “sole superpower” if not for the sudden emergence of a new menace.  Seemingly out of nowhere, “Islamo-fascists” shattered American complacence with a sneak attack reminiscent of Pearl Harbor.  Collectively the people asked: Why do they hate us?  Of course, there was no time to really reflect, so the government simply got to work, taking the fight to our new “medieval” enemies on their own turf.  It’s admittedly been a long, hard slog, but what choice did our leaders have?  Better, after all, to fight them in Baghdad than Brooklyn.

What if, however, this foundational narrative is not just flawed but little short of delusional? Alternative accounts lead to wholly divergent conclusions and are more likely to inform prudent policy in the Middle East. 

Let’s reconsider just two key years for the United States in that region: 1979 and 2003.  America’s leadership learned all the wrong “lessons” from those pivotal moments and has intervened there ever since on the basis of some perverse version of them with results that have been little short of disastrous.  A more honest narrative of those moments would lead to a far more modest, minimalist approach to a messy and tragic region.  The problem is that there seems to be something inherently un-American about entertaining such thoughts.

1979 Revisited

Through the first half of the Cold War, the Middle East remained a sideshow.  In 1979, however, all that changed radically.  First, rising protests against the brutal police state of the American-backed Shah of Iran led to regime collapse, the return of dissident ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the declaration of an Islamic Republic. Then Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, holding 52 hostages for more than 400 days.  Of course, by then few Americans remembered the CIA-instigated coup of 1953 that had toppled a democratically elected Iranian prime minister, preserved Western oil interests in that country, and started both lands on this path (though Iranians clearly hadn’t forgotten).  The shock and duration of the hostage crisis undoubtedly ensured that Jimmy Carter would be a one-term president and—to make matters worse—Soviet troops intervened in Afghanistan to shore up a communist government there. It was quite a year.

The alarmist conventional narrative of these events went like this: the radical mullahs running Iran were irrational zealots with an inexplicable loathing for the American way of life.  As if in a preview of 9/11, hearing those chants against “the Great Satan,” Americans promptly began asking with true puzzlement: Why do they hate us?  The hostage crisis challenged world peace.  Carter had to do something. Worse yet, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan represented blatant conquest and spotlighted the possibility of Red Army hordes pushing through to Iran en route to the Persian Gulf’s vast oil reserves.  It might prove the opening act of the long awaited Soviet scheme for world domination or a possible path to World War III.

Misinformed by such a tale that they repeatedly told themselves, Washington officials then made terrible choices in the Middle East.  Let’s start with Iran.  They mistook a nationalist revolution and subsequent civil war within Islam for a singular attack on the U.S.A.  With little consideration of genuine Iranian gripes about the brutal U.S.-backed dynasty of the Shah or the slightest appreciation for the complexity of that country’s internal dynamics, they created a simple-minded but convenient narrative in which the Iranians posed an existential threat to this country.  Little has changed in almost four decades.

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