“Does history repeat itself? Or are the repetitions only penance for those who are incapable of listening to it?”
– Eduardo Galleano, Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World
How many Americans have heard of CENTCOM? Yet, recognizing its emergence as the spearhead of US foreign policy in the Middle East over the last 30 years is vital to understanding our contemporary moment of global geopolitics. The establishment of United States Central Command, or CENTCOM, in 1983 was arguably the most important moment for the US military and indeed US foreign policy since World War II. Its initiation signalled a new era of US global ambition in the aftermath of the failure of the Vietnam War, and it solidified a new focus of US foreign policy on the most energy-rich region on earth, the Middle East. In no other region has the US military established more bases, lost more troops, spent more money, or facilitated the investment of more capital in the last 30 years. Since the Gulf War in 1991, CENTCOM has been on a permanent war footing, involving continuous military operations – on the ground, in the air and at sea. Its security mission is a conjoined military-economic one, which ultimately comprises the military policing of both the most pivotal space and most precarious space in the global economy.
What CENTCOM calls its ‘Area of Responsibility’ is seen in figure 1. The command has termed this vast region the ‘Central Region’. For CENTCOM, it is ‘central’ in three key ways: central to the global economy; central to energy assets; and ultimately central to global security. I have been researching CENTCOM’s emergence over the last 10 years and have just written a history of the command, entitled The Long War. The book documents CENTCOM’s mission in spearheading US foreign policy in the Middle East over the past 30 or so turbulent years. In the book, I draw upon a wide range of documentary sources, from CENTCOM’s published strategy papers, posture statements and press briefings, to relevant broader Department of Defense publications. The focus is on CENTCOM’s national security discourse, and what becomes clear are the enmeshed military and economic logics that have been consistently deployed in its security mission. What also becomes clear is how influential CENTCOM’s representations of the Middle East have been in rationalising military interventionism in a seemingly never-ending Western imperial moment. That rationale centrally involves the identification of threat, disorder and volatility, with the simultaneous signalling of liberal correction and universalist special mission. As one CENTCOM advisor opined in the early 1990s, the Middle East needs to be “secured from itself”.
Looking to the new century in the late 1990s, CENTCOM published a key strategy statement, Shaping the Central Region for the 21st Century. The document proclaimed CENTCOM’s ‘Area of Responsibility’ as occupying “a pivotal role in world events”, as containing “more than 70 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves”, and as spanning “the major trade routes that link the Middle East, Europe, Asia and the Western Hemisphere”. Signalling an imperial role long into the new century, it outlined a globally orientated security strategy of military deterrence for a straightforward geoeconomic rationale: “access to the region’s petroleum resources is vital to the stability of the global economy”.
Even from the title of the strategy document above, there are three telling elements that divulge the command’s continuance of an imperial history that is far from past, to paraphrase Faulkner. First, the word ‘shaping’ reveals a long-established liberal imperial urge to configure new political and economic spaces for the endgame of securing ‘vital interests’ for the metropole. Since 1983, CENTCOM’s ‘shaping’ has been undertaken from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida (seen in figure 2), and the abstracted depiction of the ‘Central Region’ it has reproduced forms part of a broader assemblage of influential representations of the Middle East in the corridors of power in Washington. This can be seen particularly in Commanders’ annual posture statements to the US Congress, which typically present a simplified mission brief involving an unproblematic sense of Western economic values and a responsibility to extend them to the Middle East. Secondly, the title ‘Shaping the Central Region for the 21st Century’ reprises the imperial tactic of renaming vast regions – reductively scripting a diversity of people and places from a hegemonically Western perspective. And, finally, the temporal signalling of CENTCOM’s mission ‘for the 21st Century’ recalls the providential promise of Western imperial interventions through history, citing the security of the future as the rationale for the security measures of the present.
The key mission strategy document above shows how before the September 11th attacks in 2001 CENTCOM was openly planning for the long haul in the Middle East and the perennial need for intervention. Historically, the current extent of its facilities and force represents a high point of US geostrategic presence in the region. In the early years of the command’s inception, however, this was far from the case, when the US held no significant foothold strategically in the region. This absence of US regional power coincided with a range of political and economic crises across the Middle East and Central Asia in the late 1970s, all of which coalesced in President Jimmy Carter’s State of the Union Address in January 1980, when he signalled newly identified US vital interests in the region: “any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force”. Two months later, the establishment of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force signalled the first formal commitment of US military force to the Middle East, and with CENTCOM’s succession in 1983 as a full regional command the US government fully committed to the Carter Doctrine.
At this juncture, however, the US possessed no military bases in the vast region of the Middle East and Central Asia, from Turkey to India. This prompted the US to pursue alternative objectives to secure strategic capabilities in the region, including the stationing of ‘prepositioning ships’ replete with combat and support equipment for arriving forces. A core concern of contemporary military planners, however, was that prepositioning was in the long run a limited war strategy, with many seeing ‘land access’ as the key to effecting the Carter doctrine. Subsequently an active strategy to forge military links in the region was incrementally pursued in the 1980s by establishing joint military training exercises. In addition to establishing military exercises, the US also pursued a policy of securing contingent access rights for its armed forces with several countries across the Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa.
The Gulf Wars and Safeguarding the Global Economy
With its strategic reach built up, CENTCOM’s first major military operation came in 1987, Operation Earnest Will. The mission rationale was explicitly ‘economic deterrence’: protecting and reflagging Kuwaiti oil tankers with American ensigns in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War. Preventing regional economic collapse and ensuring freedom of navigation was a demonstration of US commitment to “the free flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz”, according to then President Ronald Reagan. Some three years later, in 1990, CENTCOM’s deterrence mission became even clearer. Six months prior to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, CENTCOM Commander-in-Chief General Norman Schwarzkopf outlined his command’s raison d’être to Congress:
the greatest threat to U.S. interests in the area is the spillover of regional conflict which could endanger American lives, threaten U.S. interests in the area or interrupt the flow of oil, thereby requiring the commitment of U.S. combat forces (US Central Command 1990).
With its clearly enunciated military-economic mission to protect US vital interests in the Gulf, CENTCOM was compelled to militarily intervene in early 1991. The swift success of the CENTCOM-led war further crystallised its military-economic grand strategy. A series of commissioned reports in the war’s aftermath indeed argued for a focused military deterrence and economic stabilization role for the command thereafter.
After the Gulf War, a substantial contingent of CENTCOM forces remained in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other support countries as part of a new US deterrence policy in the Persian Gulf region. Their ground presence and the continued deployment of the US Navy and US Air Force in the Persian Gulf, were annually justified to the US Congress as vital to both the US and world economy. By the mid-2000s, CENTCOM’s ‘global economic security’ mission was firmly established:
the Central Region has continued to grow in importance and is the overseas area where U.S. interests are most likely to be directly threatened. Maintaining stability in this volatile region is key to the free flow of oil and other commerce essential to the world economy (US Central Command 2005).
At this point, CENTCOM had extended its basing structure and land prepositioning program to countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The endgame of such a strategy was straightforward, as noted by the US Overseas Basing Commission later that year: “U.S. strategy toward the region is centered on the uninterrupted flow of Arabian Gulf oil, security of coalition partners and allies, regional peace and security and access to commercial markets”.
Many commentators have ascribed the US foreign policy pursued by the administration of George W. Bush in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in 2001 as mirroring a neoconservative US imperial ambition. What has been less considered about the national security strategy of the Bush administration, however, is that it also bore many of the hallmarks of a neoliberal US imperial ambition discernible in the previous Democratic administration of Bill Clinton and subsequently continued under the Democratic administration of Barack Obama. Little-discussed, for example, is Bush’s economic liberalization and integration project in the Middle East and Central Asia, which built upon Clinton’s earlier efforts to ‘close the gaps’ of an open neoliberal economy in the region. In the 2006 US National Security Strategy, for instance, four of its nine chapters address issues of economic integration and globalization. An integral aspect of Bush’s national security strategy involved an expressly economic policy of securing free trade agreements, which the US signed with Bahrain in 2004 and Oman in 2005, for instance – both of which served to secure key markets for oil and gas companies Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Totalfina Elf. The signing of free trade agreements and other bilateral agreements (such as status of forces agreements, for example, frequently comprising arms sales) are key mechanisms in the relationship between militarisation and market provision, which CENTCOM has long strategized for in the region – via the neoliberal language of ‘global economic security’.
The Language of “Global Security and Prosperity”
In his preface to the 2015 US National Security Strategy, then US President Barack Obama proclaimed that “the United States is stronger and better positioned to seize the opportunities of a still new century and safeguard [its] interests against the risks of an insecure world”. How to do this is through “sustained American leadership” in “a rules-based international order that promotes global security and prosperity”, because US “economic strength” is “the foundation” of US “national security”. This is the same entwined military-economic security logic that has resulted in the Middle East being repeatedly scripted as requiring regulative military intervention by CENTCOM for the last 30 years. The Middle East’s energy resources and global geographical position, coupled with its perpetual political instability and irregular military threats, present CENTCOM with an enduring mission. In this mission, securing resources, particularly oil, has often been highlighted as the only real objective (the Iraq conflict being commonly described as yet another illustration of the contemporary world’s ‘resource wars’). This is part of the story, undoubtedly, but CENTCOM’s intervention in Iraq was never simply just about resources, but rather forms part of a much longer US regional grand strategy combining military and economic security interests in maintaining a neoliberal global economy.
From its first major forward deployment in reflagging Kuwaiti oil tankers with American ensigns in the Persian Gulf in the 1980s, CENTCOM’s mission was about economic security and served elite economic interests, including especially defense companies. The innumerable defense think-tanks and policy institutes in Washington and elsewhere, which serve the US Department of Defense in all sorts of ways, are also an elite interest. And, of course, the interested parties served by CENTCOM’s mission in the Middle East are not just those in, or directly related to, the military. For hundreds of multinational companies in the Middle East, CENTCOM’s territorial access and regional naval and air power remains important.
Since 1983, successive CENTCOM Commanders have annually affirmed to the US Congress the conflation of military and economic ‘vital interests’ at the heart of contemporary US national security strategy. A recent CENTCOM posture statement underlines once more what will continue to “keep U.S. attention anchored in this region”: “oil and energy resources that fuel the global economy” (US Central Command 2013). CENTCOM’s representation of the Middle East has consistently positioned itself in the role of ‘world policeman’, guarding, regulating and enabling the broader global economy. If you selectively script something often enough, it not only becomes persuasive but indeed becomes therapeutic in a promissory sense. CENTCOM’s annual statements to Congress certainly have this attribute, and are rarely contested politically. Many have pointed out the selective and abstracted nature of imperial discourse through history, in which vast regions and peoples are depicted as requiring a civilizing, corrective mission – such representations are not confined to the imperial past. CENTCOM’s repeated national security discourse for over 30 years bears all the hallmarks of the hegemonic imperial discourses of history that have long legitimated the use of Western interventionary violence.
Global Security and the Imperial Promise of History
CENTCOM’s contemporary global security mission comprises an interventionary rationale that is commonly reductive and bereft of any nuanced historical and geographical contextualisation. In mission statements, there are multiple resonances of familiar historical senses of imperial calculation, where the “name of the game” is “control”, as declared by command strategists in the early 1990s; and in all of this CENTCOM commanders and advisors seem oblivious to the destabilising effects of prior US and Western interventions in the region. There is often a palpable sense too of historical amnesia and imperial delusion; for example: “The aim of any operation CENTCOM undertakes must be to get it over with quickly, with no complications – at least none that could cause us to become bogged down”. Promissory envisionings of ‘quick’ military interventions, with ‘no complications’, captures perfectly a recurring feature of contemporary Western interventions more broadly: their ahistorical reasoning. In CENTCOM’s case, the absence of any significant historicization is by no means an accident. It facilitates a security discourse that is always focused on the present, which in turn serves to enable new cycles of intervention. For this reason, documenting and insisting upon the imperial ‘blowback’ of interventionary violence, occupation and expropriation – the enduring consequences, in other words – is a vital challenge.
The Middle East and Central Asia today can hardly be said to be secure; we are witnessing a period of intense turmoil and interventionary blowback. In crucial senses – namely its major interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan – broader US efforts at regime change and state-building have decidedly failed. Through all of this, however, CENTCOM commanders have managed to square the circle on presenting a version of mission success to the US Congress each year. This is primarily due to the fact that CENTCOM measures its success strategically. This in turn allows commanders to present mission accomplishments of ‘economic security’, which have long been held up as the ‘big picture’ of security. Consider, for example, General John Abizaid’s posture statement to Congress in 2005. He acknowledged the then “security challenges” in Iraq and Afghanistan, but quickly shifted emphasis to his command’s success during the previous year in a mission seldom acknowledged as integral to the broader war on terror: “we patrolled key air space and waterways in the region to ensure the free flow of commerce” (US Central Command 2005). Success measured in this way reflects an overtly geoeconomic framing of CENTCOM’s mission, which is difficult to challenge given that the prime interventionary remit of the command has long been delineated thus.
Humanitarian concerns, human rights and the lives of ‘Others’ have never been the top priority for CENTCOM; and the absence of distinctly ‘human security’ efforts merely adds to an instability that further requires new cycles of intervention and violence. The real tragedy in the midst of abstracted geostrategic calculations is that human geography continues to be erased out of view. For millions across the Middle East and Central Asia, their fate is to repeatedly pick up the pieces of unremitting military violence. Families, homes, lives: shattered and lost. Yet, in all of this, there appears no pause in how the US continues to militarily seek the lofty goal of ‘global security’ – from an imperial vantage point, thousands of miles away, inside a US Air Force Base (figure 3).
Global Security for Whom?
CENTCOM’s rationale for its repeated interventions in the Middle East and Central Asia over the last 30 years tells us much about the kind of American leadership of global security we are witnessing today. The global security envisaged and enacted has all the hallmarks of imperial history: it serves elite economic interests; it is abstracted and simplified; and it blinds us to the horrors of its consequences – for an ‘Other’ with whom we are not allowed to empathize. This has not changed for CENTCOM with the arrival of the Trump administration; the command’s scripting of necessary intervention in the Middle East continues unabated. It must continue to intervene and safeguard against both present and future economic risk, and the rhetoric is universalist: for global security. “Our global responsibilities are significant, we cannot afford to fail” concludes a recent DoD pronouncement on global security. For over 30 years, its key military instrument, CENTCOM, has executed a military-economic security mission in the most energy-rich region on earth. It forms part of a grand strategy of military interventions and forward deterrence that the DoD calls “shaping activities”. Imperialism has always been about ‘shaping’, and there is no endgame.
In seeking to counter dangerously reductive accounts of the world, today, as much as ever, there is a need to insist upon the material geographies of military interventionism. In any critical account of our contemporary geopolitical world, we need to call out the abstracted and strategic nature of dominant forms of national security discourse that appeal to liberal notions of corrective interventionism and simultaneously remove from view the brutal consequences of repetitious violence. CENTCOM’s national security discourse has long possessed a twin ‘military-economic’ logic, which serves to posit legitimised military action against the threat of geopolitical instability, and to present the US as the guardian of both the regional and broader global economy. Insisting upon the human geographies effaced from such essentialist formulations is the starting point in strategizing for a broader vision of global security.
This article is based upon Dr John Morrissey’s book The Long War: CENTCOM, Grand Strategy, and Global Security (University of Georgia Press, 2017).
John Morrissey is Associate Director of the Moore Institute for Humanities at National University of Ireland, Galway and Senior Lecturer in Geography. His books include Spatial Justice and the Irish Crisis (2014); The Long War (2017); and Haven: The Mediterranean Crisis and Human Security (2020).