Andrew Bacevich: Election Pits Hawkish Clinton vs. Ill-Prepared, "Strategically Illiterate" Trump

October 05, 2016


Andrew Bacevich

retired colonel and Vietnam War veteran. His latest book is America’s War for the Greater Middle East.

Katherine Franke

Columbia University law professor who directs the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. She’s also the author of the book Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Equality.

Vice-presidential candidates Virginia Senator Tim Kaine and Indiana Governor Mike Pence squared off Tuesday night in the only vice-presidential debate. Ahead of the debate, Democracy Now! hosted a roundtable with a number of guests, including Columbia University law professor Katherine Franke, who chairs the board of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and historian Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel and Vietnam War veteran. His latest book is "America’s War for the Greater Middle East."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Prior to last night’s debate, Democracy Now!'s Nermeen Shaikh and I hosted a roundtable with a number of guests, including Columbia University law professor Katherine Franke, who chairs the board of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and historian Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel and Vietnam War vet, his latest book, _America's War for the [Greater] Middle East_. Nermeen began by asking Professor Bacevich about the recent presidential town hall hosted by NBC’s Matt Lauer on the Hudson here in New York.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You, last month, attended the Commander-in-Chief Forum, which took place on the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier. Could you tell us what happened at that forum and what that tells you about the way in which foreign policy and national security issues are being talked about in this campaign season?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, it was a—it was a great missed opportunity, because the moderated interviews, first with Hillary Clinton and then with Donald Trump, basically were a waste of time. The candidates were never asked the sorts of questions that Americans need to hear about with regard to national security. So, for example, there was no discussion of President Obama’s planned trillion-dollar modernization of our nuclear arsenal, whether or not that’s a good idea, bad idea, necessary, inflammatory. There was no discussion about what we might learn from our post-9/11 wars in the greater Middle East, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan, but not limited to those two. Those wars have obviously been unsuccessful. What should we learn from them? And how would those lessons apply to either a Trump administration or a Clinton administration going forward? So, again, I think it was a—really, a terrible missed opportunity.

AMY GOODMAN: One thing that wasn’t commented on—this was an NBC forum, Matt Lauer was the moderator—was even that this discussion about foreign policy took place on a warship, you know, in the New York Harbor. I mean, even for the military and veterans, isn’t the military the last resort, really the failure of civilization not to be able to resolve its problems? But to hold it on the Intrepid, your thoughts on this, Professor Bacevich?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, you’re making a very good point. And, of course, our politicians do ritually talk about the military being a last resort, but any examination of U.S. policy, not simply since the end of the Cold War—or, since the end of—since 9/11, but, I think, more broadly, since the end of the Cold War, would suggest otherwise, that the military has become the preferred option as far as American statecraft is concerned. Why? Because of expectations in Washington, shared by both parties, shared by both of these two presidential candidates, that, somehow or other, military power offers the most effective way to achieve our purposes.

And this notion persists despite the accumulation of evidence that suggests otherwise. I mean, the evidence suggests that the American reliance on American military power has been enormously costly, both in terms of lives lost, lives shattered, dollars wasted, with very little to show in terms of positive results. But it’s—I think it’s really tragic and a judgment on our politics that these—these accumulating military failures simply don’t get the kind of scrutiny that they deserve, even here—even here in the middle of a presidential election.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Professor Bacevich, you mentioned earlier that there was no discussion of nuclear issues at that forum on the USS Intrepid. But you’ve also written a piece on the first presidential debate and the failure of both Trump and Clinton to respond to a very specific question that the moderator, Lester Holt, addressed to them about the long-standing U.S. policy on first use. So, can you say exactly what happened when that question was posed last week?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yeah, sure. So, this is—this is Lester Holt, who moderated in the first direct debate between the two candidates. And he asked a question that basically said the following: President Obama has been considering a change to the U.S. policy on nuclear first use; do you agree with the current policy? And this gets into a little bit of nuclear theology, because first use has a very specific meaning in that context. And what it means is that the United States, for decades now, has adhered to a policy that basically says we will not restrict our use of nuclear weapons to responding to a nuclear weapons attack. That restriction is called no first use. It will only use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear weapons attack.

So, Obama supposedly thought about changing this policy, decided not to. Lester Holt wanted to know what the two candidates thought. He asked Trump first, and Trump’s meandering answer basically suggested that he, Trump, had no idea about what the phrase "first use" means. That’s troubling. When the question then was tossed to Secretary Clinton, she basically changed the subject. She avoided any discussion of U.S. nuclear policy and U.S. nuclear strategy. And again, to me, this—their failure to address Lester Holt’s question in a serious way robbed the American people of an opportunity to reflect on one of these core issues related to U.S. nuclear strategy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, can you also outline—you’ve explicitly stated some of your concerns about Trump’s foreign policy positions, to the extent that you can identify any consistency on them, in particular, on Iraq and his comments about how the U.S. should have taken the oil, etc., and also Clinton’s foreign policy, her tenure as secretary of state, her position on Libya, her subsequent defense of her position on Libya, and what that might indicate about the position she’s likely to take, if she becomes president, on Syria, on ISIS, etc.?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think, frankly, it’s impossible for us to gauge what a Trump foreign policy would look like. He is, by and large, uninformed. He’s strategically illiterate. He knows as much about national security policy as I know about running a business. And what I know about running a business is next to nothing.

And the problem, I think—one of the problems with our—with the media coverage of the campaign, the way the mainstream media has covered it, is that the appalling prospect of a Trump presidency has caused the campaign to be about Trump, the imperative of revealing simply how ill-prepared he is for the office, of revealing how uncouth he is, his sketchy relationship with truth, and therefore the discussion of the campaign hasn’t really admitted any debate, serious debate, over what—over the national security issues that we really do confront.

As for Secretary Clinton, it seems to me she is very much a mainstream, hawkish, liberal internationalist. The most significant aspect of her tenure as secretary of state, in my judgment, is certainly not the Benghazi episode, but was her support for the intervention in Libya to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, which succeeded in doing that and basically turned Libya into a failed state that was not—then became subject to a new jihadist franchise. Her record very much deserves close examination. My own sense is that if she becomes president—and I expect that she will become president—is that we will find very little change in the trajectory of U.S. policy, in the excessive militarization of U.S. policy. I see very little indication that she has the sort of creative intellect that will lead her to ask serious questions about that trajectory. And we’re going to get more of the same, and more of the same is not good enough.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, very quickly, before we wrap, Professor Bacevich, could you just outline some of the questions—you were critical of the mainstream media—the questions that you think the candidates should have been asked on foreign policy? You mentioned a couple on nuclear issues. What about the others?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think—I think one question is—has to do with the—what is the authorization, what is the authority, under which the president continues to conduct our wars in the greater Middle East, specifically the new war in Iraq against ISIS and U.S. involvement in the civil war in Syria? Nominally, the authorization is the document that was passed by the Congress in the immediate wake of 9/11. That document said that the president was authorized to go after parties that perpetrated 9/11. Obviously, the Assad regime didn’t perpetrate 9/11. ISIS didn’t perpetrate 9/11. It didn’t exist at the time. So I think we really ought to have a serious discussion over who says that we should be at war and why doesn’t the Congress exercise any serious voice in that regard, as the Constitution of the United States calls for. That would be one very important question, I think, that deserves to be at the forefront of this discussion.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of Syria—I wanted to bring Katherine Franke into this discussion. And this goes to the vice-presidential candidates, particularly to what’s happening in Indiana. And then I wanted to get Professor Bacevich’s response to this. Syrian refugees and what’s taking place now, the effects of what’s taking place, the horror, the catastrophe of Syria today, and what the U.S. is doing about it?

KATHERINE FRANKE: Well, in particular, what Mike Pence has done about it is, as governor of the state of Indiana, he has issued a ruling saying that he will not allow any Syrians to be placed in the state of Indiana—with federal money, I would say. So, the states receive substantial grants from the federal government to aid in the resettlement of refugees, including Syrians. And the president has said that we will bring in a great number of Syrians.

This policy was challenged by a resettlement group in Indiana that works with, among other people, Syrians. And a judge, a local judge in—a federal court judge in Indiana enjoined the policy, saying that this was unfair and discriminatory. And just yesterday, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals—not a liberal circuit, by any means, and all three of those judges very conservative—Judge Posner, Judge Easterbrook and Diane Sykes, who is, by the way, on Donald Trump’s list of possible Supreme Court nominees—found—upheld the lower court’s injunction and said that this is absolutely discriminatory to say that we will not admit into our state people from one national origin or from one country on the absolutely fabricated claim that they would be terrorists.

And one of the things that, if I can read for a second what Judge Posner said, which was just so spot on, is that the argument made by Mike Pence’s lawyers is the equivalent of saying "that he wants to forbid black people to settle in Indiana not because they’re black but because he’s afraid of them, and since race is therefore not his motive he isn’t discriminating." That’s essentially what Mike Pence is saying: "I don’t hate Syrians. I’m just afraid of them." So, a three-judge panel has overturned that ruling, and Syrians can now be settled in Indiana.

AMY GOODMAN: At the same time, Texas officially withdrew from the refugee resettlement program, isn’t that right, Governor Abbott?

KATHERINE FRANKE: Well, they can withdraw altogether, and the state cannot facilitate the resettlement of people. But the local resettlement groups, the private groups that do this, can apply for federal money and basically go around the states that are obstructing this settlement. But Indiana took the money from the federal government and then said, "But we’re afraid and are prepared to discriminate against Syrians."

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back, before we say goodbye to Professor Bacevich, to the comments of Donald Trump about veterans struggling with PTSD. He was asked about the issue during an event with veterans in Herndon, Virginia. And this is just getting some attention now.

VETERAN: When you become president, will you support and fund a more—more holistic approach to solve the problems and issues of veteran suicide, PTSD, TBI and other related military mental and behavioral health issues? And will you take steps to restore the historic role of our chaplains and the importance of spiritual fitness and spiritual resiliency programs?

DONALD TRUMP: Yes, I would. Look, we need that so badly. And when you—when you talk about the mental health problems, when people come back from war and combat, and they see things that maybe a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over, and you’re strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can’t handle it.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, your response to Donald Trump?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, he never misses a chance to shoot himself in the foot. And once again, clearly, he’s rendering a judgment about a subject that he really knows nothing about. I am not an expert in combat fatigue, in PTSD. But my general understanding is that each of us, as individuals, has a certain capacity to absorb stress, and that once, as individuals, that capacity is expended, is used up, that we are, as individuals, susceptible then to PTSD-like symptoms. But this is not a matter of a judgment of character, of strength or weakness. So he was totally out of line. And, you know, it’s certainly not the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time, that he says something that is so remarkably stupid.

AMY GOODMAN: And on the issue of refugees, we see right now in France they’re trying to dismantle the—what’s called "The Jungle," where thousands of refugees from throughout the Middle East come to try to get in to make their way into Britain. Democracy Now! was there just in December. And the desperation of people from Afghanistan, from Somalia, from Iraq, from Syria—a map of the U.S. bombing targets. It is just astounding to see this massive crisis of refugees that we haven’t seen since World War II. What is our responsibility? And what do you want to hear the candidates, both tonight with both Pence and Kaine, and also the—of course, the presidential candidates, Clinton and Trump?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, I would certainly never defend Governor Pence’s policy, which I would view as utterly reprehensible. I’m not sure that I would agree that the Obama administration has covered itself with glory here. If I’m not mistaken, the president had promised to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees, and we just now reached that goal. He promises to admit more. But 10,000 is a drop in the bucket.

To the extent that we have a moral responsibility—and I believe we do, because of the contribution we have made to creating the mess that is the Middle East today—then it seems to me that the example of Angela Merkel is one that we should reflect upon. Germany has admitted a million refugees. A smaller country with a smaller population has admitted a vastly larger number of refugees. Maybe a million isn’t the right number, but the current administration and we, collectively, the American people, could do far, far more than we have done up to this point.

AMY GOODMAN: Historian Andrew Bacevich. His son, Andrew Bacevich Jr., was an Army officer who died in Iraq in 2007. We also spoke to Columbia University law professor Katherine Franke. She’s chair of the board of the Center for Constitutional Rights. To watch our full "Expanding the Debate" special, go to Special thanks to Mike Burke, to Sam Alcoff, to Charina Nadura and Andre Lewis.

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