Social Work with Guns

Andrew Bacevich

By escalating the war in Afghanistan – sending an additional 34,000 US reinforcements in order to ‘finish the job’ that President Bush began but left undone – Barack Obama has implicitly endorsed Bush’s conviction that war provides an antidote to violent anti-Western jihadism. By extension, Obama is perpetuating the effort begun in 1980 to establish American dominion over the Middle East, hoping through the vigorous exercise of hard power to prolong the postwar Pax Americana. In ways that Obama himself may only dimly appreciate, his decision on Afghanistan affirms the pre-existing character of US foreign policy. But by advocating ‘counter-insurgency’, the McChrystal report also represents a tacit acknowledgment that a decades-long military reform project has definitively failed.

Understanding the contradiction at the heart of McChrystal’s report requires a quick survey of the way the United States managed to mire itself in its current predicament. It’s a tale of recurring miscalculation and disappointment followed by intensified military exertions yielding disappointment on a larger scale. It began in 1979, when Jimmy Carter formulated his response to the twin shocks of the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Carter Doctrine, promulgated just weeks after the Red Army entered Afghanistan, declared the Persian Gulf a vital US national security interest and committed the United States to using ‘any means necessary, including military force’ to secure that interest. To make the commitment credible, the Pentagon created the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF), an embryonic instrument of military intervention. At the urging of his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter also initiated a programme of covert assistance to the Afghan mujahedin resisting the Soviet occupation. Oblivious (or indifferent) to the potential consequences of destabilising Afghanistan, Brzezinski hoped to turn it into Russia’s Vietnam.

Under Ronald Reagan, the RDJTF matured into United States Central Command. Reagan increased the flow of weapons and support to the mujahedin, whom he hailed as ‘freedom fighters’ and compared to the Founding Fathers. He also experimented with recruiting other proxies, such as Israel and Iraq, though with little success. Giving Israel the green light to destroy the PLO led to the Lebanon debacle in 1982. Cynically supporting Saddam Hussein in his war of aggression against the mullahs in Tehran led to pointless slaughter. Each of these episodes opened a door through which US forces entered the region. In the hope of checking Lebanon’s slide towards disintegration, Reagan dispatched a contingent of Marines to Beirut; the mission ended in failure when a Shia suicide bomber killed 241 Americans on 23 October 1983. When in 1987 the Iran-Iraq War reached stalemate, threatening to disrupt the flow of Persian Gulf oil, US naval forces assumed responsibility for escorting tankers across the Gulf, managing among other things to shoot down an Iranian commercial airliner, killing all 290 people on board.

Beirut horrified Americans. Here was a blunder that must never be repeated. Yet in the years that followed, further efforts to bring ‘peace’ to the wider Middle East produced much bloodshed and little peace. The Reagan administration pointed to US intervention in the Tanker War as the model of how to get things done: a short, sharp military campaign that neatly solved a vexing problem. Yet the Tanker War solved nothing, though the incidental killing of Iranian civilians proved a precursor of moral snares to come. Under Reagan, a pattern began to emerge: advocates of military action concocted schemes that promised to fix things at an acceptable cost. When events did not go the expected way, they devised new plans and insisted that more force would do the trick.

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