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The Limits of Power: Andrew Bacevich on the End of American Exceptionalism

StoryAugust 20, 2008
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Andrew Bacevich is a conservative historian who spent twenty-three years serving in the US Army. He also lost his son in Iraq last year. In a new book titled The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Bacevich argues that although many in this country are paying a heavy price for US domestic and foreign policy decisions, millions of Americans simply continue to shop, spend and satisfy their appetite for cheap oil, credit and the promise of freedom at home. Bacevich writes, “As the American appetite for freedom has grown, so too has our penchant for empire.” [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Our next guest is Andrew Bacevich. He’s a conservative historian. He spent twenty-three years serving in the US Army. He also lost his son in Iraq. Andrew Bacevich writes, “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.”

Andrew Bacevich holds both parties accountable for the Iraq war. As he writes, “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.” Bacevich goes on to write, “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.”

Andrew Bacevich has just published a new book. It’s called The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. He joins me here in the firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Bacevich.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you very much for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: How hard was it to write this book after your son’s death? This is not theoretical for you.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I try not to talk about my son’s death, because it’s a private matter, and to tell you the truth, I don’t want to do anything that even looks like it might be exploiting his memory. I would say that I imagine that some of the energy that informed the writing a book came from the emotional response to my son’s death. But the content, the critique, is unrelated to that tragedy.

The content of the book very much reflects my dismay at the direction of US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. There’s a lot in the book that tries to hold the Bush administration accountable for recent events, but I would not for a second want to suggest that the crisis in which we find ourselves today ought to be laid simply at the foot of the Bush administration or the Republican Party, because it’s been a long time coming.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by “exceptionalism”?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, this is not an idea that’s original with me. It’s clear that from the founding of the Anglo-American colonies, from the time that John Winthrop made his famous sermon and declared that “we shall be as a city upon a hill” a light to the world —- it’s clear that, from the outset, there has been a strong sense among Americans that we are a special people with a providential mission.

In the twentieth century, probably going back to roughly the time of Woodrow Wilson, certainly since the end of the Cold War, this concept of a providential mission, a responsibility to the world, has translated into a sense of empowerment or prerogative to determine the way the world is supposed to work, what it’s supposed to look like, and also, over the last twenty years or so, an increasing willingness to use military force to cause the world to look the way we want it to look. And I think that that expression of American exceptionalism is one that’s not only utterly false, but is greatly at odds with own interests as a country.

AMY GOODMAN: You write, “Recalling how Washington saw the post-Cold War world and America’s place in or atop it helps us understand why policymakers failed to anticipate, deter or deflect the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.”

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean—- and again, this is very much not something that one would lay at the foot of the Bush administration, but you recall that at the end of the Cold War, when history had supposedly ended, when globalization, which really was a synonym for Americanization, was thought to be sweeping the world and creating a new order, when Democrats and Republicans alike declared with great confidence that not only was the US the sole superpower, but that the US possessed military might such as the world had never seen, well, an attack on Manhattan killing 3,000 Americans wasn’t something that was supposed to happen.

So the focus in the ’90s in the Clinton era and the focus into the first nine months we saw of the Bush era was very much out there somewhere, you know, where we were going to sort out the problems of the world. Nobody was paying attention to the possibility of actually having to defend the United States of America. So, there we were, spending on defense — well, “defense” in quotes — defending on our military probably as much as the rest of the world was spending on their militaries, and yet our military simply wasn’t prepared to perform what ought to be its primary mission, and that is defending the people of the United States of America.

AMY GOODMAN: You say the Department of Defense didn’t actually do defense. It was prepared — it specialized in power projection.

ANDREW BACEVICH: It still doesn’t do defense. I mean, it is a remarkable thing, I think, that the reflexive response to 9/11 is, first of all, to create a new bureaucratic entity that supposedly does defend the country — that’s the Department of Homeland Security, as we call it — but to continue to see the purpose of the Department of Defense, so-called, as power projection.

So, what has the Department of Defense been doing for the last seven years since 9/11? Well, been fighting a war in — where? Afghanistan. And a second one in Iraq. Now, I think you can make the case for Afghanistan, at least in terms of you can make a case for the necessity of holding the Taliban accountable for having given sanctuary to al-Qaeda. You can’t make any case for the invasion of Iraq as related to the global war on terror. And frankly, it’s becoming rather difficult, I think, to make a case for the continuation of the Afghanistan war as part of the global war on terror.


ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, you identified me as a conservative, and I don’t deny that label, but I think in this particular context what conservatism means is to be realistic in understanding how the world works and being respectful of history and taking care not to overstate one’s own capacity to influence events.

And I think, in that regard, if we look at Afghanistan today, we have to see a country that historically, at least as I understand Afghan history, has never really functioned as an integrated and coherent nation state. It’s never been ruled from Kabul. It’s always been ruled from the — in the provinces by people you might call tribal chiefs. You might call them warlords, you can call them local bosses, but authority has been widely distributed. But we are engaged in a project in which we insist that we’re going to transform Afghanistan into something more or less like a modern, coherent nation state, and indeed, we insist that it has to conform to our notions of liberal democracy.

Were we able to actually do that, I think it would be a wonderful thing. But seven years or so into this project, I’m not sure we can do it. Matter of fact, I’m increasingly persuaded that we can’t do it, and therefore — and I think in your news summary you made reference to this — you know, for somebody like Senator Obama to say, “Elect me. I’ll win the global war on terror by sending more troops to Afghanistan,” I think ought to give people pause and, frankly, ought to cause them to wonder how much change an Obama administration would make with regard to a foreign policy. That’s not an argument for voting for McCain, by a long shot, but it suggests the narrowness of the debate over foreign policy.

AMY GOODMAN: So how is this narrowness taking place? I mean, yes, you have McCain saying we’ll be in Iraq for a hundred years. You have Obama speaking out against the war, but he votes with McCain for funding for the war all through the years —-

ANDREW BACEVICH: Right, right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: —- as a senator, and then he says we’ll send thousands more, we should send thousands more troops to Afghanistan.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Right, right. I think there are differences between the two, but I think we should see the differences as differences in operational priorities. McCain insists that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror and that it must be won, and it’s clear that if we, the American people, elect him, that we will be engaged in Iraq for a long, long time. Senator Obama says, “No, Afghanistan is the central front in the global war on terror. Elect me and will shift our military effort to Afghanistan.” It’s a difference, but it’s a difference in operational priorities; it’s not a difference in strategy.

Both of them — McCain explicitly, I think Obama implicitly — endorse the notion that a global war on terror really provides the right frame for thinking about US national security policy going forward. A real debate would be one in which we would have one candidate, and certainly it would be McCain, arguing for the global war on terror and an opponent who was questioning whether the global war on terror makes sense. I don’t think it makes sense.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this, the global war on terror.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, the phrase itself is one that really ought to cause people to have their heads snap back a little bit, because President Bush and others around him — Rumsfeld was certainly very clear on this — it’s a war, it’s global, and how long is it going to go on? Well, they said from the outset it’s going to go on for decades. In the Pentagon, there’s a phrase that gets used, “generational war,” a war that lasts a generation or more.

Well, we need to ask ourselves whether that really makes sense? What are the costs entailed by waging war for a generation? Where does the money come from? What are we not doing because we’re spending all this money on war? And in a very human sense, who actually pays the cost? I mean, who serves? Who doesn’t serve? Whose social needs are getting met, and whose are not getting met, as a consequence of having open-ended global war be this national priority?

It seems to me that were we to accurately gauge the actually existing threat — and there is a threat. I mean, 9/11 happened. There are people out there who want to kill us. But were we to actually gauge that threat in a realistic way, we would see that open-ended global war is not only unnecessary, but it’s probably counterproductive, that there are better ways to go about keeping us secure than to engage in global war.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to talk about those ways after break. We’re talking to Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel, spent twenty-three years in the US Army, now a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He’s just written the book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Professor Andrew Bacevich, retired colonel who spent twenty-three years in the US Army, now a professor at Boston University. And his latest book is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.

Could you talk about the cost of war and how the militarists learned from your war, from Vietnam, how we are insulated from the true cost?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yeah, this is not something people intended to happen, but it’s an unintended consequence that we today really need to intend to. This is the way I would tell the story. President Nixon ends the draft and creates the so-called all-volunteer force, which really is a professional army. When Nixon ends the draft, he doesn’t do it because he thinks having a professional army would be in the nation’s interest. What Nixon is trying to do is to basically cut the antiwar movement off at the knees, and his calculation was that by ending the draft, kids would get out of the streets and go back to class. And to some degree, he actually was right. It’s worth remembering that the JCS at the time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were opposed to ending the draft, because they felt that they could never find enough volunteers to fill the force.

By the time we get into the 1980s, those JCS concerns have been proven incorrect, and we do end up with, I think, a magnificent professional army. In terms of what you want an army to be like and to do, they are competent, they are disciplined, they know their business. Alas, after the end of the Cold War, we have a political elite — and again, I would emphasize both parties — who decide that, gosh, with this great army we have, shouldn’t we go find some use for it? And the post-Cold War period, beginning with the elder Bush, sees this pattern of interventionism — you know, Panama, Iraq, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, on and on and on — mostly small conflicts, mostly brief conflicts, conflicts in which we, the people, sit on the sidelines and mostly applaud, and the all-volunteer force seems like the most successful federal program of the recent decades. Until you get to Iraq, because Iraq turns out to be not a short war, not a clean war, protracted, ugly, rightfully, I think, controversial and unpopular.

But what we have found is that we, the people, have so distanced ourselves from the professional army that unless you have a family member serving in uniform — and most people don’t — you don’t know where this military is, you don’t know what it’s like, and you really don’t have much say in the way it’s used.

President Bush exploits that after 9/11. He decides he knows how it wants to be used. And, of course, for the first time in our history, when we go to war, instead of a president turning to the Congress and turning to the country and say, “We’re going to have to change the way we do business, because we’re at war,” President Bush actually says, “Go to Disney World. Go shopping. Go back to doing what you have been doing for the last ten years, and I’ll take care of everything.” And I have to say, the great majority of the American people — I don’t think listeners of your show or of yours or your show — but the great majority of the American people basically did what Bush said and in tuned the war out and allowed the burden to fall on a very small percentage of the population, which I find, frankly, morally objectionable.

AMY GOODMAN: Who benefits, Andrew Bacevich?

ANDREW BACEVICH: From the war? There are obviously corporations, contractors who benefit, and I would not — never want to dismiss that, but I don’t really think that that provides us an adequate explanation of how we got into this fix. I think who really benefits or what benefits is the political status quo. The national security state, the apparatus of the national security state benefits. It’s gotten larger since 9/11, immensely larger. The tacit bargain between our political leaders and the American people, which basically assumes that our culture of consumption, our refusal to save, our addiction to oil, as President Bush himself described it, that all of these things can be sustained indefinitely, if we can simply employ our military power in ways to shape the world to our liking.

Now, of course, what we found over the past five, six years is, our military power is really not nearly as great as many people imagined it to be back in the 1990s, and war has not become an effective instrument of politics, as many people imagined back in the 1990s.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about massive amounts of money that go into the military, and yet it can be stopped by an IED.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, it’s an interesting thing. I mean, the military’s self-image, or the image of the military that many national security experts had developed during the 1990s, was that because our military was so adept at exploiting information technology, that in every respect we were faster than any prospective opponent: we could think faster, we could decide faster, we could see faster, we could use our weapons faster.

One of the great ironies, I think, of the Iraq war is that our adversary, who in a technological sense, we would say, has been fairly primitive, our adversary has actually acted much more quickly than we have. In the competition between the improvised explosive devices as a major weapons system that they have used and our efforts to defeat that system, they have repeatedly acted more quickly than we have. And there’s an important lesson there, I think. And the lesson is, technology is not all it’s cracked up to be when it comes to military affairs.

AMY GOODMAN: The first meeting of Barack Obama and McCain was with an evangelical reverend, Rick Warren, in California, and they talked about evil and good, and they talked. And McCain said he will go to the gates of Hell and back to get Osama bin Laden. Your thoughts?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I’m a conservative, and this is another one of those things that leads me to believe that not only is President Bush not a conservative, but Senator McCain is not, either.

Of course there is evil in the world and there is good in the world, but guess what? Some of the evil is right here. I mean, to view international politics through this lens of good and evil leads you to vastly oversimplify and I think also leads you to make reckless decisions. Bush’s — I do believe President Bush genuinely — not cynically, genuinely — saw Saddam Hussein as evil, and I think he actually genuinely believes that — again, consistent with this notion of American exceptionalism — that we were called upon to bring democracy to Iraq. But what a ludicrous way to view US-Iraqi relations over the past twenty or thirty years, because if you really look at US-Iraqi relations or US policy in the Middle East over the last twenty, thirty, fifty, sixty years, it’s impossible to see the question as simply one of good versus evil. It’s not black and white; it’s grey. And you need to see the world as grey if you’re going to be a sensible statesman.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you see all this heading? Your last chapter is “The Limits of Power.” Why don’t people on the ground, overwhelmingly opposed to the war, have a say now?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think we have. Again, I don’t mean to make this as a statement that applies to 100 percent of the American people, but I think the great majority of us basically have allowed ourselves to become seduced by this culture of consumption, of not taking seriously the notion that someday the bills come due, that you can’t simply run up a line of credit that stretches from here to infinity. We don’t want to look ourselves in the mirror. We don’t want to recognize the need to make some changes in the way we live.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see the end of American empire?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yes, I do. And I think the key question is, will the American empire end catastrophically because of our blind insistence that we will not change? Or will we be able to disengage ourselves from and dismantle the American empire in a sensible, reasonable way that will do the least damage to the world and the least damage to ourselves?

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, I want to thank you very much for being with us. His book is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.

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