"We Will Prevail": Three Words, Three American Presidents & An Endless War in Iraq

StoryApril 08, 2016
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Andrew Bacevich

historian and author of the new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. He is professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University.

On Tuesday, President Obama announced he’s exploring ways to scale up the battle against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He said, "This will continue to be a difficult fight, but I’m absolutely confident that ISIL will lose. We will prevail." Those same three words, "We will prevail," were said 10 years ago by President George W. Bush and by Bush’s father 25 years ago about their own wars in Iraq. When will the seemingly never-ending U.S. wars in the Middle East end? We speak to retired Army colonel and military historian Andrew Bacevich, author "America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History."

NEXTAndrew Bacevich: America's War for the Greater Middle East Cannot Be Won
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Secretary of State John Kerry flew into Baghdad today on a surprise visit amid increasing protests over government corruption. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has vowed to replace most of his Cabinet following weeks of demonstrations. This comes amidst an ongoing airstrike campaign backing the Iraq military’s attempts to retake control of Mosul from ISIL militants. Kerry just met with the Iraqi prime minister.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Mr. Minister, I’m happy to visit with you again. This is obviously a very critical time here in Iraq and in the region. And you and I have been working on a lot of different issues in the last few years. So, it’s good to come and be able to visit.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, President Obama announced he’s exploring new ways to scale up the battle against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re working to make sure that we’re accelerating the campaign against ISIL in Syria, in Iraq. ISIL continues to lose ground. Coalition forces recently severed the main highway between ISIL strongholds in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul in Iraq, and we continue to take on their leadership, their financial networks, their infrastructure. We are going to squeeze them, and we will defeat them. But as we’ve seen from Turkey to Belgium, ISIL still has the ability to launch serious terrorist attacks. One of my main messages today is that destroying ISIL continues to be my top priority. ... This will continue to be a difficult fight, but I’m absolutely confident that ISIL will lose, we will prevail.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: "We will prevail." Those were the words of President Obama on Tuesday. Nearly a decade ago, in December 2006, President George W. Bush said those same three words in another address on the fight in Iraq.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I also believe we’re going to succeed. I believe we’ll prevail. Not only do I know how important it is to prevail, I believe we will prevail. I understand how hard it is to prevail. But I also want the American people to understand that if we were to fail—and one way to assure failure is just to quit, is not to adjust and say, "It’s just not worth it." If we were to fail, that failed policy will come to hurt generations of Americans in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: "We will prevail." That was George W. Bush in 2006. His father, President George H.W. Bush, used the same phrase 25 years ago, January 1991, when he announced the U.S. had begun attacking Iraq to begin what became known as the Persian Gulf War.

PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH: And even as planes of the multinational forces attack Iraq, I prefer to think of peace, not war. I am convinced not only that we will prevail, but that out of the horror of combat will come the recognition that no nation can stand against a world united.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: "We will prevail," three words said by three presidents, all addressing U.S. wars in Iraq dating back a quarter-century. The seemingly never-ending U.S. war in the Middle East is the subject of a new book by retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich titled America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. In the book, Bacevich argues the Untied States has been involved in gigantic failed war with the Middle East since the 1980s that continues today with no end in sight.

AMY GOODMAN: In this new book, Andrew Bacevich writes, quote, "As an American who cares deeply about the fate of his country, I should state plainly my own assessment of this ongoing war, now well into its fourth decade. We have not won it. We are not winning it. Simply trying harder is unlikely to produce a different outcome." Andrew Bacevich is professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University, also author of several other books, including Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. His son was killed in action in Iraq in 2007.

Professor Bacevich, welcome back to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us.


AMY GOODMAN: "We will prevail"—George H.W. Bush. "We will prevail"—his son, George W. Bush. "We will prevail"—President Obama. Have we prevailed in any way?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, we haven’t. And I have to say, those are exquisitely chosen clips, because they really do illustrate what’s the point of my book. And that is that we have been engaged militarily in the Greater Middle East, large parts of the Islamic world, for going on four decades. We’ve engaged in innumerable interventions—large, small, brief, protracted—and we have yet to come anywhere close to achieving our aims. Whether we define our aims as restoring stability or promoting democracy or reducing the prevalence of anti-Americanism, it’s not happening. And arguably, our military efforts are actually making things worse.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, interestingly, as you point out, before 1980, virtually no American soldier had ever been killed in any kind of military action in that part of the world. And since 1980, very few have been killed who were not in that part of the world. This shift that occurred, from the Middle East being largely an area of influence or control by the European colonial powers to the United States exercising such a huge role, how did that happen?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, we Americans have forgotten, but prior to the beginning of the Cold War, the United States was not a great military power. We raised forces from time to time to deal with some particular issue, but it was in the wake of the Cold War that we, as a nation, decided on a permanent basis to maintain a large military establishment. For the first several decades of that Cold War, the United States had two priorities. We were willing to fight for Western Europe. We were willing to fight—did fight—in East Asia. We were not willing to fight for the Middle East. That changes in 1980, specifically a particular moment in January of 1980, when President Jimmy Carter, in his State of the Union address, promulgates what’s known as the Carter Doctrine.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I think we actually have a clip on that. We’d like to go to that now. This is Jimmy Carter, January 23rd, 1980, delivering the State of the Union address you mention and laying out what would later become known as the Carter Doctrine.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Let our position be absolutely clear. An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The importance of what happened after that enunciation of the Carter Doctrine?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, one of the things to appreciate, I think, is that Carter himself had no understanding of the implications that would flow from that statement. What happens, on an immediate basis, is that the national security bureaucracy now redefines its priorities and begins to orient itself toward the possibility of armed intervention by U.S. forces in the region. And over the course of the next 10 years, that process begins: Reagan sending peacekeepers into Lebanon, the initial jousting with Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, support for Saddam Hussein, of all people, in what I refer to as the first Gulf War—that’s the Gulf War of 1980 to ’88, pitting Iraq against Iran, with the United States coming to the aid of Iraq. So, Carter starts the process of militarizing U.S. policy, which, over time, deepens, becomes more frequent, becomes more ambitious and becomes more costly, bringing us to where we are today in 2016, where we continue to hear these speeches by presidents who insisting—insisting that we will prevail, when obviously we have not.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your book has sort of the epic scope of pulling everything together, that, for instance, Yergin’s book, The Prize, has, in terms of focusing in on the importance of oil in all this. Could you talk about that, as well?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, the war for the Greater Middle East did begin as a war for oil. I mean , the proximate trigger of Carter’s speech was the Iranian revolution, which had produced a second oil shock of the 1970s, combined with the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, which in Washington raised fears that—I mean, they were bizarre notions, but raised fears that the Soviets were going to march across Iran and attack Saudi Arabia. So, at a time when we were increasingly dependent upon foreign oil, to include oil from the Persian Gulf, yes, we decided to fight for the region.

But I argue that there really was much more at stake than simply access to oil, that in the context of the times, the war for the Greater Middle East really becomes an effort to refute the notion that the United States is a country that has to take—to accept limits, to affirm the claim of American exceptionalism, of our uniqueness, of our special status in history and in the world at large.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to September 18th, 2001, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld holding a Pentagon briefing where he tells reporters how war against terrorist targets would differ from conventional war. This is an excerpt.

DEFENSE SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD: We have a choice: either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way that they live. And we have—we chose the latter. We intend to put them on the defensive, to disrupt terrorist networks and remove their sanctuaries and their support systems. This requires a distinctly different approach from any war that we have fought before.

AMY GOODMAN: So, assess what he said, and go back to what you referenced at the beginning. You’re saying our presence in Iraq right now in the Middle East is worsening the situation.

ANDREW BACEVICH: There’s no question about it. That’s a—that is a wonderful clip. I think that is, in a sense, the most important, the most telling, the most instructive quote from a U.S. government official to understand the path that we have followed. Now, prior to 9/11, I don’t believe that presidents and policymakers actually had a clear understanding of what they wanted to do in the Greater Middle East. They somehow assumed that the presence of U.S. forces or introduction of U.S. forces would have some kind of a positive effect. It’s after 9/11 that Rumsfeld, and those around him—the president, Cheney, Wolfowitz—embarked upon this massively ambitious strategy to change the way they live. You’ll notice that he really doesn’t specify who "they" are. I think, by implication, "they" are large numbers of inhabitants of the Islamic world. We’re going to change the way they live, to make them live the way we live, with the expectation that therefore they will no longer pose a threat. Informing that ambition, of course, is an estimate of American military capacity that assumes that we cannot be defeated, or, more to the point, that we can—that we can and will prevail militarily. That’s the thinking that, of course, then informs the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, and then we’re going to come back to this discussion with retired colonel, Vietnam War veteran, professor Andrew Bacevich. His latest book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. Stay with us.

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Andrew Bacevich: America's War for the Greater Middle East Cannot Be Won

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