End of the West's 'War for the Middle East'

A Libyan rebel stands in front of a burning loyalist tank in the town of Ajdabiya on March 26, 2011. Patrick Baz / AFP-Getty Images

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.

Underlying this great variety of methods and professed motivation, two things have remained constant across the decades. The first is an assumption: that Arabs, Persians, Afghans, and the like are incapable of managing their own affairs, leaving the West with no choice but to act in loco parentis, setting rules and enforcing discipline. The second is a conviction: that somehow, some way, the deft application of Western power will eventually fix whatever ails the region.

At first Britain served as principal enforcer. Roughly since the Suez crisis of 1956, the lead role has fallen to the United States. During the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras, Americans hesitated to become too deeply involved in places that seemingly offered little but grief. Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s—not so incidentally, decades when the U.S. became highly dependent on imported oil—that ambivalence diminished. With the promulgation of the Carter doctrine in 1980, it disappeared altogether and the American instinct for activism kicked into high gear.

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.

Yet thanks to Muammar Gaddafi's heavy-handed attempt to crush those seeking his ouster, the United States and its allies are now elbowing their way back onstage. To supplement the Carter doctrine (and smooth off the Bush doctrine's rough edges), we now have the Obama doctrine, elaborated by the president in last week's speech to the nation, which treats the plight of civilians caught in the path of war as a renewed argument for lobbing Western bombs and missiles, if not launching full-fledged invasions.

Will our bombs be enough to topple Gaddafi? Are recent defections of high-level Libyan officials a sign of the government's imminent collapse? Or will the U.S. and its allies eventually have to send in ground troops to amplify the work of the covert operatives who have already been providing support to the rebels for weeks? As important as these questions seem to us now, the answers will not change the underlying dynamic of the situation. Gaddafi's fall (assuming it occurs) will close a chapter in Libyan history but won't open a new chapter in the history of the Middle East. 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.

The result is that for the moment serious policy—as opposed to gestures—has become an impossibility. That leaves Americans in a thoroughly un-American position: they must be patient, waiting on events to ripen. In due course the dust will settle. At that time, prudence will dictate that the West make what it can of the outcome, offering support and assistance to Arab governments that share our interests and values and withholding them from those that do not. The big story is this: the century-long battle to control the Middle East is ending. We lost. They won. No amount of high-tech ordnance can alter the outcome.

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.