George W. Bush (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

"Where is the public outcry for an explanation of how the longest war in American history is on a course to end in failure?"

The brilliant foreign policy theorist Andrew Bacevich tells Salon how American exceptionalism makes matters worse


Patrick L. Smith
July 3, 2015 5:30PM (UTC)

Andrew Bacevich has been a singular critic of American foreign policy since he began publishing on the topic 13 years ago. His second book, “American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy,” came out in 2002 and defined his turf: He is a critic of the policy cliques who knows them from within. After “The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War” (2005) came “The Long War” (2007), “The Limits of Power (2008) and “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (2010)—titles that speak for themselves. Two years ago Bacevich published “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.” By then he had lost a son to an explosive device in Iraq—an event that seemed to inform the book with the dignified stoicism that marks Bacevich’s character.

Now 68, Bacevich is a West Point graduate who served a tour in Vietnam before taking a doctorate in diplomatic history at Princeton. He subsequently taught international relations at West Point and Johns Hopkins before joining the IR faculty at Boston University in 1998. Bacevich is now emeritus and devotes his time to getting the books out.

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I met “the dissident colonel,” as he is known in my household, when he spoke at the Providence Council on Foreign Affairs this spring. He spent the evening outlining the book now in his desk, which rests on 10 Theses, as he calls them, after the 95 Theses Martin Luther nailed to a church door (supposedly) in Wittenberg in 1517. They are a detailed critique of what Bacevich considers our 35-year War for the Greater Middle East. He dates this to 1980, when President Carter declared the Persian Gulf a strategic interest warranting military defense. With the Carter Doctine, Bacevich said that evening in Providence, “Carter lit a fuse without knowing where it led.”

“Learning offers a first step toward devising wiser, more effective, and less costly policies,” Bacevich also said on that occasion. I subsequently traveled to Boston to record this exchange. I found him as I had expected: a conservative man in various respects, a scholar with a disciplined mind ungiven to barricades and placards but vigorously opposed to the direction of American policy abroad and well aware of its roots in our consciousness of exceptionalism.

You’re a critic of American conduct abroad on numerous grounds — I would say a critic with a very particular perspective, and I hope we can explore that. For now, a point of confusion, at least for me: In “American Empire,” the 2002 book, you note that American policy, or statecraft, as you call it, lost its coherence in the post-Berlin Wall period. Policy before 1989, you thought, was more or less, as you say, mainly realistic. When we met [at the Providence CFR], on the other hand, you traced a certain grandiose streak in U.S. policy to Carter’s 1980 doctrine, which got us into what you’re now calling the War for the Greater Middle East, a 35-year escapade at this point. Can you clarify your thinking on this? When, in your view, did the policy elite lose its way?

To clarify a little bit, until roughly 1990 the hierarchy of interests that shaped U.S. foreign policy privileged Europe and East Asia. Those were the two most important theaters in U.S. foreign policy. And notwithstanding horrific mistakes made along the way, Vietnam being the most important but by no means the only one, if you look at the period from the late 1940s to the 1990s, in the main U.S. policy in these two pivotal regions qualifies as realistic. There was a certain cohesion to U.S. policy. Indeed, one could say there was a strategy. If you wanted to reduce that strategy to a single word, the word would be “containment.” At least until 1980, the Middle East—I prefer the term the Greater Middle East—tended to be viewed as peripheral in the hierarchy. My argument is that this began to change in 1980, when Jimmy Carter, in response to the hostage crisis in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, promulgated the Carter Doctrine.

Now, it didn’t overnight vault the Greater Middle East to the top rank of U.S. foreign policy interests, but it began that process. And indeed, the end of the Cold War, which tended at least marginally to diminish the importance attributed to Europe and East Asia, facilitated that. So by the time you get to the 1990s, and certainly by the time you get to 9/11, there’s been this substantial change, and the change gets expressed above all and most regrettably in the reorientation of the U.S. military. Militarily, the United States doesn’t abandon Europe, and it certainly hasn’t abandoned East Asia, but if you look at where we’ve sent U.S. forces to fight or to occupy, especially since 1990, it’s clear that the focal point now is the Greater Middle East. And, to further the contrast, unlike the period of the Cold War, when you can make an argument that there was a certain cohesion in U.S. policy, there’s been virtually none with regard to the Greater Middle East. What we have is almost a pattern of random military interventionism justified by all kinds of reasons, few of which have produced anything like a positive outcome, and which cumulatively contributed to the destabilization of the Greater Middle East.

I couldn’t agree with you more on that latter point. An American imperium bent on incessant expansion and more or less global dominance is among your bedrock descriptions for what we now live with. Two of the biggest questions on any paying-attention American’s mind are just how dangerous this is and whether there is any plausible prospect of change: a new American ambition, purpose or however you want to put it. What are your views in each case? The danger of it and the plausibility of change.

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In the danger of pursuing the imperium?

Yes. You have a lot of non-Americans saying the American foreign policy is the single most disorder-creating factor in global affairs today, right?

Well, the preliminary point is to understand where this urge to create a global imperium came from. And several facts contributed. One of which is the long-standing, deeply embedded claim of American exceptionalism, which assigns to us a responsibility to transform the global order in our own image. That goes back to the founding of Anglo-America, the City upon a Hill.

Winthrop’s sermon in 1630, to be exact, yes.

Right. But the end of the Cold War and the nearly simultaneous military event we call Operation Desert Storm gave the first twist to that long-standing expectation of what we are called upon to do. The end of the Cold War persuaded American elites in both parties, people on the left and people on the right, that liberal democratic capitalism was destined to triumph everywhere, that the last ideological challenger had been vanquished.

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The “end of history” is set.

The end of history is set. So that seemed to bring the vision of global hegemony that much closer. Desert Storm seems to demonstrate—this is not so inaccurate, misleading—that the United States is in possession of military powers such that the world has never seen. We believe by 1991 that we have not only vanquished the last standing ideological opponent, but that we have achieved a military supremacy.

Now you combine that sort of generalized mission to save the world with the end of history and with the belief that we now possess the means to exercise dominance, and you have a very explosive combination that, by the 1990s, makes global hegemony seem possible. Of course, the 1990s is not the decade of the evil neoconservative and the bad Republicans. It’s the decade of Bill Clinton, of the liberal Democrats calling the shots. But if you look at what happens in the 1990s, you find this expansive rhetoric. They don’t use the term “empire,” but it is an imperialistic rhetoric, and you also find, under Clinton, a growing willingness to put that American military power to use. To do what Clinton would argue would be good things in the world. And that takes the form of a far greater willingness to intervene. In Somalia, in Haiti, in Kosovo, in Bosnia, with the expectation that somehow this interventionism is going to produce stability, spread our values, help to bring into existence this new American-dominated order. Problem is, of course, that the results are considerably different. Instead of creating stability we create instability, and, of course, the chickens come home to roost on 9/11, with the attacks on Washington and New York.

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We’ll come back to this question of exceptionalism in a minute.

You’ve been proven right times 10 in arguing a long time ago that the thought of post-Cold War disarray in American policy circles—no aim, no strategy—is wrong. The aim from the first Bush and Clinton onward has been to cast the world in the American image, just as you said: open markets, a sort of extreme capitalism. That leads straight to the problem of exceptionalism, as you’ve just suggested. I take it you agree. Now, here’s the question: If the problem is the consciousness of exceptionalism, the matter of change becomes more daunting. You’re not talking about changing a law, you’re not yet talking about changing how many divisions we ought to have in Guam. You’re talking about changing a kind of national consciousness.

So, returning to the previous question, how realistic is this? You mentioned in Providence, “We must learn the lessons.” It’s a good phrase: Of course we must learn the lessons. But, time and again I have to say to myself: I don’t see any evidence of learning in Washington. They’re allergic to the past. They can’t stand history. We’re a nation of forgetters. How realistic is it to expect them to learn anything? And if we don’t learn anything, we’re in a very bad track.

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Well, and I am certainly not optimistic about our willingness to learn. You’re right, it’s easy to say learn the lessons, but you don’t learn the lessons unless there’s evidence of some kind of willingness.

So what’s your thought on that? How can we expect to—

My thought is hope lies, however faint the hope may be, in the possibility of introducing—reintroducing—into the debate over foreign policy a sense of realism. One of the great obstacles to rethinking U.S. foreign policy is the extent to which both of the major parties buy into, I think for mostly cynical reasons, the premises of American exceptionalism. So here we are, you and I are speaking. We’re in sort of the preliminary stages of the 2016 presidential campaigns, and it is not difficult to predict that from both sides we will hear calls for American leadership. The insistence that there is no alternative to American leadership, the promises of sustaining American strength—

There’s not a trace of dissenting opinion.

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Correct. And so, the best one can hope for is somehow—not that a critic of foreign policy is going to win a nomination; they’re not—but somehow, someone capable of critical thinking with regard to foreign policy could at least make it far enough into the primaries to introduce—

Yes, someone you figure like Webb or something? [Jim Webb is a former Marine, secretary of the Navy and senator from Virginia sometimes mentioned as a potential Democratic candidate in 2016.]

Bingo. So my hope: I would love to see Webb declare—there’s not a chance that he will get the nomination.

No, but he could influence the conversation.

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To have Webb up on the stage with Hillary Clinton and the two or three other figures that may make a run for the Democratic nomination, and forcing a discussion on, for example, the consequences and cost of the Iraq war, would be a helpful thing. There was a time when I would have said the same thing about Rand Paul on the Republican side, but in the present moment I’m not so sure. My current sense is that he is so eager to win the nomination that he is willing to compromise on his non-interventionist principles.

Yes, right.

And if he does, that will be a lost opportunity. In a sense, who ends up being president is, at this stage of the game, of less interest than whether or not the process of presidential campaigning can bear some fruit in terms of opening up a serious discussion of exactly where we are, and how we got here with regard to foreign policy.

It’ll come over as a very sour view. I’m not sure it’s mine, but it’s becoming mine and there’s optimism at the far end of it: I often think we’re just going to have to get one bloody nose too many before we come to our senses. It’s a matter of very deeply ingrained habits of mind, right?

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Well, I once shared that thought, and now I’m despairing even of that, and I’ll tell you why. Back in 2008, when President Obama was running for the first time -- talk about a bloody nose. I mean, we had two bloody noses. The first was the catastrophic Iraq war. The was the financial collapse of that year. I entertained some brief hope that the two of them, the intersection of those two, would lead large numbers of American people to say, “What the hell is going on?”

“Let’s rethink.”

“Let’s rethink.” And one could argue that the election of President Obama suggested a desire to see some rethinking, but it sure the heck didn’t bear fruit.

I was in Hong Kong that morning—it was morning for me when McCain capitulated, 11 at night your time.

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And then the Grant Park speech?

I don’t mind saying I wept. I thought, “We’ve redressed 150 years of our own history, and on the foreign side, the whole world is going to exhale.” That night in Hong Kong, not only every American there was out in the streets—the bars were crammed—but many Chinese were, too. Everyone was relieved. It’s a measure of the disappointment to come, but that’s another line of inquiry.

Actually what you said I think is very interesting. There was something very important, symbolically important, in the election of an African-American. And the passage of time has by no means diminished the significance of his election in that regard. The problem was, it sort of reinforced naïve expectations that I think many Americans are susceptible to: that whoever the president happens to be, that person has the capability to change the world. And one of my great convictions has come to be that that’s totally malarkey.

Yes, yes.

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That we may say, “The president is the leader of the free world, the most powerful man in the world.” (They’ve all been men.) But the truth is that presidents are constrained.

Ever more, I’d say.

Ever more. And that therefore, expectations that they’re going to have a transformative effect simply are naïve, and that’s what we have seen. In this president, who did inspire such extraordinary hope—and, yes, I agree with you, hope that extended beyond simply the American electorate—he’s not a bad president. He’s not a failure on the scale of George W. Bush. But he’s been a disappointing president, even though he’s disappointed because so many of us entertained these exaggerated expectations of what he was going to do. Had we had realistic expectations we’d probably be saying, “Well, actually he’s not done a very bad job.”’

True.

I mean, he’s avoided catastrophes, which is not a bad standard.

[Laughs] So sadly enough.

I think that the Eisenhower revisionism, which seems to be pretty deeply rooted at this point—I think not too many people would say that Eisenhower was one of the greats: “He deserved to be on Mount Rushmore.” But if we look at the run of presidents over the past 60 years or so, we still like Ike, because he avoided catastrophes.

Reading the book by your colleague, what’s his name? Senior moment. The New York Times correspondent. “The Brothers” [on Allen and John Foster Dulles].

Oh, Steve Kinzer.

Stephen Kinzer. It was a superb gathering of everything out there. For readers such as me, perfect. One of the things that comes over is that Eisenhower was a considerably more complex man than given credit for at the time and for many years thereafter. His resistance to this or that from the Dulles brothers… I hope he gets his revisionist historian, and I certainly look forward to Obama’s presidential historians. I hope there’s somebody who can bring the complexities of his presidency out properly. Anyway, another conversation.

The question here: Who is more potent as an influence on policy now, or maybe the more detrimental to the development of a constructive one: liberals of the evangelical kind bent on a sort of neo-Wilsonian agenda, or traditional hawks such as McCain and others of a similar stripe? Neoliberals or conservatives, in other words.

Well, the answer to the question, in my mind, is both equally, because both tend to share the same expectations about what U.S. military power can do. The right wants to use military power to spread freedom. The left wants to use military power to protect the innocent, but both on the right and on the left, proponents of intervention lack a prudent understanding of what military power can do, what it can’t do, and the likelihood of unintended secondary consequences that result from the use of military power.

The question of humanitarian intervention keeps popping up, particularly since the Clinton years. And now with Samantha Power, a person I have absolutely no time for at all, at the U.N., is this country, just speaking very plainly and realistically, is this country capable of a humanitarian intervention wherein we can keep our mitts off things and not turn it to some other-than-humanitarian purpose? It’s a practical question.

I think almost every so-called humanitarian intervention has—the proponents of intervention are using the humanitarian notion to justify action that actually derives from other purposes. One exception to that statement could well be the Somalian intervention that George Herbert Walker Bush initiated back in 1991, but I think if you look very deeply at things like Kosovo, at Bosnia, at Clinton’s intervention in Haiti—if you look very closely, under the humanitarian rhetoric, there’re other factors shaping U.S. policy. The real issue for me is that, for those who do genuinely believe that U.S. foreign policy should have a significant humanitarian dimension, I would urge them to think more deeply about why humanitarianism should express itself by sending in U.S. forces with guns. If we care—if we genuinely care, let’s say at the present moment, about the well-being of the Syrian people—there are ways to alleviate the suffering of at least some of them without putting a single American soldier at risk. Put simply, remove the people who are in jeopardy from the dangers that they face. Bring them here. You want to save 200,000 Syrian lives? Good, then move 200,000 Syrian refugees from the awful, squalid camps that they’re inhabiting and let’s resettle them here in the United States of America.

Now to say that, of course, one would immediately respond by saying, “That’s politically impossible! The American people who live in Iowa, or who live in Pennsylvania, or who live in New Mexico don’t want 200,000 Syrian refugees in their midst.” My response would be: “Yes, of course, that’s true. The impetus is not so much what can we do to benefit people who are suffering: The real impetus is, What can I do to ease my conscience because I’m bothered by all these people suffering. Oh yes, I know, let’s send U.S. forces into the Syrian civil war, and that’ll make me feel better about our inaction.” Of course, to do that is to produce the results that you are suggesting—simply, to make matters worse. There was an argument that we needed to depose Saddam Hussein because he was a cruel and oppressive dictator, but the consequences of deposing Saddam Hussein have not actually been very positive—

Right.

— as viewed from a humanitarian perspective. Indeed, we have, through our efforts in that country, produced instability, killed people, displaced people, and contributed to such vast human misery as to make a mockery of the humanitarian claims that, to some degree, provided the rationale for invading the country in the first place.

I had this question for later, but let me put it to you now. You mention in some of the things you write, it comes up all the time: public indifference. It’s reached an astonishing level.

Yes.

I myself wonder if it hasn’t been purposely cultivated after the uproar over Vietnam. About a month ago the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is a Social Democrat, finished a year-long review of what the federal republic should do with its foreign policy looking out into the future. It had many different elements. As far as procedure is concerned, create a separate department in which people from all manner of disciplines are put in one room. So you have economists and development people and educators and military people and what have you all there. The policy to emerge is multidimensional. As he put it, there has to be something more than pointless conversation and shooting people.

[Laughs]

Refreshingly direct for a German, right?

[Laughs] That’s pretty great. Is that the way he phrased it? More than talking—pointless talking and shooting people? [Laughs]

Anyway, here it is. Do you think it’s realistic? I wrote a column about it; I’m very impressed with this guy. Of course, Social Democrats from Germany don’t play well in America, but that’s all right. What do you think of this notion? The possibility of a more rounded policy in this country.

I’ll mention another question, since I’m scrambling them up. Herbert Croly, the great Progressive Era critic, distinguished between a nation with purpose and a nation with destiny. I don’t think I have to explain the difference to you. Purpose gives you practical, earthly things to do. Destiny gives you ill-defined missions. Do you see that this is a transition we have to make, and can we see our way to something along the lines of what Steinmeier is talking about? Without being attacked as a bunch of milquetoasts who have lost our nerve? Is that the direction we need to go in?

Yes, I think so, and why won’t we? Well, because powerful people in powerful institutions are deeply invested in the status quo. I mean let’s talk about the distribution of clout in the foreign policy establishment, where the Department of Defense wields such enormous authority, despite the fact that there is little evidence that the prevailing notions of national security actually produce very positive outcomes. There’re a lot of people and a lot of institutions that benefit from our reigning understanding of national security. Certainly, the armed services, certainly the intelligence community, certainly the defense contractors. Certainly a variety of think tanks, even academic programs—all would be loath to see Mr. Steinmeier’s conception of statecraft be implemented. But this does get to your earlier point about public indifference, that—

I forgot to mention one thing about his program, his policies. The most important point, leading to this: He insists that foreign policy be removed from all sequestration—my word, not his—and involve the public so that a nation’s activities abroad reflect the aspirations of its people. That’s a big one. You know how—

That’s a real big one! And again, for members of the foreign policy elite, why would they want to do that? Why would they wish to surrender their privileged position? Why would that want to open the game up to allow genuine involvement on the part of the American public? And there’s no need for them to do that, because the public has been so conditioned over the past 60 years to defer, to accept the fact that, of course, things must be done in secret, to accept the notion that there’s a cadre of people who are smarter than you and me, who possess insights and expertise to figure out how to navigate our way in a dangerous world.

My answer to that would be: They don’t have to “want to do it.” They have to be made to do it.

Who has to be made?

Policy elites.

Yes, and that would—

I don’t care if they want it or not.

I agree, but making that happen would require very intense pressure. The pressure’s going to have to come from the American people, and the American people, having been conditioned to see their role as basically a passive one, don’t do that. I mean, here as we sit, we are once more, whether we like it or not, involved in an Iraq war. The very fact that this new Iraq war has begun indicates that the previous Iraq war of 2003 to 2011 was a failure. A costly failure. A many-trillion-dollars failure. And yet, there is astonishingly little public interest in requiring any kind of accounting for that debacle. Here we are in the 14th year, we’re approaching the 14th anniversary of the beginning of the Afghanistan war, which is another failure. The president says he wants us out of Afghanistan by the time he leaves the Oval Office, and that that would be part of his legacy. But is there any serious human being who thinks that when we leave Afghanistan we will be able to claim success?

It’s laughable.

We are going to leave Afghanistan, and the Afghanistan war is going to continue. Well, where is the public outcry for an explanation of how the longest war in American history is on a course to end in failure. Why doesn’t anybody care? It’s like that old movie “Network.” I can’t remember the name of the protagonist in “Network.”

Yes, yes, that’s right.

“I’m sick and tired of this and I’m not going to put up with it anymore!” But we live in a country of people that do put up with it.

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

One of the things Kissinger taught us was that you can’t conduct a foreign policy in the long term without domestic consensus. That’s what we learned in April ’75. I’m not sure that’s true anymore. You can if you have one thing: public indifference on a grand scale. As you say: All sorts of things in a majorly wrong direction are done without any kind of domestic objection.

I’d like to turn to your new work in progress as you outlined it when you spoke in Providence. You’ve got 10 Theses to propose nailing to the door, Luther-like. Taking apart what you cast as a single war in its fourth decade across the Middle East. Can you expand on the core thought and the focus of the new work?

Well, I have been struck by the extent to which the use of military forces since 1990 has tended to see them sent to various places in the Islamic world. When I was a young man growing up we fought in Asia, whether those wars were well-advised or not, but Americans fought and died in Korea, Americans fought and died in Vietnam. When I was a young man, Americans were willing to fight for Europe, maintain very large-scale U.S. forces in Europe until the end of the Cold War. But there was no particular interest in having Americans fight and die in the Islamic world. The single exception to that was Eisenhower’s very brief and entirely bloodless intervention in Lebanon, which was in 1958.

All that began to change after Carter’s promulgation of the Carter Doctrine, and since then, this is now three and half decades, we have had a long string of U.S. military interventions in the Islamic world. My argument is that, rather than seeing these various episodes as unrelated, we should see them as constituting one single war, much as the narrative of the Cold War includes U.S. forces going to Korea, it includes the Berlin airlift, it includes the Bay of Pigs, it includes intervention in El Salvador—a whole variety of episodes.

Much the same can be said with regard to Reagan’s intervention in Lebanon, George Herbert Walker Bush’s intervention in Iraq, Bill Clinton’s intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, etc., etc., etc. Whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not, we’ve been conducting a War for the Greater Middle East that began in 1980 and continues to the present day. Further, I—my new book—will argue that that war isn’t going well. That three and a half decades later, we haven’t won it, we’re not winning it, and the likelihood of simply continuing down the path that we’re on, with the expectation that final victory lies out there just over the horizon, is an absurdity. So there’s great need, in the midst of this war, to recognize that it is a war and to take stock of it.

It opens the mind, just a single construct. It opens us to all kinds of new understandings.

That’s the idea.

You have a professional’s knowledge of the military, and more exposure than most to the national security apparatus, which you call “a dead zone” when it comes to new ideas. “Sclerotic” is another one of your terms. Could you talk about the actual state of the American military and the national security bureaucracy? I have to assume we’re not talking about 1.3 million Beetle Baileys, but what have we got in terms of—people who are opposed to these wars probably don’t care, but putting that aside—I’m just curious, what do we have by way of a fighting force and a national security apparatus? Are these sound institutions, or are they in a certain state of not really decay but—I don’t know what the word is, Andrew…

I think the word is stagnation.

Yes.

On the one hand, there’s no question that the U.S. military today possesses enormous capabilities. What’s not apparent is that those capabilities are relevant to the political challenges that we face, in particular, in the Islamic world. So it is a instrument not well-suited to dealing with the problems where we have insisted on applying it. And sadly, members of the officer corps by and large lack the willingness to confront the consistent failure of our military actions in that region. It’s interesting that there are a considerable number of general officers who, once they retire, go public with their critique of U.S. policy.

Yes, one does notice that.

I don’t have a sense that that critique is being voiced—I don’t mean writing op-eds in the New York Times—but the critical thinking is occurring when those officers are on active duty. And what we get instead, of course, is the recitation of platitudes about having the best soldiers in the world and the best military that the world has ever seen. And yet, an absence of taking stock and an absence of measuring outcomes—of acknowledging costs.

In the same line, what is your view, as a retired professional, of our dependence on tens of thousands of private contractors—in blunt terms, mercenaries. Can you address cause and effect in this question?

After Vietnam, actually toward the end of Vietnam, I should say, when President Nixon terminated the draft, something he did for cynical political reasons, the effect was to abandon the tradition of the citizen soldier and to base the American military system on the idea of a professional soldier. So we created what the founders of this republic would have called “a standing army.” Founders of this republic viewed the standing army as a suspect institution and inappropriate for a republican form of government, but that’s what we did. And, indeed, for a period of time, through to 9/11, the American people generally speaking endorsed that move from a citizen soldier to a professional soldier. It seemed like we were getting good value for the money and it certainly removed obligations from citizens to farm out national security to a special class.

A not-inconsiderable cause of the indifference we were talking about earlier.

Oh, of course. After 9/11, when the Bush administration’s miscalculations— twofold: one, thinking the Afghanistan war was won when it wasn’t; two, thinking that the Iraq War would be won easily by a relatively small force—at that point, let’s say we’re talking 2004, we suddenly find ourselves engaged in these two wars, needing a lot more soldiers than we have. And a lot more soldiers than we can produce if relying on volunteers. So you’ve got too much war, too few warriors, what do you do? Well, I think the preference would have been to turn to our loyal allies and have them make up the difference. But our allies were either unwilling or unable to fill the gap.

They’re just not on for them, a lot of what we have—

Well, they’re not on for it, and they’re also actually—the Europeans felt disarmed. You know, the notion that there is a big British army or a big French army or a big German army that can supplement U.S. forces is simply no longer the case. The bottom line is, if you’ve got too much war and too few warriors, you fill the gap by hiring mercenaries, which we did, and which turned out to be not especially effective and to cause huge complications while imposing enormous financial costs. So we end up with this truly bizarre situation, which, again, everybody knows about and yet remains indifferent to. We’re at the height of the Iraq war and the height of the Afghanistan war. We have more contractors in those theaters than we do soldiers. It is truly an astonishing fact, but it’s a fact that quite literally doesn’t matter in any meaningful political sense.

It doesn’t matter?

No, it should matter.

Oh, I see.

As a practical matter it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter any more than having trillion-dollar deficits. If you say to the average American, “Do you like trillion-dollar deficits?” “No!” But that doesn’t translate into some sort of collective outrage that is going to result in a balanced budget. “Do you like having mercenaries?” “No!” But that doesn’t translate into any outrage that is going to insist that the practice be revisited. In that sense, it doesn’t. Substantively, it matters. Politically, the issue has no traction.

Do you accept, and I assume you do but I won’t take it for granted, that we live in a multipolar world, one with no so-called indispensable nation anywhere? Either way, what would a worthy 21st-century American purpose consist of in your view?

My crystal ball is not any better than anybody else’s, but my crystal ball does say that we are moving into a globally multiple order—that, as we advance into this century, the notion of a single superpower will lose whatever limited utility it once had. What are going to be the poles? Well, clearly us. We will remain the most powerful nation in the world.

Without issue.

But, also in the first tier, China, probably India, Japan, in its weird way, Europe. Weird in the sense that it has tremendous economic and cultural clout, but limited willingness to use hard power. There is a second tier of other nations whose views will have to be taken into account—Turkey, Russia, Korea—and the prospects for avoiding the kind of catastrophes that made the 20th century such a horror lie in the ability of these several nations to produce some semblance of stability. To create an order in which each is sufficiently invested that no one will overturn the apple cart: that’s a huge challenge. The failure of the great powers in 1914 to maintain their multipolar order is the warning of what consequences will ensue if we fail to create a new multipolar order that has some semblance of stability. And, of course, the problem there is, from a U.S. point of view, it’s unacceptable even to acknowledge that such a world can possibly exist.

You can’t even use that word inside the beltway.

No, and therefore how difficult it is to even have a conversation about that, much less—and the other thing going on here, that to me is the big game, well, two big games, are—the two big issues, the primary issues—are the creation of a multipolar order and also dealing with the prospects of catastrophic climate change. That’s where smart people need to be focusing their attention. And yet we find ourselves in a situation where so much intellectual energy is being devoted to trying to sort out the Greater Middle East by using American military power. It’s a futile enterprise. It is, thinking broadly, an issue of secondary importance. The fate of the planet is not going to be decided in the Persian Gulf. The fate of the planet could well be decided in whether or not we can get along with China, and China can get along with India and if, collectively, we can avoid having the planet be destroyed by the way we exploit nature.

Given events in the Middle East now, do you think that it’s a very momentous time? Netanyahu, whom I call the most dangerous man in the Middle East, has been a curious catalyst, in a certain way. Do you think the U.S. has embarked on a fundamental realignment of its position in the region, or what its interests are, who its allies are? I’m especially interested in your view on relations with Israel and the extent to which Washington is at the moment effectively a captive of these relations, unable to rethink its strategy until this relationship loosens.

Well, see, I’m not sure that that assessment pertains. And here I think there is a glimmer of hope, a glimmer of serious strategic thinking, with regard to the region. The issue is Iran. Now, as you and I speak, we don’t know if the details of an Iranian deal will be worked out. Even if they are, we don’t know if the Congress will torpedo such a deal. But let’s just posit for the sake of discussion that we end up with an agreement accepted by all parties to limit the Iranian nuclear program in return for removing the economic sanctions on Iran. What are the implications of that? I think the implications actually go far beyond, and I think the purposes of the initiative go far beyond simply the question of whether or not Iran will acquire nuclear weapons.

It’s not just a technocratic question.

No, it’s a strategic question, and the strategic purpose is to end Iranian isolation, incorporate them into the regional order with the hope, if not the expectation, that then they will be invested in the restoration of regional stability, as opposed to being invested in trying to promote further instability. Now whether or not we get that is a huge question, but I am persuaded that that is the underlying logic of the Obama administration’s policy here.

Now, let’s posit for the sake of discussion that that produces a policy success. The consequences then, for the U.S.-Israeli relationship, are likely to be profound: The deference to Israel that the United States has shown over the past, whatever, 40 years won’t necessarily end—it’s not like there will be a rupture in U.S.-Israeli relations—but that deference will subside, and that a U.S. interest will receive priority as opposed to the interests of the state of Israel. That reality then could well promote a reconsideration within Israel as to how best to pursue its security interests. To oversimplify greatly, Israel could potentially become more accommodating with regard to actually finding a solution to the Palestinian problem rather than taking the hard-line approach of Mr. Netanyahu. And I don’t for a second mean that Netanyahu will change his mind. He won’t change his mind. But Israel is a democracy, and Israeli democracy has tilted to the right in recent years. Changes in the regional order that now bring Iran back into play and that lead to the United States thinking somewhat differently could produce a tilt in Israeli politics in a somewhat different direction. Lots of ifs here, lots of uncertainties, but I do think that that’s what’s really involved. It goes far beyond simply the question of whether or not Iran’s going to acquire a nuclear weapon in the next 10 years.

A couple of rapid-fire questions, as we’re near the end here. Should we be bombing ISIS? If not, what?

Well, I’ve come to believe that ISIS is such a profoundly evil entity that it needs to be destroyed. I’m not persuaded that American bombing along with American advisers and trainers trying once more to create an Iraqi military is going to produce success, but that is an operational question. What I’m more persuaded of is that if we succeed in destroying ISIS, our success will be limited. In this sense, the conditions that produced ISIS will still exist.

This is one of your 10 theses.

And that, therefore, we’ll put a stake through that organization’s heart but there will be another organization more or less like it. So yes, let’s go destroy ISIS, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that we will have achieved anything fundamental. We will not have done so.

Second rapid-fire question: Should the administration investigate, charge, and prosecute those responsible for the torture practices after 9/11? Is it important one way or another? Obama’s “I’m-not-going-to-do-anything-to-anybody policy does come over as rather odd.

Well I think there’s great confusion about the whole question of accountability and that when laws are violated or even when policies fail, who should be held accountable? And I think that needs to be clarified. But the answer, I think, the default response is to go get the little fish and let the big fish get away, and that’s a problem. I probably haven’t followed the torture issue as much as I should’ve, but if you take Abu Ghraib as a sort of comparable example, where it was entirely appropriate to court-martial the soldiers who were immediately involved in that, but the accountability of the chain of command didn’t get any higher than a female reserve one-star, who was reduced to colonel. And everybody beyond that got a pass. I think that was wrong.

You can take or leave this question, Andrew, but I’ve been wanting to ask it ever since I started reading your stuff: There are a few political perspectives from which to critique American policy, just as there were several ways to object to the Vietnam War. I wonder what yours is. I certainly would be interested, if you’re willing to answer. If you’re not, if you find it irrelevant, simply say so. I’d like to hear what your political perspective is on all these things. For example, in Vietnam we had people who were at the barricades. We had other people who were against the war for the simple reason that we weren’t going to win it. It’s another way of assessing things. I’d be interested in that.

Well, I see myself as a cultural conservative. In terms of international politics I see myself as a realist. I tend to have a skeptical view of what military power can achieve. I’m not a pacifist. I do think there is a need for us to have an effective national security establishment. I think it should be used with caution and care. So it’s the promiscuity of U.S. national security policy, especially over the last 25 years or so, that I find so outrageous.

That leads to my last question: Can you describe some influential moments in the course of your professional career, in the service and post-, that were key in the evolution of your thinking?

Yes, I think so. I served in Vietnam 1970 to 1971, toward the end of the war, and the most profound impression that I took away from that war was the extent to which engaging in a long, futile military undertaking had a deeply damaging effect on American institutions. At that time, my political consciousness had not been raised, and [I] was greatly distressed to see the terrible decay that was occurring within the United States Army.

I think the second moment was the end of the Cold War. As somebody who, as  young person, certainly accepted the necessity of waging of the Cold War, but who had come to see the Cold War as an emergency, a departure from the norm, a time when we did things because we had to do them—for example, raising a large military establishment and stationing it around the world and engaging in interventions in far off land—we had to do that, I believe, because the Cold War required us to do so. And, therefore, when the Cold War ended, I naively assumed that we would revert to becoming something more like a normal nation. We would reduce the size of our military, we would reduce our global footprint, we would become more reticent in terms of our intervention. What happened was just the opposite. We became more inclined to intervene, our claims to understand how the world should work became broader and produced, to my mind, disastrously misguided policies.

Now, what that caused me to do was rethink my understanding of the origin of U.S. policy. Again, as a young person growing up during the Cold War, I assumed that we did what we did because we had to in order to counter [the Soviets]. They were the problem. Subsequent to the end of the Cold War, I came to the conclusion that we did what we did because of inner requirements, domestic requirements, ideological requirements, economic requirements, bureaucratic requirements, rather than acting out of a sober evaluation of the way the world works and of our interests and our responsibilities to the rest of the world.

I don’t want to be reductionist, but to me, more and more, the whole shooting match seems to come down to the problem of exceptionalism and the necessity of breaking that branch.

I think it may be the cornerstone and the arch. In other words, if one could discredit the idea of American exceptionalism, then it becomes much easier to have a serious conversation about things like costs. But as long as a president, a presidential candidate, a senator can stand behind the podium and make exceptionalist claims and be applauded, it just seems that undertaking a serious critical conversation about how we got into this mess is going to be very difficult.


Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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9/11 American Exceptional Andrew Bacevich Bill Clinton Editor's Picks Foreign Policy George W. Bush

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