"This will stop only when the American people get fed up": American exceptionalism, the New York Times, and our foreign policy after Barack Obama

Our smartest modern military historian explains to Salon what's wrong about our adventures in the Middle East

Published May 22, 2016 9:58AM (EDT)

Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, David Petraeus   (AP/Reuters/JWT/Filipe Frazao/Joshua Roberts/Reed Saxon)
Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, David Petraeus (AP/Reuters/JWT/Filipe Frazao/Joshua Roberts/Reed Saxon)

Part one of my interview with Andrew Bacevich, the soldier-turned-scholar who has just published “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History,” was posted last week. It focused on aspects of what Bacevich, originally, considers one long war now in its 37th year. We looked at the chronology since Jimmy Carter fatefully set the adventure in motion in his 1980 “doctrine” speech, at the American strategy and how it has developed—and at all that is wrong with it.

Somewhere around the halfway mark in our lengthy exchange, which Salon is publishing with only the very lightest edit, the conversation turned. We dilated the lens, let’s say, and found our way into all manner of subjects. He was interesting in his take on the Cold War 1950s as a prelude to the war that is the topic of his book, and on his pilgrim’s progress from West Point cadet to commissioned officer to his retirement and his scholarly work since. He collects old editions of Life Magazine, it turns out. His capacity for critical thought, the honed tool with which he earns his crust, did not develop until after he retired as a colonel, it also turns out. No need to ask about causality on this point: Bacevich is clear as to the dearth of thought in this man’s army.

Bacevich ends his book on a pessimistic note, and our conversation seemed headed in the same direction. But as he finished explaining his perspective and we prepared to part, he forced me back on a point occasionally made in this space: Find the optimism buried within the pessimism. It is usually in there somewhere. The sourest critic is an optimist, otherwise he or she would not bother. In his way Bacevich seemed to agree: The future seems fixed and grim, but it is up to us in the end.

Part 2 of this exchange, like the first half, was scrupulously transcribed by Salon’s Michael Conway Garofalo, to whom I again offer thanks.

Early in the book you cite Hermann Eilts, a former U.S. ambassador in Cairo and Riyadh. He asserted that rather than gearing up for war, the U.S. would be better served if it sought “an equitable solution to the Palestinian problem.” I thought this very interesting, given how assiduously American officials insist that Palestine has nothing whatever to do with the crisis that envelops the entire region all the way to Afghanistan. Do you agree with him?

I do. I knew him slightly. He was one of the founders of the international relations program at Boston University.

Eilts’s implication is that Palestine lies at the very core of the Middle East crisis. As long as it festers, there will be no peace.

I don’t know that. What I do believe is that Eilts is not the only person who has said that. Indeed, this is an argument that is made frequently by Arab leaders and other leaders in the Islamic world. What I believe is that we have an interest in testing that proposition. The counterargument is, “Oh, when the Arab leaders are talking about how much they care about the Palestinians that is simply posturing on their part. They find it politically useful because it plays well with their domestic constituents as a way of distracting attention from the fact that Egypt is a poorly governed, miserable place.” And so on.

I don’t know where the truth lies. I do believe we have an interest in testing the proposition. In other words, yes, let’s respond to the grievances of the Palestinians—they are real grievances—and then let’s see how that affects the attitude of other countries in the reason toward the United States. If there is no real response, then I’ll concede the argument and I’d guess that the Palestinian issue was simply contrived. But it could be that the argument is sincere and genuine, and it could be that the creation of a Palestinian state actually would provide a real breakthrough in terms of trying to bring about an end to the conflict.

Further, I also recognize that from the point of view of the Israeli government, there is not that profound an interest. From the point of the Israeli government, the status quo is not that bad. I think it’s very short-sighted, but democratically elected governments tend to be short-sighted. The way you get reelected is by responding to the needs, the complaints, the concerns of the people here today, not what their concerns might be 10 years from now. It makes democratic political sense for the Netanyahu government to sustain the status quo. They sustain themselves in power. But frankly, just because it’s in the interests of the Netanyahu government doesn’t mean that it should be in the interest of the United States to play along with him—which is, in effect, what we do: minor complaints when they expand settlements, but basically the relationship is unaffected. The military support continues to flow. The diplomatic protection in the United Nations continues.

If we were to test the thesis, I bet we’d find it absolutely transformative.

I don’t know. But I think it is imperative to examine the outcome.

How do you interpret our Syria policy? I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that we have been behaving with a fair amount of cynicism. While pretending to hold the humanitarian crisis as our first concern, we tacitly tolerated ISIS until recently. Even now, we continue to view Syria through a Cold War template.

The Russians called our bluff. If you recall, the American bombing campaign started [in 2014] as front-page news and then virtually disappeared. I think the Russians called our bluff last September 30 [when Russian planes began bombing runs]. In my view, the object all along has been to eliminate a Russian ally, the last in the Middle East. Only since Moscow moved last September have we become serious about countering the Islamic State.

I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. You may attributing clearer calculation on the part of the Obama administration than they deserve credit for. My sense would be that when the Syrian civil war began, without thinking through what he was doing, the president made his remarks about “Assad must go” with no appreciation for the implications of that kind of a statement. He didn’t appreciate how difficult dislodging Assad was going to be. So the president’s rhetoric was way out in front of his willingness to act. My sense is that in the utter confusion of the Syrian civil war, where the anti–Assad forces came in various stripes and colors, combined with the emergence of ISIS as a force determined to overturn the regional political order, there was a period of confusion about what the United States should do. My sense is that today the administration has established a pretty clear priority, and the priority is to focus on the destruction of ISIS and worry about Syria somewhere down the road.

That said, mustering the military wherewithal to deal with ISIS has turned out to be a far more difficult proposition than the Obama administration anticipated, I think. The president’s determination to limit U.S. military exposure—no boots on the ground to avoid large-scale U.S. combat, even though there are boots on the ground—has then given the campaign a particular shape. We’re using considerable amounts of air power against an enemy that is not particularly vulnerable to air power, and combining this with an effort to train local forces. This has produced very mixed results. Particularly with regard to the regular Iraqi army, it has resulted in a campaign that’s not been particularly distinguished or successful.

We’re just sort of muddling along. So here you and I are speaking and the president has announced another 250 trainers, this little, minute escalation, as if it’s going to produce different results. You have to wonder how such small muscle movements are going to have big results.

I want to stay with the matter of America’s declared good intentions as it explains its conduct abroad. Accounts of our idealistic purposes—and our intentions are always cast in the service of our ideals—carry weight with many, many millions of Americans. From my point of view, to be honest, I can’t remember a time in my life when I took this kind of talk very seriously. The record simply doesn’t support it. Now I have a chance to ask a professional soldier about this and I can’t pass up the chance.

Well, I think that the moral arguments for U.S. policy, particularly moral arguments for the use of force, are added after the decision to go to war, to use force, has been made. The explanations for why we use our military power are rarely, if ever, informed by any serious moral consideration.

So they’re a coat of paint applied afterward.

A coat of paint is a very good explanation. There are those who might cite the Libya intervention of 2011 as an exception. To the extent that the triumvirate of [Secretary of State] Clinton, Rice [Susan, national security adviser] and [U.N. ambassador] Samantha Power were driving the train, I don’t doubt that they were genuinely concerned about the possibility of large numbers of Libyan opposition forces and individuals being killed by Gaddafi. But I’d also suggest that the Libyan intervention was supposed to validate this whole conception of “R2P,” the responsibility to protect. It didn’t, but had it done so, then, in effect, the validation of R2P would have created new opportunities for the U.S. to intervene wherever it wished to, citing R2P as a basis for action. So even there, where the proponents of policy may have had some amount of genuine humanitarian concern, I think there were secondary factors that looked beyond moral considerations.

In your book you divide the last 36 years into four phases. The fourth is now characterized under President Obama as an abandonment of “invade and occupy.” And the components of strategy you list are special operations, drone warfare, proxies and, I would add, bombing campaigns. To me it’s weakness across the board. There are problems in each one of these dimensions. Do you think this phase will endure for a long time? Where are we in it—the beginning, middle or end? And what in the world could be next?

I suspect it’s going to endure for a while, absent some sort of catastrophe that shifts public thinking about the use of force. It will endure for a while because the George W. Bush approach, “invade and occupy,” simply does not command public support. So those who are proponents of using military power find that the option of large numbers of boots on the ground is not politically viable, and therefore they more into this arena of trying to experiment with alternative methods. The emphasis on special operations forces or drones or, as you just suggested, air power more broadly, provides ways to use power without the risks and costs of large-scale involvement of ground forces.

I don’t see that changing all that much. When you listen to some of the hawkish remarks coming from the presidential candidates—take Ted Cruz and what he would do—I don’t believe he has said, “Elect me president and I will invade Iraq.” Rather, he has said, “Elect me president and we’ll bomb the hell out of them and see if the sand can glow.”

Trump, too, in his posturing, has been rather explicit that we’re not going to be involved in long, drawn out campaigns. But he’s certainly not suggesting that he’s going to be resistant with regard to using American military power. He’s also going to hammer them. In his foreign policy speech [delivered in Washington April 27], he put ISIS on notice that their imminent destruction awaits his ascent to the presidency. But again, I don’t think it’s through an invasion type of scenario. My guess is that the Iraq syndrome—if that’s what we want to call it; I think we can call it that—is likely to have a considerable life.

I’m going to disagree with you on a point you made in the book concerning Obama and his “red line” in Syria and his allegations that Assad crossed it with a chemical weapons attack in August of 2013. I found that incident suspect from the first. U.N. inspectors arrived the previous day at Assad’s invitation to inspect the chemical weapons situation, and then he mounts a chemical weapons attack right in Damascus? It reeked from the outset. I find the evidence since then, coming primarily from Seymour Hersh’s investigations, fairly persuasive: That attack was a provocation by a rebel militia supplied by Turkey precisely to draw the U.S. across its red line. You don’t seem to buy that and I wonder why.

I just haven’t seen the evidence. I’m not questioning the logic and the possibility, by no means am I doing that. In that case, I’m accepting at face value what the official story was.

I don’t. My larger question is about the information pool. When we’re talking about all sorts of things having to do with the War for the Greater Middle East, most intensely now Syria’s situation, it is very, very hard to write with confidence about very much. Speaking as a hack of nearly 40 years, the information pool is very polluted.

You mean you don’t know who to believe.

Yes. I don’t necessarily believe anything I read in the New York Times. I’m 66 years old. I wouldn’t have said that 20-odd years ago. I worked for them. How seriously bad do you think the information coming over is, as it relates to the War for the Greater Middle East?

You made a point at the beginning of this conversation about the absence of historical context in daily reporting, and I think that’s a really important point. The story we get when we watch the nightly news or read the New York Times is a story shorn of historical context. It seems to me that we can cite that as a failing in the way the reporting of events occurs.

But to the larger point, it seems to me that the record is mixed. The consensus of opinion, I think, is that the press’s response to the George W. Bush administration’s effort to build a case for invading Iraq in 2002 was abysmal—that things were taken at face value, that Judith Miller was functioning as a propagandist for the administration. It was appalling, and helped to suppress any serious political debate over whether or not that war made sense. That said, as it became apparent that the promises of an easy victory were not going to be fulfilled, that U.S. forces were indeed embroiled in one hell of a mess, I think I would say that reporting was pretty good at identifying the factors and forces that were operative in this civil war/insurgency/jihad. I think the press did a pretty good job. You don’t?

No, I don’t. I think they leave out very large dimensions of the story. With intent, I should add.

To oversimplify, in the run-up to the war there was a lot of cheerleading, and once we were in the war it seemed to me that the cheerleading stopped pretty quickly.

If you mean sort of Ernie Pyle-level stuff, OK. But that’s not my concern. I call it in my columns, “the power of leaving out.” We have forests worth of stuff on the Islamic State, I can’t put a number on it, but very few efforts to explore questions of causality, responsibility, agency, action and reaction. We don’t get any of that.

I would agree with that. I was talking more in terms of: When it was obvious that we were stuck in a mess, the press said, “This is a mess.” It did not accept the line coming out of the White House that the light at the end of the tunnel was clearly visible, or that some particular event in Iraq marked a turning point—an election or a constitution; there were so many turning points that you started to get dizzy.

The press, I think, was appropriately skeptical of those claims of progress, and therefore did educate the American people that the Iraq war was a mess. The evidence of that is not immediate, but by 2006 the Democrats win both houses—basically a reflection of anti-war sentiment, at that moment at least, in the Democratic Party. Rumsfeld gets fired. It took a while, but I think the press gets some amount of credit for educating the American people.

Your book includes chapters on the Balkan “diversion,” as you call it. I think it would be useful for you to describe how these events in the 1990s are stitched into a book about the War for the Greater Middle East.

A friend of mine who read the manuscript said I was going to get hammered on this by everybody. My real response is: If a reader finds it implausible to include Bosnia and Kosovo in the Greater Middle East, skip those chapters. But I think it is plausible.

Are the Balkans part of the Greater Middle East? In the book I say, well, Mexico is both in North America and is part of Latin America. And I think the Balkans are emphatically part of Europe, but they’re also part of the Greater Middle East. Historically, that’s been the frontline, in a way, between the West and the Islamic world. There’s a large residual Muslim population in both Bosnia and Kosovo—in Kosovo it’s a majority—and this religious identity was a major cause of the violence in both Bosnia and Kosovo. And to at least some degree, but not entirely, I believe the rationale for U.S. intervention was the expectation that intervening on behalf of beleaguered Muslims would somehow contribute to a more favorable standing on the part of the United States in the eyes of Muslims elsewhere. That last part didn’t happen, but that was the expectation.

This question is hypothetical, but it came to me several times as I read the book. I said to myself, “Andrew, take it all away.” Start again in 1979 or 1980. Brzezinski never said all those things to encourage Carter. He never talked about military preponderance. What could have happened instead of what has? What was or is the alternative to the War for the Greater Middle East? And what would have been needed for this to happen?

Well, to me, that’s why the so-called “malaise speech” [Carter’s address urging a national self-examination, July 15, 1979] is so interesting. Because Carter outlined an alternative path. Carter invited Americans to rethink, in the most fundamental way, what it means to be a free human being.

For you it begins with our consciousness of ourselves. I couldn’t agree more.

Carter was a believing, fervent, devout Baptist, which implied a disciplined and austere definition of virtue. He genuinely believed that to embrace that definition of virtue is to have a greater chance of leading a fulfilling life. Had he been able to sell that, then the United States would not have needed Persian Gulf oil, could have maintained a separation from the turmoil and dysfunction of the region. We don’t know what then would have happened. Who knows? But he did identify the alternative path, and we rejected it.

I found that passage in your book very moving. You reminded me of William Appleman Williams and his last book, “Empire as a Way of Life.” I was really struck. I went across to the other side of my study and pulled it out thinking, “When did Ap Williams write that book?” Well, he published it in 1980. Damn it if he wasn’t writing it at the time of Carter’s speech.

It’s interesting to connect Carter and William Appleman Williams—two people who, between them, have no connection in any respect except in this insistence on the imperative of introspection, of examining ourselves as the beginning of wisdom. To understand ourselves to ensure that the choices we make are conscious choices rather than impulsive or automatic or made out of habit.

Or Madison Avenue persuasion.

Or being sold a bill of goods. “This is what’s going to make you happy. You need to have another new car.” I think they both failed, if that’s the term, in that we, as people, resist this.

The reason I find the period of that speech and Williams’ book so interesting is because it’s an almost pitiable lost opportunity. It’s a deformed notion of freedom if it has to do with how many hula hoops you have. How did we get to this rather sad idea of what freedom consists of?

There’s no simple answer to that question, but I think a partial answer lies in the American response to the Depression and World War II, two titanic events which imposed sacrifice in different ways.

Would you add displays of affluence as a strategic imperative during the competition with the Soviets in the 1950s?

Coming out of the Depression and World War II, there was partly a suppressed desire for more, and the desire for more was then further stimulated by Madison Avenue, pursuant to corporate interests. One of my vices is I collect old copies of Life Magazine.

They’re so telling, right?

They are! And when you look at the Life Magazine depictions of the American Dream after World War II, they are tremendously evocative. To have the home in the suburbs, to acquire these machines for your kitchen, to buy a television, to have air conditioning, to get the latest car out of Detroit—there’s a message that this is what the American way of life means. It was tremendously powerful, and part of its power stems from the fact that the period preceding it had been a period, to some degree, of sacrifice and self-denial. And so that’s what brought the culture to where it was by the time Jimmy Carter is counseling us to think differently.

The politics of consumption and thrift are so interesting. By 1957, Fortune, another Henry Luce publication along with Life, wrote, “Thrift is unpatriotic.” That’s verbatim. Then Carter comes along 23 years later and says, “Thrift! That’s what we need to cultivate in ourselves.”

Yeah. My folks really struggled after the war to put three squares on the table every day. My dad was going through medical school, and when he finished medical school we moved into the comfortable middle class. My father’s parents were immigrants. It was that classic American story of the second generation being the first generation to go to college. But I remember, in the ’50s, as a product of that environment, wondering why anybody would want to buy a used car. And I remember thinking that after you had a new car for a year or two, why aren’t you getting another new one to replace it? Why would you want to drive a car that had now become a used car? In retrospect, it’s so absurd. But I think that I was absorbing what the culture was powerfully communicating.

When you began the book with driving around in your Mustang I was a touch mystified, but it became very clear. We’re hitting on why you did that right now.

Other topics. There’s a passage in the beginning of Chapter 10 wherein you write about your retirement from the service and your disheartened state. You seemed to have discovered the extent to which ideology and what I would call “exceptionalist consciousness” render “people ostensibly in the know,” as you write, nominally intelligent people making decisions of consequence more or less ignorant or blind.

Well, also engaging in groupthink. When I was in the Army I never served in the Pentagon. I had never been in the policy, even on the outskirts. So there I was working at CSIS [the Center for International and Strategic Studies, a prominent Washington think tank and sitting in on these sessions of sort of the out-of-office people and insider journalists, and they’re chit-chatting in what is supposedly an off-the-record session. Somehow I thought that I’d be getting the real skinny, and I was just taken by how banal and predictable the discussion was. They weren’t any smarter than anybody else, and in some respects, were even more a prisoner of an outlook that made them less able to comment thoughtfully and critically on what was going on.

You called yourself a political naïf. I paused and said, “But what he’s describing is the process of becoming precisely the opposite.” Can you talk about your intellectual passage and what it has been like and where it has landed you?

From my upbringing, and I think notably from attendance at the Military Academy [West Point], I was shaped by some powerful forces to accept a very particular worldview. I’ve come to believe that the Military Academy doesn’t educate, it socializes. It forms people. And maybe it should. Because it exists to prepare people to be servants of the state, as military officers.

So I came out of there and spent most of my time in the Army, and it took me a long time to recognize the extent to which I’d been socialized and to come to appreciate that there were alternative perspectives. It really took getting out of the Army and distancing myself from an institution that had been my life. I needed that distance to begin to think critically about a wide variety of matters: America’s role in the world, America’s sense of itself, the record of U.S. involvement in parts of the world, particularly in the period that I, myself, had existed in the late Cold War and then into the post-Cold War period. It was kind of a long process of evolving perspective that ended up bringing me where I am.

Do you look back at the person you were and find it’s a little like looking at an old issue of Life Magazine?

[Laughs] It is a little bit. I’m appalled by my naïveté, my inability to ask some pretty obvious questions that should have been obvious at the time, my willingness to sort of go along. But again, we don’t want military officers to think that they are policymakers. We want military officers to be loyal servants of the state, and that’s what I was for a period of time.

I understand, but that’s different than the reality that critical thought, at least in your experience, ensued only after you separated from the military. That implies that critical thought is rather difficult to manage if you have a uniform on. That’s not a healthy situation.

Yeah, you’re right.

You write: “The United States in 1948, [George] Kennan said, possessed about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of the population. The challenge facing policymakers was to ‘devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.’”

In your critique of the War for the Greater Middle East, you seem to leave this alone. Your concern seems to be with method, capability, the right or wrong of a given strategy, and not the object of the exercise itself.

I thought at the very end I did. I may be misremembering my own book, but I thought the last page or so I made the point that if the core object of the exercise is to ensure that the American people continue to enjoy more than their fair share of freedom, security and abundance—that’s what Kennan was saying, the object is to perpetuate this astonishingly favorable situation that the United States had arrived at by the end of World War II—my argument is that the perpetuation of this war is not ensuring that we enjoy more than our fair share. Indeed, it’s actually having just the reverse effect. If, indeed, what the American people want—and I do think it’s what they want—is to maintain more than their fair share, then we need to move beyond this war and pay attention to things that are of far greater importance.

But my point is, as the Greeks would say, telos and techne. There’s the ideal, what you’re striving for. And then there’s method. I question the objective itself. There’s simply too much wrong in it to be able to produce a peaceful world. As long as our objective is for six or seven percent of the world’s population to consume half of its resources, we’re doomed. I think the objective itself has to change.

First of all, I don’t think we can change. I don’t think the objective is changeable.

You don’t?

No, I don’t think that it is conceivable that the American people will come to a sense of themselves and their place in the world in which they will sign up to the prospect that our freedom, security and abundance is to be no more and no less than that of everybody else. And frankly, I don’t think any other significant power in the world is willing to sign up for that.

Well, history does the job if people don’t do it themselves.

I would argue that there is at least some potential for enlightened statesmanship to preserve an advantageous position for the United States, but only if we are willing—this gets back to the empathy point of view—to acknowledge that the aspirations of others to freedom, security and abundance also must be taken into account and taken seriously. We have to, to some degree, respond to those concerns, not simply say, “Hey, we’ve got ours, you don’t have yours. That’s too bad for you.”

I think actually that Kennan’s own perspective on these matters was reflective of that. You have to take into account the aspirations and interests and concerns of others. This is where I think, for example, the Trump view is so incredibly short- sighted. “Elect me president and I’ll cut the deals and we’re always going to get the advantage and screw the other guys.” Maybe that works in business, but I don’t believe that’s a recipe for effective statecraft.

Can we read this point into Obama? In my estimation his is a very interesting presidency. He’s very hard to call. I go back and forth and sideways on this guy. I’m going to have to use conditional verbs. He may have begun with a recognition that there’s no maintaining the status quo in American policy in the Middle East: “We have to get some new ideas and we have to cut out the wars.” But as time went on, this question of institutional constraint comes in again. There’s no going back, but he discovered over time that there’s no going forward, either. He’s a kind of paralyzed man, right?

My reading is this: As is so often the case, we elected a president in 2008 who knew nothing about statecraft. And we elected a president who may have read his own press clippings and taken them too seriously, because he does seem to have come into office—maybe it’s because of the advisers he surrounded himself with—somehow thinking that he could go around the world making two or three speeches and substantive change would occur. The famous Cairo speech [delivered in June 2009, well before the Arab Spring] is the best example of that. “I’m here to declare a new opening in relations.” I think his sentiment was heartfelt, but I also think he had no substantive appreciation for actually how to begin that. That somehow, magically after his speech, something was going to change.

That said, and here I’m taking seriously the Jeff Goldberg article [on Obama’s foreign policy thinking, in the March edition of The Atlantic], I think this is a very smart man who over the course of the last seven years has acquired a remarkable education in statecraft and now has a very sophisticated understanding of the world and the way it works. Alas, it’s probably too late in his presidency to do much about that. It’s unfortunate that the presidency is a means to an education rather than having people who are educated and then become presidents.

On-the-job training doesn’t quite suit.

And that’s what we do. It won’t be the case with Clinton, but with Trump? Is it going to be on-the-job training? Holy cow. And with Cruz? You sort of hesitate to think about that.

Cruz is incapable of learning.

As I read the book, I kept asking myself, “Is Andrew writing from the end of an era, the middle of an era? Where are we on the timeline here?” And then I got to the ending, and I found it very grim. You taxed my native optimism, Andrew. There’s no end in sight. I understand your reasoning. It pushed me back on the exercise of arguing for alternative foreign policies. I started digging around for some quotation from Camus I recall from college, probably inaccurately: “The futility of all action and the necessity of any.” I thought, well, you just have to keep going. We all have to keep going. You can’t sit around and do nothing, even if it’s just for the sake of looking yourself in the mirror. But I wonder why you allow no air whatsoever into the room when you estimate what’s in front of us.

You mean why am I pessimistic?

Yes, why are you so pervasively pessimistic?

Well, I think we’ve touched on any number of the reasons. One of them is this deep-seated sense of American exceptionalism that is resistant to events, facts. The existence of this national security mindset, the size of the apparatus that is committed to perpetuating that mindset. The fact that the two political parties are basically twins when it comes to the fundamentals of U.S. policy. They pretend to have a different view, but they really don’t. The disengagement of the American people from the consequences of our actions because most of us don’t pay any near-term price. That’s what leads me to say in this book and in past books that [this will stop] only when the American people get fed up.

I couldn’t agree more. It’s up to us. We spectators in this only so long as we think we are.

So here we are in a presidential campaign and there are Americans fed up. Some number of them were attracted to the Bernie Sanders campaign, and we have to respect all that Sanders accomplished in making a run for the nomination. We also have to recognize that he fell substantially short, and he’s not going to win it. There is another disaffected group that has tended to collect around Donald Trump, but their disaffection doesn’t point down a road to wisdom and productive change.

As I was reading this Hendrickson volume [now in manuscript, noted in Part 1 of this interview]—and again, it’s superb—I was thinking to myself, as brilliant as it is, How many book-length critiques of U.S. policy have hit the streets over the last 10 years? And the answer is a lot. You and I write them. Some sell and some don’t sell, but none of them actually make much of a real impact. That’s a source of pessimism, because it’s as if the whole idea of public debate, of serious discourse, of challenging the status quo, of inviting people to think otherwise—all of that’s happening, but it doesn’t really seem to matter.

I’ve argued for a long time that the Cold War’s many scars upon us take many forms. One of them is a kind of truncated intellectual life. Another is a default assumption that nothing can be done and nothing will change, and we just need to go along and get along.

Sadly, I think that’s where we are. You mentioned William Appleman Williams. Williams, as one of the leading figures in what used to be called “revisionist history,” or the New Left—it’s not that they had all the answers, but I do think you can point to the ’60s and historical revisionism as a moment when the critique of the consensus gained traction. Mattered. Had a political impact. But that was then and this is now and that is no longer the case, I think sadly.

Here’s my read of Bernie. It’s pertinent here. He wasn’t much on foreign policy. But Bernie is a symptom. It’s not his problem. It’s our problem. We have not erected and maintained the intellectual infrastructure. There is not an intellectual culture underwriting alternative foreign policy proposals. There are plenty of them out there, but as you point out, nobody takes them seriously. That’s our problem. In many ways I’m a child of the ’60s. We’ve simply neglected a very good deal of ordinary day-to-day work since that time. Then you get Bernie up there. I admire him in many ways. But he was so forlorn. There was nothing behind him. He was just kind of, rather literally, a pushover. He was a tall building that had no superstructure in its walls.

But I also think that compounding the problem is this digital culture that we live in. Short attention spans. Decreasing interest in any kind of a long-form argument. Preoccupation with trivia. That’s somehow at the center of our culture, and I think it undermines the likelihood of a serious intellectual. Intellectual life doesn’t serve any purpose unless somehow or other it connects to the larger public.

I always say this about scholarship to friends: Good scholarship is applied scholarship. Go and do what you want in the archives and in your research carrel at the library, but make it matter.


Well, we will when we publish this interview. 

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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