How Americans Came to Die in the Middle East
Cantoni presents a historical picture on many levels as to what has happened and is still going on in the Middle East.
How Americans Came to Die in the Middle East by Craig Cantoni
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.
It’s 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 endorsed.
The key question, as in all history, is where to begin the history lesson.
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.
We also 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.
Another 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.
Still 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.)
It’s 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 ask.
It also 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.
Anyway, 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.”
Actually, 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 Revolution.
Then in 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, Saddam Hussein.
Wolfowitz would later become a deputy to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld under the presidency of George W. Bush.
Note that 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.
Until the 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.
Strategic 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.
In each 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.
America’s involvement in Afghanistan is instructive.
Our 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.
Trapped in 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.
The outcry 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 aid.
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.
In any 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 proxy wars.
Speaking of 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.
Also 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.
After the 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.)
Afghanistan wasn’t the first or last time that the USA would arm terrorists, despots, and future enemies.
Another time was the Iran-Contra affair, in which the Reagan administration unlawfully funneled arms to Iran.
Still 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.
Yet another 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.
It didn’t 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.
Notably, 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.”
An 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.
But I’m 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.
At first, 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.
There were 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 cake.
The second blowback was the terrorist bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 service personnel.
To his 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.
Then there 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.
Ghaddafi 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 Muslim lands.
To summarize, from when Wolfowitz wrote his paper in 1979 to the present, the following military campaigns and operations have taken place:
- Iraq: Desert Storm, Southern Watch, Desert Strike, Northern Watch, Desert Fox, Iraqi Freedom, New Dawn, Inherent Resolve
- Iran: Eagle Claw
- Afghanistan: Cyclone, Infinite Reach, Enduring Freedom, Freedom’s Sentinel
- Pakistan: Neptune Spear
- Persian Gulf: Earnest Will, Nimble Archer, Praying Mantis
- Syria: Inherent Resolve
- Saudi Arabia: Desert Shield, Desert Focus
- Yemen: Determined Response
- Somalia: Restore Hope, Gothic Serpent
- Bosnia: Deny Flight, Joint Endeavor
- Kosovo: Allied Force, Joint Guardian
- Lebanon: Multinational Force
- Libya: El Dorado Canyon, Odyssey Dawn
- Egypt: Bright Star
- Sudan: Infinite Reach
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.
On second 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.
Maybe 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.
Craig J. Cantoni