Celeste Ward Gventer is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who consults on a variety of defense and security issues in Europe and the Middle East.

On Dec. 19, 1971, Sir Geoffrey Arthur watched as HMS Achilles and HMS Intrepid pulled out of their berths at the port of Bahrain. The two ships carried off the last elements of Britain’s fighting forces remaining in the Persian Gulf in the post-World War II era. Arthur, the last political representative of the old British order, could still see the Intrepid on the horizon when two American destroyers hove up, escorted by Bahraini tugs, to occupy the vacated slips. Arthur rightly understood this event to be an augury of things to come. Indeed, the scene could hardly have been more aptly choreographed to signal a changing of the guard in the gulf and in the wider Middle East.

Andrew Bacevich bluntly sums up this symbolic transfer of responsibility: “That was not a baton that the Americans were grasping but a can of worms.” In his new book, “America’s War for the Greater Middle East,” the historian and retired U.S. Army colonel provides a critical review of American policy and military involvement in what he calls the Greater Middle East over the past 35 years.

Those familiar with Bacevich’s work will recognize the clarity of expression, the devastating directness and the coruscating wit that characterize the writing of one of the most articulate and incisive living critics of American foreign policy. The central argument of the book is that the U.S. experience in the Middle East over the past 3 1/2 decades is not a disconnected series of largely unsuccessful military engagements but a virtually continuous war in the heart of the Islamic world that persists to this day. His opening note to readers previews what his nearly 400 pages ineluctably reveal about this ongoing war: “We have not won it. We are not winning it. Simply trying harder is unlikely to produce a different outcome.”

For Bacevich, the turning point is not the departure of the British in 1971 but a proclamation by President Jimmy Carter in his January 1980 State of the Union address: “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” This Carter Doctrine, by the author’s lights, was aimed primarily at ensuring the uninterrupted flow of cheap energy and ushered in a new era. A region that the U.S. armed forces “had by and large steered clear of . . . leaving it in the hands of diplomats and spooks” (or at least the British) became a core interest — and area of operations — for the military.

"America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History" by Andrew J. Bacevich (Random House)

This date makes sense. As Bacevich observes: “From the end of World War II to 1980, virtually no American soldiers were killed in action while serving in that region. . . . Since 1990, virtually no American soldiers have been killed in action anywhere except in the Greater Middle East.” He reminds readers that in the decade between the departure of the British military and Carter’s announcement, the U.S. government’s solution to regional stability in the Greater Middle East was to outsource. After the shambles in Vietnam, the Nixon administration handed the task of keeping regional peace to local allies (an approach that earned its own moniker — you guessed it — the Nixon Doctrine). In the gulf, the United States supported its twin pillars, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Arms sales soared, and Carter feted the shah’s Iran as “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas” (a moment, Bacevich observes, that was destined for the “blooper reel”).

But events in the region over the course of the 1970s gradually suggested to many that the challenges in the Persian Gulf required a U.S. military solution. In Bacevich’s reading, the foremost rationale was a perceived need to protect American and allied access to oil. Both the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan convinced many of the undecided, Carter included, that it was crunch time. The vulnerability of America’s “coronary artery,” and that of its allies, had become intolerable. In ensuing years, the United States would seek further basing options in the region, develop contingency plans for a Soviet invasion of Iran and eventually establish Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters responsible for the planning and conduct of military operations in the region.

A review of U.S. operations there makes it difficult to dispute Bacevich’s central premise: that American military engagement in the Greater Middle East has not been crowned with success. From the disastrous attempted rescue of hostages in Iran in April 1980, in which eight Americans were killed, to the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, where 241 servicemen perished, to the tragic 1993 operation in Somalia, in which 18 Americans and countless Somalis lost their lives, all the way to the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which claimed the lives of more than 5,000 Americans, in almost every case American military intervention has brought disaster, failed to achieve its objectives or been strategically irrelevant.

Some might point to the 1991 Persian Gulf War as a resounding triumph, but Bacevich cautions that “victory served to foster illusions and underwrite folly.” Despite the dazzling success of U.S. military forces, the strategic outcome was negligible and did little to address the deeper challenges facing the region. More pernicious was the self-congratulation and widespread “belief that the United States now enjoyed unparalleled military supremacy.” This “fundamental misreading” of Desert Storm, in Bacevich’s view, would lead the United States to woe.

Some readers will consider Bacevich’s inclusion of the Balkans as part of the Greater Middle East an unconvincing contrivance to put the 1990s into the service of his argument. But there is a larger problem with Bacevich’s pitch. What would he have had the United States do differently, and how could things have turned out better in the repeated cases of failure he describes?

Many of the failures that are self-evident to us today were not, and often could not have been, foretold. U.S. policy at any given time may have been the least bad option, even if things did not turn up roses or there were unintended consequences no one predicted. Bacevich does not explain how different decisions by U.S. policymakers over time would have delivered a more satisfactory outcome to this “war for the Greater Middle East.” His critique would also have been strengthened by a greater empathy for decision-makers facing radical uncertainty and complexity, an unknown future, and few easy choices, and by allowing that smart, patriotic public servants sometimes get it right.

Bacevich seems to concede that the Carter Doctrine had a coherent strategic rationale. His real beef is the steady expansion of the mission for reasons that have become less and less clear. In his view, America’s approach to the region has slipped its mooring to national interests. The original motivating forces behind U.S. policy have disappeared, yet the American military footprint in the region persists, seemingly as an end in itself. “Like the war on drugs or the war on poverty, the War for the Greater Middle East has become a permanent fixture in American life and is accepted as such,” he writes. Despite President Obama’s advertised view that his administration has taken a substantially different approach to the region, the ineffective Afghanistan surge of 2009, the ill-fated Libya operation in 2011, the thousands of drone strikes, the steady increase in the number of U.S. trainers in Iraq and the expanded airstrikes against the Islamic State tell a different story.

Why can’t we seem to get out? Bacevich offers reasons that will be familiar to readers of his other works. He takes aim at Washington and the widely held assumptions that feed a “collective naiveté” about the nature of American preponderance and the utility of military power. He notes that some simply have much to gain from continuing the status quo. Meanwhile, the lack of any meaningful opposition to military intervention abroad and comprehensive disinterest among the public ensure that a small elite in Washington will make the decisions about war and peace. As Bacevich has written extensively about, the all-volunteer U.S. military, in which less than 1 percent of the American population serves, puts the general public at a comfortable remove from any real consequences of policy. Most people remain, in Bacevich’s view, unaware — and fundamentally uninterested — in the matter.

If America’s military fortunes in the region have not changed the nation’s approach, Washington is apparently not alone in missing the plot. A December 2014 article in the British newspaper the Telegraph revealed that Britain would open a permanent naval base in the Persian Gulf, explicitly announcing a return to “East of Suez.” Britain plans to take on a greater role in the region as the United States allegedly pivots to Asia. British warships will be returning to Bahrain, headquartered not far from the berths they departed more than 44 years ago.

America’s War for the greater middle east
A Military History

By Andrew J. Bacevich

Random House. 453 pp. $30