November 4, 2014

“What should we call it?” asked Professor Andrew Bacevich, who was lecturing on United States involvement in the Middle East over the last 30 years.

Arguing that “war on terror” is a misleading name, Bacevich said that events such as the Beirut bombing, the Black Hawk Down incident, and the Iraq invasion of 2003 actually form a single narrative of America’s war for the greater Middle East.

“We have not won it, we are not winning it,” he said.

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Bacevich, a specialist in 20th-century U. S. diplomatic and military history and a professor emeritus at Boston University, is teaching at SIPA this semester as Columbia University’s first George S. McGovern Visiting Professor. His remarks, entitled “Ten Theses: Lessons from America’s War for the Greater Middle East,” came as the inaugural George McGovern Lecture on Tuesday, October 28.

In his first thesis Bacevich argued that influencing populations matters, that “people constitute this war’s center of gravity.” In this, he said, the United States is at a disadvantage because its efforts are tainted by previous imperialist European efforts.

The second thesis highlighted the role of technology (such as used in precision airstrikes) and the lack of American appetite for boots on the ground. His third thesis addressed strategy, with Bacevich arguing that American policy in the Middle East has been reactive and lacked debate in Washington.

“In lieu of strategy we have platitudes,” he said.

Fourth, Bacevich argued that the national security apparatus has become an industry lacking fresh ideas. His fifth thesis addressed generalship and the inadequacy of senior officers waging current wars, while his sixth thesis addressed the U.S. military system. He argued that praising American military forces has encouraged political irresponsibility while phrases such as “we support the troops” have become cheap graces.

Bacevich’s seventh thesis highlighted the political economy of war, arguing that too much war has been waged with too few warriors—leading to a dependence on private security firms as well as corruption being committed on a massive level.

In this eighth thesis Bacevich focused on history. He argued that American history of the Middle East is full of selective memories and that we need to look deeper into the past, to moments like the Sykes–Picot Agreement, the World War I-era pact that began to draw the borders of the modern Middle East.

Regarding regional allies, the subject of his ninth thesis, Bacevich made the case that Washington has done a lazy job of picking allies specifically pointing to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. He highlighted that American and Israeli interests have diverged and that the United States has created unwanted complications for itself.

Bacevich’s 10th and final thesis centered on religion. He argued that American leaders can insist that the United States isn’t at war with Islam, but that that sentiment falls on deaf ears in the Middle East. The solution, he said, will be found looking beyond the military realm.

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