U.S. Air Force war planes fly over burning oil wells during Operation Desert Storm, 1991. Photograph: United States Air Force

President Barack Obama owes his 2008 election in large part to the deep desire among citizens for a new foreign policy following the disastrous Iraq War. But when he leaves the White House next year, as when he entered it, that policy will still be overwhelmingly concerned with armed conflict in the Middle East.

This is not a recent condition. In his Tanner Lectures, recently delivered at Stanford University’s Bowen H. McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, and in his new book Americas War for the Greater Middle East, retired Army colonel and international relations scholar Andrew J. Bacevich situates today’s engagements in the context of a decades-long quest for U.S. domination in the Muslim and Arab world.

Journalist Stephen Kinzer joined Bacevich to dig into the history. Why and how did the United States become fixated on the Middle East? Why has the country been willing to spill so much blood—native and foreign—there? And have we learned anything yet?

—The Editors

Stephen Kinzer: Since the end of World War II, the United States has been involved in repeated interventions in the Middle East. You see them as part of a long continuum. Why do you think that framing is accurate and enlightening?

Andrew J. Bacevich: If we view these separate actions, campaigns, and operations as stand-alone events, we fail to appreciate not only how they relate to one another, but also the extent to which U.S. policy in what I call the Greater Middle East has produced an epic failure.

SK: What led the United States not only to begin this long war but to continue it for so long?

AB: The story I tell begins in 1980 with the promulgation of the Carter Doctrine. The original purpose of the doctrine was clear: to ensure that no hostile power could control the Persian Gulf. This goal was directly related to oil, so the war for the Greater Middle East began as a war for oil. That said, there was much more at stake, at least so far as Americans were concerned. Americans clearly perceived that our standard of living, the privileges and prerogatives that we assumed to be part of our birthright, required abundant reserves of cheap energy. So in 1980 it seemed that our very way of life depended on having assured access to the oil reserves in the Persian Gulf. Now, if the Carter Doctrine meant denying control of the Persian Gulf to others, implicit was the requirement—as became rather quickly apparent over the following decades—that the United States itself would assert control.

SK: Was Carter mistaken to believe that control over Middle East resources was essential to American well-being?

AB: He was right to think that Americans had reached that conclusion. On July 15, 1979, Carter offered an alternative in his famous “Crisis of Confidence” speech in which he announced that the country as a whole had taken a wrong turn. Americans, Carter said, had become too tied up in the acquisition of material goods and had strayed from the definition of freedom that had inspired the founding of the United States. He challenged his countrymen to return to the path of righteousness and insisted that the means to do so were readily available. Referring to the ongoing energy crisis, Carter said that if we tighten our belts, if we learn to live within our means, we’ll not only end our dependency on Persian Gulf oil—on foreign oil more broadly—but we will also rediscover authentic freedom. But the speech flopped. By January of 1980, Carter himself had accepted that Americans were not willing to get by with less in order to become virtuous. They were quite content with the reigning conception of freedom based on expectations of more.

Our military has the capacity to perpetuate this war. Our military does not have the capacity to end it.

SK: In the period between the Carter administration and the September 11 attacks, was there ever a serious attempt by any president to pull the United States off the path toward domination in the Greater Middle East?

AB: No. There were three presidencies during that interval: the two terms of Ronald Reagan, the one term of George H. W. Bush, and then the two terms of Bill Clinton. Really, the Reagan and Clinton presidencies were the two important ones. However much partisans would like to cite differences between an ostensibly conservative Republican and an ostensibly liberal Democrat, their views of the world and America’s place in it resembled one another far more than they differed. Both presidents were emphatically committed to the proposition that, somehow or other, the application of American military power would sort things out in the Greater Middle East. Yet neither had anything remotely like a clear strategic vision as to how that would happen.

Both presidencies featured a pattern of interventionism that in retrospect appears bizarre. Under Reagan, this included a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon that ended in the debacle of the Beirut bombing; covert support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran–Iraq War and ultimately overt military action against Iran during the so-called Tanker War; the Iran–Contra affair; and a brief punitive attack against Libya. These military efforts achieved almost nothing because they were not attached to any coherent conception of overall purpose.

Much the same indictment applies to the Clinton administration. Again, plenty of activism: an intervention in Somalia begun by Bush, bungled by Clinton, and ending in defeat; interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo; continued jousting with Saddam Hussein which took the form of multiple bombings; and early attacks against al Qaeda, referring here to the 1998 cruise missile attack targeting al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. Again, viewed in retrospect, a considerable expenditure of energy with not much to show in return.

In between, George H. W. Bush came closer to fashioning a strategic vision than did either his predecessor or his successor. In 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Bush organized a vast coalition to eject Iraq from Kuwait. Once that was achieved, Bush announced that a new world order was at hand. This proved to be a premature judgment. Americans remember Operation Desert Storm as a great victory. In an operational sense, it achieved considerable success, but politically it dug us deeper into a hole.

SK: Were the interventions of those three presidents in the Middle East still mainly about oil?

AB: The rationales were becoming more diffuse. Yes, oil remained a core interest—not only oil to be consumed at home but also oil to fuel the rest of the industrialized world, meaning many of our allies. But by this stage, there is something else: an effort, however ill-considered and lacking in specificity, to capitalize on the end of the Cold War, claiming the mantle of sole superpower, with U.S. military supremacy the ultimate manifestation of that status. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, the United States attempted to assert hegemony over a large part of the Islamic world. Again, there was no master plan. It was haphazard. It was arrogant. It was undertaken without any appreciation for the complexities involved or for what exertions hegemony would actually require.

SK: How has the U.S. alliance with Israel shaped our presence in the Middle East?

AB: At a minimum, it has complicated things tremendously. A belief in Israel’s right to exist—a belief that I share—has fostered the misguided conviction that the interests of the United States and of Israel align in all respects. Republicans and Democrats both subscribe to this view. To question it is to render oneself unelectable to even a minor political office in this country. Yet in important respects our interests have long since diverged. An obvious example is the plight of Palestinians, which for us is a matter of considerable urgency. Why? Because opponents of the United States in the Islamic world, most prominently Islamic radicals, cite the Palestinians to justify their animosity toward the West. That claim may or may not be serious; it may well be cynical. But the United States has a profound interest in testing that proposition. Let us create a Palestinian state, one with real sovereignty, and then see what arguments remain for anti-Americanism. I understand that from an Israeli perspective things might look different. Were I an Israeli Jew, I’d probably oppose a two-state solution, viewing the risks to Israel as too great. It is past time for Americans to learn to distinguish between what is good for Israel and what is good for the United States.

SK: We often hear that the world changed dramatically after the September 11 attacks and that those attacks reshaped America’s role and obligations in the world. Was it really the September 11 attacks that changed everything, or was it instead our reaction to them?

AB: The events of September 11 did not change everything. They did, however, create an opening for the George W. Bush administration to ramp up the quest for American hegemony in the Islamic world. Under Reagan, the first Bush, and Clinton, U.S. military policy in the region had been haphazard, episodic, and seldom very serious. The Bush administration brought to power people fully persuaded that American military supremacy put to work could enable the United States to achieve what Bush’s immediate predecessors could not. After September 11, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz wasted no time in seizing an opportunity that fear had created. The Global War on Terror, as they called it, was the principal result. They believed that invading Iraq—which had nothing to do with September 11, of course—held the key to even bigger success elsewhere. They erred, to put it mildly.

SK: President Obama inherited all of this history. He seems to have swayed between more and less interventionist impulses. How do you assess his presidency, his approach to the Middle East, and particularly his handling of crises that emerged at the start of his administration?

AB: You have to remember that President Obama came to office knowing next to nothing about U.S. national security policy. That is not a jab; you could make the same statement about George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan. George H. W. Bush was the last president who brought to office some understanding of what it required. The others basically learned on the job. President Obama’s early presidency was informed by extraordinary naïveté: the Cairo speech, the promise of a new opening with Russia, new direction in U.S.-China relations, offering the open hand instead of the closed fist to Iran.

The president seemed to believe his own press clippings, perhaps not without reason. Recall the extraordinary expectations—not simply in the United States but around the world—that accompanied his arrival in the White House. Soon enough, however, Obama learned that speeches and expressions of goodwill were going to have only a limited impact. I think he also learned that the power of the so-called Most Powerful Man in the World is limited, not only outside our borders but more tellingly within, and specifically inside the Beltway.

Obama inherited a war for the Greater Middle East already well into its third decade. Although I suspect his strong personal inclination was to extricate us entirely from a mess not of his making, reality got in the way. Thus we have witnessed the strange and sad phenomenon of a president who says he doesn’t believe in permanent war—that there are more important things to do here at home—all but affirming it.

George W. Bush and the militarists of his administration genuinely believed that U.S. forces in Iraq would set in motion a great transformative process in the whole region. By the time Obama became president, that was clearly not going to happen. He abandoned the notion that invading and occupying countries offers a way to change them. Informed by a vague conviction that lower-profile military efforts could somehow produce more favorable outcomes, he opted for different methods: unmanned aerial vehicles as instruments of assassination, commando raids, and deploying U.S. forces to train and equip local armies. The modified approach hasn’t worked. The war in Afghanistan, which Obama vowed to bring to a successful conclusion, and the war in Iraq, which he called stupid, are still dragging on. Obama will almost certainly bequeath both to his successor.

Think about it: here are the two longest wars in American history and both are continuing simultaneously. That qualifies as an extraordinary indictment not just of Obama, but of U.S. policy more generally.

SK: Does it change the dynamics of the war for the Greater Middle East that we have made a decisive turn away from dependence on the region’s oil?

AB: Sadly, an enterprise that was initiated because Persian Gulf oil was deemed essential to the American way of life continues despite the fact that said oil is manifestly not essential. One would think that fact would stimulate an enormous amount of serious debate in Washington. If energy security is important to us—indeed, if oil and gas remain essential to the way we live, whether we like it or not—then it would seem that ensuring the security of Venezuela and Canada would take precedence over ensuring the security of places such as Saudi Arabia.

I am continually perplexed by the Beltway assumption that the United States has no choice in these matters: that we are in the Middle East today because we have to be. We are, after all, the most powerful country in the whole world. We may not be the almighty superpower that Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld fancied us to be, but we remain the envy of others. It is hard to understand why our status atop the global order doesn’t endow us with choice. I think it ought to. As a matter of fact, I think it does.

SK: How does our approach to the Greater Middle East in recent decades fit in with our larger approach to the world?

AB: The militarization of U.S. policy evident in that region has distorted our view of the world more generally. Many people, and I am one of them, believe that this century is going to be, in some sense, the Asian Century: that the central issue of our time will be whether Asian players—such as China, India, South Korea, and Japan—and non-Asian players (including the United States) can coexist. Competition is inevitable. The big challenge will be ensuring that competition remains peaceful. We need to avoid a catastrophic war in Asia. The diversion of American attention and resources to places such as Afghanistan, where our interests are relatively minor, is a distraction. Ensuring long-term stability in Asia is the problem that demands sustained attention. I am not implying that the answer is fewer boots on the ground in the Greater Middle East and more bombers and aircraft carriers in Asia. I don’t for a second think that American military power in and of itself will provide an answer to the Asian conundrum. Having said that, American military power can help avoid the kind of eruption that on two occasions made the twentieth century such a catastrophe. My point is that we are stuck playing the wrong game while another far more important game gets less attention than it deserves.

SK: You are suggesting that Americans recognize the limits to American power. Are Americans psychologically prepared for a more modest approach to the world?

AB: No, they are not. The American people are ill informed, and this quadrennial circus called a presidential election makes matters worse, as it becomes a contest in which candidates compete to proclaim their fealty to American exceptionalism while insisting that no alternative to American global leadership can conceivably exist. They all promise if elected to ensure that ours remains not only the best but the strongest military in the world, now and forever, as if a dearth of military power has somehow hampered U.S. policy. We the people have imbibed all these bogus notions. The result is a political atmosphere in which limits—the advantages of restraint, an appreciation for what military power cannot do—do not figure. There is an honorable American tradition that takes into account the limits of American power. It is just that, since the age of Ronald Reagan and the end of the Cold War, it has become politically impermissible to subscribe to that tradition.

SK: Is the war for the Greater Middle East drawing to an end? Do we lose?

AB: We certainly are not winning it. It is hard for me to imagine how anyone could argue that it is going well and the end is in sight. However, predicting where things will go from here is very difficult. Today we are not only fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan but also in Syria. Our military footprint in North and West Africa is expanding. Obama’s efforts to extricate us have not only failed, they have basically been abandoned. His recent announcement that U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond the inauguration of his successor represents a capitulation on his part. So the war in some form is going to continue.

That said, it is pretty clear that the American people don’t have much of an appetite for putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground, which would necessarily lead to significant American casualties. That leaves policymakers scrambling for tactical alternatives that have the effect of keeping things at a low simmer. Nothing gets decided.

How all that is going to play out is impossible to say. We should not discount the possibility of the unexpected. Imagine, God forbid, that we sustain another September 11–type attack. What would the American response be? I don’t know. Imagine that ISIS becomes a real state and a permanent magnet for jihadism. What sort of response would that elicit? Regardless of what the future holds, I don’t see how further U.S. military efforts will succeed where those in the past have come up short. Our military has the capacity to perpetuate this war. Our military does not have the capacity to end it.