America's Empire and Endless Wars Are Destroying the World, and Ruining Our Great Country
Andrew Bacevich speaks with a fairly unique mix of experience, authority, passion and wisdom in questioning our nation’s priorities: specifically our willingness to place so much of our national identity, wealth, attention, moral practice, and finally the life and blood of many thousands of our citizens and millions of those of other countries in the hands of our military. A professor of history and international relations at Boston University, Bacevich served twenty-three years in the U.S. Army, retiring with the rank of colonel. He lost his son in Iraq. A graduate of the U. S. Military Academy, he received his Ph. D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University. He is the author of several books, including The New American Militarism; The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism; and his newest, Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War.
McNally: Your book, Washington Rules, opens with a moment that you offer as a turning point: could you share that experience?
Bacevich: The moment occurred shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was still in the army at the time. I’d spent a considerable time serving in Germany with my family, but this was the first time we visited Berlin. I wanted to visit the Brandenburg Gate, because for me, it had been for decades this quintessential symbol of international politics in our time. Late on a rainy, very cold winter night, we approached the Gate from the old East Berlin side and found young men huddled between its columns peddling bits and pieces of Soviet military gear: buttons, hats, parts of uniforms. I bought a wristwatch emblazoned with the symbol of the Soviet tank corps, which broke about two weeks later. It was all junk, and the men, who clearly were off-duty Russian soldiers, looked anything but ten feet tall.
At that moment – I’m not going to say my worldview was suddenly transformed – but certain seeds of doubt were planted. I began to wonder if I had misperceived the “other” that I was now confronting for the first time. As I considered that possibility, I began to entertain the possibility that I had misperceived many other things, and so began an intellectual journey that has continued now for about 20 years.
McNally: You set forth on a process of inquiry and self-education to learn what had been obscured to you in the past. You began this process while you were still in the military?
Bacevich: Well, I left the army maybe two years later, and that’s when the questions began to come fast and furious. I came to realize – and it’s not some startling insight – that when you exist inside of an institution, particularly an institution that has an all-encompassing role such as a religious order or the military, it’s very difficult to view that institution critically. It’s very difficult even to understand some of the assumptions that define the institution’s view of truth. It’s only when you’re able to stand apart from the institution, that critical thought becomes possible. When I left the army in 1992, the process of seeking to identify and to answer first order questions really began.
McNally: What do you mean by first order questions?
Bacevich: A couple of the first order questions that have preoccupied me: What exactly drives US policy? What makes us do what we do with regard to the rest of the world?
As a young boy growing up and as a serving officer, I generally accepted the official view that we did what we did because it was necessary to respond to external threat: that our policy in a sense was defensive and reactive. I subsequently came to believe that’s not true. We do what we do largely in response to domestic, political, economic and ideological imperatives, and the motive for US policy emerges from within; it does not come from without.
A second first order question had to do with the nature of war and the efficacy of force. I think most military professionals accept the conviction within their professions that war continues to be an effective instrument of statecraft. Despite my own service in Vietnam – which I recognized had been a disaster – I still largely subscribed to that idea. It was only after I got out of the army -- and in particular after the US embarked upon what seemed to be a never-ending series of interventions abroad, most of which failed to deliver on the promises that had justified them -- that I really began to rethink my view of war itself.
McNally: What to you is the crucial evidence that America’s approach to foreign and military policy is broken, that it doesn’t work?
Bacevich: I think that an effective approach to national security is one that will keep us safe, and that will preserve and even enhance our prosperity, thereby enabling citizens to pursue life, liberty and happiness; and it will do all that at a relatively reasonable cost. And I think it’s pretty clear, especially if we look at the post-9/11 period, that the existing approach to national security policy – what I call the Washington Rules – fails on every point. It’s not keeping us safe; it’s certainly depleting our resources; it’s not building our prosperity; and it’s costing a ton of money. The Washington Rules that I try to describe in the book originated in the immediate wake of World War II. They were expressions of a national security consensus that may well have worked at one time, but I would argue strongly that they no longer work at all. This consensus, having outlived its utility, is badly in need of being junked.
McNally: What are those rules? You say they consist of a credo and a trinity of means, right?
Bacevich: The credo asserts a claim, and out of that claim comes a demand that the United States be able to exercise certain prerogatives. The second piece of the Washington Rules I label the sacred trinity, core principles that define the way we conceive of and use our military power. The elements of the sacred trinity are the following: first of all, a demand that the United States exclusively maintain a global military presence; second, the practice of configuring US forces not to defend the country, but so that they can serve as instruments of power projection; and then finally, to combine that global presence with those global power projection capabilities to support a policy of global interventionism.
This sacred trinity is really what distinguishes the United States’ military power. The Brits at one time had a dominant battle fleet; France in the time of Napoleon had a people in arms; what we have is the sacred trinity. And, to emphasize what I think is the key point, it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.
McNally: You make the point that all of this consistently goes unquestioned, and that both political parties and the mainstream media begin at second and third order questions.
Bacevich: Exactly right. One of the reasons that I use religiously loaded language -- an American credo and the sacred trinity -- to describe the Washington Rules is that I think this approach to national security policy has ascended to the point that it’s kind of a quasi-religion.
Washington subscribes to these principles as a matter of faith. There is no empirical evidence to suggest that the American credo is valid or is true, but every president, up to and including President Obama, in their speeches and their language repeatedly -- in somewhat different words from one president to the next -- reaffirms the credo. And the policies pursued by the Pentagon, supported by the Congress, and largely endorsed by the mainstream media, reaffirm the elements of the sacred trinity.
McNally: Let me read a piece of Obama’s speech last December when, after the very public period of analysis, he announced that the US would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. “More than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades, a time that for all its problems has seen walls come down, markets open, billions lifted from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress, advancing frontiers of human liberty. For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations; we will not claim another nation’s resources or target other people because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours. What we have fought for, what we continue to fight for is a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other people’s children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.”
To me, that very much has that sense – whether he and his speechwriters are aware of it or not – of a credo handed down, untouchable and unquestionable.
Bacevich: It is such a sanitized version of our history in the past five or six decades that it shouldn’t pass the laugh test. Yet I think it’s an excellent example of the way political leaders perpetuate the credo: Obama putting his own stamp of approval on an image of our role in the world that everybody, at least since Franklin Roosevelt, has embraced.
McNally: Again using the religious metaphor, it’s as if someone ascends to the cardinalship, and then publicly pledges allegiance to the credo that’s been handed down to them.
McNally: What are the causes, the history and the culprits? In this book, although you certainly deal with the present predicament, with Iraq and Afghanistan, you also take us back. There are characters I hadn’t read about in quite a while -- Allan Dulles, Curtis Lemay and Maxwell Taylor. How did we get here from the end of WWII?
Bacevich: I think the short version goes like this. When the national security consensus was forged in the wake of WWII and the Washington Rules came into existence, they were not entirely irrational. I think you can make a strong case that American leadership and American military power were necessary in order to try to deal with the wreckage left behind by the war, to help to rebuild the liberal democratic world in order to resist the ambitions of Joseph Stalin. But the world that existed at the end of the 1940s no longer exists today, yet people in Washington tend to act as if the world has not changed at all.
So where did things go wrong? Things went wrong when the institutions -- the Pentagon, the CIA, components of the military industrial complex -- came to value the Washington Rules because they were good for the institutions, and gradually lost sight of the extent to which adhering to this national security consensus was good or not good for the nation itself.
Let’s get specific here. In the wake of WWII, our global military presence first took shape in Western Europe and Japan, and it was probably necessary in the near term. That presence abroad contributed to our safety and our wellbeing. But fast-forward to the post-Cold War period and our increasing military presence in places like the greater Middle East. You’d have to be crazy to think that the American military presence in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War, in Iraq after 2003, or in Afghanistan ever since 9/11, contributes to stability and security. That presence abroad actually enhances anti-Americanism and creates greater instability, but the Pentagon, committed to the proposition that we need to maintain this global military presence, is blind to the down side.
McNally: Let’s look at the current situation in Afghanistan. You note that over the years there’s been flexibility in interpretation of the rules. For example, Kennedy comes in, reverses Eisenhower’s stance, and ends up going to Vietnam. Another example, Petraeus at one point seems absolutely against anything that would ever be considered counterinsurgency and later becomes the god of counterinsurgency. There’s flexibility with how we do what we do, but never with why.
Bacevich: Periodically in this roughly six decade long period that the book tries to evaluate, there arises a great desire to create new instruments of military power that will make that power more useable. You cite two very good examples of this tendency.
By the time we get to the end of the 1950s, the end of the Eisenhower era, Ike and those around him had pretty much concluded that war as traditionally conceived had reached a dead end, that nuclear weapons for the most part made war unusable. Eisenhower’s policy was to wave the big stick of massive retaliation to keep the Soviets from doing anything. The people that came into office with Kennedy thought that was inadequate, they wanted to make force useable. They pursued this idea under the rubric of flexible response, one of the defective ideas that put us on the road to Vietnam.
Fast forward to the Iraq war and the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, when the US, thinking that it achieved a great victory, suddenly found itself faced with an insurgency and the prospect of never-ending conflict. Now David Petraeus leads the way, but he’s not alone in trying to revive an approach to warfare that once again would make American military power useful. There is a reoccurring tendency to want to find ways to make force work.
McNally: The Founding Fathers are constantly referred to by the Right, more than the Left, as the source of direction and wisdom. Yet, as you point out, their counsel on foreign policy is absolutely the opposite of where we are now and where we’ve been for the past 50 years. Let me read a quote of yours: “We are headed towards ever greater more difficult economic times that will result in us failing in our most fundamental obligation laid out in the preamble of the Constitution which is to provide the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. The path on which we have embarked and which we continue to pursue is very much at odds with what the founding purpose of this republic was supposed to be.”
Bacevich: To my mind, the most important word in that quote is “posterity”. The purpose of the Union is not simply to act in ways that will make you and me happy, but we are called upon to pursue a path that will also enable those who follow us to have an opportunity to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Of course, everybody mouths that cliché, but our failure is becoming increasingly apparent, above all, in the enormous debt that we are piling up -- not entirely due to our misguided national security policy, but in part. I think that we are increasingly approaching the point where it’s going to become impossible for posterity to have the same opportunities that we have, and that is an enormously important reason to take stock of our over-militarized approach to policy.
McNally: Let me remind people: When presidents, who now love to call themselves Commander in Chief, take the oath of office, it is not to defend our shores, our geography, or even our populace, it is to defend our constitution. As you point out, Adams, Washington and others said our role is as an exemplar not as an enforcer.
Bacevich: I think, to the extent that we have a responsibility to the world, it’s time to renew that argument. Should we try to fulfill that responsibility, as we have for the past 60 years, based on expectations of what military power can do? Or is it possible that we can best serve others by demonstrating that liberal values do have value? Could fulfilling the aspirations expressed in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution serve at least modestly to help other peoples in other nations to take their own paths toward self-determination -- rather than acting, as we do in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, as if we know best how to determine their futures.
I find it preposterous that President Obama -- someone who I think is a tremendously smart man, someone who basically I respect -- could believe that we have the ability to create a state, create a government, create institutions across the vast cultural divide that separates Afghans from Americans.
McNally: I walked along the beach the afternoon of 9/11, shell-shocked as we all were, and I asked myself what question should we be asking now? And to me it was, “Have we done everything we could to minimize the possibilities of such terrorism?” Of course, security would be part of the answer, but much more it would be whatever we could do to isolate such terrorists as pariahs in their own society. This would be about being an exemplar, perhaps things like Marshall Plans, possibly finding a way to expand education that wouldn’t trample on culture, etc.
July 2010 was the deadliest month for the US military in Afghanistan, 66 deaths, a devastating month for Afghans, more than 270 civilians killed, 600 wounded. Rather than ask you what do you think needs to happen in Afghanistan right now, let me ask a larger question -- what exactly is the threat that the US faces from these radical violent Islamists and what strategy should the US pursue in order to deal with that threat?
Bacevich: That’s an excellent question. First of all, the threat is not Islam or Fascism; the threat is not Nazi Germany in some sort of new guise. Those sorts of notions that were frequently voiced after 9/11, and are still voiced in the more militarized quarters of the right wing, are ludicrous. Violent anti-Western Jihadism does pose a real threat, but the threat falls well short of being existential.
The notion that we should take seriously the ambitions of Osama Bin Laden to create a new caliphate, uniting the entire Islamic world under his control, is preposterous. He’s no more likely to create a new caliphate than I am to become the next pope in Rome. The threat ought to have been categorized, and today should be categorized, as a form of international criminal conspiracy: a kind of Mafia that derives a certain amount of its energy by perverting a religious tradition. And the proper response to an international criminal conspiracy is an international police effort.
Our approach -- President Bush’s approach now continued in Afghanistan by President Obama, which emphasizes invading, occupying and then trying to transform countries -- doesn’t work, costs way too much money, expends far too many American lives, and at the end of the day probably serves more than anything else to simply exacerbate the number of people who see us as infidels and occupiers.
McNally: On the response side, you say treat it as a criminal conspiracy. Countries who have done so, or even the instances where we have done so, have found some success. What should we do in terms of prevention?
Bacevich: Here I suspect I may differ from you. You mentioned things like a Marshall Plan. I’m pretty skeptical about our ability to mobilize resources in ways that can engineer positive change in the Islamic world. My belief would be that the people of the Islamic world are going to have to find their own path to reconciling their religious traditions with the demands of modernity. I don’t mean that we should turn our backs on this dilemma that they are wrestling with. Let’s have exchange programs; let’s bring young people from that part of the world to study in our universities; let’s encourage cultural exchanges. But I don’t believe that in Afghanistan or Iraq or Pakistan or Yemen, that a set of programs put together by the federal government of the US can make anything more than a marginal difference. My own view is that we need to let Islam be Islam. They are going to have to sort out their own future.
What we need to do in the interim is to insulate ourselves from any violence that the internal crisis in the Islamic world may give rise to. To my mind, the most important thing to take from 9/11 is that our federal, state and local agencies charged with defending us, failed. If you leave the front door of your house wide open every night and sooner or later somebody comes in and steals your family silver, well, certainly the crooks need to be pursued and brought to justice, but shame on you for leaving your front door open. In effect that was what the agencies responsible for aviation security had done up until 9/11.
McNally: I realize that some of the thoughts I had on 9/11 have shifted by now. For one, the America that could afford a Marshall Plan after WWII is not the one that we exist in right now.
Bacevich: I think that’s tremendously important. We don’t live in the world that existed when the Marshall Plan was enacted. In 1947 we had the money and we made the stuff that everybody else wanted to buy around the world. We now live in a world in which the Chinese have the money and everybody makes stuff that our never-ending appetite for consumption insists we need to buy -- despite the fact that it just makes us go deeper in debt.
McNally: You go much more into our hunger for consumption and our ignorance of meaning in your previous book, Limits of Power, which I highly recommend.
To return to Petraeus for a moment: You point out that when he reflected on Vietnam, he thought counterinsurgency had no future. He then he writes a reformulation of counterinsurgency and it becomes the solution. What has gone unnoticed or at least unspoken is that the whole notion of the surge is based on the recognition that victory is impossible.
Bacevich: In the wake of Vietnam, the army in particular wanted to run away from counterinsurgency as fast as it possibly could, and return to the business of conventional war. Experiences in Desert Storm in 1991 and in the second Iraq War in 2003 for a time seemed to show that the US military had figured out how to gain a quick and decisive victory. That was an illusion that the insurgencies in Iraq and now in Afghanistan have dispatched. The counterinsurgency doctrine revised by Petraeus in effect declares that there is no such thing as a military solution to conflicts like these, and certainly there is no such thing as military victory. That may not seem odd to many people, but the whole notion that victory is possible forms the basis of the military profession’s claim to have a distinct professional existence.
McNally: -- and value.
Bacevich: Because if we can’t count on the army to win the war quickly and expeditiously, then why would we ever go to war in the first place?
McNally: Right. You need to say, “Wait a minute, we have to consider the tools of soft power and other forms of engagement because military force has enormous cost -- and if it can’t ensure success…”
Bacevich: We’ve spent probably close to a trillion dollars on the Iraq war. Had we instead spent a trillion dollars elsewhere in the Islamic world promoting education programs or economic development or women’s rights, would we have gotten more for our money? Even a skeptic of soft power like me would say, I have no doubt that we would have gotten more.
McNally: In an op-ed in the New York Times, Nick Kristof wrote that at the cost of $1 million per soldier per year in Afghanistan, that same money could open 20 schools.
Based on the fact that counterinsurgency recognizes the unlikelihood of victory, I want you to respond to this statement by Obama: “The United States of America does not quit once it starts on something. You don’t quit. The American armed services does not quit, we keep at it, we persevere and together with our partners we will prevail. I am absolutely confident of that.”
Bacevich: I don’t know why he says things like that. My assumption is that politicians always place politics at the heart of what they say and do, or at least they’re surrounded by advisers who are acutely sensitive to the political considerations.
We have a president who embraced counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and then proceeded preposterously to establish a deadline of the summer of 2011 to begin withdrawing US forces. The likelihood of being able to successfully prosecute a counterinsurgency over a period of 18 months is not very great. So the president I think, come December of 2011, when political considerations will really be moving to center stage…
McNally: It won’t be Congress he’s worried about, but his own re-election.
Bacevich: Exactly right. How the heck he is going to deal with these “we never quit”, “I know we will prevail” promises if the war is still going badly at that point? I think the President’s going to be in a real fix.
McNally: Let me quote a July article you wrote called Non Believer, in which you contrast George Bush and Barack Obama. You write: “When Bush stands before his maker he will say without fear of contradiction, ‘I did what I thought was right.’ On the other hand, when called upon to account for his presidency, honesty will prevent Obama from making a comparable claim. ‘The problems I inherited were difficult ones,’ he will say. ‘None of the choices were good ones. Things were complicated.’ The question demands to be asked, who is more deserving of contempt: the commander in chief who sends young Americans to die for a cause, however misguided, in which he sincerely believes, or the commander in chief who sends young Americans to die for a cause in which he manifestly does not believe and yet refuses to forsake?”
Bacevich: I think with the Afghanistan decision, the President was trying to finesse a set of problems. At that point, I think he wanted to spend his chips on certain domestic reform propositions: healthcare and economic stimulus. My guess is that he or those around him decided that to take on the Washington Rules would have been very difficult. Indeed it would have been.
My guess is that he decided that the more expedient course was to continue to play along with the Washington Rules in Afghanistan, to make good on his domestic reform plans, and then go back to the war. My belief is that it’s going to be too late; that having become Obama’s war, it is not something that he’s going to be able to easily back away from in 2011. Yet, if he persists in fighting Obama’s war, then many of us who supported him for the presidency in the first place are going to wonder if maybe our votes should go elsewhere.
McNally: At this point let’s turn to the deeper question: we can’t expect you to read the President’s mind, his advisers’ mind, or that of anyone who’s been in power for the last 50 years -- but what is it that keeps the Washington Rules going despite the failure in Vietnam, the fall of the Soviet Union, plus Iraq, Afghanistan, and all of the other adventures? Under Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton, the use of force became more frequent and less controversial. Who are they beholden to? What is the calculus that keeps them doing this when it seems to have so much downside?
Bacevich: Well, there’s a downside for the country, but the Washington Rules benefit Washington. They provide enormous profit for the military industrial complex. Out of those profits come campaign contributions to members of Congress, who are always worried about reelection. They justify the budget of the Pentagon and the intelligence community; they provide a source of prerogatives for institutions and for people; they allow ambitious military officers and senior officials to believe that they are engaged in important and historic events; and they create the rush that I think so many journalists seek; nobody gets more excited about war than the press.
McNally: They love their pictures in a war zone.
Bacevich: The Washington Rules persist partly because we the people are conditioned to think that there are no alternatives, and therefore we’ve lost our ability to think critically. But more importantly, they persist because they deliver a variety of goods to Washington itself.
McNally: Finally, if you could look back from from a decade in the future – It’s 2020, did the US turn things around in this regard? And if your answer is no, what were some of the consequences; if your answer is yes, how did we do it?
Bacevich: My guess is that we will not have turned it around. The only way that we will is if the American people become truly cognizant of the negative effects of persisting in the Washington Rules. Effectively the volunteer army means that most of us don’t really share in the service and sacrifice of perpetual war. The fact that wars are funded through deficit spending means that we don’t even feel them in our pocket book. If there is some further economic calamity, or -- and I obviously don’t want this to happen -- if there is some further 9/11 style calamity, perhaps that would jolt Americans into a recognition that something is fundamentally amiss and something needs to change. My guess, however, is that it’s not all that likely.