In These Times : The Radical Conservative

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Radical Conservative

Vietnam veteran and author Andrew Bacevich on American decadence and the failure of the Iraq War.

By David Barsamian | January 23, 2009

At least at first glance, Andrew Bacevich might seem an unlikely candidate to have become one of the Iraq War’s fiercest critics. A graduate of West Point and a Vietnam War veteran, Bacevich spent 23 years in the military before retiring as a colonel. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he contributed to the conservative Weekly Standard and National Review. These days, however, his writing is much more likely to appear in The Nation.

But it’s difficult to say whether this marks a change in Bacevich’s principles or those of the American conservative movement. As he wrote in his 2005 book, The New American Militarism, “My disenchantment with what passes for mainstream conservatism, embodied in the present Bush administration and its groupies, is just about absolute. … [M]y views have come to coincide with the critique long offered by the radical left: It is the mainstream itself, the professional liberals as well as professional conservative who define the problem.”

A professor of history and international relations at Boston University, Bacevich’s latest book is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, which draws on the philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr’s warnings against “our dreams of managing history.”

He recently spoke with In These Times about conservatives’ response to his book, Iraq and why we shouldn’t expect too much change from an Obama administration.

In The Limits Of Power, you look at the consumption patterns of the average American citizen today. Given the urgency of a wartime situation, you’re very critical.

It’s not simply that I’m troubled by consumption in the context of a global war. I’m troubled by the patterns of consumption even apart from the war—in that we have come to expect that it is our due to live beyond our means, both as individuals and as a nation.

I’m not some kind of ascetic monk. I don’t live in a cave. I probably enjoy a pretty good standard of living relative to many other people. Nonetheless, one senses a kind of a compulsion to acquire in our society. There is a mindlessness about it that I find troubling. Maybe that’s just me admitting that I’m kind of an old-fashioned cultural conservative, but it’s a concern especially because we can’t pay for all the stuff that we’re buying.

Add the war on top of that, and it does become more troubling. On the one hand, we have leaders like President Bush, proclaiming that this is a struggle that we should see as the equivalent of World War II, that the evil that we face is the equivalent of Nazi Germany or of Soviet totalitarianism. And yet, in an odd sense the country sort of says, “Yes, I got it, thank you very much,” and then we just go back to doing what we were doing as if there were no war.

One consequence of that, of course, is that the burden of the war falls on our military. I think that the military has been abused over the last seven years. It’s tremendously admirable that the Army and the Marine Corps, in particular, have hung together the way they’ve hung together. But that doesn’t make it right, doesn’t make it fair, and it certainly doesn’t make it indefinitely sustainable.

What’s been the conservative response to your book?

The conservatives have really been split by the war. I dare say, the majority of conservatives are loyal to the Republican Party, loyal to President Bush, support the war in general terms, may acknowledge that it was badly handled but would still argue that it was an appropriate enterprise.

There is a minority of conservatives—I’m in that minority—that sees the policies of President Bush as anything but conservative, really seeing them as radical, as wild-eyed. The people who are in my camp—again, I emphasize, it’s the minority—would argue that a principled conservative foreign policy needs to be a realistic foreign policy.

It’s not a world in which good is pitted against evil. It’s really a world in which gray is pitted against gray.

Even though we are a powerful nation, there are very real limits to our power, very real limits to our capacity to anticipate the consequences of our actions, and therefore we really ought to be a lot more modest in the way we approach the world.

What are your views on Iraq?

There is no question that security conditions have improved significantly over the past year and a half. Regardless of whether you think the war is a good idea or a bad idea, it’s a good thing that the security conditions have improved. Those who have claimed that this is the result of a genius strategy called “the surge” probably are oversimplifying. The explanation for why security conditions have improved is complex, and it reflects as much internal decisions made—internal to Iraq—as much as it does anything that we’ve done.

Does that mean that victory is at hand? I don’t think so. Iraq still is in many respects a dependency, can’t manage its own affairs. So we are stuck there, absent a sort of a decision by President-elect Obama to just draw a line and say, “This was a mistake and we’re getting out.”

It’s important to ask, “What does it mean, what have we gained?” Among the numerous justifications for the war, one very important one was weapons of mass destruction. There were none. One was that somehow Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with al Qaeda. He was not.

The real justification, the real strategic plan, the real reason that the Bush administration went in is that they thought that by toppling Saddam, we could bring about rapid and efficient transformation of Iraqi society and make it into a somewhat liberal, modern, cohesive, functioning nation state, and that somehow that success in Iraq would be a precedent for achieving a similar transformation in other Muslim societies.

Does that strike you as chutzpah?

It strikes me as bizarre.

Even if tomorrow we declared victory in Iraq, the war has not provided a template for the, quote, unquote, transformation of the rest of the Middle East. Even if it ended tomorrow, we would have expended—what, $800 billion or $1 trillion?—and lost well more than 4,000 American lives.

Does anybody think we’re going to similarly transform Iran or Syria or, God forbid, Pakistan? As a step in a longer-term strategic process, the Iraq War has failed.

You’re a professor. Across the board Americans are not very well versed in history, their own history or the history of other countries.

When you’re flying along at 35,000 feet and you’re looking down, you say, “My God, this is a big country.” We live in our own world—we are our own world. There are vast, wide-open spaces. There is something about the environment in which we Americans live that encourages a certain provincialism.

The notion that we’ve ever pursued an isolationist foreign policy is totally wrong and unsustainable by our history. It’s one of the great enduring myths. But the notion that we are an inward-looking people is not mythic. There is that inclination to look within and to not be especially interested in what is going on out there.

I myself am guilty. To the extent that I was interested in the world, say, 25 or 30 years ago, I was interested in the world that was defined by the Cold War. The world that mattered to me was the world of divided Germany and divided South Korea and the Soviet empire and places like that. I wasn’t interested in Afghanistan or the history of Afghanistan. So, yes, I’ve discovered the history of Afghanistan, I’ve discovered something of the history of Iraq.

But we tend to be provincial, and that becomes a problem when we get up in the morning and decide we’re going to go remake one of these distant places.

In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in late August, you weren’t very sanguine about real change coming to Washington on Jan. 20, 2009. You write, “The very structure of American politics imposes its own constraints.” What are some of those constraints?

I don’t think presidents govern—administrations do. You have to look at the people they bring in. In many respects the people that I see surrounding Obama, at least with regard to foreign policy, aren’t radically different from the people who surrounded McCain.

They’re not identical, but it’s not as if we’ve got a bunch of isolationists or peaceniks or whatever. You actually have a bunch of people around Obama who believe in the notion of American global leadership, believe that America should be the supreme military power, who, yes, believe that we screwed up Iraq. But Obama himself says quite frequently, I’m not going to hesitate to pull the trigger when I think I need to pull the trigger.

Also, we have to acknowledge the extent to which any administration is also hemmed in by interests. The president can get up in the morning and say, “I’ve got a great idea.” But presidents operate within confines defined by sundry interests that don’t want change to occur beyond certain limits. So the president is not going to save the day.

NPR : Is This The 'End Of American Exceptionalism'?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Is This The 'End Of American Exceptionalism'?

Excerpt: 'The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism'

by Andrew J. Bacevich | September 11, 2008

Chapter One

The Crisis of Profligacy

Today, no less than in 1776, a passion for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness remains at the center of America's civic theology. The Jeffersonian trinity summarizes our common inheritance, defines our aspirations, and provides the touchstone for our influence abroad.

Yet if Americans still cherish the sentiments contained in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, they have, over time, radically revised their understanding of those "inalienable rights." Today, individual Americans use their freedom to do many worthy things. Some read, write, paint, sculpt, compose, and play music. Others build, restore, and preserve. Still others attend plays, concerts, and sporting events, visit their local multiplexes, IM each other incessantly, and join "communities" of the like- minded in an ever- growing array of virtual worlds. They also pursue innumerable hobbies, worship, tithe, and, in commendably large numbers, attend to the needs of the less fortunate. Yet none of these in themselves define what it means to be an American in the twenty-first century.

If one were to choose a single word to characterize that identity, it would have to be more. For the majority of contemporary Americans, the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness centers on a relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors. A bumper sticker, a sardonic motto, and a charge dating from the Age of Woodstock have recast the Jeffersonian trinity in modern vernacular: "Whoever dies with the most toys wins"; "Shop till you drop"; "If it feels good, do it."

It would be misleading to suggest that every American has surrendered to this ethic of self- gratification. Resistance to its demands persists and takes many forms. Yet dissenters, intent on curbing the American penchant for consumption and self- indulgence, are fighting a rear- guard action, valiant perhaps but unlikely to reverse the tide. The ethic of self- gratification has firmly entrenched itself as the defining feature of the American way of life. The point is neither to deplore nor to celebrate this fact, but simply to acknowledge it.

Others have described, dissected, and typically bemoaned the cultural—and even moral—implications of this development. Few, however, have considered how an American preoccupation with "more" has affected U.S. relations with rest of the world. Yet the foreign policy implications of our present- day penchant for consumption and self- indulgence are almost entirely negative. Over the past six decades, efforts to satisfy spiraling consumer demand have given birth to a condition of profound dependency. The United States may still remain the mightiest power the world has ever seen, but the fact is that Americans are no longer masters of their own fate.

The ethic of self- gratification threatens the well- being of the United States. It does so not because Americans have lost touch with some mythical Puritan habits of hard work and self- abnegation, but because it saddles us with costly commitments abroad that we are increasingly ill- equipped to sustain while confronting us with dangers to which we have no ready response. As the prerequisites of the American way of life have grown, they have outstripped the means available to satisfy them. Americans of an earlier generation worried about bomber and missile gaps, both of which turned out to be fictitious. The present- day gap between requirements and the means available to satisfy those requirements is neither contrived nor imaginary. It is real and growing. This gap defines the crisis of American profligacy.

Power and Abundance

Placed in historical perspective, the triumph of this ethic of self- gratification hardly qualifies as a surprise. The restless search for a buck and the ruthless elimination of anyone—or anything—standing in the way of doing so have long been central to the American character. Touring the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, astute observer of the young Republic, noted the "feverish ardor" of its citizens to accumulate. Yet, even as the typical American "clutches at everything," the Frenchman wrote, "he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications." However munificent his possessions, the American hungered for more, an obsession that filled him with "anxiety, fear, and regret, and keeps his mind in ceaseless trepidation."

Even in de Tocqueville's day, satisfying such yearnings as well as easing the anxieties and fears they evoked had important policy implications. To quench their ardor, Americans looked abroad, seeking to extend the reach of U.S. power. The pursuit of "fresh gratifications" expressed itself collectively in an urge to expand, territorially and commercially. This expansionist project was already well begun when de Tocqueville's famed Democracy in America appeared, most notably through Jefferson's acquisition of the Louisiana territory in 1803 and through ongoing efforts to remove (or simply eliminate) Native Americans, an undertaking that continued throughout the nineteenth century.

Preferring to remember their collective story somewhat differently, Americans look to politicians to sanitize their past. When, in his 2005 inaugural address, George W. Bush identified the promulgation of freedom as "the mission that created our nation," neoconservative hearts certainly beat a little faster, as they undoubtedly did when he went on to declare that America's "great liberating tradition" now required the United States to devote itself to "ending tyranny in our world." Yet Bush was simply putting his own gloss on a time- honored conviction ascribing to the United States a uniqueness of character and purpose. From its founding, America has expressed through its behavior and its evolution a providential purpose. Paying homage to, and therefore renewing, this tradition of American exceptionalism has long been one of the presidency's primary extra constitutional obligations.

Many Americans find such sentiments compelling. Yet to credit the United States with possessing a "liberating tradition" is equivalent to saying that Hollywood has a "tradition of artistic excellence." The movie business is just that—a business. Its purpose is to make money. If once in a while a studio produces a .lm of aesthetic value, that may be cause for celebration, but profit, not revealing truth and beauty, defines the purpose of the enterprise.

Something of the same can be said of the enterprise launched on July 4, 1776. The hardheaded lawyers, merchants, farmers, and slaveholding plantation owners gathered in Philadelphia that summer did not set out to create a church. They founded a republic. Their purpose was not to save mankind. It was to ensure that people like themselves enjoyed unencumbered access to the Jeffersonian trinity.

In the years that followed, the United States achieved remarkable success in making good on those aims. Yet never during the course of America's transformation from a small power to a great one did the United States exert itself to liberate others—absent an overriding perception that the nation had large security or economic interests at stake.

From time to time, although not nearly as frequently as we like to imagine, some of the world's unfortunates managed as a consequence to escape from bondage. The Civil War did, for instance, produce emancipation. Yet to explain the conflagration of 1861–65 as a response to the plight of enslaved African Americans is to engage at best in an immense oversimplification. Near the end of World War II, GIs did liberate the surviving inmates of Nazi death camps. Yet for those who directed the American war effort of 1941–45, the fate of European Jews never figured as more than an afterthought.

Crediting the United States with a "great liberating tradition" distorts the past and obscures the actual motive force behind American politics and U.S. foreign policy. It transforms history into a morality tale, thereby providing a rationale for dodging serious moral analysis. To insist that the liberation of others has never been more than an ancillary motive of U.S. policy is not cynicism; it is a prerequisite to self-understanding.

If the young United States had a mission, it was not to liberate but to expand. "Of course," declared Theodore Roosevelt in 1899, as if explaining the self- evident to the obtuse, "our whole national history has been one of expansion." TR spoke truthfully. The founders viewed stasis as tantamount to suicide. From the outset, Americans evinced a compulsion to acquire territory and extend their commercial reach abroad.

How was expansion achieved? On this point, the historical record leaves no room for debate: by any means necessary. Depending on the circumstances, the United States relied on diplomacy, hard bargaining, bluster, chicanery, intimidation, or naked coercion. We infiltrated land belonging to our neighbors and then brazenly proclaimed it our own. We harassed, filibustered, and, when the situation called for it, launched full- scale invasions. We engaged in ethnic cleansing. At times, we insisted that treaties be considered sacrosanct. On other occasions, we blithely jettisoned solemn agreements that had outlived their usefulness.

As the methods employed varied, so too did the rationales offered to justify action. We touted our status as God's new Chosen People, erecting a "city upon a hill" destined to illuminate the world. We acted at the behest of providential guidance or responded to the urgings of our "manifest destiny." We declared our obligation to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ or to "uplift little brown brother." With Woodrow Wilson as our tutor, we shouldered our responsibility to "show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty." Critics who derided these claims as bunkum—the young Lincoln during the war with Mexico, Mark Twain after the imperial adventures of 1898, Senator Robert La Follette amid "the war to end all wars"— scored points but lost the argument. Periodically revised and refurbished, American exceptionalism (which implied exceptional American prerogatives) only gained greater currency.

When it came to action rather than talk, even the policy makers viewed as most idealistic remained fixated on one overriding aim: enhancing American influence, wealth, and power. The record of U.S. foreign relations from the earliest colonial encounters with Native Americans to the end of the Cold War is neither uniquely high- minded nor uniquely hypocritical and exploitive. In this sense, the interpretations of America's past offered by both George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden fall equally wide of the mark. As a rising power, the United States adhered to the iron laws of international politics, which allow little space for altruism. If the tale of American expansion contains a moral theme at all, that theme is necessarily one of ambiguity.

Excepted from The Limits of Power by Andrew J. Bacevich. Copyright @ 2008 by Andrew J. Bacevich. Published in 2008 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

WaPo : What's an Iraqi Life Worth?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What's an Iraqi Life Worth?

By Andrew J. Bacevich | July 9, 2006

In Iraq, lives differ in value -- and so do deaths. In this disparity lies an important reason why the United States has botched this war.

Last November in Haditha, a squad of Marines, outraged at the loss of a comrade, is said to have run amok, avenging his death by killing two dozen innocent bystanders. And in March, U.S. soldiers in Mahmudiyah allegedly raped a young Iraqi woman and killed her along with three of her relatives -- an apparently premeditated crime for which one former U.S. soldier has been charged. These incidents are among at least five recent cases of Iraqi civilian deaths that have triggered investigations of U.S. military personnel. If the allegations prove true, Haditha and Mahmudiyah will deservedly take their place alongside Sand Creek, Samar and My Lai in the unhappy catalogue of atrocities committed by American troops.

But recall a more recent incident, in Samarra. On May 30, U.S. soldiers manning a checkpoint there opened fire on a speeding vehicle that either did not see or failed to heed their command to stop. Two women in the vehicle were shot dead. One of them, Nahiba Husayif Jassim, 35, was pregnant. The baby was also killed. The driver, Jassim's brother, had been rushing her to a hospital to give birth. No one tried to cover up the incident: U.S. military representatives issued expressions of regret.

In all likelihood, we will be learning more about Haditha and Mahmudiyah for months to come, whereas the Samarra story has already been filed away and largely forgotten. And that's the problem.

The killing at the Samarra checkpoint was not an atrocity; most likely it was an accident, a mistake. Yet plenty of evidence suggests that in Iraq such mistakes have occurred routinely, with moral and political consequences that have been too long ignored. Indeed, conscious motivation is beside the point: Any action resulting in Iraqi civilian deaths, however inadvertent, undermines the Bush administration's narrative of liberation, and swells the ranks of those resisting the U.S. presence.

Gen. Tommy Franks, who commanded U.S. forces when they entered Iraq more than three years ago, famously declared: "We don't do body counts." Franks was speaking in code. What he meant was this: The U.S. military has learned the lessons of Vietnam -- where body counts became a principal, and much derided, public measure of success -- and it has no intention of repeating that experience. Franks was not going to be one of those generals re-fighting the last war.

Unfortunately, Franks and other senior commanders had not so much learned from Vietnam as forgotten it. This disdain for counting bodies, especially those of Iraqi civilians killed in the course of U.S. operations, is among the reasons why U.S. forces find themselves in another quagmire. It's not that the United States has an aversion to all body counts. We tally every U.S. service member who falls in Iraq, and rightly so. But only in recent months have military leaders finally begun to count -- for internal use only -- some of the very large number of Iraqi noncombatants whom American bullets and bombs have killed.

Through the war's first three years, any Iraqi venturing too close to an American convoy or checkpoint was likely to come under fire. Thousands of these "escalation of force" episodes occurred. Now, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, has begun to recognize the hidden cost of such an approach. "People who were on the fence or supported us" in the past "have in fact decided to strike out against us," he recently acknowledged.

In the early days of the insurgency, some U.S. commanders appeared oblivious to the possibility that excessive force might produce a backlash. They counted on the iron fist to create an atmosphere conducive to good behavior. The idea was not to distinguish between "good" and "bad" Iraqis, but to induce compliance through intimidation.

"You have to understand the Arab mind," one company commander told the New York Times, displaying all the self-assurance of Douglas MacArthur discoursing on Orientals in 1945. "The only thing they understand is force -- force, pride and saving face." Far from representing the views of a few underlings, such notions penetrated into the upper echelons of the American command. In their book "Cobra II," Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor offer this ugly comment from a senior officer: "The only thing these sand niggers understand is force and I'm about to introduce them to it."

Such crass language, redolent with racist, ethnocentric connotations, speaks volumes. These characterizations, like the use of "gooks" during the Vietnam War, dehumanize the Iraqis and in doing so tacitly permit the otherwise impermissible. Thus, Abu Ghraib and Haditha -- and too many regretted deaths, such as that of Nahiba Husayif Jassim.

As the war enters its fourth year, how many innocent Iraqis have died at American hands, not as a result of Haditha-like massacres but because of accidents and errors? The military doesn't know and, until recently, has publicly professed no interest in knowing. Estimates range considerably, but the number almost certainly runs in the tens of thousands. Even granting the common antiwar bias of those who track the Iraqi death toll -- and granting, too, that the insurgents have far more blood on their hands -- there is no question that the number of Iraqi noncombatants killed by U.S. forces exceeds by an order of magnitude the number of U.S. troops killed in hostile action, which is now more than 2,000.

Who bears responsibility for these Iraqi deaths? The young soldiers pulling the triggers? The commanders who establish rules of engagement that privilege "force protection" over any obligation to protect innocent life? The intellectually bankrupt policymakers who sent U.S. forces into Iraq in the first place and now see no choice but to press on? The culture that, to put it mildly, has sought neither to understand nor to empathize with people in the Arab or Islamic worlds?

There are no easy answers, but one at least ought to acknowledge that in launching a war advertised as a high-minded expression of U.S. idealism, we have waded into a swamp of moral ambiguity. To assert that "stuff happens," as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is wont to do whenever events go awry, simply does not suffice.

Moral questions aside, the toll of Iraqi noncombatant casualties has widespread political implications. Misdirected violence alienates those we are claiming to protect. It plays into the hands of the insurgents, advancing their cause and undercutting our own. It fatally undermines the campaign to win hearts and minds, suggesting to Iraqis and Americans alike that Iraqi civilians -- and perhaps Arabs and Muslims more generally -- are expendable. Certainly, Nahiba Husayif Jassim's death helped clarify her brother's perspective on the war. "God take revenge on the Americans and those who brought them here," he declared after the incident. "They have no regard for our lives."

He was being unfair, of course. It's not that we have no regard for Iraqi lives; it's just that we have much less regard for them. The current reparations policy -- the payment offered in those instances in which U.S. forces do own up to killing an Iraq civilian -- makes the point. The insurance payout to the beneficiaries of an American soldier who dies in the line of duty is $400,000, while in the eyes of the U.S. government, a dead Iraqi civilian is reportedly worth up to $2,500 in condolence payments -- about the price of a decent plasma-screen TV.

For all the talk of Iraq being a sovereign nation, foreign occupiers are the ones deciding what an Iraqi life is worth. And although President Bush has remarked in a different context that "every human life is a precious gift of matchless value," our actions in Iraq continue to convey the impression that civilian lives aren't worth all that much.

That impression urgently needs to change. To start, the Pentagon must get over its aversion to counting all bodies. It needs to measure in painstaking detail -- and publicly -- the mayhem we are causing as a byproduct of what we call liberation. To do otherwise, to shrug off the death of Nahiba Husayif Jassim as just one of those things that happens in war, only reinforces the impression that Americans view Iraqis as less than fully human. Unless we demonstrate by our actions that we value their lives as much as the lives of our own troops, our failure is certain.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.

WaPo : I Lost My Son to a War I Oppose. We Were Both Doing Our Duty.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

I Lost My Son to a War I Oppose. We Were Both Doing Our Duty.

By Andrew J. Bacevich | May 27, 2007

Parents who lose children, whether through accident or illness, inevitably wonder what they could have done to prevent their loss. When my son was killed in Iraq earlier this month at age 27, I found myself pondering my responsibility for his death.

Among the hundreds of messages that my wife and I have received, two bore directly on this question. Both held me personally culpable, insisting that my public opposition to the war had provided aid and comfort to the enemy. Each said that my son's death came as a direct result of my antiwar writings.

This may seem a vile accusation to lay against a grieving father. But in fact, it has become a staple of American political discourse, repeated endlessly by those keen to allow President Bush a free hand in waging his war. By encouraging "the terrorists," opponents of the Iraq conflict increase the risk to U.S. troops. Although the First Amendment protects antiwar critics from being tried for treason, it provides no protection for the hardly less serious charge of failing to support the troops -- today's civic equivalent of dereliction of duty.

What exactly is a father's duty when his son is sent into harm's way?

Among the many ways to answer that question, mine was this one: As my son was doing his utmost to be a good soldier, I strove to be a good citizen.

As a citizen, I have tried since Sept. 11, 2001, to promote a critical understanding of U.S. foreign policy. I know that even now, people of good will find much to admire in Bush's response to that awful day. They applaud his doctrine of preventive war. They endorse his crusade to spread democracy across the Muslim world and to eliminate tyranny from the face of the Earth. They insist not only that his decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was correct but that the war there can still be won. Some -- the members of the "the-surge-is-already-working" school of thought -- even profess to see victory just over the horizon.

I believe that such notions are dead wrong and doomed to fail. In books, articles and op-ed pieces, in talks to audiences large and small, I have said as much. "The long war is an unwinnable one," I wrote in this section of The Washington Post in August 2005. "The United States needs to liquidate its presence in Iraq, placing the onus on Iraqis to decide their fate and creating the space for other regional powers to assist in brokering a political settlement. We've done all that we can do."

Not for a second did I expect my own efforts to make a difference. But I did nurse the hope that my voice might combine with those of others -- teachers, writers, activists and ordinary folks -- to educate the public about the folly of the course on which the nation has embarked. I hoped that those efforts might produce a political climate conducive to change. I genuinely believed that if the people spoke, our leaders in Washington would listen and respond.

This, I can now see, was an illusion.

The people have spoken, and nothing of substance has changed. The November 2006 midterm elections signified an unambiguous repudiation of the policies that landed us in our present predicament. But half a year later, the war continues, with no end in sight. Indeed, by sending more troops to Iraq (and by extending the tours of those, like my son, who were already there), Bush has signaled his complete disregard for what was once quaintly referred to as "the will of the people."

To be fair, responsibility for the war's continuation now rests no less with the Democrats who control Congress than with the president and his party. After my son's death, my state's senators, Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, telephoned to express their condolences. Stephen F. Lynch, our congressman, attended my son's wake. Kerry was present for the funeral Mass. My family and I greatly appreciated such gestures. But when I suggested to each of them the necessity of ending the war, I got the brushoff. More accurately, after ever so briefly pretending to listen, each treated me to a convoluted explanation that said in essence: Don't blame me.

To whom do Kennedy, Kerry and Lynch listen? We know the answer: to the same people who have the ear of George W. Bush and Karl Rove -- namely, wealthy individuals and institutions.

Money buys access and influence. Money greases the process that will yield us a new president in 2008. When it comes to Iraq, money ensures that the concerns of big business, big oil, bellicose evangelicals and Middle East allies gain a hearing. By comparison, the lives of U.S. soldiers figure as an afterthought.

Memorial Day orators will say that a G.I.'s life is priceless. Don't believe it. I know what value the U.S. government assigns to a soldier's life: I've been handed the check. It's roughly what the Yankees will pay Roger Clemens per inning once he starts pitching next month.

Money maintains the Republican/Democratic duopoly of trivialized politics. It confines the debate over U.S. policy to well-hewn channels. It preserves intact the cliches of 1933-45 about isolationism, appeasement and the nation's call to "global leadership." It inhibits any serious accounting of exactly how much our misadventure in Iraq is costing. It ignores completely the question of who actually pays. It negates democracy, rendering free speech little more than a means of recording dissent.

This is not some great conspiracy. It's the way our system works.

In joining the Army, my son was following in his father's footsteps: Before he was born, I had served in Vietnam. As military officers, we shared an ironic kinship of sorts, each of us demonstrating a peculiar knack for picking the wrong war at the wrong time. Yet he was the better soldier -- brave and steadfast and irrepressible.

I know that my son did his best to serve our country. Through my own opposition to a profoundly misguided war, I thought I was doing the same. In fact, while he was giving his all, I was doing nothing. In this way, I failed him.

Andrew J. Bacevich teaches history and international relations at Boston University. His son died May 13 after a suicide bomb explosion in Salah al-Din province.

National Interest : Raising Jihad

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Raising Jihad

by Andrew J. Bacevich | March 2, 2009

[review of David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 384 pp., $27.95.]

IN WASHINGTON, protracted crisis creates opportunities. The cold war gave rise to a national-security elite whose members flourished for decades while rotating in and out of government. To this very day, the Arab-Israeli “peace process” performs a similar function, supporting the existence of various research institutes and advocacy groups while providing fodder for endless conferencing and endlessly repetitive studies, essays and op-eds.

The Long War—the Pentagon’s preferred name for the global war on terror—promises to do much the same. Whatever else one may say of this conflict, it has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to generate jobs. Established federal agencies have expanded. New ones have come into existence. Think tanks have proliferated. Contractors and lobbyists have prospered. Given the assumption—shared by mainstream Democrats and Republicans alike—that the Long War will continue for decades if not generations, its potential as an engine for career opportunities appears vast indeed.

Protracted crisis also produces its own cult of celebrity, exalting the status of figures perceived to possess inside knowledge or to exercise particular clout. During the early days of the cold war, functionaries like George Kennan and Paul Nitze suddenly became boldfaced names. As the great struggle with the Soviet Union dragged on, the list of notable cold warriors lengthened. Some of these Washington celebrities—presidential assistants, politically savvy generals, agency heads, and “whiz kids” with sharp elbows and a knack for self-promotion—quickly flamed out, left town and were soon forgotten. Others fell from grace and yet continued to haunt the city where they once exercised power. (A few years ago I came across Robert McNamara lunching alone at the Old Ebbitt Grill; it was like suddenly encountering a spirit from the netherworld—and about as welcome.) A few celebs manage to retain enduring influence. The peace process may be a niche market, but even today on just about anything related to Arabs and Israelis, Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross head the short list of go-to guys. Like Cher and Madonna—or like Zbig and Henry—they’ve been at it so long that surnames are no longer required: Martin and Dennis will do just fine.

So too with the Long War. It is producing its own constellation of celebrities, of whom General David Petraeus is far and away the brightest, but that also includes the likes of Colonel H. R. McMaster, the hero of Tal Afar; retired–Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, author of the influential book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife and now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the best of the think tanks spawned by the Long War; and Dr. David Kilcullen, who is perhaps the most interesting of this select group.

Kilcullen was once a soldier and now classifies himself as a “counterinsurgency professional.” A former officer in the Australian army with a PhD from the University of New South Wales (his dissertation dealt with Indonesian terrorists and guerrilla movements), Kilcullen has served as an adviser to General Petraeus in Baghdad and to former–Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington. As the Bush administration left office, he signed on with CNAS and also became a partner with the Crumpton Group, a Washington-based consulting firm founded by former–CIA official and terrorism specialist Henry “Hank” Crumpton. The Long War has been good to Dr. Kilcullen.

For perhaps just that reason, when it comes to taking stock of that conflict, Kilcullen is someone to reckon with. In his new book The Accidental Guerrilla, we actually encounter three Kilcullens. First there is Kilcullen the practitioner, who draws on considerable firsthand experience to offer his own take on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this regard, Accidental Guerrilla resembles dozens of other Washington books, blending memoir with policy analysis, generously laced with spin. Then there is Kilcullen the scholar, presenting his own grand theory of insurgency and prescribing a set of “best practices” to which counterinsurgents should adhere. In this regard, the book falls somewhere between academic treatise and military field manual: it is dry, repetitive and laced with statements of the obvious. Last, however, there is Kilcullen the apostate. With the administration whose policies he sought to implement now gone from office, Kilcullen uses Accidental Guerrilla to skewer those he served for gross strategic ineptitude. His chief finding—that through its actions the Bush administration has managed to exacerbate the Islamist threat while wasting resources on a prodigious scale—is not exactly novel. Yet given Kilcullen’s status as both witness and participant, his indictment carries considerable weight. Here lies the real value of his book.

ON IRAQ, Kilcullen the practitioner is generally bullish. As a member of Petraeus’s inner circle during the period of the so-called surge, he makes two points. First, the surge is working. Second, credit for this success belongs to those who served in Baghdad, above all General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, rather than to paper pushers back in the White House or kibitzers congregating over lunch at the American Enterprise Institute.

The surge, Kilcullen contends, pulled Iraqi “society back from the brink of total collapse.” In terms of security, he describes the progress achieved as “substantive and significant.” U.S. efforts prior to February 2007, when Petraeus took command in Baghdad, had been almost entirely counterproductive. An excessive reliance on force had accomplished little apart from “progressively alienating village after village” while “creating a pool of people who hate the U.S.” Sectarian violence was driving the minority Sunni community into the arms of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and other extremist groups. As a result, by 2006 Iraq was drowning in “an immense tide of blood.”

The Joint Campaign Plan for 2007 and 2008, devised under Petraeus’s direction, reversed that tide. The new approach, according to Kilcullen, began with a detailed political strategy aimed at reconciling Iraq’s various sectarian and ethnic factions. Improved security would create conditions making reconciliation possible. The key to improving security was to pay less attention to killing the enemy and more attention to protecting the Iraqi people. This in turn required a wholesale shift in the way that U.S. and other coalition forces were doing business. President Bush’s decision to deploy a half-dozen additional brigades combined with Petraeus’s implementation of a newly revised (or freshly rediscovered) counterinsurgency doctrine made all the difference.

Here the triumphal narrative constructed by the Bush White House (and enshrined in neoconservative circles) ends. Kilcullen makes it clear that the actual story is more complicated and by implication more problematic.

Napoleon once remarked that the best generals were the ones favored by good luck. Petraeus is clearly a capable general; in Iraq circa 2007 he may well have been an especially lucky one as well.

Some months prior to his arrival in Baghdad, the character of the Iraq War had begun to change. Beginning in western Anbar Province, Sunni tribal leaders, whose followers provided the insurgent rank and file, began to turn on AQI. The Americans misleadingly dubbed this the Sunni Awakening, as if our adversaries had begun to see the light. As Kilcullen makes clear, Sunni behavior was utterly pragmatic. “Only a naif,” he writes, would interpret the Sunni tribal revolt as “indicating support for the Iraqi government or for Coalition forces.” Still, in exchange for guns and money, Sunni sheikhs promised to desist from attacking U.S. troops and to collaborate in efforts to target AQI. They proved as good as their word. In terms of reducing the overall level of violence, this development—which U.S. officials stumbled on belatedly and then scrambled to harness—proved crucial.

How long will this marriage of convenience endure and what sort of offspring will it produce? The truth is that it’s probably too soon to tell. When it comes to anything touching on Iraq’s future, Kilcullen, whose usual mode of expression does not suggest a want of self-confidence, becomes notably circumspect. He concedes that expectations of improved security producing a top-down political settlement have not panned out: the Iraqi government in Baghdad remains divided and dysfunctional. Yet as a stalwart defender of the surge, he nurtures hopes that deals being cut with local tribal leaders might foster an “Iraqi-led, bottom-up” process of reconciliation.

Kilcullen makes no promises on that score, instead acknowledging the self-evident: despite six years of prodigious effort, the Americans are along for the ride. The Iraqis are in charge. The Sunni Awakening, he writes, “was their idea, they started it, they are leading it, it is happening on their terms and their timeline.” By extension, the Iraqis will decide where things go from here, with Kilcullen venturing only that events “will play out in ways that may be good or bad, but are fundamentally unpredictable.” In short, the second-order benefits of a success that Kilcullen hails as undeniable, substantive and significant turn out to be partial, precarious and shrouded in ambiguity—a pretty meager return on a very substantial American investment.

In 2008, Kilcullen left Baghdad and turned his attention to Afghanistan, surveying the situation there at the behest of then-Secretary Rice. More than seven years after U.S. forces first arrived, the news coming out of Kabul is almost uniformly bad. Kilcullen knows this but insists that the war “remains winnable.” In this case, winning will require the United States and its allies to commit themselves to an intensive effort, lasting “five to ten years at least,” aimed at “building a resilient Afghan state and civil society” capable of fending off the Taliban. The key to success, in his view, is to extend “an effective, legitimate government presence into Afghanistan’s 40,020 villages.” Such a presence, he concedes, is something that has never existed.

Stripped to its essentials, this is a call for Western-engineered nation building on a stupendous scale—in Kilcullen’s own words, “building an effective state structure, for the first time in modern Afghan history.” Yet even that will not suffice. Given the porous Afghan-Pakistani border, unless the United States and its partners also fix Pakistan, “a military victory in Afghanistan will simply shift the problem a few miles to the east.” With this is mind, Kilcullen calls for a “full-spectrum strategy” designed to “improve governance, security, and economic conditions” throughout the region. Although he illustrates this approach anecdotally, he offers no estimates of costs or who will pay them. Nor does Kilcullen explain why the results to be achieved in Afghanistan-Pakistan, even in the very best case, would produce an outcome any more definitive than the one he foresees in Iraq.

KILCULLEN THE practitioner, intent on transforming Afghanistan and Pakistan, is not entirely on the same page with Kilcullen the scholar, whose grand theory of insurgency emphasizes the unintended consequences of mucking around in traditional societies.

Mucking around by outsiders converts small problems into big ones. An appreciation of this phenomenon lies at the heart of al-Qaeda’s strategy, which Kilcullen describes as “fundamentally one of bleeding the United States to exhaustion, while simultaneously using U.S. reaction to incite a mass uprising within the Islamic world.” With that end in mind, al-Qaeda conspires to lure the West into launching ill-advised military actions, confident that one result will be to antagonize the local population, which will then respond to al-Qaeda’s calls to expel the intruders. In essence, Western intervention serves as al-Qaeda’s best recruiting tool. This is Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerrilla Syndrome.

Kilcullen emphasizes that accidental guerrillas fight not to reinstitute the caliphate or to convert nonbelievers, but “principally to be left alone.” What they want above all is to preserve their way of life. The vast majority of those who take up arms against the United States and its allies do so “not because they hate the West and seek our overthrow, but because we have invaded their space to deal with a small extremist element.”

Of course, rather than depicting the threat posed by al-Qaeda as small, the Bush administration chose to cast it as equivalent to Nazi Germany. The premise underlying the administration’s Long War was that the Islamic world could not be “left alone.” Instead, it had to be coerced into changing. The administration invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq to jump-start that process of change. In doing so, however, the United States was playing directly into enemy hands. The decision to go after Saddam Hussein in particular, Kilcullen writes, was “a deeply misguided and counterproductive undertaking, an extremely severe strategic error.” The ostensible success of the surge notwithstanding, the Iraq War remains a “sorry adventure.”

The improved counterinsurgency techniques now being implemented by the United States military do not redeem that error. They merely offer, in the judgment of Kilcullen the apostate, “the best way out of a bad situation that we should never have gotten ourselves into.”

Here we arrive at the nub of the matter. According to a currently fashionable view, the chief operative lesson of the Iraq War is that counterinsurgency works, with U.S. forces having now mastered the best practices required to prevail in conflicts of this nature. Those who adhere to this view expect the Long War to bring more such challenges, with the neglected Afghan conflict even now presenting itself as next in line. Given this prospect, they want the Pentagon to gear itself up for a succession of such trials, enshrining counterinsurgency as the preferred American way of war in place of discredited concepts like “shock and awe.” Doing so will have large implications for how defense dollars are distributed among the various armed services and for how U.S. forces are trained, equipped and configured. Ask yourself how many fighter-bombers or nuclear submarines it takes to establish an effective government presence in each of Afghanistan’s 40,020 villages and you get the gist of what this might imply.

Yet given the costs of Iraq—now second only to World War II as the most expensive war in all U.S. history—and given the way previous efforts to pacify the Afghan countryside have fared, how much should we expect to spend in redeeming Afghanistan’s forty thousand villages? Having completed that task five or ten years hence, how many other villages in Pakistan, Iran, Syria and Egypt will require similar ministrations? And how many more accidental guerrillas will we inadvertently create along the way?

Kilcullen the apostate knows full well that an approach that hinges on wholesale societal transformation makes no sense. The consummate counterinsurgency professional understands that the application of technique, however skillful, will not suffice to salvage the Long War. Yet as someone deeply invested in that conflict, he cannot bring himself to acknowledge the conclusion to which his own analysis points: the very concept of waging a Long War as the antidote to Islamism is fundamentally and irrevocably flawed.

If counterinsurgency is useful chiefly for digging ourselves out of holes we shouldn’t be in, then why not simply avoid the holes? Why play al-Qaeda’s game? Why persist in waging the Long War when that war makes no sense?

When it comes to dealing with Islamism, containment rather than transformation should provide the cornerstone of U.S. (and Western) strategy. Ours is the far stronger hand. The jihadist project is entirely negative. Apart from offering an outlet for anger and resentment, Osama bin Laden and others of his ilk have nothing on offer. Time is our ally. With time, our adversary will wither and die—unless through our own folly we choose to destroy ourselves first.

Andrew J. Bacevich, a contributing editor to The National Interest, is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008).

Counterpunch : Obama's Post-Modern War of Attrition

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Obama's Post-Modern War of Attrition

Tell Me How This Ends?

By ANDREW J. BACEVICH | January 3, 2010

On the march to Baghdad, back when America's war on terror was young, a rising star in the United States military lobbed this enigmatic bon mot to an accommodating reporter: "Tell me how this ends." Thus did then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus in 2003 neatly frame the issue that still today haunts the U.S.-led effort to defeat violent anti-Western jihadism.

To know how something ends implies knowing where it's going. Yet eight years after it began, the war on terror is headed back to where it started. The prequel is the sequel, Afghanistan replacing Iraq as the once and now once again central front.

So are we making progress? Even as President Obama escalates the war in Afghanistan, that question hangs in the air, ignored by all. Rather than explaining how the struggle will end, the President merely affirms that it must continue, his eye fixed on pacifying a country of which his own secretary of state recently remarked "We have no long-term stake there."

How pacifying Afghanistan will bring us closer to the figurative Berlin or Tokyo that defines our ultimate objective is unclear. True, the 9/11 plot was hatched in Afghanistan, and we want to prevent any recurrence of that event. It's also true that Dallas was the site of our last presidential assassination. Yet no one thinks that posting Secret Service agents in the Texas School Book Depository holds the key to keeping our current President safe.

Then there is the Af-Pak argument - that U.S. military action in Afghanistan is necessary to ensuring the stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan. Selling Pakistanis on the logic of this argument poses a challenge, however, given that the eight-year Western military presence in Afghanistan corresponds to an eight-year period during which Pakistan has edged steadily closer to internal collapse.

In reality, the chief rationale for pouring more troops into Afghanistan derives from a determination to restore the credibility of American arms, badly tarnished in Iraq. Thanks to Petraeus' rediscovery of counterinsurgency doctrine, road-tested in Surge I, U.S. forces ostensibly won a belated but significant triumph. Surge II could show that Iraq was no fluke.

Military analysts who a decade ago were touting the wonders of precision-guided munitions now cite counterinsurgency as the new American way of war. Killing the enemy has become passé. Advanced thinking now assigns top priority to "securing the people," insulating them from violence and winning them over with good governance. Twenty-first century American military officers speak the language of 20th century social reformers, sounding less like George Patton and more like Jane Addams.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has declared his intention to remedy "the weakness of [Afghan political] institutions, the unpunished abuse of power by corrupt officials and powerbrokers, a widespread sense of political disenfranchisement and a longstanding lack of economic opportunity."

Undertaken in Louisiana or Illinois, this would qualify as an ambitious agenda. In Afghanistan, it qualifies as a tall order indeed.

But assume the best: If McChrystal replicates in Afghanistan the success that Petraeus achieved in Iraq - ignore, please, the government ministries imploding in Baghdad - where does that leave us?

To sustain public support, a protracted war needs a persuasive narrative. Americans after Dec. 7, 1941, didn't know when their war would end. But they took comfort in knowing where and how it was going to end: with enemy armies destroyed and enemy capitals occupied.

Americans today haven't a clue when, where or how their war will end. The Long War, as the Pentagon aptly calls it, has no coherent narrative. When it comes to defining victory, U.S. political and military leaders are flying blind.

Historically, the default strategy for wars that lack a plausible victory narrative is attrition. When you don't know how to win, you try to outlast your opponent, hoping he'll run out of troops, money and will before you do. Think World War I, but also Vietnam.

The revival of counterinsurgency doctrine, celebrated as evidence of enlightened military practice, commits America to a postmodern version of attrition. Rather than wearing the enemy down, we'll build contested countries up, while expending hundreds of billions of dollars (borrowed from abroad) and hundreds of soldiers' lives (sent from home).

How does this end? The verdict is already written: The Long War ends not in victory but in exhaustion and insolvency, when the United States runs out of troops and out of money.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He the author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.

This column originally ran in the New York Daily News.

Harpers : The war we can't win

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The war we can't win

By A.J. Bacevich | November, 2009

By Andrew J. Bacevich, in the August 15 issue of Commonweal. Bacevich is a professor of international relations at Boston University and the author, most recently, of The Limits of Power. He served as an officer in the U.S. Army from 1969 to 1992.

History deals rudely with the pretensions of those who presume to determine its course. In an American context, this describes the fate of those falling prey to the Wilsonian Conceit. Yet the damage done by that conceit outlives its perpetrators.

From time to time, in some moment of peril or anxiety, a statesman appears on the scene promising to eliminate tyranny, ensure the triumph of liberty, and achieve permanent peace. For a moment, the statesman achieves the status of prophet, one who in his own person seemingly embodies the essence of the American purpose. Then reality intrudes, exposing the promises as costly fantasies. The prophet’s followers abandon him. Mocked and reviled, he is eventually banished—perhaps to some gated community in Dallas.

However brief his ascendancy, the discredited prophet leaves behind a legacy. Most obvious are the problems created and left unresolved, commitments made and left unfulfilled, debts accrued and left unpaid. Less obvious, but for that reason more important, are the changes in perception. The prophet recasts our image of reality. Long after his departure, remnants of that image linger and retain their capacity to beguile: consider how the Wilsonian vision of the United States as crusader state called upon to redeem the world in World War I has periodically resurfaced despite Woodrow Wilson’s own manifest failure to make good on that expectation. The prophet declaims and departs. Yet traces of his testimony, however at odds with the facts, remain lodged in our consciousness.

So it is today with Afghanistan, the conflict that George W. Bush began, then ignored, and finally bequeathed to his successor. Barack Obama has embraced that conflict as “the war we must win.” Those who celebrated Bush’s militancy back in the intoxicating days when he was promising to rid the world of evil see Obama’s enthusiasm for pressing on in Afghanistan as a vindication of sorts. They are right to do so.

The misguided and mismanaged global war on terror reduced Bush’s presidency to ruin. The candidate whose run for high office derived its energy from an implicit promise to repudiate all that Bush had wrought now seems intent on salvaging something useful from that failed enterprise—even if that means putting his own presidency at risk. Candidate Obama once derided the notion that the United States is called upon to determine the fate of Iraq. President Obama expresses a willingness to expend untold billions—not to mention who knows how many lives—in order to determine the fate of Afghanistan. Liberals may have interpreted Obama’s campaign pledge to ramp up the U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan as calculated to insulate himself from the charge of being a national-security wimp. Events have exposed that interpretation as incorrect. It turns out—apparently—that the president genuinely views this remote, landlocked, primitive Central Asian country as a vital U.S. national-security interest.

What is it about Afghanistan, possessing next to nothing that the United States requires, that justifies such lavish attention? In Washington, this question goes not only unanswered but unasked. Among Democrats and Republicans alike, with few exceptions, Afghanistan’s importance is simply assumed—much the way fifty years ago otherwise intelligent people simply assumed that the United States had a vital interest in ensuring the -survival of South Vietnam. Today, as then, the assumption does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.

Tune in to the Sunday talk shows or consult the op-ed pages and you might conclude otherwise. Those who profess to be in the know insist that the fight in Afghanistan is essential to keeping America safe. The events of September 11, 2001, ostensibly occurred because we ignored Afghanistan. Preventing the recurrence of those events, therefore, requires that we fix the place. Yet this widely accepted line of reasoning overlooks the primary reason the 9/11 conspiracy succeeded: federal, state, and local agencies responsible for basic security fell down on the job, failing to install even minimally adequate security measures at the nation’s airports. The national-security apparatus wasn’t paying attention. Indeed, consumed with its ABC agenda—“anything but Clinton” were the Bush Administration’s watchwords in those days—it ignored or downplayed all sorts of warning signs, not least of all Osama bin Laden’s declaration of war against the United States. Averting a recurrence of that awful day does not require the semipermanent occupation and pacification of distant countries like Afghanistan. Rather, it requires that the United States erect and maintain robust defenses.

Fixing Afghanistan is not only unnecessary, it’s also likely to prove impossible. Not for nothing has the place acquired the nickname Graveyard of Empires. Americans, insistent that the dominion over which they preside does not meet the definition of empire, evince little interest in how the British, Russians, or others have fared in attempting to impose their will on the Afghans. As General David McKiernan, until recently the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, put it, “There’s always an inclination to relate what we’re doing now with previous nations,” adding, “I think that’s a very unhealthy comparison.” McKiernan was expressing a view common among the ranks of the political and military elite: We’re Americans. We’re different. Therefore, the experience of others does not apply.

Of course, Americans like McKiernan who reject as irrelevant the experience of others might at least be willing to contemplate the experience of the United States itself. Take the case of Iraq, now bizarrely trumpeted in some quarters as a “success” and even more bizarrely seen as offering a template for how to turn Afghanistan around. Much has been made of the United States Army’s rediscovery of (and growing infatuation with) counterinsurgency doctrine, applied in Iraq beginning in early 2007 when President Bush launched his so-called surge and anointed General David Petraeus as the senior U.S. commander in Baghdad. Yet technique is no substitute for strategy. Violence in Iraq may be down, but evidence of the promised political reconciliation that the surge was intended to produce remains elusive. America’s Mesopotamian misadventure continues. Pretending that the surge has redeemed the Iraq war is akin to claiming that when Andy Jackson “caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans” he thereby enabled the United States to emerge victorious from the War of 1812. Such a judgment works well as folklore but ignores an abundance of contrary evidence.

More than six years after it began, Operation Iraqi Freedom has consumed something like a trillion dollars—with the meter still running—and has taken the lives of more than 4,300 American soldiers. Meanwhile, in Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities, car bombs continue to detonate at regular intervals, killing and maiming dozens. Anyone inclined to put Iraq in the nation’s rearview mirror is simply deluded. Not long ago, General Raymond Odierno, Petraeus’s successor and the fifth U.S. commander in Baghdad, expressed the view that the insurgency in Iraq is likely to drag on for another five, ten, or fifteen years. Events may well show that Odierno is an optimist.

Given the embarrassing yet indisputable fact that this was an utterly needless war—no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction found, no ties between Saddam Hussein and the jihadists established, no democratic transformation of the Islamic world set in motion, no road to peace in Jerusalem discovered in downtown Baghdad—to describe Iraq as a success, and as a model for application elsewhere, is nothing short of obscene. The great unacknowledged lesson of Iraq is the one that Norman Mailer identified decades ago: “Fighting a war to fix something works about as good as going to a whorehouse to get rid of a clap.”

For those who, despite all this, still hanker to have a go at nation building, why start with Afghanistan? Why not first fix, say, Mexico? In terms of its importance to the United States, our southern neighbor—a major supplier of oil and drugs among other commodities deemed vital to the American way of life—outranks Afghanistan by several orders of magnitude.

If one believes that moral considerations rather than self-interest should inform foreign policy, Mexico still qualifies for priority attention. Consider the theft of California. Or consider more recently how the American appetite for illicit drugs and our lax gun laws have corroded Mexican institutions and produced an epidemic of violence afflicting ordinary Mexicans. Yet any politician calling for the commitment of 60,000 U.S. troops to Mexico to secure those interests or acquit those moral obligations would be laughed out of Washington—and rightly so. Any pundit proposing that the United States assume responsibility for eliminating the corruption endemic in Mexican politics while establishing in Mexico City effective mechanisms of governance would have his license to pontificate revoked. Anyone suggesting that the United States possesses the wisdom and the wherewithal to solve the problem of Mexican drug trafficking, to endow Mexico with competent security forces, and to reform the Mexican school system (while protecting the rights of Mexican women) would be dismissed as a lunatic. Meanwhile, those who promote such programs for Afghanistan, ignoring questions of cost and ignoring as well the corruption and ineffectiveness that pervade our own institutions, are treated like sages.

The contrast between Washington’s preoccupation with Afghanistan and its relative indifference to Mexico testifies to the distortion of U.S. national-security priorities adopted by George W. Bush in his post-9/11 prophetic mode—distortions now being endorsed by Bush’s successor. It also testifies to a vast failure of imagination to which our governing classes have succumbed. This failure of imagination makes it impossible for those who possess either authority or influence in Washington to consider the possibility (a) that the solution to America’s problems is to be found not out there—where “there” in this case is Central Asia—but here at home; (b) that the people out there, rather than requiring our ministrations, may well be capable of managing their own affairs, relying on their own methods; and (c) that to disregard (a) and (b) is to open the door to great mischief and in all likelihood to perpetrate no small amount of evil. Needless to say, when mischief or evil does occur—when a stray American bomb kills a few dozen Afghan civilians, for instance—the costs of this failure of imagination are not borne by the people who inhabit the leafy neighborhoods of northwest Washington, who lunch at the Palm or the Metropolitan Club and school their kids at Sidwell Friends.

So the answer to the question of the hour—What should the United States do about Afghanistan?—comes down to this: A sense of realism and a sense of proportion should oblige us to take a minimalist approach. As with Uruguay or Fiji or Estonia or other countries where U.S. interests are limited, the United States should undertake to secure those interests at the lowest cost possible.

What might this mean in practice? General Petraeus, now in charge of U.S. Central Command, recently commented that “the mission is to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a sanctuary for Al Qaeda and other transnational extremists,” in effect “to deny them safe havens in which they can plan and train for such attacks.” The mission statement is a sound one. The current approach to accomplishing the mission is not sound and, indeed, qualifies as counterproductive. Note that denying Al Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan hasn’t required U.S. forces to occupy the frontier regions of that country. Similarly, denying transnational extremists safe havens in Afghanistan shouldn’t require military occupation by the United States and its allies.

It would be much better to let local authorities do the heavy lifting. Provided appropriate incentives, the tribal chiefs who actually run Afghanistan are best positioned to prevent terrorist networks from establishing a large-scale presence. As a backup, intensive surveillance complemented with precision punitive strikes (assuming we can manage to kill the right people) will suffice to disrupt Al Qaeda’s plans. Certainly, that approach offers a cheaper and more efficient alternative to the establishment of a large-scale and long-term U.S. ground presence—which, as the U.S. campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated, has the unintended effect of handing jihadists a recruiting tool that they are quick to exploit.

In the aftermath of 9/11, all the talk—much of it emanating from neoconservative quarters—was about achieving a “decisive victory” over terror. The reality is that we can’t eliminate every last armed militant harboring a grudge against the West. Nor do we need to. As long as we maintain adequate defenses, Al Qaeda operatives, in their caves, pose no more than a modest threat. And unless the Taliban can establish enclaves in places like New Jersey or Miami, the danger they pose to the United States falls several notches below the threat posed by Cuba, which is no threat at all.

As for the putatively existential challenge posed by Islamic radicalism, that project will prove ultimately to be a self-defeating one. What violent Islamists have on offer—a rejection of modernity that aims to restore the caliphate and unify the ummah—doesn’t sell. In this regard, Iran—its nuclear aspirations the subject of much hand-wringing—offers considerable cause for hope. Much like the Castro revolution that once elicited so much angst in Washington, the Islamic revolution launched in 1979 has failed resoundingly. Observers once feared that the revolution inspired and led by the Ayatollah Khomeini would sweep across the Persian Gulf. In fact, it has accomplished precious little. Within Iran itself, the Islamic republic no longer represents the hopes and aspirations of the Iranian people, as the tens of thousands of protesters who recently filled the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities made evident. Here we see foretold the fate awaiting the revolutionary cause that Osama bin Laden purports to promote.

In short, time is on our side, not on the side of those who proclaim their intention of turning back the clock to the fifteenth century. The ethos of consumption and individual autonomy, privileging the here and now over the eternal, will conquer the Muslim world as surely as it is conquering East Asia and as surely as it has already conquered what was once known as Christendom. It’s the wreckage left in the wake of that conquest that demands our attention. If the United States today has a saving mission, it is to save itself. Speaking in the midst of another unnecessary war back in 1967, Martin Luther King got it exactly right: “Come home, America.” The prophet of that era urged his countrymen to take on “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.”

Dr. King’s list of evils may need a bit of tweaking—in our own day, the sins requiring expiation number more than three. Yet in his insistence that we first heal ourselves, King remains today the prophet we ignore at our peril. That Barack Obama should fail to realize this qualifies as not only ironic but inexplicable.

Common Dreams : Vietnam's Real Lessons

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Vietnam's Real Lessons

by Andrew J. Bacevich | August 26, 2007

Finding the debacle of the Vietnam War a rationale for sustaining the U.S. military presence in Iraq requires considerable imagination. If nothing else, President Bush's speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars earlier this week revealed a hitherto unsuspected capacity for creativity. Yet as an exercise in historical analysis, his remarks proved to be self-serving and selective.

For years, the Bush administration has rejected all comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam. Now the president cites Vietnam to bolster his insistence on "seeing the Iraqis through as they build their democracy." To do otherwise, he says, will invite a recurrence of the events that followed the fall of Saigon, when "millions of innocent citizens" were murdered, imprisoned or forced to flee.

The president views the abandonment of our Southeast Asian allies as a disgrace, deploring the fate suffered by the "boat people" and the victims of the Khmer Rouge. According to Bush, withdrawing from Iraq constitutes a comparable act of abandonment. Beyond that, the president finds little connection between Vietnam and Iraq. This is unfortunate. For that earlier war offers lessons of immediate relevance to the predicament we face today. As the balance of the president's VFW address makes clear, Bush remains oblivious to the history that actually matters.

Here are a few of the lessons that he overlooks.

In unconventional wars, body counts don't really count. In the Vietnam War, superior American firepower enabled U.S. forces to prevail in most tactical engagements. We killed plenty of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. But killing didn't produce victory -- the exertions of U.S. troops all too frequently proved to be counterproductive.

So too in Iraq -- although Bush insists on pretending otherwise. His speech had him sounding like President Lyndon Johnson, bragging that, in each month since January, U.S. troops in Iraq have "killed or captured an average of more than 1,500 Al Qaeda terrorists and other extremists." If Bush thinks that by racking up big body counts the so-called surge will reverse the course of the war, he is deceiving himself. The real question is not how many bad guys we are killing, but how many our continued presence in Iraq is creating.

There's no substitute for legitimacy. Wars like Vietnam and Iraq aren't won militarily; at best, they are settled politically. But political solutions imply the existence of legitimate political institutions, able to govern effectively and to command the loyalty of the population.

In the Republic of Vietnam, created by the United States after the partition of French Indochina, such institutions did not exist. Despite an enormous U.S. investment in nation-building, they never did. In the end, South Vietnam proved to be a fiction.

So too with Iraq, conjured up by the British after World War I out of remnants of the Ottoman Empire. As a courtesy, we might pretend that Iraq qualifies as a "nation-state," much as we pretend that members of Division I varsity football programs are "scholar-athletes." In fact, given its deep sectarian and tribal divisions, Iraq makes South Vietnam look good by comparison.

In his VFW presentation, Bush described Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki as "a good guy." Whether Maliki is a good guy or even a heckuva good guy is beside the point. The real question is whether he presides over a government capable of governing. Mounting evidence suggests that the answer to that question is no.

As a lens for strategic analysis, ideology distorts rather than clarifies. From Dwight D. Eisenhower through Richard M. Nixon, a parade of presidents convinced themselves that defending South Vietnam qualified as a vital U.S. interest. For the free world, a communist takeover of that country would imply an unacceptable defeat.

Yet when South Vietnam did fall, the strategic effect proved to be limited. The falling dominoes never did pose a threat to our shores for one simple reason: The communists of North Vietnam were less interested in promoting world revolution than in unifying their country under socialist rule. We deluded ourselves into thinking that we were defending freedom against totalitarianism. In fact, we had blundered into a civil war.

With regard to Iraq, Bush persists in making an analogous error. In his remarks to the VFW, the president described Iraq as an "ideological struggle." Our adversary there aims to crush "freedom, tolerance and dissent," he said, thereby "imposing this ideology across a vital region of the world." If we don't fight them "there," we will surely have to fight them "here."

Radical Islamists like Osama bin Laden do subscribe to a hateful ideology. But to imagine that Bin Laden and others of his ilk have the capability to control the Middle East, restoring the so-called Caliphate, is absurd, as silly as the vaunted domino theory of the 1950s and 1960s.

Politics, not ideology, will determine the future of the Middle East. That's good news and bad news. Good news because the interests and aspirations of Arabs and non-Arabs, Shiites and Sunnis, modernizers and traditionalists will combine to prevent any one faction from gaining the upper hand. Bad news because those same factors guarantee that the Middle East will remain an unstable mess for the foreseeable future.

Sometimes people can manage their own affairs. Does the U.S. need to attend to that mess? Perhaps not.

Here the experience of Vietnam following the U.S. defeat is instructive. Once the Americans departed, the Vietnamese began getting their act together. Although not a utopia, Vietnam has become a stable and increasingly prosperous nation. It is a responsible member of the international community. In Hanoi, the communists remain in power. From an American point of view, who cares?

Bush did not even allude to the condition of Vietnam today. Yet the question poses itself: Is it not possible that the people of the Middle East might be better qualified to determine their future than a cadre of American soldiers, spooks and do-gooders? The answer to that question just might be yes.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is a Vietnam War veteran.

© 2007 The Los Angeles Times

Boston Review : ‘Americans misperceive the world and their role in determining its evolution’

Monday, July 12, 2010

‘Americans misperceive the world and their role in determining its evolution’

Andrew J. Bacevich : December 28, 2009

This article is a response to Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.

Nir Rosen is rightly skeptical of the counterinsurgency campaign the United States seems hellbent on pursuing in Afghanistan. Yet the problems highlighted by U.S. military action in that unfortunate country go much further: Americans misperceive the world and their own role in determining its evolution.

The bedrock assumption to which all of official Washington adheres, liberal Democrats no less than conservative Republicans, is that the United States itself constitutes the axis around which history turns. We define the future. Our actions determine its course. The world needs, expects, and yearns for America to lead, thereby ensuring the ultimate triumph of liberty. For the United States to shrink from its responsibility to lead is, at the very least, to put at risk the precarious stability to which humanity clings and in all likelihood would open the door to unspeakable catastrophe. Alternatives to American leadership simply do not exist.

Reject these propositions and your chances of working in the White House, securing a cushy billet at some Washington think tank, or landing an invitation to pontificate on one of the Sunday-morning talk shows are reduced to just about zero.

This self-image, combining grandeur with insufferable smugness, both energizes and perverts U.S. foreign policy. It inspires American policymakers to undertake breathtakingly bold initiatives such as the Marshall Plan—Harry Truman setting out to rebuild a Europe laid prostrate by war. Yet it also inspires the likes of George W. Bush to pursue his Freedom Agenda—an expressed intent to transform the entire Islamic world, providing a rationale for open-ended “global war.”

The conviction that the United States is history’s prime mover also blinds Washington to forces that may well exercise a far greater impact on the course of events than do the actions of the United States itself.

During the Cold War, for example, U.S. policymakers viewed events through the lens of bipolarity. The world, they insisted, broke neatly into two camps divided by an iron curtain. In the 1950s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles declared that neutrality was immoral and impermissible. Governments had to choose: you either sided with the free world (led, of course, by the United States) or you aligned yourself with the communists.

This oversimplified with-us-or-against-us mentality made it difficult, if not impossible, for Dulles and other U.S. leaders to comprehend the eruption of third-world nationalism triggered by and feeding off of the collapse of the old European empires after World War II. In Washington “non-aligned” became a synonym for “fellow traveler.” Faced with expressions of self-determination that did not fit neatly into the prevailing East-West paradigm, U.S. officials assumed the worst and acted to enforce conformity to Western—i.e., American—requirements. This misperception—that self-professed nationalists in places such as Iran, Guatemala, and Vietnam were actually agents of the Kremlin—produced a penchant for U.S. intervention, both overt and covert, that yielded disastrous consequences, many of them still dogging us today.

Had U.S. officials accurately gauged the wellsprings of postcolonial nationalism, the United States might have demonstrated greater self-restraint when faced with third-world recalcitrance. The insistence that Egypt’s Nasser or Cuba’s Castro toe some line dictated from Washington turned out to be neither necessary nor productive.

Yet appreciating the new nationalism might also have offered Washington an insight into the profound internal weakness of the multinational, multiethnic Soviet Empire. Poles, Afghans, and Chinese had no interest in taking their marching orders from Moscow. Nor, as events would show, did Ukrainians, Georgians, and Kazakhs. The post-1945 Soviet Empire was as obsolete as the empires of Great Britain and France. Its collapse was a bit longer in coming, but was equally foreordained.

A similar misperception afflicts U.S. policy today. In the wake of 9/11, a with-us-or-against-us mentality once again swept Washington. “Terrorism” assumed the place of communism as the great evil that the United States was called upon to extirpate. This effort triggered a revival of interventionism, pursued heedless of cost and regardless of consequences, whether practical or moral.

In the Pentagon, they call this the Long War. With his decision to escalate the U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan, President Barack Obama—effectively abandoning his promise to “change the way Washington works”—has signaled his administration’s commitment to the Long War.

Yet, as with the Cold War, the Long War rests on a false premise. To divide the world into two camps today makes no more sense than it did in Dulles’s time. Rather than creating clarity, indulging in this sort of oversimplification sows confusion and encourages miscalculation. It allows Americans to avert their eyes from the gathering forces—largely beyond the control of the United States—that are actually reshaping the international order. Sending U.S. troops to fight in Afghanistan sustains the pretense that we ourselves, exercising the prerogatives of global leadership, are somehow shaping that order.

Violent anti-Western jihadism—a cause that has about as much prospect of conquering the planet as Soviet-style communism—is not going to define the 21st century. Far more likely to do so is the transfer of power—first economic, then political—from the West to the East, from the Atlantic basin to the heartland of Asia. In that regard, the tens of thousands of U.S. troops shipped to Afghanistan matter less than the hundreds of billions of American dollars shipped each year to China.

Complicating this transfer of power and creating conditions from which a new era of violent conflict may emerge is the challenge of dealing with the detritus created during the age of Western dominance now ending: weapons of mass destruction; vast disparities of wealth; the depletion of essential natural resources; massive and potentially irreversible environmental devastation; and a culture ravaged by the pursuit of “freedom” defined in terms of conspicuous consumption and unbridled individual autonomy.

The Long War that President Bush began and that President Obama has now made his own provides an excuse for Americans to avoid confronting these larger matters. A policy of avoidance will not make the problems go away, of course. It will merely advance the day of reckoning that awaits.

WaPo : Endless war, a recipe for four-star arrogance

Monday, July 12, 2010

Endless war, a recipe for four-star arrogance

By Andrew J. Bacevich | June 27, 2010

Long wars are antithetical to democracy. Protracted conflict introduces toxins that inexorably corrode the values of popular government. Not least among those values is a code of military conduct that honors the principle of civilian control while keeping the officer corps free from the taint of politics. Events of the past week -- notably the Rolling Stone profile that led to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's dismissal -- hint at the toll that nearly a decade of continuous conflict has exacted on the U.S. armed forces. The fate of any one general qualifies as small beer: Wearing four stars does not signify indispensability. But indications that the military's professional ethic is eroding, evident in the disrespect for senior civilians expressed by McChrystal and his inner circle, should set off alarms.

Earlier generations of American leaders, military as well as civilian, instinctively understood the danger posed by long wars. "A democracy cannot fight a Seven Years War," Gen. George C. Marshall once remarked. The people who provided the lifeblood of the citizen army raised to wage World War II had plenty of determination but limited patience. They wanted victory won and normalcy restored.

The wisdom of Marshall's axiom soon became clear. In Vietnam, Lyndon B. Johnson plunged the United States into what became its Seven Years War. The citizen army that was sent to Southeast Asia fought valiantly for a time and then fell to pieces. As the conflict dragged on, Americans in large numbers turned against the war -- and also against the troops who fought it.

After Vietnam, the United States abandoned its citizen army tradition, oblivious to the consequences. In its place, it opted for what the Founders once called a "standing army" -- a force consisting of long-serving career professionals.

For a time, the creation of this so-called all-volunteer force, only tenuously linked to American society, appeared to be a master stroke. Washington got superbly trained soldiers and Republicans and Democrats took turns putting them to work. The result, once the Cold War ended, was greater willingness to intervene abroad. As Americans followed news reports of U.S. troops going into action everywhere from the Persian Gulf to the Balkans, from the Caribbean to the Horn of Africa, they found little to complain about: The costs appeared negligible. Their role was simply to cheer.

This happy arrangement now shows signs of unraveling, a victim of what the Pentagon has all too appropriately been calling its Long War.

The Long War is not America's war. It belongs exclusively to "the troops," lashed to a treadmill that finds soldiers and Marines either serving in a combat zone or preparing to deploy.

To be an American soldier today is to serve a people who find nothing amiss in the prospect of armed conflict without end. Once begun, wars continue, persisting regardless of whether they receive public support. President Obama's insistence to the contrary notwithstanding, this nation is not even remotely "at" war. In explaining his decision to change commanders without changing course in Afghanistan, the president offered this rhetorical flourish: "Americans don't flinch in the face of difficult truths." In fact, when it comes to war, the American people avert their eyes from difficult truths. Largely unaffected by events in Afghanistan and Iraq and preoccupied with problems much closer to home, they have demonstrated a fine ability to tune out war. Soldiers (and their families) are left holding the bag.

Throughout history, circumstances such as these have bred praetorianism, warriors becoming enamored with their moral superiority and impatient with the failings of those they are charged to defend. The smug disdain for high-ranking civilians casually expressed by McChrystal and his chief lieutenants -- along with the conviction that "Team America," as these officers style themselves, was bravely holding out against a sea of stupidity and corruption -- suggests that the officer corps of the United States is not immune to this affliction.

To imagine that replacing McChrystal with Gen. David H. Petraeus will fix the problem is wishful thinking. To put it mildly, Petraeus is no simple soldier. He is a highly skilled political operator, whose name appears on Republican wish lists as a potential presidential candidate in 2012. Far more significant, the views cultivated within Team America are shared elsewhere.

The day the McChrystal story broke, an active-duty soldier who has served multiple combat tours offered me his perspective on the unfolding spectacle. The dismissive attitude expressed by Team America, he wrote, "has really become a pandemic in the Army." Among his peers, a belief that "it is OK to condescend to civilian leaders" has become common, ranking officers permitting or even endorsing "a culture of contempt" for those not in uniform. Once the previously forbidden becomes acceptable, it soon becomes the norm.

"Pretty soon you have an entire organization believing that their leader is the 'Savior' and that everyone else is stupid and incompetent, or not committed to victory." In this soldier's view, things are likely to get worse before they get better. "Senior officers who condone this kind of behavior and allow this to continue and fester," he concluded, "create generation after generation of officers like themselves -- but they're generally so arrogant that they think everyone needs to be just like them anyway."

By itself, Team America poses no threat to the constitutional order. Gen. McChrystal is not Gen. MacArthur. When presenting himself at the White House on Wednesday, McChrystal arrived not as a man on horseback but as a supplicant, hat (and resignation) in hand. Still, even with his departure, it would be a mistake to consider the matter closed.

During Vietnam, the United States military cracked from the bottom up. The damage took decades to repair. In the seemingly endless wars of the post-Sept. 11 era, a military that has demonstrated remarkable durability now shows signs of coming undone at the top. The officer corps is losing its bearings.

Americans might do well to contemplate a famous warning issued by another frustrated commander from a much earlier age.

"We had been told, on leaving our native soil," wrote the centurion Marcus Flavius to a cousin back in Rome, "that we were going to defend the sacred rights conferred on us by so many of our citizens [and to aid] populations in need of our assistance and our civilization." For such a cause, he and his comrades had willingly offered to "shed our quota of blood, to sacrifice our youth and our hopes." Yet the news from the homeland was disconcerting: The capital was seemingly rife with factions, treachery and petty politics. "Make haste," Marcus Flavius continued, "and tell me that our fellow citizens understand us, support us and protect us as we ourselves are protecting the glory of the empire."

"If it should be otherwise, if we should have to leave our bleached bones on these desert sands in vain, then beware of the anger of the legions!"

Stanley McChrystal is no Marcus Flavius, lacking the Roman's eloquence, among other things. Yet in ending his military career on such an ignominious note, he has, however clumsily, issued a warning that deserves our attention.

The responsibility facing the American people is clear. They need to reclaim ownership of their army. They need to give their soldiers respite, by insisting that Washington abandon its de facto policy of perpetual war. Or, alternatively, the United States should become a nation truly "at" war, with all that implies in terms of civic obligation, fiscal policies and domestic priorities. Should the people choose neither course -- and thereby subject their troops to continuing abuse -- the damage to the army and to American democracy will be severe.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His book "Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War" will be published in August.

TNR : Non-Believer

Monday, July 12, 2010


Andrew Bacevich | July 7, 2010

As a candidate for president, George W. Bush famously promised to pursue a “humble” foreign policy. The events of 9/11—for Bush akin to a conversion experience—swept humility by the board. The 43rd president found his true calling: Providence was summoning him to purge the world of evil.

When it came to fulfilling this mission, Bush’s subsequent efforts yielded precious little. Recklessness compounded by profound incompetence became the hallmark of his administration. Yet of this there can be no doubt: Until the day he left office, Bush himself remained certain that his intentions were pure and the nation’s cause righteous. In particular, he believed, and believed deeply, in the Iraq war.

Bush’s Freedom Agenda ended in abject failure—no liberalizing tide has swept the Islamic world. The promised Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the evidence linking Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda never materialized. Implementing the heinous Bush Doctrine of preventive war in Iraq yielded an insurgency that sent millions fleeing to squalid refugee camps. As a direct result, thousands of American soldiers were killed and many thousands more maimed or otherwise deeply scarred.

Despite all of this and more, George W. Bush never wavered. He remained resolute, his conscience clear. He knew he was doing God’s work. He was—and no doubt remains today—a true believer. The 43d president was a well-intentioned fool, who inflicted grievous harm on his country. Yet when Bush stands before his Maker (or the bar of History), he will say without fear of contradiction: “I did what I thought was right.”

Barack Obama is anything but a fool. Yet when called upon to account for his presidency, honesty will prevent him from making a comparable claim. “The problems I inherited were difficult ones,” he will say. “None of the choices were good ones. Things were complicated.”

The Afghanistan war forms part of that complicated inheritance where good choices are hard to come by. Much as Iraq was Bush’s war, Afghanistan has become Obama’s war. Yet the president clearly wants nothing more than to rid himself of his war. Obama has prolonged and escalated a conflict in which he himself manifestly does not believe. When after months of deliberation (or delay) he unveiled his Afghan “surge” in December 2009, the presidential trumpet blew charge and recall simultaneously. Even as Obama ordered more troops into combat, he announced their planned withdrawal “because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own.”

The Americans who elected Obama president share that view. Yet the expectations of change that vaulted him to the presidency went well beyond the issue of priorities. Obama’s supporters were counting on him to bring to the White House an enlightened moral sensibility: He would govern differently not only because he was smarter than his predecessor but because he responded to a different—and truer—inner compass.

Events have demolished such expectations. Today, when they look at Washington, Americans see a cool, dispassionate, calculating president whose administration lacks a moral core. For prosecution exhibit number one, we need look no further than the meandering course of Obama’s war, its casualties and costs mounting without discernible purpose.

Obama doesn’t want to be in Afghanistan any more than Benjamin Netanyahu wants to be in the West Bank. Yet like the Israeli prime minister, the president lacks the guts to get out. It’s all so complicated. There are risks involved. Things might go wrong. There’s an election to think about.

So the war continues. Sustaining some artfully updated version of the status quo becomes the easier (or more expedient) course. Thus does a would-be messiah promising salvation and renewal succumb to the imperatives of “politics”—with young soldiers and their families left to bear the consequences.

The question demands to be asked: Who is more deserving of contempt? The commander-in-chief who sends young Americans to die for a cause, however misguided, in which he sincerely believes? Or the commander-in-chief who sends young Americans to die for a cause in which he manifestly does not believe and yet refuses to forsake?

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (2010), The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008), and The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005), among other books.