A Rage for Order, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, and Black Flags

By Robert F. Worth

By Andrew J. Bacevich

By Joby Warrick

There was a time, and that not long ago, when people had at least a general idea of what was happening in the Middle East. Whether you were for or against the invasion of Iraq, anyone could follow the latest developments in the news and consider him or herself reasonably well informed on the situation.

In comparison, the chaos that has followed the so-called Arab Spring (a violent aftermath inevitably dubbed the Arab Winter) has resulted in a situation practically incomprehensible to anyone but an expert. There are, for example, over half-a-dozen major players – foreign and domestic – fighting within Syria, while elsewhere along the region’s arc of instability the story is much the same. Who is fighting whom now in Yemen? Or in Libya?

At the end of his magisterial chronicle of the decades-long story of America’s War for the Greater Middle East Andrew J. Bacevich looks at the Fourth Gulf War (broadly, the current struggle against the Islamic State) and sees it as having given “new meaning to the term convoluted.” In A Rage for Order, Robert F. Worth’s attempt to explain these convolutions, the situation in Yemen is likened to “a pane of glass shattering into ever-smaller shards.” And there’s no putting that broken window back together again.

You’d need a scorecard just to keep track of the changing names. The Jordanian terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi began life as Ahmad Fadil al-Khalayleh. Zarqawi, whose story is told in Joby Warrick’s Black Flags, was radicalized in a Jordanian prison, ran away to join al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, returned home and started a terrorist group called Jund al-Sham, went back to Afghanistan, and then joined a group called Ansar al-Islam in Iraq (sometimes referred to as al-Qaeda in Iraq). Later he set up his own jihadist organization called al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. This would morph, eventually, into the organization now known as ISIS, ISIL, DAESH (these were all acronyms), or just Islamic State.

This confusion of names has some significance. If there is a Fourth Gulf War being fought against the Islamic State, who exactly does that label include? Does anyone really know?

Even the traditional split between Shia and Sunni Islam (with their leading state backers, Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively) isn’t very helpful. As with most wars of religion, religion isn’t as big an issue as it at first seems. Cross-sectional alliances of convenience come and go. And terrorism isn’t about religion as much as it’s about political ends anyway. Beyond these immediate ends one can glimpse deeper regional dysfunctions that have been at work now for over half a century: economies based on oil; large populations of young people with little in the way of opportunity (when Worth describes how, in Tunisia, “crowds of young men hang around all day in cafés, watching sports on TV and smoking” you know something bad is about to happen); a history of corrupt, authoritarian government; mass migrations of the dispossessed; and even the effects of climate change.

The Arab Spring was a time of hope, but seems now to have been a turning point when the Middle East didn’t turn. Those deeper dysfunctions I just mentioned weren’t going to be remedied overnight. And so, as Worth reports:

Five years after the outbreak of the Arab Spring, its original message appears to have been wholly reversed. The demands for dignity and civic rights have given way to conflicts that loosened the very building blocks of social and political belonging. The protesters who chanted for freedom and democracy in 2011 had found nothing solid beneath their feet, no common agreement on what those words meant.

Or, as W. B. Yeats put it in his poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” his anthem of political disillusion:

O what fine thought we had because we thought
That the worst rogues and rascals had died out.

O but we dreamed to mend
Whatever mischief seemed
To afflict mankind, but now
That winds of winter blow
Learn that we were crack-pated when we dreamed.


We, who seven years ago
Talked of honour and of truth,
Shriek with pleasure if we show
The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth.

So long to the rule of law and civil society. Hello “dragon-ridden days” and “Violence upon the roads.”

Worth covered the Middle East during these years for the New York Times, though he never seems to have had a high opinion of the place. Of Syria he writes:

I had been to Syria many times in the years before the revolution. I loved it the way you love an old abandoned junkyard, full of undervalued rusty relics that no one else has discovered. It was dim and depressing, with its collapsing old markets and decaying French mandate architecture, its medieval tunnels and dark silent bars, its dead cities full of crumbling stones and empty, lichen-clad cisterns.

And of Egypt:

I had been living in the Middle East on and off for more than seven years, and Cairo was a place that made me almost physically sick with its atmosphere of fatalism and decay.

Perhaps some of this is coloured by what came after. One senses a high level of frustration on Worth’s part at the collapse of the Arab Spring’s promise. His exasperation, however, is in part aggravated by the narrowness of his focus. The current situation is very much the product of long-term forces that were never going to respond to a quick fix, and A Rage for Order does not take a historical perspective. In addition, the focus is narrowed even further by political blinkers. “I have little to say about the role of the United States and other Western powers [in the collapse], because I believe it was mostly secondary,” he tells us up front in his Introduction. Nor is much said about Israel. The crises in countries like Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen are primarily the result of “indigenous” forces.

However much one may agree with this point of view, it makes A Rage for Order a nice complement to America’s War for the Greater Middle East, which takes a much wider view (the war in question begins in 1980 with Operation Eagle Claw, which was the failed attempt to free the American hostages in Iran), and which exclusively addresses America’s involvement in the region.

If Bacevich has a recurring theme it is the incoherence of American foreign policy during this period, which is something that came about largely as the product of shifting domestic political considerations. In a nutshell, the question “Why are we fighting over there?” has never been addressed because Americans haven’t wanted an honest answer. In his opening paragraph, Bacevich cuts to the chase:

From the outset, America’s War for the Greater Middle East was a war to preserve the American way of life, rooted in a specific understanding of freedom and requiring an abundance of cheap energy. In that sense, just at the American Revolution was about independence and the Civil War was about slavery, oil has always defined the raison d’être of the War for the Greater Middle East. Over time, other considerations intruded and complicated the war’s conduct, but oil as a prerequisite of freedom was from day one an abiding consideration.

Such directness is surprising for its candor. Obviously Bacevich is critical of America’s now longest war, but, a former military man himself, he is less critical of the military than the many recurring failures in political leadership there have been. The army won battles, but not wars; tactical success was betrayed by strategic failures. Nevertheless, a banner announcing victory, or some variation on “mission accomplished,” was necessary to sell the war politically back home. Americans were being lied to, but this was just the nature of democratic politics. The people were physically and  mentally insulated from what was happening on the other side of the world, and wanted to stay that way. In maintaining this state of blissful ignorance the media were happy to oblige.

American culpability for the present mess is a question of degree. With power comes responsibility. Out of incoherence, chaos has blossomed. There are some who have argued that chaos was America’s goal all along, as it frustrated any attempt at unifying the region under a nationalist strongman, but Bacevich won’t go that far. Instead he is willing to blame mistaken policies that created negative feedback loops. Even success could lead to failure, as every illusory victory provided a quick political hit. Kicking the “Vietnam syndrome once and for all” may not have been such a good idea, as that had at least held American aggression in check and provided some restraint on the use of force. In comparison, putative success in Afghanistan would lead to “a raging bout of victory disease” that “made [the U.S.] stupid.” “Here was an indication of what the passing of the Vietnam Syndrome portended – a heedless absence of self-restraint, with shallow moralistic impulses overriding thoughtful strategic analysis.” War had become a fix to boost poll numbers, and little more.

Bacevich’s book is essential reading: a thorough and clear-headed look at its subject, but one that should be read in conjunction with Worth’s reporting on the ground for a more rounded picture. As noted, the two complement each other nicely. A third book, Joby Warrick’s Black Flags offers up yet another perspective, the biographical, in providing a study of the short, violent life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Bacevich’s approach is less concerned with individual personalities, seeing such a focus as typical of America’s mistaken thinking: “mistaking symptom (terrorism) for disease (profound political and social dysfunction exacerbated by ill-advised U.S. policies.” The same message, however, is also delivered by Warrick, where the point is made that despite al-Zarqawi’s leading role in the rise of ISIS, his death did little to change facts on the ground. The final sentence of Black Flags signals the ongoing, indeed endless nature of the struggle: “The next morning, with fresh bombs attached to their wings, they [Jordanian fighter jets] would head north to attack again.” No closing curtain. No “The End.”

That’s not very upbeat, but then what is there to be optimistic about? As I write this review both of the two presumptive major party nominees to become the next president of the United States are far more hawkish than the outgoing Barack Obama. In Israel the government has taken an even further turn to the right and there is no longer any pretense of a “peace process.” There is armed conflict ongoing in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Egypt has installed a new military leader, perhaps even more corrupt than the last. This morning I watched two former American military men on CNN debating foreign policy, and offering contrasting yet equally depressing points of view. The one insisted that everything is fine in the Middle East and we just have to be patient. The other wanted to see an increase in the use of military force in order to do “whatever it takes” to get results.

Change is not an option. We should expect to see more of the same.

Review first published online June 9, 2016.

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