by Andrew J. Bacevich
In late March, General Kenneth McKenzie became the twenty-fourth commander of CENTCOM (more formally known as United States Central Command). On May 8, at an event sponsored by the Institute for the Perpetuation of War and the Promotion of Regime Change, more formally known as the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), he outlined his plans for building on the legacy of his 23 predecessors. None of those predecessors, it should be acknowledged, succeeded in accomplishing his assigned mission. Nor, I’m willing to bet, will he.
The essence of that mission, according to General McKenzie himself, is to promote stability. “A stable Middle East underpins a stable world,” he announced, and “our steady commitment to our allies and partners provides a force for stability.” As to how the region became unstable in the first place, he offers no opinion, leaving listeners with the impression that previous exertions by CENTCOM forces in invading, occupying, bombing, and otherwise spilling blood throughout his Area of Responsibility (AOR) had nothing to do with the absence of stability existing there today.
At any rate, General McKenzie is not inclined to bother with the past. His focus is on the future. “I’ve always tried to have a bias for action,” he told his listeners.
Now let me say for the record that this is exactly the attitude the United States wants to have in its battalion commanders and perhaps in its fighter pilots as well. Yet, given the events that have occurred over the past several decades as a direct or indirect result of U.S. military interventions across much of the Greater Middle East, mark me down as preferring senior commanders with a bias for careful reflection and perhaps even for critically examining how the United States got where it is.
The new CENTCOM commander exhibits no such inclinations. Indeed, one of the reasons he admires the FDD is that it doesn’t consist of “a group of luminaries just sitting around admiring the problem set.” No, FDD attracts “people that make things happen.” Those are his kind of people.
Deciphering what exactly General McKenzie himself intends to make happen requires a bit of exegesis. Any public presentation to an audience of policy types tends to be shrouded in a certain amount of gobbledygook. So it was with McKenzie who made mystical references to the “stovepipe ownership of strategic assets” (bad), the “dynamic force employment construct” (good), and “setting the globe” by moving around carrier strike groups (who knows).
This much seems clear: To listen to McKenzie, Iran is the ultimate source of all evil. To cite just one example, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the general charges that “at least 600 U.S. personnel deaths in Iraq were the result of Iran-backed militants.” This was indeed nefarious, and one is hard-pressed to think of a comparable episode in recent military history, although U.S. support for Saddam Hussein pursuant to his war of aggression against Iran might fill the bill. That conflict resulted in deaths that exceeded 600 by several orders of magnitude.
McKenzie’s historical memory doesn’t reach back that far. It doesn’t extend even to 2002 when George W. Bush included Iran in his “axis of evil,” despite the fact that Tehran had no involvement in the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Anyway, that was then and this is now. And when it comes to basic national security policy, the CENTCOM commander comes down unequivocally on the John Bolton side of the Trump administration’s gaping foreign policy divide rather than on the side of the guy who is Bolton’s supposed boss. Trump has indicated repeatedly, if ineffectually, that he wants to reduce the number of ongoing U.S. wars in the Greater Middle East. Bolton pretty clearly has an appetite for more.
In any earlier administration, Bolton’s recent “unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force” would have been the business of the commander-in-chief. In this administration, the national security advisor feels emboldened to voice such threats. General McKenzie is on the same page, echoing and affirming Bolton’s argument. Deploying additional U.S. forces to his AOR, he told his FDD audience, “sends a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on U.S. interests will be met with unrelenting force.” Furthermore, he continued, “it won’t be a fair fight.”
“We field an experienced, ready, battle-hardened force with the best equipment and training in the world.” As an applause line, that undoubtedly works well. And yet amid all of McKenzie’s bluff and bluster, how nice it would have been had he spent just a brief moment explaining why the gallant efforts by that battle-hardened force have come nowhere close to creating the stability that is the latest version of our ostensible strategic purpose.
McKenzie concluded his presentation by citing no less than George Washington: “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” It’s an admirable quote, but one has to wonder what the Founding Father would make of the tangled mess the United States has made in the CENTCOM AOR over the past several decades.
For an answer to that question, consult his Farewell Address:
If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.
Well put, Mr. President.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University.