Americans Came to Kill in the Middle East
- The writing of this historical synopsis
began yesterday, Memorial Day. It is an attempt by
this former artillery officer with a father buried
in a veteran’s cemetery to understand why brave
Americans were sent to their death in the Middle
East and are still dying there.
The hope is
that we finally can learn from history and not keep
repeating the same mistakes.
important to stick to the facts, since the history
of the Middle East already has been grossly
distorted by partisan finger-pointing and by denial
and cognitive dissonance among the politicians,
foreign policy experts (in their own minds), and
media blowhards and literati on the left and right,
who now claim that they had nothing to do with
grievous policy mistakes that they had once
question, as in all history, is where to begin the
We could go
all the way back to religious myths, especially the
ones about Moses and the Ten Commandments and about
Mohammed and his flying horse. Or on a related note,
we could go back to the schism that took place
between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the seventh
century. Such history is relevant, because American
soldiers have been foolishly inserted in the middle
of the competing myths and irreconcilable schism,
but without the inserters acknowledging the
religious minefields and steering clear of them.
could go back to the First World War and the defeat
of the Ottoman Empire, when France and Britain
carved up the Middle East into unnatural client
states, when Arabs were given false promises of
self-determination, when American geologists
masqueraded as archeologists as they surreptitiously
surveyed for oil, and when the United States joined
Saudi Arabia at the hip through the joint oil
venture of Aramco.
starting point could be 1948, when the United
States, under the lead of President Truman,
supported the formal establishment of the Jewish
State of Israel, thus reversing the longstanding
opposition to Zionism by many (most?) American and
European Jews and non-Jews. One can endlessly debate
the plusses and minuses of our alliance with Israel,
as well as the morality of Israel’s violent founding
and the violent Palestinian resistance. But it’s
undeniable that the alliance has led many Muslims to
put a target on Uncle Sam’s back.
another starting point could be the 1953 coup d’état
against the democratically-elected Iranian President
Mohammad Mosaddegh, orchestrated by the CIA in
conjunction with the Brits. The coup was triggered
when Mosaddegh demanded an auditing of the books of
the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a British company
known today as BP. He threatened nationalization
when the British refused to allow the audit. He was
replaced by the Shah of Iran, who was seen by many
Iranians and Arabs as a puppet of the United States.
(Ironically, during the Second World War, Great
Britain and the Soviet Union had occupied Iran and
deposed an earlier shah.)
considered unpatriotic to ask how my fellow
Americans would feel if the tables had been turned
and Iranians had deposed an American president and
replaced him with their lackey. Therefore, I won’t
would be unpatriotic to ask how we’d feel if
Iranians had shot down one of our passenger jets, as
we had shot down one of theirs in 1988 as it was
crossing the Persian Gulf to Dubai from Tehran.
Again, I’m not asking.
let’s return to the Shah. Starting with President
Nixon and continuing with President Carter, the USA
sold weapons to the Shah worth billions of dollars.
There was even an agreement to sell nuclear reactors
to him. Those weapons would later be used by Iran
against the U.S. in the Persian Gulf after we had
sided with Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran.
At a state
dinner in Tehran on December 31, 1977, the Shah
toasted President Carter. Carter responded
effusively, saying that Iran was “an island of
stability in one of the more troubled areas of the
world.” He went on to say: This is a great tribute
to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership and to
the respect and the admiration and love which your
people give to you.”
most Iranians hated the Shah. Two years later, on
January 16, 1979, the unpopular Shah fled into exile
after losing control of the country to Shiite cleric
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his Iranian
October of that year, Carter allowed the Shah to
come to the USA for medical treatment. Responding
with rage, Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy
in Tehran and took embassy personnel hostage, in a
hostage drama that would last 444 days, including a
failed attempt to rescue the hostages that left dead
American soldiers and burnt helicopters in Iran. The
drama ended on the day that Carter left office.
But none of
the above events is where our history of American
lives lost in the Middle East should begin. It
should begin in the summer of 1979, with a report
written by a low-level Defense Department official
by the name of Paul Wolfowitz. His “Limited
Contingency Study” assessed the political,
geopolitical, sectarian, ethnic, and military
situation in the Middle East and recommended a more
active American involvement in the region, including
possible military intervention to blunt the Soviet
Union’s influence, protect our access to oil, and
thwart the ambitions of Iraq under its dictator,
would later become a deputy to Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld under the presidency of George W.
Wolfowitz’s paper was written long before 9/11 and
long before the toppling of Saddam Hussein in the
Second Gulf War after he was accused of having
weapons of mass destruction.
Wolfowitz report, the USA had taken a rather passive
and indirect role in the Middle East, placing it
secondary to other geopolitical matters and using
proxies and intelligence “spooks” to protect its
interests in the region. Of course this low-level
interference in the affairs of other nations was not
seen as low level by the targets of the actions. To
use common vernacular, it pissed them off, just as
it would have pissed us off if the roles had been
reversed. But again, it’s unpatriotic to consider
the feelings of others, especially if they are seen
as the enemy, or backwards, or religious zealots.
and tactical thinking began to change with the
Wolfowitz paper. Plans started to be developed for
military action to replace more benign approaches.
Eventually, the plans indeed resulted in military
actions, ranging from full-scale war to bombing from
the air to drone warfare, in such places as Lebanon,
Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Syria, Yemen,
Pakistan, and Somalia (the locale of “Blackhawk
Down”), with side actions outside of the Middle East
in Bosnia and Kosovo.
case the American military performed admirably and
often exceptionally, but less so for Defense
Department analysts, for Congress and the White
House, for the press on the left and right, or for
the public at large—most of whom got caught up in
the passions of the moment and didn’t understand the
cultures they were dealing with and didn’t think
through the unintended consequences of military
actions in lands where Western concepts of justice,
fairness, equality, tolerance, pluralism, religious
freedom, diversity, and multiculturalism were as
foreign and out of place as an American tourist
wearing flipflops and shorts in a mosque.
involvement in Afghanistan is instructive.
interest in the godforsaken country began with the
1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, an invasion
that was triggered by Soviet concern that the
instability of the country would spread to the
nearby Soviet Union.
a cold war time warp, the USA mistakenly thought
that the invasion might be a precursor to the
Soviets advancing through Iran to capture oil fields
in the Persian Gulf. Both the conservative and
liberal press advanced this notion and accused
President Carter of being weak. It was a variant of
the domino theory that had led to the Vietnam War,
and it grossly overestimated the military and
economic prowess of the Soviet Union—a myth that
continues today with ludicrous concerns that
enfeebled Russia will use the North Caucus region as
a springboard to conquer Europe.
over the invasion of Afghanistan led Carter to issue
the Carter Doctrine, which essentially made the
Middle East a protectorate of the United States.
Arrangements began to be coordinated with allies in
the region to build American military bases in the
Persian Gulf and increase arms sales and foreign
Countervailing views were ignored, including the
opinion of Hermann Eilts, former U.S. ambassador to
Egypt and Saudi Arabia and a negotiator who had
helped to broker the Egypt-Israel peace agreement.
He warned that American military action in the
Persian Gulf and elsewhere would be viewed as
“blatant imperialism” and feed anti-Americanism.
event, instead of sweeping through Iran and into the
oil fields of the Persian Gulf, the Soviets became
mired in the land of poppy seeds, goats, and tribal
hatreds, just as we would later follow suit and
where we remain mired to this day. The costs of the
Soviet war in Afghanistan was a factor in
Perestroika and the eventual collapse of the Soviet
Union—events that probably would have happened on
their own without President Reagan’s efforts to
bankrupt the Soviet Union through an arms race and
Reagan, there is a famous photo of him meeting in
the White House in 1983 with Afghan jihadists in
their beards and traditional robes and turbans. At
the time, the USA was arming its future enemies in
Afghanistan, at a total cost of over $4 billion.
Conservative talk-radio hosts would be apoplectic if
there were such a meeting between President Obama
and jihadists, but they have conveniently forgotten
the photo of Reagan.
forgotten is the Reagan administration referring to
the mujahedin as “noble savages” who were fighting
“for an abstract idea of freedom.” Afghanistan Day
was added to the official state calendar as a way of
showing support for the “freedom fighters” who were
defending the “principles of independence and
freedom that form the basis of global security and
stability,” including “the right to practice
religion according to the dictates of conscience.”
Reagan even dedicated an upcoming flight of the
space shuttle Columbia to Afghans who demonstrated
“man’s highest aspirations for freedom” by resisting
the Soviet occupation.
Soviets departed from Afghanistan, Americans on the
left and right celebrated what supposedly had been
done by America to speed the departure. Even
Hollywood got into the act with the movie “Charlie
Wilson’s War.” But as Andrew J. Bacevich writes in
America’s War for the Middle East, “A
raging bout of victory disease had made them
[American policymakers] stupid.” (Parts of this
commentary are based on the superb book.)
wasn’t the first or last time that the USA would arm
terrorists, despots, and future enemies.
time was the Iran-Contra affair, in which the Reagan
administration unlawfully funneled arms to Iran.
another was the arming of Saddam Hussein in his long
war with Iran from 1980 to 1988. While we were
arming Hussein, our ally Israel was selling U.S.
arms and spare parts to the Khomeini regime.
time was the arming of Saudi Arabia and the
expansion of an American military presence in the
kingdom, especially after Saddam attacked Kuwait in
1990 and President George H. W. Bush responded with
the First Gulf War. A wealthy Saudi took exception
to the American presence in his country and
America’s interference in what he saw as a matter
between Arabs. His name was Osama bin Laden.
matter to the USA then, and doesn’t seem to matter
now, that Saudi Arabia was a major exporter of
terrorism and the home of the radical sect of Islam
known as Wahhaism, or Salafism. Later, of course, 15
of the 19 terrorists involved with the 9/11
terrorist attack would be Saudis. Yet Saddam Hussein
and Iraq were to be blamed as the haven of al Qaeda.
once the Iraqi army was defeated in the First Gulf
War, the senior Bush did not go on to occupy Iraq
and depose Saddam. Having once headed the CIA, Bush
no doubt understood that doing so would remove the
Sunni counterbalance to Shiite Iran. His son, George
W. Bush, apparently had no such qualms in 2003 at
the start of the Second Gulf War, which not only
resulted in the occupation of Iraq but also removed
the Sunni counterbalance to Shiite Iran, as well as
creating a power vacuum in which ISIS (aka ISIL)
took root in Iraq and Syria.
Most of the
American media also had no qualms about the Second
Gulf War. Max Boot, the former editorial editor of
the Wall Street Journal, was typical. He wrote in
the Weekly Standard that historians would see the
invasion of Iraq as “the moment when the powerful
antibiotic known as democracy was introduced into
the diseased environment of the Middle East, and
began to transform the region for the better.”
acquaintance of mine, Charles Goyette, saw things
differently. A talk-radio host on conservative KFYI
in Phoenix, Goyette was learned in history and
understood the folly of the invasion, which was such
blasphemy in talk-radio circles that he was replaced
by a true believer.
getting ahead of myself. Let’s return to President
Reagan, and in particular, his foray into Lebanon in
1982, a foray that followed Wolfowitz’s script for
projecting U.S. power.
the insertion of Marines into the middle of the
Lebanon civil war seemed to be a success. Reagan and
the media celebrated, just like George W. Bush and
the media would later celebrate the American victory
in the Second Gulf War, until the blowback from the
victory rained on the celebrations.
two blowbacks to the intervention in Lebanon. The
first was Israel standing by and doing nothing as
Christian Phalangists massacred Palestinians in a
refugee camp. The massacre would lead to the
establishment of Hezbollah and to Reagan angrily
denouncing Israel. By comparison, President Obama’s
later snubbing of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu
would look like a children’s game of friendly patty
blowback was the terrorist bombing of the Marine
barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 service
credit, Reagan withdrew American troops from Lebanon
after the bombing. Tellingly, he wasn’t excoriated
by the conservative press for doing so, unlike the
outrage that would have occurred if President Obama
had been the one turning tail.
was Reagan’s hatred of the nut job and Libyan
dictator Muammar Ghaddafi. Reagan thought that
killing the head of Libya would stop the country
from financing and exporting terrorism and would
enable the blossoming of democracy. Reagan didn’t
succeed in killing Ghaddafi, but if had succeeded,
no doubt the outcome wouldn’t have been much
different from when Obama would later be encouraged
to come to the aid of Libyan rebels as part of the
so-called Arab Spring.
would be captured and killed by rebels in 2011,
after a convoy he was riding in was bombed by a
French fighter jet as part of NATO’s military
actions in the country, led by the United States.
Libya soon descended into chaos, civil war, and
anarchy. Those who had encouraged Obama to take
action in Libya would quickly forget their own
complicity and blame Obama for not doing enough to
stop the resultant bloodshed. Once again, it was
believed that removing a strong man would magically
enable the flourishing of Western-style liberty in
summarize, from when Wolfowitz wrote his paper in
1979 to the present, the following military
campaigns and operations have taken place:
Desert Storm, Southern Watch, Desert Strike,
Northern Watch, Desert Fox, Iraqi Freedom, New
Dawn, Inherent Resolve
Cyclone, Infinite Reach, Enduring Freedom,
Earnest Will, Nimble Archer, Praying Mantis
Desert Shield, Desert Focus
Restore Hope, Gothic Serpent
Deny Flight, Joint Endeavor
Allied Force, Joint Guardian
El Dorado Canyon, Odyssey Dawn
Source: America’s War for
the Greater Middle East
The cost of
the foregoing campaigns and operations were 7,421
Americans killed, 52,278 Americans wounded,
trillions of dollars spent, and Veteran’s hospitals
overflowing with veterans with physical and
psychological wounds. Yet with few exceptions in the
Middle East, terrorism still thrives and democracy
and liberal values have not. Maybe it’s time to
question our assumptions and premises regarding the
use of military power.
thought, maybe I shouldn’t have begun my history
lesson with the Wolfowitz paper. Maybe I should’ve
started over one hundred thousand years ago, when
Homo sapiens stood upright, walked into the African
savannah, and organized into clans and tribes to
fight other clans and tribes over resources. Those
with bones through their nose became the enemy of
those with bones through their lip, just as today’s
Crips and Bloods are enemies, just as Sunnis and
Shiites are enemies, just as Israelis and
Palestinians are enemies, and just as Islamists and
American infidels are enemies.
humans are hardwired to fight other tribes. Maybe
the reason that so many Americans have died in the
Middle East is as simple and discouraging as that.
Cantoni is a former military officer whose father is
in a veteran’s cemetery.
artice was first published at "MishTalk"