A presumption that using military power signified to friends and foes that Washington was getting serious about a problem diminished the role of diplomats and diplomacy. “ ‘Getting serious’ also implied a preference for uniforms over suits as the principal agents of U.S. policy,” Bacevich writes. “Henceforth, rather than military power serving as the handmaiden of diplomacy, the reverse would be true.”
In another repeated mistake, triumphalist American commanders prematurely declare victory without realizing that their opponent has simply withdrawn to fight another day as a guerrilla force, as occurred in Afghanistan in 2001. They also personalize the enemy, wrongly assuming that the removal of figures like Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and Muammar Qaddafi will instantly end conflict.
From Somalia in 1993 to Yemen today, American commanders and policy makers overestimated the advantage American military technology bestows on them. And most crucially of all, the United States has failed to decide whether it is, in fact, at war.
“In the war for the greater Middle East, the United States chose neither to contain nor to crush, instead charting a course midway in between,” Bacevich writes. “Instead of intimidating, U.S. military efforts have annoyed, incited and generally communicated a lack of both competence and determination.” The historical forces at work in the Middle East are different from the dynamics that led to American victories in World War II and the Cold War. American officials have failed to understand that. What’s more, a deluded Washington foreign policy establishment believes that an American way of life based on “consumption and choice” will be accepted over time in the “Islamic world.”
But it is here, in his description of the “Islamic world,” that Bacevich stumbles. What is missing in this book about “the greater Middle East” are the people of the greater Middle East. Bacevich’s most highly developed Muslim character in these pages is Saddam Hussein. The former Afghan president Hamid Karzai is a distant second. Beyond those two, the rest of the world’s estimated 1.6 billion Muslims come across as two-dimensional caricatures.
And so Bacevich lumps together vastly different nationalities — from Bosnians to Iraqis to Somalis — often referring to all of them primarily as “Muslims.” The dizzying complexities of each country’s history, politics, culture, resources and rivalries are missing. And when it comes to how “Muslims” view the world, Bacevich veers into the simplistic essentialism that he accuses Washington policy makers of following.
Bacevich suggests that in the “Islamic world” lifestyles based on “consumption and choice” might not work. Such broad-brush statements might well be considered simplistic and even bigoted if applied to other faiths. Can one contend that a “Christian world,” “Hindu world” or “Jewish world” exists? Are such generalizations analytically useful? Do the world’s hundreds of millions of Muslims practice their faith identically?