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Conservative Historian Andrew Bacevich Warns Against Obama’s Escalation of War in Afghanistan and Intensifying Use of Air Power in Region

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Less than a week after US air strikes killed over a hundred Afghan civilians, President Obama’s top security adviser, General James Jones, said Sunday that the US will continue its strikes in Afghanistan, despite sharp criticism about rising civilian casualties from Afghan President Hamid Karzai. We speak to Boston University professor and retired military colonel Andrew Bacevich about why Obama’s plans in Afghanistan and Pakistan are counterproductive. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryAug 20, 2008The Limits of Power: Andrew Bacevich on the End of American Exceptionalism
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Less than a week after the US air strikes killed over a hundred Afghan civilians, President Obama’s top security adviser, General James Jones, said Sunday that the US will continue its strikes in Afghanistan.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report.

Despite sharp criticism about rising civilian casualties from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, General Jones said on ABC’s This Week that, quote, “to tie the hands of our commanders and say we’re not going to conduct air strikes would be imprudent.”

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, University of Kabul students protested the US strikes while mourning the dead. This is Essa Nori, a student from the western Farah province, where the bombings took place.

    ESSA NORI: [translated] If this kind of action continues in Afghanistan, with no doubt there will be a nationwide uprising against foreign presence here. So, if that happens, I don’t think even US B-52 bombers would be able to stop a national uprising.

AMY GOODMAN: Residents of the two villages hit by US bombs last week report 147 civilians were killed in the strikes, but US officials have disputed this number. During a visit to Afghanistan last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates accused the Taliban of using civilians as human shields. He said civilian casualties caused by US and coalition forces were accidental, but, quote, “when the Taliban creates civilian casualties it has been deliberate.”

Afghan doctors, meanwhile, say they have treated at least fourteen patients with unusually severe burns. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission is investigating whether the US Army used white phosphorus in its attacks last week. The US military denies the allegation and has accused the Taliban of using white phosphorus on at least four occasions.

Three of Sayed Barakat’s children are being treated for burn injuries at a hospital in Herat.

    SAYED BARAKAT: [translated] When the bombings started, about seventy-five of us, including children and women, rushed and sheltered in an unoccupied house, which was bombed by the Americans, killing everyone except for seven of us.

AMY GOODMAN: The increasing civilian casualties by US air strikes come on the eve of the deployment of an additional 21,000 US troops to Afghanistan.

Well, I’m joined right now by a retired military colonel. He testified at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last month, urging lawmakers to oppose President Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan. Andrew Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He’s a conservative historian and a Vietnam War vet who spent twenty-three years serving in the US Army. He is the author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War and, most recently, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. It’s just come out in paperback. Two years ago, on May 13th, 2007, Andrew Bacevich’s son was killed in Iraq. Andrew Bacevich now joins us from Boston.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you very much for having me on your program.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Talk about this testimony you gave before Congress and why you spoke out against the expansion of war in Afghanistan.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I was invited to testify by Senator Kerry and thought it was appropriate for me to accept the invitation. I have been deeply disappointed by the direction of US policy in AfPak, as the Obama administration chooses to call it, ever since President Obama was inaugurated. I know, as do others, that when he was running for the office, he promised to reorient the US military effort from Iraq to Afghanistan. I had hoped that that was simply campaign talk to protect himself from the charge of being weak on national security. And therefore, I regret that it turns out that he’s serious on doubling down in Afghanistan and expanding US military efforts in Pakistan. I think both of those are mistaken.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think needs to be done right now?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, that is the core question, and I think you can come at that question at several different levels. I think the most important level, the most fundamental level, is that we need — the Obama administration needs to revisit some core questions that it has thus far ignored.

And what do I mean by that? I mean that in the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration, as it launched this so-called global war on terror, did so assuming that the United States possesses the capacity and also has a requirement to determine the fate of nations in the greater Middle East. And the Bush administration intended to begin this project of determining the fate of nations in that region by focusing on Iraq. It seems to me that the Obama administration has implicitly endorsed that notion, that we can determine the fate of nations there, albeit its focus is on Afghanistan and Pakistan. And I think that that core issue needs to be critically addressed. Do we possess the capacity to determine the fate of a place like Afghanistan? Do we need even to make the effort? That is to say, do our interests requirement — require it? And I think the answer to both those questions is, no, we don’t have the capacity, and we don’t have the requirement. So, what we need to do first of all, I think, is ask fundamental strategic questions.

Now, you can come at it at a second level, which is more the tactical or the operational level. And I think that’s what brings you face-to-face with things like this US policy with regard to air strikes. You cited General Jones commenting that we can’t tie the hands of our commanders. Well, Jones knows that we always tie the hands of our commanders. That is to say that we establish parameters. Certain things are permitted, certain things are allowed, certain resources are provided to commanders; and other things are not permitted, and other resources are denied. We don’t allow General McKiernan in Afghanistan to use nuclear weapons if he thinks it’s necessary. And so, the question is whether or not we are tying the hands of our commanders or establishing those operational parameters in ways that are smart. And frankly, the promiscuous use of airpower in Afghanistan, and also, I think, in Pakistan with the UAV strikes, is not smart. It’s counterproductive. And that also needs to be critically reexamined.

AMY GOODMAN: Afghan President Hamid Karzai strongly denounced the US air strikes on his country in an interview with David Gregory that aired Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press.

    PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: We have to be morally on a much higher platform in order for us to win the war on terrorism.

    DAVID GREGORY: And do you worry that — do you worry that the US has not met that standard?


    DAVID GREGORY: Have they not met their own moral standard?

    PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: The US -— the US — the US has not met that standard in Afghanistan. The United States must stand on a much higher platform in order for us together to win this war.

    DAVID GREGORY: Let me be clear about what you’re saying. Are you suggesting that the United States is waging an immoral war —-


    DAVID GREGORY: —- in Afghanistan?

    PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: No, it’s not immoral war. It’s the standard of morality that we are seeking which is also one that is being desired and spoken about in America. In other words, are we the same as the terrorists? Are we the same as the bad guys? Or are we standing on a much higher moral platform? Are we better human beings or not?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan on NBC Sunday. Andrew Bacevich, your response?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, if we are serious, then we understand that, for policymakers, moral considerations are never other than a secondary issue. And it seems to me that the core question is, does the use of air power in places like Afghanistan make sense? Does it work? Is it — is the cost-benefit ratio in the favor of the United States? And frankly, the answer is no.

This most recent incident in western Afghanistan, where the reports are that we killed more than a hundred civilians, even if we only killed ten, the fact of the matter is the report of having killed a hundred is now well-established, and it is that report which creates the backlash of anti-Americanism and plays into the hands of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. You know, in your intro, you cited — I think it was Secretary Gates, saying that, you know, the Taliban kills civilians intentionally; we kill civilians — or when we do it, it’s accidental. Well, you sort of want to say, “Give me a break. It may be unintentional, but to use air power in any significant way in a conflict of the type that we are waging in Afghanistan will inevitably result in the killing of noncombatants and, therefore, will inevitably contribute to the rise of anti-Americanism and will work on behalf and in favor of the adversary.”

So, it really seems to me that we are at the point where the reliance on that kind of firepower for this kind of a low-intensity conflict has become so clearly counterproductive that, setting moral considerations aside — and I don’t mean to do that because they don’t matter — but setting moral considerations aside, pragmatically the policy makes no sense.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Andrew Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is a Vietnam War veteran. His most recent book, now out in paperback, is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. We’ll come back to our conversation with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Andrew Bacevich. He’s a professor at Boston University, professor of history and international relations. His latest book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.

President Obama announced his plan to send an additional 21,000 US troops to Afghanistan late this March, in terms of continuing the fight against al-Qaeda and Taliban.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are not in Afghanistan to control that country or to dictate its future. We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens United States, our friends and our allies and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan who have suffered the most at the hands of violent extremists.

    So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That’s the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just.

    And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: we will defeat you. And to achieve our goals, we need a stronger, smarter and comprehensive strategy. To focus on the greatest threat to our people, America must no longer deny resources to Afghanistan because of the war in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who designated the war in Afghanistan as the US military’s main effort, just last week was in Afghanistan and justified the President’s call for a surge in an interview with NBC’s The Today Show.

    ADM. MIKE MULLEN: There’s no question in my mind that these 21,000 troops are absolutely vital. We don’t have — we haven’t had enough troops in Afghanistan to — once we are in an area to clear it, we haven’t had enough troops to hold it, and these troops will allow us to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, what about that?

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think that the concept is deeply flawed. To the extent that one would want to implement the concept of, in essence, pacifying Afghanistan, it’s going to take a lot more than 21,000 additional US troops to do it. This is an enormous country and a difficult country. So, if President Obama wants to defeat the Taliban, then he is indeed undertaking a very ambitious enterprise, and we probably ought to be expanding the size of the United States Army by at least 50 percent.

And he ought to sort of own up to the fact that the project that he’s embarking on is one that’s going to take ten or fifteen years. I mean, in this context, I think it’s worth noting the comment that General Odierno in Iraq made over the weekend at a press conference. I think the question was something to the effect that, “Hey, how about the continuation of violence in Baghdad after the success of the surge?” And Odierno, I think rather petulantly, said, “Hey, look. This insurgency is going to go on for another five, ten or fifteen years.” I agree with that assessment in Iraq.

And I think that what’s — the narrative of Iraq is something that is likely to be repeated in Afghanistan, that as Obama makes Afghanistan Obama’s war, this could well end up defining his administration and impairing his administration as much as the Iraq war defined and impaired the presidency of George W. Bush.

And again, I’d go back to my earlier point: you know, do we really possess the capacity to undertake that kind of an enterprise, especially in a time of significant economic distress? And above all, is it necessary for us to try to pacify Afghanistan? And I think if we take a realistic assessment of the threat, which is real but not existential, I believe the conclusion is we don’t have to pacify Afghanistan, much less Pakistan next door.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, lay out the triple crises you say face America today and your argument about the limits of power.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, I think the essence of the point that I want to get to here is that Washington’s inclination to view the economic crisis as not connected to our national security crisis is a big mistake, that there is really one overarching problem. And I think the essence of that problem is that we have so mismanaged our economy, falling into the habit of living beyond our means. When I say “our means,” I mean not simply the government’s reckless spending, but also the penchant of the American people for conspicuous consumption. We have so mismanaged our economy that we have fallen into the habit of thinking that we can defer a day of reckoning by relying on American hard power to create a global environment that will sustain our profligacy.

And the chickens really came home to roost in the latter half of 2008. We don’t have enough hard power in order to reshape the global order so that we can continue to sustain the American way of life along the lines that we came into the habit of doing. We need to change the way we live, rather than focus so much an effort on changing the way others live in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you mean, Andrew Bacevich, when you talk about the empire of consumption.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, this is a phrase that’s not my phrase; it’s one that was coined by a Harvard historian, Charles Maier. His narrative of post-World War II US history focuses on the transformation from — the United States, from being an empire of production to becoming an empire of consumption.

And I was born in 1947, and I grew up in northwest Indiana amid steel mills and oil refineries. And it certainly was a very vivid impression of my boyhood that whatever it was, we made it. I mean, we made the stuff that the world needed. That was the empire of production. I don’t mean to wax nostalgic or to overlook the many evils that existed in American society, but we were the industrial engine of the world.

And what Maier shows in his book, and what I also retrace in my book, is the process where, by the time we get to the 1970s and into the 1980s, that empire of production had become an empire of consumption.

It’s remarkable to me to hear people commenting on our current economic situation and emphasizing that the solution lies in just getting the American people to get out there and consume again, I mean, to go back to the old habits of overspending that had established themselves by the 1990s. Even today, there seems to be precious little recognition that the long-term well-being of American society requires that the American people and the American government learn to live within their means.

And to revert back to the discussion of Obama’s national security policy, it seems to me that his administration is just as bad as the Bush administration in refusing to recognize the need to live within our means. And one gets that by looking at the ever-growing size of the defense budget. One comes to that conclusion when assessing his policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, you’re a Vietnam vet. You’re a graduate of West Point. You’re a conservative Catholic. And I want to go to that point of conservative, whether you think these lines are breaking down right now, the definitions of conservative and liberal. What do you think of when you describe yourself as conservative, and how does that fit into the politics today?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I do have to acknowledge that more and more it seems to me that these labels confuse as much as they clarify. I mean, I would guess that the majority of viewers of your program, when they hear the word “conservative,” they think, “Oh, that’s Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz.” From my point of view, none of those people would qualify as principled conservatives.

But to answer your question, to me, my version or my definition of conservatism is one, I think, that emphasizes a view of history, that sees history as an essentially tragic story. It’s not something that the United States or, frankly, humankind generally can somehow determine, bring to a happy outcome. I think that would be one aspect of my definition of conservatism.

A second one would be to view international politics through a realist lens, to understand that, like it or not, nation states cannot be altruistic, that they are all motivated by considerations of power and that, therefore, that’s the world that we all must live in.

I think I’m a conservative in a sense that I tend to be skeptical of the ability of our present generation to reinvent fundamental social institutions, to basically allow everybody to decide what the definition of family is. I’m very skeptical that that contributes to our collective well-being.

I’m a conservative in the sense that I think budgets need to balance. I mean, one of the things that’s just so hysterically funny about the Republican Party at present is that it criticizes Obama for overspending, when the Republican Party has been almost as bad in that regard.

So, those would be some examples of, I think, what it means to be a principled conservative, at least from one person’s point of view.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, May 13th is the second anniversary of your son’s death in Iraq, and I’m wondering about your reflections on the war in Iraq today. General Odierno Friday said one-fifth of American combat troops will stay behind in Iraqi cities, even after the June 30th deadline that the US and Iraq set for departure, but beyond that, as well. And have you been in touch with the others in Andrew’s unit, in your son’s unit?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I choose not to talk about my son’s death. I like to keep that — that’s just private.

But with regard to the Iraq war, I think that, you know, the new Tom Ricks book — not to push his book — The Gamble, he reaches the conclusion that the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered in history probably haven’t happened yet. And I think that’s probably about right. The notion that the surge won the war is an illusion. Certainly, the notion that the surge created the conditions that are going to produce political reconciliation in Iraq, that’s an illusion. The war is off the front pages, but the war continues. We are reminded of that, as we get periodic reports of bombs blowing up in Baghdad and civilians being killed.

I wouldn’t hazard to guess on what the future holds for Iraq. I would simply say that Iraq will provide further evidence of the fact that the United States is not able to determine the fate of nations in the greater Middle East. The Iraqis will sort that out, for better or for ill. And we will be left wondering what exactly we gained through the expenditure of a trillion dollars and the loss of more than 4,000 American lives in a war that, frankly, should not have been begun in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Bacevich, you write in The Limits of Power, “The fundamental problem facing the country will remain stubbornly in place no matter who is elected in November.” Do you think it matters who is in the White House right now?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Oh, sure, it matters. I mean, I voted for President Obama, and, you know, I would love to see him succeed. I think in many of his domestic initiatives, although I don’t know how he’s going to pay for them, certainly there are initiatives that I think are overdue. I’m talking about energy. I’m talking about healthcare, and so on.

But I think we Americans should be skeptical of this notion that the most powerful man in the world, so-called, can solve our problems. He is not as powerful as we imagine, as he’s celebrated in the media. And quite frankly, looking to the President to fix things is a way of letting ourselves collectively off the hook, of offloading our responsibility onto Washington, DC. And again, I think, speaking as a conservative, I don’t think Washington, DC, is going to solve the problems that beset the country. The solutions, if there are any, have to come from within. And in that sense, there’s an urgent need for citizens to take seriously the responsibilities of citizenship.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of the media in all of this? I mean, to see someone speaking out against the escalation of war in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the US corporate media, on the networks, is extremely rare still today, almost like it was in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, where there were almost no voices expressing opposition.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yeah. I hadn’t thought about that, but I think, actually, you are right. I mean, the explanation is different. I mean, the explanation for the relative lack of critical media coverage in 2000, 2003, I think that was explained by 9/11; the relative lack of critical coverage of Afghanistan, Pakistan, probably explained by the willingness to sort of give Obama a break, give him a boost — both, I think, ill-advised.

I mean, the reporters I deal with, it’s not my impression that the average reporter is somehow dishonest or is consciously pursuing an agenda. I think the problem is that the average reporter — that the person’s perspective is defined by certain conventions that inhibit that person’s ability really to think critically.

I mean, I think an example has to do with American military power. One could draw many lessons from Iraq. One needs to draw many lessons from Iraq. But certainly, one of the preeminent lessons has to do with how — with the very real limits on what hard power, even American hard power, can accomplish. And that lesson then transposed to Afghanistan and Pakistan really ought to make one exceedingly skeptical about the sorts of plans that President Obama has announced.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Andrew Bacevich, I want to thank you very much for being with us, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, conservative historian, a Vietnam War vet — his most recent book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism — speaking to us from Boston University. Thanks again.


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