Andrew Bacevich: Last Act in the Mideast





[Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His book Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War is just out in paperback.]

Ever since Britain and France set out to dismember the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago, the West has been engaged in an incoherent, haphazard, episodic, but more or less relentless effort to impose its will on the Middle East. Methods have varied. Sometimes the “infidels” have employed overt force. At other times they have relied on covert means, worked through proxies, or recruited local puppets.

The purposes offered to justify Western exertions have likewise varied. With empire falling into disfavor, the pursuit of imperial aims has required conceptual creativity. Since 1945 resistance to communist subversion, a professed antipathy for brutal dictators, support for international law, and an enthusiasm for spreading freedom have all been pressed into service (albeit selectively) to legitimize outside intervention. Today’s “responsibility to protect” extends this tradition, offering the latest high-minded raison d’être for encroaching on the sovereignty of Middle Eastern states whenever the locals behave in ways that raise Western ire....

The results? As with the British, so with the Americans: an endless series of plots, alarms, excursions, and interventions ensued. Indeed, to combine first British and then American efforts to pacify the Middle East into a single seamless narrative is to describe an epic march to folly. Despite stupendous Western expenditures—the United States spent trillions trying to decide the fate of Iraq alone—the region as a whole has remained unpacified, untamed, unstable, and unpredictable. And now the ongoing Arab uprising has demonstrated that the people of the Middle East have an organic capacity to engineer change themselves, demolishing the patronizing notion that they (and by extension their neighbors) need outside oversight, guidance, or protection....

...Libya is an outlier. It won’t be and can’t be a bellwether. Apart from enabling policymakers in Washington, London, and Paris to reclaim a sense of self-importance, Western intervention in Libya will have little effect on the drama now unfolding in the Middle East. Pundits can talk of the United States shaping history. The truth is that history is shaping itself, while we are left to bear witness....


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