"The scope of our failure": The real story of our decades-long foreign policy disaster that set the Middle East on fire

The brilliant Andrew Bacevich tells Salon why our massive march to folly in Middle East has to be seen as one war

Published May 15, 2016 9:58AM (EDT)

Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld   (AP/Reuters/Jason Reed/Kevin Lamarque/Photo montage by Salon)
Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld (AP/Reuters/Jason Reed/Kevin Lamarque/Photo montage by Salon)

I first interviewed Andrew Bacevich, the soldier turned scholar, after he spoke at the Hope Club, an old-line gents’ establishment in Providence, Rhode Island. That evening he outlined a dozen or so “theses,” as he called them in honor of the 95 Luther is said to have nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517. He was in essence reading a rough outline of the manuscript then on his desk. It was a powerful presentation, and we met again in a Boston restaurant to talk shortly thereafter. This was roughly a year ago.

The book Bacevich was drafting, “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History,” is now out. And as impressive as his synopsis of its themes was last year, the “dissident colonel,” as I like to call him, did not do this account anything close to justice. It is the first book to explain the Middle Eastern wars we have lived with for 36 years now as one unbroken conflict with many theaters. And it is scholarship of the best kind—carefully researched and referenced, but written with unscholarly grace—to put the point bluntly—and perfectly accessible to the intelligent general reader. You put it down thinking, “I understand a great deal more than I did when I started reading this.”

I drove to Boston last month to interview Bacevich again. When I arrived he was delivering a lecture to a gathering of faculty and students at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He is emeritus now at Boston University but plainly still firing on all eight. This will not be his last book, he hinted, but it may be his last on the topics he has addressed in his others to date. These include “American Empire” (2002) “The New American Militarism (2005), “The Limits of Power (2008) and “Washington Rules” (2010).

It was interesting to hear Bacevich talk through the new book again, this time post-publication. He was, if anything, more forceful in his judgments of America’s Middle East failures. But this did not deter detractors and critics, I ought to add. During the Q & A afterward, he contended with one LaRouche adherent and one member of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA, whose questions were not quite questions so much as vehemently delivered challenges. I was struck by the courtesy and aplomb with which Bacevich responded—qualities I had seen in him when we met in Providence.

Afterward, we crossed a corner of the campus to the JFK Presidential Library, which sits on a rise overlooking Boston harbor. The spring wind out the building’s sea-facing wall of glass was brisk; gulls and geese wheeled just above the white caps as we spoke. As Bacevich was generous with his time and never other than interesting, I have broken the interview into two parts.

This is the first. The transcript was expertly produced by Salon’s Michael Conway Garofalo, who has my gratitude.

You’ve written a remarkable book. It’s original in treating the Middle East and surrounding regions as unitary in American strategic thinking since 1980. Yet you’ve done nothing more than examine readily available facts and records with the proper degree of intellectual detachment. To my knowledge, no one has treated the past 36 years as a single phenomenon. Am I wrong?

No, I think you’re correct. One of the aims of the book is to persuade Americans, persuade readers, that to consider U.S. military involvement in this part of the world as “one damn thing after another” is to miss the true significance of what we have been attempting to do and to misapprehend the scope of our failure. It’s a problem in our politics to focus on the most recent episode, the ongoing episode, and to ignore everything that came before.

There's no past in Washington. There’s no past in the media. So the book’s an encouragement to self-understanding, in effect. But introducing historical perspective in these matters is like crashing a black mass with a crucifix, and I imagine your scholarly colleagues—those not ruined by ideology—approve. But what about your old army buddies and policy people on the inside?

All my old army buddies are long retired. And I have very, very few contacts in the active-duty force, in terms of personal connections. That said, I am encouraged by the number of emails I get from younger officers, people I’ve never met, who have now read this book or previous books or articles and express general support. My point here is that—and maybe this is wishful thinking on my part—I do sense there is something of an awakening in the officer corps, an awareness of how badly wrong we’ve gone. That awakening could lead to some critical thinking in military circles. Now, whether that would translate into political circles I don’t know. I find deeply troubling the absence of any serious critical thinking about our war, or wars if you wish, in the foreign policy establishment.

It’s astonishing. I’m never other than astonished by the shallowness of the thinking in the policy cliques.

Yes, astonishing. I mean there’s lots of debate, but it’s not a debate that takes the broad view, takes stock of how we got here.

You can move your needle one or two degrees either side of zero, in my read. Deviate further and you’re cut out of the loop.

Exactly right. So the debate ends up being: “Well, will bombing suffice to destroy ISIS?” or “Will we need boots on the ground?” I mean that’s about the extent of it.

I have to tell you a story. This happened right here, across the river in Cambridge. The daughter of a friend was at the Kennedy School [of Government, at Harvard] studying international relations, no mean accomplishment getting in. But she quit after a year. How come? All they ever want to talk about, she explained, is the military option. If you put any kind of paper forward that doesn’t begin with the military option, no one takes it seriously.

Isn't that revealing?

Yeah. And that’s the Kennedy School.

Anyway, keeping in the historical vein, you draw a perfectly straight line from Truman’s “doctrine” speech, his “scare the hell out of the American people” address [delivered to Congress March 12, 1947] to Carter’s “doctrine” speech, which started the War for the Greater Middle East on January 23, 1980, and then Bush II’s “doctrine” of pre-emptive war, and then Obama’s assertions that the war in the Middle East was, as you put it, “redundant,” only to make enlarging our wars his chief contribution.

Are we required to conclude that a lot of very smart people are somehow incapable of learning anything at all from experience?

I actually think that Obama has learned from experience. In that now-famous Jeffrey Goldberg article [on Obama’s foreign-policy thinking, published in the Atlantic in March] it’s Goldberg allowing the president to speak, and I think the president is showing himself to be someone who over the past seven-plus years has actually acquired a very sophisticated understanding of statecraft and of the world as it is. When he became president he knew next to nothing about foreign policy. We routinely elect people to the presidency who know next to nothing about statecraft, but I think he’s learned a lot, and I found that to be very impressive.

That said, you would say, “Well if he’s learned so much then why don’t we see greater change than we see?” I think his presidency is a reminder to some degree as to the constraints under which presidents operate. There’s this fiction in our public discussion of politics that seems to imply that whoever is president is the dictator or the messiah, and that’s simply not true. They are constrained by the fact that there’re two other branches of the federal government. They’re constrained by the permanent national security apparatus. They’re constrained by history. They’re constrained by the fact that they inherit situations that they’re not able to wave their hand and make go away. They’re constrained by the actions and interests of other nations, some which profess to be allies, some of which are obviously not allies.

So I think we’re condemned to being disappointed by our presidents. Even if they come into office as people of good will, we’re condemned to be disappointed because we don’t appreciate the limits of their authority, and the limits of their freedom of action.

You mention that Truman had to “capitulate,” and then, similarly, Carter had to capitulate. When you say this, to what or to whom did they capitulate?

The Truman capitulation occurs in response to the beginning of the Korean War. I believe that until that point, Truman was still clinging to...

FDR’s vision of peaceful partnership [with the Soviet Union]?

...or of the United Nations becoming an entity that would prevent further conflicts after World War II. He also was resistant to the notion of creating a permanent, large U.S military establishment, to some degree because of his naivety, I think, about atomic weapons. Once the Korean War began, the capitulation was in agreeing to the conclusions contained in the famous document called NSC-68, which had been commissioned but had not been acted upon until after the North Koreans invaded the South. And the capitulation was to commit the United States to becoming a permanent military power. The permanent military power.

For which there was a considerable constituency?

Who was he capitulating to? He was capitulating to the then-emergent national security apparatus, consisting of senior military officers, the “four stars” [the joint chiefs of staff and other top generals], who had been adamant that the budgets that he was approving in ’46, ’47, ’48 were totally inadequate; but also capitulation to these new national security bureaucrats, who, for reasons not identical to those of the military, were also committed to maintaining, on a permanent basis, a large national security apparatus. The embodiment of those people at that particular moment was this guy Paul Nitze [a key figure in shaping Cold War policy during many administrations], who was the principal author of NSC-68—not the only example of that kind of a person but a very important example who was influential at the particular moment.

Carter’s capitulation was, in a sense, a capitulation to the American people. He had, in his “malaise” speech in the summer of ’79, called upon the people to change, to embrace a different definition of freedom, believing that if we embraced a different definition of freedom we would return to the path of virtue and would also be able to avoid getting drawn more deeply into the complex politics of the Persian Gulf. I think in January of 1980 he concedes that the American people are not going to change, not going to rethink our culture, not going to rethink what we believe is a satisfying way of life, and so the capitulation is to them.

And what is the capitulation about? The capitulation there is to add the Persian Gulf to the limited roster of places that we view as worth fighting for. And that we subsequently then do fight for, in ways large and small, albeit never yielding any particular success.

How do you parse and apportion the various drivers that make American policy what it is? I identify these as follows: Psychological—the insecurities Americans have nursed since the 18th century—and maybe the 17th ; ideological—our exceptionalism and universalism; material—the drive for markets and economic dominance—and strategic, which at this point amounts to a desire for global hegemony or something close to it. Do you have any others to add, and what is your read as to which are the most prominent?

I think you’re making a very important point, and that is that there is no single explanation. This is the problem, I think, of those who argue that it’s all about capitalism. Or people say it’s all the military-industrial complex. Or it’s all the state of Israel. It is all those factors that you cite, and I think I would add one more, and that would be domestic politics. The cycle of elections and the competition for political power, then, shapes the posturing that the campaigns elicit.

But your question was, how do they all stack up in terms of priorities? Well, this is where I subscribe to the argument that Niebuhr makes in "The Irony of American History.” [Reinhold Niebuhr, theologian and public-affairs commentator; the book was published in 1952.] As I understand the argument, at the root there is this conviction that we are uniquely called to be the agents of history. That history has a direction and a purpose and its destination is defined by who we are, and that we have some responsibility to bring history to this intended outcome. I think, by no means dismissing the influence of these other factors, that the dogged persistence of our behavior, even in the face of obvious failure, is rooted in our conviction that we are the instrument of Providence. And that goes all the way back to the founding of Anglo-America to John Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill.”

Does your answer to that question change when you examine it in the context of Bush II’s presidency?

There is a slightly different answer. Maybe it’s sort of a variation on the theme, but my sense is that Bush and his inner circle were deeply influenced by their reading of the outcome of the Cold War, in three respects I think.

First is that the outcome of the Cold War marked a historical turning point of transcendent significance. Second, that the outcome of the Cold War affirmed the superiority of the American model—that liberal, democratic capitalism was indeed the only way. And third, that the end of the Cold War, combined with its immediate sequel, which was the Persian Gulf war of 1991, together demonstrated that the United States had achieved military supremacy and demonstrated the unprecedented utility of American military power, if policymakers simply had the guts to put that military power to work.

So when 9/11 occurs, it is an opportunity, from their point of view, to apply these insights. To embark upon this so-called “freedom agenda,” this project of transformation was to bring the Islamic world into line with the appropriate political and economic arrangements, and do it by aggressively putting American military power to work, informed by confidence that military victory and political success would necessarily follow. Apart from the arrogance of the political assumptions, the real fundamental mistake was in overestimating the efficacy of American military power. And when we didn’t win quickly, there they were, stuck with an unwinnable war that dragged on and on and on, and put the kibosh on any expectations that a transformation of the Greater Middle East was going to follow.

You write a lot about the flow of power back and forth between civilian government and the military. It’s plain that you feel quite strongly about this. “The perpetually shifting see-saw of civil-military relations” is the phrase you use in the book. It’s probably a matter of how close you’re standing to the phenomenon.

From my perspective, there has been a gradual, but eventually decisive shift of power to the military, intelligence, and national security apparatus. This process had its origins in World War II and was consolidated very early during the Cold War. At this point there seems to be very little flow. The Pentagon, Langley, and National Security run policy, at least when there is any serious strategic question at issue. I don’t consider this any kind of clumsy, leftist simplification. Can you address this?

I don’t disagree with what you just said. When I say this, the shifting see-saw is the relative weight of the militarized civilians within that apparatus that you just described, on the one hand, and the weight of the military professionals on the other hand. In a general sense they subscribe to the same world view, there’s no question about that, but when it gets down to particulars—that’s where you see the weighted influence changing over time.

Here is an example: During the run-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003, Donald Rumsfeld was driving the war-planning process. Donald Rumsfeld had very specific notions of how that war needed to be fought and was going to be fought, stemming from a vision of modern war that he had absorbed from certain theorists, proponents of something called “a revolution in military affairs.”

The RMA, as it is called.

The RMA. And Rumsfeld was absolutely determined that this war was going to be run his way. How did he achieve that? He achieved that by marginalizing the joint chiefs of staff. They played virtually no serious role in deciding the configuration of the forces and how they were going to be employed.

He did that by structuring a dialogue between himself and General Tommy Franks, the Centcom [Central Command, which oversees Middle East operations] commander. I don’t know if you caught the part of the book where basically Rumsfeld said “Hey, General Franks, I need a plan to invade Iraq.” And Franks said, “I’ve got one for you, boss.” And it basically was a replay of the plan for “Operation Desert Storm,” meaning that it assumed a U.S coalition of about 500,000 troops.

Rumsfeld said, “No, no, no. I think about 125,000 sounds right.” Franks said, “Well, would you settle for 375,000?” It went back and forth and back and forth, and ultimately I think the size of the force was 175,000. My point is that, by essentially browbeating Franks and marginalizing the JCS, the invasion phase of the war was Rumsfeld’s war. And briefly, if you remember in March, April, May 2003, everybody was ga-ga over “Rums-stud” as a genius. But of course he had not properly taken into account what was going to happen after the fall of Saddam, and we ended up with a mess. In 2002 and into 2003 the civilian voices in the apparatus...

... were emphatically dominant.

Now we fast-forward to the beginning of the Obama era. Obama becomes president in 2009, doesn’t know squat about the military, doesn’t know squat about war. Although he ran for the presidency promising to close down Iraq and to de-escalate in Afghanistan, he becomes president and announces an increase of 30,000 troops [in the latter theater]. He fires General David McKiernan, the Afghanistan commander—actually Gates does the firing—replaces McKiernan with General Stanley McChrystal, who at that moment is seen to be kind of a clone of David Petraeus—this at a moment when Petraeus’s stock is at its absolute height.

So Gates sends McChrystal to Afghanistan and says, “Give me a plan for how we should conduct this war.” And McChrystal comes up with a campaign plan that is leaked to the Washington Post before the president has ruled on it. McChrystal appears on “60 Minutes” touting his plan before the president has approved it. McChrystal gives a speech in London to some high muckety-mucks touting his plan. Petraeus, who has now been elevated to Centcom commander, gives an interview with Michael Gerson, formerly a speechwriter for George W. Bush, in which he, Petraeus, says, “The answer to the war in Afghanistan is counter-insurgency with more resources.”

So this set of actions basically boxes in the president before the president has made a decision. The president makes a decision and the decision is to give McChrystal virtually everything McChrystal wants. My point there is, at that moment early in 2009, that see-saw had shifted so that within the national security apparatus, the military is in a position, not entirely but to a very considerable extent, to call the shots regardless of what the president wants.

I think we pay a serious price for the militarization of American foreign policy, and the Middle East is a textbook case. As an example: When the U.S. negotiated a deal with Erdoğan [Turkey’s autocratic president] last August to use Incirlik as a base for bombing runs into Syria, who did the work? Not a diplomat. No one from State. This is an extremely complex relationship. A Marine general whose intellectual credentials boast an honorary degree from Monmouth College did the work.

Look what we’ve got now: exactly what we want on a purely operational plane, but we’re in bed with another disgraceful dictator who all but overtly supports the Islamic State. Am I right to suggest we pay this price again and again, with no examination of intent or purpose?

And more to the point, I think, no examination of the history. There is this assumption that these deals and relationships with countries—Saudi Arabia, Egypt—can never be reconsidered. And this is certainly the case in Saudi Arabia and I think it’s also the case with the state of Israel, even when it’s patently obvious that those governments are taking actions contrary to U.S interests. And yet we have to pretend that they are allies, that they are friends. It’s heresy to insist that there are alternatives.

We are stuck in this falsely bifurcated reasoning that posits only two alternatives in foreign policy, notably in the Middle East: military engagement or isolation. We’re in militarily or we’re out altogether. Where did this reasoning come from?

To some degree you’ve already touched on it. It didn’t come out of nowhere. This is something that we can trace to the early days of the Cold War, to the militarization of U.S policy, to national security policy taking precedence over diplomacy, to national security becoming the phrase that defines our ultimate interests. C. Wright Mills [the noted sociologist], in “The Power Elite,” which was published in 1956, identifies this military mindset. I think he calls it “a military metaphysic” that even then, in the mid-1950’s, has already swept Washington. To the present moment there’s remarkably little willingness or capacity to question that.

And frankly, if you did or do question that you’re never going to get a job in Washington. If you're a young person and you aspire to be assistant secretary of defense, or assistant secretary of state, or get a job at on the National Security Council, well, you better buy into the premises of that military metaphysic, or you are unemployable. Ambitious young people who probably go into government thinking, “I’ll pretend to buy into these things even if I disagree because then, when I get to be famous, I’ll make a difference.” But by the time they’ve spouted the line for 10 or 20 years they have come to believe.

They are the ones that change. Institutions change people more often than people change institutions is too often the grim reality.

You also note that the policy initiative in the military rotates from one service to another. Which service is it now? And what, if any, significance can we attach to this?

U.S. special operations forces are dominant at this point. Now, they’re not formally a separate service—Special Operations Command consists of people drawn from the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marine Corps—but in response to the disappointments and failures of the “invade and occupy to transform” approach, which is what the George W. Bush administration was committed to, Obama has now devised an alternative approach, and it is one that elevates special operations forces to the premier status. And it’s helped along by a certain amount of Hollywood propaganda that celebrates the exploits of SEALs and so on. But they’re definitely in the driver's seat right now. They’re expanding in the number of personnel in special operations forces. Expanding their footprint, that is to say, the number of countries in which they are active.

I rank seeing from the perspectives of others and understanding the validity of alternative points of view as essential in the 21st century. This is especially so as these matters relate to the divide between West and non-West. This is why I have an opinion of Vladimir Putin that many people find peculiar. I don’t know much about what goes on in Russia—marginally more than what I read in our newspapers, and it is long past possible to accept their correspondents’ accounts as ethical, professional or balanced. But Russia’s domestic scene isn’t my concern—that’s for the Russians. I’m concerned with Putin’s understanding of what goes on between West and non-West, and in this respect I have some time for him. Do you agree with this question of perspectives?

Right now I’m reading, in manuscript, a book by David Hendrickson that’s a critique of U.S. foreign policy. He’s a political scientist who teaches at Colorado College and author of a number of other important books. He’s one of these guys, I don’t understand why he’s not a household name. Brilliant work and certainly respected in academic circles, but he’s not on “NewsHour” every night. One of many interesting points that he makes in his new book is the remarkable lack of empathy on the part of American policymakers. Not sympathy. Not deference. But an inability to see a situation as it appears to people on the other side.

And I think Russia is a very good example. The facts are plain. The facts are that when the West won the Cold War, with the United States as its principal leader, we rather ruthlessly exploited our advantage to the disadvantage of the Russians. We did that in very explicit ways—by expanding NATO eastward, incorporating former Warsaw Pact countries, incorporating former Soviet republics, providing a security blanket so that those countries could then become a part of the E.U. and a part of Europe. From the point of view of Lithuania and Poland, I get it. It makes all the sense in the world.

But the empathy part is that there really is a need to appreciate the way all this looks from the Russian point of view. We have treated them with disrespect. We refuse to acknowledge that Russia may have legitimate security interests. The question of who controls Ukraine would be one of those questions. Instead, any action on the part of the Russians pursuant to security interests is immediately dismissed as evidence of Russian aggression.

Much of the same applies to Iran. We cannot see or will not acknowledge that Iran may have some reason to view U.S. policy as threatening. You can go as far back as the coup of 1953 as an example of that, but if you want to dismiss that as ancient history, you can go back to the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when there were some Iranian signals of sympathy and of a willingness to find way to rebalance relations. The reward was that they were immediately included in the “Axis of Evil” [George Bush’s noted phrase in his 2002 State of the Union address, delivered four months after the September 11 attacks]. The Axis of Evil combined with the Bush Doctrine of preventive war—meaning we’ll invade wherever we damn well feel like it. From an Iranian perspective, those were hostile actions. From an Iranian perspective, the notion that there might be some benefit in arming themselves is not evidence of irrationality, not evidence of wanting to extinguish the state of Israel.

Whether it’s an inability to see that or a stubborn refusal to see that, Hendricks’s point, which I agree with, is that if you’re not able to view empathetically the perspective of the other side, then you’re far more likely to miscalculate in formulating your policy to address the problem at hand. And it seems to me that we do that over and over again.

It occurs to me now, just this minute, that the reason we are so notably short in this regard is because it confirms us. Empathy, like diplomacy, is for other people. We don’t have to empathize with others.

Because we possess the truth.

By 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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