Interview with Andrew Bacevich: The Arrogance of American PowerHistorians/History
I wait for him on a quiet, tree and wisteria-lined street of red-brick buildings. Students, some in short-sleeves on this still crisp spring morning, stream by. I'm seated on cold, stone steps next to a sign announcing the Boston University Department of International Relations. He turns the corner and advances, wearing a blue blazer, blue shirt and tie, and khaki slacks and carrying a computer in a black bag. He's white haired, has a nicely weathered face, and the squared shoulders and upright bearing of a man, born in Normal, Illinois, who attended West Point, fought in the Vietnam War, and then had a twenty-year military career that ended in 1992.
Now a professor of history at Boston University, he directs me to a spacious, airy office whose floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the picturesque street. A tasseled cap and gown hang on a hook behind the door -- perhaps because another year of graduation is not far off. I'm left briefly to wait while he deals with an anxious student, there to discuss his semester mark. Soon enough though, he seats himself behind a large desk with a cup of coffee and prepares to discuss his subjects of choice, American militarism and the American imperial mission.
Andrew Bacevich is a man on a journey -- as he himself is the first to admit. A cultural conservative, a former contributor to such magazines as the Weekly Standard and the National Review, a former Bush Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, he discovered sometime in the 1990s that his potential conservative allies on foreign policy had fallen in love with the idea of the American military and its imagined awesome power to change the world. They had jumped the tracks and left him behind. A professed cold warrior, in those years he took a new look at our American past -- and he's not stopped looking, or reconsidering, since.
What he discovered was the American empire, which became the title of a book he published in 2002. In 2005, his fierce, insightful book on American dreams of global military supremacy, The New American Militarism, How Americans Are Seduced by War, appeared. (It was excerpted in two posts at this site.) It would have been eye-opening no matter who had written it, but given his background it was striking indeed.
Forceful and engaged (as well as engaging), Bacevich throws himself into the topic at hand. He has a barely suppressed dramatic streak and a willingness to laugh heartily at himself. But most striking are the questions that stop him. Just as you imagine a scholar should, he visibly turns over your questions in his mind, thinking about what may be new in them.
He takes a sip of coffee and, in a no-nonsense manner, suggests that we begin.
Tomdispatch: In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, you said the revolt of the retired generals against Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld represented the beginning of a search for a scapegoat for the Iraq War. I wondered whether you also considered it a preemptive strike against the Bush administration's future Iran policy.
Andrew Bacevich: The answer is yes. It's both really. Certainly, it's become incontrovertible that the Iraq War is not going to end happily. Even if we manage to extricate ourselves and some sort of stable Iraq emerges from the present chaos, arguing that the war lived up to the expectations of the Bush administration is going to be very difficult. My own sense is that the officer corps -- and this probably reflects my personal experience to a great degree -- is fixated on Vietnam and still believes the military was hung out to dry there. The officer corps came out of the Vietnam War determined never to repeat that experience and some officers are now angry to discover that the Army is once again stuck in a quagmire. So we are in the early stages of a long argument about who is to be blamed for the Iraq debacle. I think, to some degree, the revolt of the generals reflects an effort on the part of senior military officers to weigh in, to lay out the military's case. And the military's case is: We're not at fault. They are; and, more specifically, he is -- with Rumsfeld being the stand-in for [Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara.
Having said that, with all the speculation about Bush administration interest in expanding the Global War on Terror to include Iran, I suspect the officer corps, already seeing the military badly overstretched, doesn't want to have any part of such a war. Going public with attacks on Rumsfeld is one way of trying to slow whatever momentum there is toward an Iran war.
I must say, I don't really think we're on a track to have a war with Iran any time soon -- maybe I'm too optimistic here [he laughs] -- but I suspect even the civilian hawks understand that the United States is already overcommitted, that to expand the war on terror to a new theater, the Iranian theater, would in all likelihood have the most dire consequences, globally and in Iraq.
TD: Actually, I was planning to ask about your thoughts on the possibility of an Iranian October surprise.
Bacevich: You mean, attacking Iran before the upcoming fall election? I don't see Karl Rove -- because an October surprise would be a political ploy -- signing off on it. I think he's cunning, calculating, devious, but not stupid. With the President's popularity rating plummeting due to unhappiness with the ongoing war, it really would be irrational to think that yet another war would turn that around or secure continued Republican control of both houses of Congress.
TD It seems that way to me with gas assumedly soaring to $120 a barrel or something like that…
Bacevich: Oh gosh, oh my gosh, yes…
TD But let me throw this into the mix, because I've seen no one mention it: If you look at the list of retired commanders who came out against Rumsfeld, they're all from the Army or Marines. We always say the military is overextended, but only part of it is -- and I note the absence of admirals or anybody connected to the Air Force.
Bacevich: That's a good point. One could argue that the revolt of the generals actually has a third source. If the first source is arguing about who's going to take the fall for Iraq and the second is trying to put a damper on war in Iran, the third has to do with Rumsfeld's military transformation project. To oversimplify, transformation begins with the conviction that the military since the end of the Cold War has failed to adapt to the opportunities and imperatives of the information age. Well before 9/11, the central part of Rumsfeld's agenda was to"transform" -- that was his word -- this old Cold-War-style military, to make it lighter, more agile, to emphasize information technology and precision weapons.
Well, if you're in the Air Force, or you're a Navy admiral, particularly one in the aviation community, that recipe sounds pretty good. It sounds like dollars, like programs being funded. But if you're in the Army or the Marine Corps, becoming lighter and more agile sounds like cutting divisions or like getting rid of tanks and artillery; it sounds like a smaller Marine Corps.
Both the initial stage of the Afghanistan War and the invasion of Iraq were specifically designed by Rumsfeld as projects to demonstrate what a transformed military could do. Hence, his insistence on beginning the Iraq War without a major build-up, on invading with a relatively small force, on having the ground intervention accompany the air campaign rather than having a protracted air campaign first as in the first Gulf War. All the literature about both Afghanistan and Iraq now shows that the war-planning process was filled with great civil/military tension. The generals argued,"Mr. Secretary, here's the plan; we want to do a Desert Storm Two against Iraq," and Rumsfeld kept replying,"I want something smaller, think it over again and get back to me" -- reflecting his intention to demonstrate his notion of how America will henceforth fight its wars.
Well, now we can see the outcome and it's at best ambiguous. That is to say, the early stages of Afghanistan and Iraq proved to be smashing successes. The smaller, agile forces performed remarkably well in demolishing both the Taliban and the Baath Party regime; but in both cases, genuine victory has proven enormously elusive. This gets us to the third basis for the generals' gripe. When they talk about Rumsfeld's incompetence and micromanagement, they're arguing against the transformation project and on behalf of those services which have footed most of the bill.
TD: Just to throw one other thing into the mix, if there were a campaign against Iran, it would be a Navy and Air Force one.
Bacevich: It would begin with a Navy and Air Force campaign, but it wouldn't end that way. If the Army generals could be assured that we know exactly where the Iranian nuclear program is, that we have the targeting data and the munitions to take it out… Well, that would be one thing, but we don't have that assurance. From the Army and Marine Corps perspective, an air attack might begin a war with Iran, but the war would not end there. As is the case in both Afghanistan and Iraq, some sort of ugly aftermath would be sure to follow and the Navy and the Air Force aren't going to be there, at least not in large numbers.
TD What about the Iraq War at present?
Bacevich There are a couple of important implications that we have yet to confront. The war has exposed the limited depth of American military power. I mean, since the end of the Cold War we Americans have been beating our chests about being the greatest military power the world has ever seen. [His voice rises.] Overshadowing the power of the Third Reich! Overshadowing the Roman Empire!
Wait a sec. This country of 290 million people has a force of about 130,000 soldiers committed in Iraq, fighting something on the order of 10-20,000 insurgents and a) we're in a war we can't win, b) we're in the fourth year of a war we probably can't sustain much longer. For those who believe in the American imperial project, and who see military supremacy as the foundation of that empire, this ought to be a major concern: What are we going to do to strengthen the sinews of American military power, because it's turned out that our vaunted military supremacy is not what it was cracked up to be. If you're like me and you're quite skeptical about this imperial project, the stresses imposed on the military and the obvious limits of our power simply serve to emphasize the imperative of rethinking our role in the world so we can back away from this unsustainable notion of global hegemony.
Then, there's the matter of competence. I object to the generals saying that our problems in Iraq are all due to the micromanagement and incompetence of Mr. Rumsfeld -- I do think he's a micromanager and a failure and ought to have been fired long ago -- because it distracts attention from the woeful performance of the senior military leaders who have really made a hash of the Iraq insurgency. I remember General Swannack in particular blaming Rumsfeld for Abu Ghraib. I'll saddle Rumsfeld with about ten percent of the blame for Abu Ghraib, the other ninety percent rests with the senior American military leaders in Baghdad…
TD:General Ricardo Sanchez signed off on it…
Bacevich: Sanchez being number one. So again, if one is an enthusiast for American military supremacy, we have some serious thinking to do about the quality of our senior leadership. Are we picking the right people to be our two, three, and four-star commanders? Are we training them, educating them properly for the responsibilities that they face? The Iraq War has revealed some major weaknesses in that regard.
TD: Do you think that the neocons and their mentors, Rumsfeld and the Vice President, believed too deeply in the hype of American hyperpower? Ruling groups, even while manipulating others, often seem to almost hypnotically convince themselves as well.
Bacevich: That's why I myself tend not to buy into the charge that Bush and others blatantly lied us into this war. I think they believed most of what they claimed. You should probably put believe in quotes, because it amounts to talking yourself into it. They believed that American omnipotence, as well as know-how and determination, could imprint democracy on Iraq. They really believed that, once they succeeded in Iraq, a whole host of ancillary benefits were going to ensue, transforming the political landscape of the Middle East. All of those expectations were bizarre delusions and we're paying the consequences now.
You know, the neoconservatives that mattered were not those in government like Douglas Feith or people on the National Security Council staff, but the writers and intellectuals outside of government who, in the period from the late seventies through the nineties, were constantly weaving this narrative of triumphalism, pretending to insights about power and the direction of history. Intellectuals can put their imprint on public discourse. They can create an environment, an atmosphere. When the events of September 11, 2001 left Americans shocked and frightened and people started casting about for an explanation, a way of framing a response, the neoconservative perspective was front and center and had a particular appeal. So these writers and intellectuals did influence policy, at least for a brief moment.
TD: Here's something that puzzles me. When I look at administration actions, I see a Middle Eastern catastrophe in the midst of which an Iranian situation is being ratcheted up. Then there's China, once upon a time the enemy of choice for the neocons and Rumsfeld, and now here we are this summer having the largest naval maneuvers since Vietnam, four carrier task forces, off the Chinese coast. Then -- as with Cheney's recent speech -- there's the attempted rollback of what's left of the USSR, which has been ongoing. On the side, you've got the Pentagon pushing little Latin American bases all the way down to Paraguay. So many fronts, so much overstretch, and no backing down that I can see. What do you make of this?
Bacevich: My own sense is that this administration has largely exhausted its stock of intellectual resources; that, for the most part, they're preoccupied with trying to manage Iraq. Beyond that, I'm hard-pressed to see a coherent strategy in the Middle East or elsewhere. In that sense, Iraq is like Vietnam. It just sucks up all the oxygen. Having said that, before being eclipsed by 9/11 and its aftermath, China was indeed the enemy-designate of the hawks, and a cadre of them is still active in Washington. I would guess that large naval exercises reflect their handiwork. Still, I don't think there's been a resolution within the political elite of exactly how we ought to view China and what the U.S. relationship with China will be.
Why the hell we're extending bases into Latin America is beyond me. Rumsfeld just announced that he has appointed an admiral as the head of U.S. Southern Command. Now this has almost always been an Army billet, once or twice a Marine billet, never a Navy one. I got an email today from someone who suggested that this was another example of Rumsfeld's"boldness." My response was: Well, if he was bold, he'd simply shut down the Southern Command. Wouldn't it be a wonderful way to communicate that U.S.-Latin American relations had matured to the point where they no longer revolved around security concerns? Wouldn't it be interesting for Washington to signal that there is one region of the world that does not require U.S. military supervision; that we really don't need to have some four-star general parading around from country to country in the manner of some proconsul supervising his quarter of the American Empire?
Now, I have friends who think that [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez poses a threat to the United States. I find that notion utterly preposterous, but it does reflect this inclination to see any relationship having any discord or dissonance as requiring a security -- i.e. military -- response. I find it all crazy and contrary to our own interests.
TD: One thing that's ratcheted up in recent years is the way the Pentagon's taken over so many aspects of policy, turning much of diplomacy into military-to-military relations.
Bacevich: If you look at long-term trends, going back to the early Cold War, the Defense Department has accrued ever more influence and authority at the expense of the State Department. But there's another piece to this -- within the Defense Department itself, as the generals and the senior civilians have vied with one another for clout. When Rumsfeld and [Paul] Wolfowitz came into office they were determined to shift the balance of civil/military authority within the Pentagon. They were intent on trimming the sails of the generals. You could see this in all kinds of ways, some symbolic. Regional commanders used to be called CINCs, the acronym for commander-in-chief. Rumsfeld said: Wait a minute, there's only one commander-in-chief and that's my boss, so you generals who work for me, you're not commanders-in-chief any more. Now the guy who runs US Southern Command is just a" combatant commander."
Also indicative of this effort to shift power back to the civilians is the role played by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which has been nonexistent for all practical purposes. Accounts of the planning and conduct of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars make clear that they had virtually no influence at all. They were barely, barely consulted. Ever since Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs and became a quasi-independent power broker, presidents have chosen weak chairmen. Presidents want top officers to be accommodating rather than forceful personalities who might hold independent views. I'm sure General Myers of the Air Force is a wonderful man and a patriot, but he served four years as chairman after 9/11 and did so without leaving any discernible mark on policy. And that's not accidental. It reflects Rumsfeld's efforts to wrest authority back towards the office of the Secretary of Defense.
TD: Isn't this actually part of a larger pattern in which authority is wrested from everywhere and brought into this commander-in-chief presidency?
Bacevich: That's exactly right. I've just finished a review of Cobra II this new book by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor. A major theme of the book is that people like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz saw 9/11 as a great opportunity. Yes, it was a disaster. Yes, it was terrible. But by God, this was a disaster that could be turned to enormous advantage. Here lay the chance to remove constraints on the exercise of American military power, enabling the Bush administration to shore up, expand, and perpetuate U.S. global hegemony. Toward that end, senior officials concocted this notion of a Global War on Terror, really a cover story for an effort to pacify and transform the broader Middle East, a gargantuan project which is doomed to fail. Committing the United States to that project presumed a radical redistribution of power within Washington. The hawks had to cut off at the knees institutions or people uncomfortable with the unconstrained exercise of American power. And who was that? Well, that was the CIA. That was the State Department, especially the State Department of Secretary Colin Powell. That was the Congress -- note this weird notion that the Congress is somehow limiting Presidential prerogatives -- and the hawks also had to worry about the uniformed military, whom they considered"averse to risk" and incapable of understanding modern warfare in an information age.
TD: And you might throw in the courts. After all, the two men appointed to the Supreme Court are, above all else, believers in the unitary executive theory of the presidency.
Bacevich Yes, it fits. I would emphasize that it's not because Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz are diabolical creatures intent on doing evil. They genuinely believe it's in the interests of the United States, and the world, that unconstrained American power should determine the shape of the international order. I think they vastly overstate our capabilities. For all of their supposed worldliness and sophistication, I don't think they understand the world. I am persuaded that their efforts will only lead to greater mischief while undermining our democracy. Yet I don't question that, at some gut level, they think they are acting on your behalf and mine. They are all the more dangerous as a result.
TD: I'd like to turn to the issue of oil wars, energy wars. That seems to be what holds all this incoherent stuff together -- minds focused on a world of energy flows. Recently, I reread [President Jimmy] Carter's 1979 energy speech. Isn't it ironic that he got laughed out of the room for his sweater and for urging a future of alternative fuels on us, while we latched onto his Rapid Deployment Force for the Persian Gulf? As you argue in your book, The New American Militarism, this essentially starts us on what you call"World War IV."
Bacevich: I remember the Carter speech. I was a relatively young man at the time. In general, I have voted for Republicans, although not this Republican in 2004. But I did vote for Carter because I was utterly disenchanted with [President Richard] Nixon and [his National Security Advisor Henry] Kissinger. [President Gerald] Ford seemed weak, incompetent. And I remember being dismayed by the Carter speech because it seemed so out of sync with the American spirit. It wasn't optimistic; it did not promise that we would have more tomorrow than we have today, that the future would be bigger and better. Carter essentially said: If we are serious about freedom, we must really think about what freedom means -- and it ought to mean something more than acquisition and conspicuous consumption. And if we're going to preserve our freedom, we have to start living within our means.
It did not set well with me at the time. Only when I was writing my militarism book did I take another look at the speech and then it knocked me over. I said to myself: This guy got it. I don't know how, but he really got it in two respects. First, he grasped the essence of our national predicament, of being seduced by a false and even demeaning definition of freedom. Second, he understood that cheap oil was the drug that was leading us willy-nilly down this path. The two were directly and intimately linked: a growing dependence on seemingly cheap foreign oil and our inability to recognize what we might call the ongoing cultural crisis of our time.
Carter gives the so-called malaise speech, I think, in July '79. The Russians invade Afghanistan in December '79. Then comes Carter's State of the Union Address in January 1980 in which he, in a sense, recants, abandoning the argument of July and saying, by God, the Persian Gulf is of vital interest to the United States and we'll use any means necessary in order to prevent somebody else from controlling it. To put some teeth in this threat he creates the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, which sets in motion the militarization of U.S. policy that has continued ever since. So, July 1979 to January 1980, that's the pivotal moment that played such an important role in bringing us to where we are today. But of course we didn't understand that then -- certainly I didn't. In July 1979, Carter issued a prescient warning. We didn't want to listen. So we blew it.
Fast forward to 2006, and President Bush is telling us, thank you very much, that we're addicted to oil. I heard [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi on the radio over the weekend saying that the Democrats now have a plan to make us energy independent by 2020. She's lying through her teeth. There's no way anybody can make us energy independent by then. We needed to start back in 1979, if not before. Even to achieve independence from Persian Gulf oil will be an enormously costly, painful process that none of the politicians in either party are willing to undertake. Gas is now roughly $3 a gallon. I heard some guy on a talk show the other day say:"Whaddya think we should do? I think we should all park our cars on the Interstate and stop traffic until the government does something." What does he actually want the government to do, I wondered? Conquer another country?
We Americans are in deep denial, unwilling to accept that we're going to have to change the way we live for our own good. Empire does not offer the recipe for preserving our freedom. Learning to live within our means just might. Jimmy Carter was the one guy, back in July of '79, who really had the guts to say that. Unfortunately, he didn't have the guts to stick with it.
TD: I always wonder what would have happened if we had dumped a bunch of money into R&D for alternative fuels back then.
Bacevich: The funding for the Iraq War is now in the hundreds of billions of dollars. [Economist] Joseph Stiglitz projects that total costs could go to $2 trillion. What would a trillion dollars have done for research into alternative fuels? I don't know, but something… something! What do you get for a trillion dollars in Iraq? Nothin'. It's just nuts!
TD: I was amused, by the way, that you were born in Normal, Illinois…
Bacevich: …because the Normal School of the State of Illinois, the teacher's college, was there.
TD: I was also thinking about stereotypes of military men. You know, rigidity of mind and the like. What strikes me in your writings is that you seem more open to rethinking your worldview than almost any scholar around. So I was curious about the evolution of your thought.
Bacevich: Two key moments for me were the end of the Cold War and the Iraq War. The simple story would be that, for the first twenty-some years of my adult life, which coincided with the latter stages of the Cold War, I was a serving officer. I was a cold warrior in uniform. I therefore accepted the orthodox narrative of the Cold War and of the postwar era more generally. I was not oblivious to policy errors we had made and some of the sins we had committed, but as long as I was in uniform I was willing to accept that these were peripheral to the larger narrative. I did retain this notion that the Cold War was an emergency, a very long, serious one in which we as a nation had been called upon to depart from the norm. This was not the way things were supposed to be, particularly in regard to a globally deployed military establishment.
TD: Let me back you up for a moment to Vietnam. You fought there…
TD: ...and how did you come out of Vietnam?
Bacevich: For a variety of personal reasons, my wife and I decided to stay in the Army after my obligation was up… [He hesitates.] For those who are not familiar with military service, it may be difficult to appreciate the extent to which that life is all embracing. It's like being a monk. It's a calling. Soldiers work real hard. And much of that work is peculiarly satisfying. For most of my time in the service, women were few in number and on the margins. So it was a very masculine environment. This might seem retro, but men living among men and doing manly things [he laughs], there is a peculiar savor to that. At any rate, I bought into the institutional view of Vietnam -- that we had been screwed. The politicians had screwed us; the media had screwed us; the American people had screwed us. They had let us down, and so my commitment was to an institution that, after Vietnam, was engaged in a comprehensive effort to reconstitute and restore itself -- and its standing in American society.
In that context, the questions I was willing to ask about Vietnam or about U.S. foreign policy more generally were fairly narrow. Since getting out of the Army, since trying to make sense of the Cold War and U.S. foreign policy from a different perspective, I've come to see the Vietnam War differently as well. I can accept to some degree the argument that the meaning of Vietnam is to be found in the-military-gets-hung-out-to-dry, but that's not sufficient. And I've come to see the war as just utterly unnecessary, misguided, and mistaken. A monumental miscalculation that never should have happened, but that did happen due to some deep-seated defects in the way we see ourselves and see the world.
In any case, the Cold War essentially ends in 1989 when the [Berlin] Wall goes down; in '91, the Soviet Union collapses. I get out of the Army in 1992 and I'm waiting with bated breath to see what impact the end of the Cold War is going to have on U.S. policy, particularly military policy. The answer is, essentially, none. We come out even more firmly committed to the notion of U.S. military global supremacy. Not because there was an enemy -- in 1992, ‘93, ‘94, there's no enemy -- but because we've come to see military supremacy and global hegemony as good in and of themselves.
The end of the Cold War sees us using military power more frequently, while our ambitions, our sense of what we're supposed to do in the world, become more grandiose. There's all this bloated talk about"the end of history," and the"right side of history," and the"indispensable nation," politicians and pundits pretending to know the destiny of humankind. So I began to question my understanding of what had determined U.S. behavior during the Cold War. The orthodox narrative said that the U.S. behaved as it did because of them, because of external threats. I came to believe that explanation was not entirely wrong but limited. You get closer to the truth by recognizing that what makes us behave the way we behave comes from inside. I came to buy into the views of historians like Charles Beard and William Appleton Williams who emphasize that foreign policy is an outgrowth of domestic policy, in particular of the structure of the American political economy.
So I became a critic of U.S. foreign policy in the 1990s, a pretty outspoken one.
TD: You wrote a book then with the word"empire" in the title...
Bacevich: Yes, because I became convinced that what we saw in the 90s from both Democrats and Republicans was an effort to expand an informal American empire. Fast forward to 9/11 and its aftermath, and the Bush doctrine of preventive war as implemented in Iraq, and the full dimensions of our imperial ambitions become evident for all to see.
I have to say, I certainly supported the Afghanistan War. I emphatically believed that we had no choice but to take down the Taliban regime in order to demonstrate clearly the consequences of any nation tolerating, housing, supporting terrorists who attack us. But the Iraq War just struck me as so unnecessary, unjustifiable, and reckless that... I don't know how to articulate its impact except that it put me unalterably in the camp of those who had come to see American power as the problem, not the solution. And it brought me close to despair that the response of the internal opposition and of the American people generally proved to be so tepid, so ineffective. It led me to conclude that we are in deep, deep trouble.
An important manifestation of that trouble is this shortsighted infatuation with military power that goes beyond even what I wrote about in my most recent book. Again, it revolves around this question of energy and oil. There's such an unwillingness to confront the dilemmas we face as a people that I find deeply troubling. I know we're a democracy. We have elections. But it's become a procedural democracy. Our politics are not really meaningful. In a meaningful politics, you and I could argue about important differences, and out of that argument might come not resolution or reconciliation, but at least an awareness of the consequences of going your way as opposed to mine. We don't even have that argument. That's what's so dismaying.
TD: You've used the word" crusade" and spoken of this administration as"intoxicated with the mission of salvation." I was wondering what kind of"ism" you think we've been living with in these years?
Bacevich: That's a great question, and it's not enough to say that it's democratic capitalism. Certainly, our"ism" incorporates a religious dimension -- in the sense of believing that God created this nation for a purpose that has to do with universal values.
We have not as a people come to terms with our relationship to military power and to the wars we've engaged in and the ways we've engaged in them. Now, James Carroll in his new book, House of War, is very much preoccupied with strategic bombing in World War II and since, and especially with our use of, and attitude toward, nuclear weapons. His preoccupation is understandable because those are the things we can't digest and we can't cough up. You know, at the end of the day, we, the missionary nation, the crusader state, certain of our righteousness, remain the only people to have used nuclear weapons in anger -- indeed, to have used them as a weapon of terror.
TD: Air power, even though hardly covered in our media in Iraq, has been the American way of war since World War II, hasn't it?
Bacevich: Certainly that"ism" that defines us has a large technological component, doesn't it? I mean, we are the people of technology. We see the future as a technological one and can't imagine a problem that doesn't have technological solutions...
TD: ...except when it comes to oil.
Bacevich: Quite true. In many respects, the technological artifact that defines the last century is the airplane. With the airplane came a distinctive style of warfare. The Italians dropped the first bomb in North Africa; the Japanese killed their share of civilians from the air as did the Germans, but we and our British cousins outdid them all. I've been thinking more and more that our record of strategic bombing is not simply an issue of historical interest.
We are not who we believe we are and, in some sense, others perceive us more accurately than we do ourselves. The President has described a version of history -- as did Clinton, by the way -- beginning with World War II in which the United States is the liberator, Americans are the bringers of freedom. There is truth to that narrative, but it's not the whole truth; and, quite frankly, it's not the truth that matters a lick, let's say, to the Islamic world today. Muslims don't give a darn that we brought Hitler or the Third Reich to its knees. What they're aware of is all kinds of other behavior, particularly in their neck of the woods, that had nothing to do with spreading democracy and freedom, that had everything to do with power, with trying to establish relations that maximized the benefit to the United States and American society. We don't have to let our hearts bleed about that. That's the way politics works, but let's not delude ourselves either. When President George W. Bush says,"America stands for freedom and liberty, and we're coming to liberate you," it's absurd to expect people in that part of the world to take us seriously. That's not what they've seen and known and experienced in dealing with the United States.
TD: And, of course, within the councils of this administration, they threw out anyone who knew anything about the record of U.S. policy in the Islamic world.
Bacevich: Because those experts would have challenged the ideologically soaked version of history that this administration has attempted to carry over into the 21st century. Only if we begin to see ourselves more clearly, will we be able to understand how others see us. We need to revise the narrative of the American Century and recognize that it has been about a host of other things that are far more problematic than liberation. There can be no understanding the true nature of the American century without acknowledging the reality of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, Hanoi, and Haiphong.
TD: Do you, by the way, think that the reality-based community is catching up with the Bush administration?
Bacevich: It's catching up, but is it in a way that has political consequences? If we just toss Bush out and bring in... Who? Senator Clinton or John McCain? Will things be different? Somehow, I don't think so. Of course, there is something to be said for competence even in implementing a bad policy. Right now, we have incompetents implementing a bad policy, but the essence of the problem is the policy -- not just the Iraq War but this paradigm of a Global War on Terror, this notion of unconstraining American power. That's what we have to rethink.
TD: Your thoughts on three military matters: what might be called the religionizing of the military; the Bush administration's setting up of a Northern Command in 2002 for the so-called homeland, which I find disturbing; and finally, what do you make of the now-normalized practice of presenting the costs of war-fighting as a non-Defense Department budget supplementary item?
Bacevich: I think the last thing in your list is outlandish and irresponsible. It's as if we're keeping two sets of books. But again, the administration abetted by the Congress plays these games and nobody seems to care. Still, it doesn't change the facts -- that we're spending more on defense than the rest of the world put together. That has no precedent. And are we becoming safer and more secure and more prosperous? If we're not yet secure, does that mean we should be spending twice again as much? I have friends who think we should, or who at least believe that the defense budget is inadequate. I myself think that the flinging of money at the Defense Department ought to prompt Americans to reconsider the notion that the solution to our problems is to be found in the realm of military power.
I think the evangelizing issue reflects at least three things. Number one, the elite disengagement from the military after Vietnam. The Episcopalians don't sign up any more, or the Presbyterians. Number two, the heightened political engagement of Christian evangelicals who, by the 1960s, had embarked on a crusade to save America from itself. Evangelicals have long seen the U.S. military as allies in that cause. American society may be going to hell in a hand basket with its promiscuity, its pornography, its divorce rates, its abortion, its women's rights, all these things evangelicals lament, but the military's a bastion of traditional virtue. Now, they misperceive soldiers in that regard, but I think that's one reason military service has a special appeal for evangelical Christians.
Third comes the politicization of the military. When I first became an officer, the tradition of being apolitical was still deeply rooted. As one consequence of Vietnam, that went away. The officer corps came to see its interests as lying with the political right. Evangelical Christianity is just part of a larger mix.
TD: So, you have an all-embracing world that has become more politicized, that's moved south, and that has few new streams of blood heading into it, unlike in the era of the draft or of the World War. What are the results of the military becoming less and less like American society?
Bacevich: I think it's bad news. The only good news -- this is pure speculation as there's no evidence for it -- might be that since the Iraq War is the handiwork of a conservative, evangelical, Republican President, perhaps members of the officer corps will begin to rethink where their loyalties should lie and will come to the realization that hitching their flag to the Republican Party is not necessarily good for their institutional interests. The officer corps loved [President Ronald] Reagan. He saved the military. And here we have, according to some people, the most Reaganite president since Reagan who seems to be doing his darnedest to destroy the military. That might have some impact.
TD: About a year ago you said,"The only way I can envision a meaningful political change along the lines that I would like to see would be in reaction to an awful disaster." Would you like to comment?
Bacevich: A disaster like that could go either way. One hates to speculate on this, but were there another 9/11, the likely result could be that Americans would rise up in their righteous anger and say, let's go kill them all. But it's at least possible to hope that such a disaster might offer an opportunity for people who are advancing alternative views to be heard.
One of the strange things about the Iraq War and other post-9/11 policies is that, except for gas being at $3 a gallon, who the hell cares? Part of the cunning genius of the Bush administration has been the way it's insulated Americans from the effects of their policies. You know, 9/11 happens and they seize upon it to declare their Global War on Terror. The President says from the outset that this is a long war, that it may take decades, that it's comparable to the world wars. On the other hand, he chooses not to mobilize the nation. There are no changes in our domestic priorities; no significant expansion of the armed forces.
Well, why was that? In their confidence about how great our military power was, they calculated that what we had would suffice. That was a major miscalculation. But I think they also calculated that by telling Americans, as President Bush famously did, to go down to Disney World and enjoy this great country of ours, they would be able to buy themselves political protection. Even though opinion polls show that public support for the President has dropped tremendously, in a sense events have proven them right. They have not been held accountable for their egregious mistakes because average citizens like you and me don't really feel the pain in any direct way.
Now, if the President had said: We're going to cut back on our domestic programs; we're going to raise taxes because this is an important war and, by God, we need to pay for it; we need a bigger Army and so we're going to impose a draft. Then I think Americans might have been more attentive to what's been happening over the past four years. But alas, they've not been. Instead we've drifted down the path toward perdition.
[Note:Those readers who want some background on the issues discussed in this interview are advised to pick up a copy of Bacevich's remarkable book, The New American Militarism.]
This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.
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Mike Schoenberg - 6/19/2006
an excelent piece> the only other thing that comes to mind is what ever happended to Collin Powell and his Doctrine which worked so well in the first Iraq war. He seems to have disapeared leaving all the control to the outpatients.
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