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Stay the Course, Scale Down or Get Out?
March 15, 2017
Inroads Journal

David Kilcullen, Blood Year: The Unraveling of Western Counterterrorism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 312 pages.

Andrew Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. New York: Random House, 2016. 480 pages.

Derek Chollet, The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World. New York: PublicAffairs, 2016. 290 pages.

This review could easily list 15 or 20 books on U.S. involvement in the Middle East since 9/11, and most of them would agree with David Kilcullen that the United States should be devoting more resources to the “Global War on Terror.” Andrew Bacevich is far outside the foreign policy consensus in arguing that the United States should simply withdraw from the region because its war cannot be won. Derek Chollet makes the case that Barack Obama has steered a sensible middle course between the binary choices of escalation and withdrawal. That course has been something closer to the Cold War strategy of “containment,” whereby you trust that your enemy will eventually fall victim to its own inner contradictions. But if our hope is that Islamist regimes in the Middle East will come round to liberal or Enlightenment values, we may be in for a long wait.

Kilcullen, a former colonel in the Australian army, focuses on the expeditionary wars of the past 15 years against Afghanistan and Iraq. Although he describes Iraq as “the greatest strategic screw-up since Hitler’s invasion of Russia,” he argues that the United States should still be there, and in much greater force. Once you have made the commitment, he writes, you have “only two choices: you can leave early, or you can leave well.” Bacevich, also a retired colonel, views such maxims as excuses for staying indefinitely. He wants the United States to withdraw completely from its project of bing the hegemon of the Middle East.

How – and why – did the United States “get in” to begin with? Kilcullen has a strictly military perspective on what he calls “the War on Terrorism since 2001.” Bacevich goes back further, and takes a wider view. Before 1980, he notes, the United States had no significant military presence in the region and suffered few casualties there. Since then, thousands of U.S. soldiers have died in the Middle East (including Bacevich’s son, in 2005), but only a handful everywhere else in the world. What changed?

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