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Andrew Bacevich on Afghanistan War: “The President Lacks the Guts to Get Out”

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Retired US Army colonel and historian Andrew Bacevich joins us for his first interview about his new book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. “The question demands to be asked: Who is more deserving of contempt?” Bacevich asks. “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?” [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today with news from Afghanistan. On Sunday, the Netherlands became the first NATO country to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan, ending a four-year military presence that brought down a Dutch government. Canada and Poland have also pledged to pull all their troops out of Afghanistan in the next two years. There were less than 2,000 Dutch soldiers in Afghanistan. Canada and Poland have just over 2,500 troops in the country.

Meanwhile, American forces in Afghanistan are expected to reach 100,000 by next month. Although President Obama has pledged to begin withdrawing US troops in July 2011, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told ABC’s This Week broadcast Sunday that only a small number of troops would leave next year.

    DEFENSE SECRETARY ROBERT GATES: I think we need to reemphasize the message that we are not leaving Afghanistan in July of 2011. We are beginning a transition process and a thinning of our ranks that will — and this pace will depend on the conditions on the ground. The President has been very clear about that. Again, July 2011 is not the end. It is the beginning of a transition.

AMY GOODMAN: July was the deadliest month for the US military in Afghanistan with sixty-six deaths. But it was also a devastating month for many Afghans, with more than 270 civilians killed and some 600 wounded. Two hundred people marched through Kabul Sunday to protest the deaths of some forty-five civilians in a NATO rocket attack on Helmand province the previous week.

    PROTESTER 1: [translated] We gathered here to condemn the brutal action of America. Tens of Afghan civilians get killed by Americans every day, mostly women. Without recognizing whether they are Taliban or not, they get killed.

    PROTESTER 2: [translated] Our demands are for NATO and the Americans to leave our country as soon as possible. We Afghans must come together to choose our path and make the destiny of Afghanistan. We must end this deadlock.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, as American military operations in Afghanistan continue to escalate, I’m joined here in New York by retired US Army colonel, historian and bestselling author Andrew Bacevich. He’s a professor of international relations and history at Boston University and the author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. His latest book, just out this week, is called Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.

Andrew Bacevich, welcome to Democracy Now!

ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you’ve heard a series of stunning and horrifying figures, because any civilian killed is a horrifying situation. What do you think needs to happen in Afghanistan right now?

ANDREW BACEVICH: In a sense, I think, although that’s the question that everybody focuses on, I’ve come to believe it’s really the wrong question. And it’s the wrong question in the sense that it’s important step back and try to take in a larger view. And the larger question, I think, is, what exactly is the threat that the United States faces from these radical, violent Islamists, and what strategy should the United States pursue in order to deal with that threat? The strategy that the Bush administration set out on in the immediate wake of 9/11 was based on the assumption that American military power was so overpowering that we would be able to invade and occupy and transform societies, thereby, they thought, removing the conditions that produces anti-American violence. Well, we’ve given that effort roughly a nine-year experiment now, and it hasn’t worked, despite the fact that we have invested probably trillions of dollars in our efforts to transform Iraq and Afghanistan. So the prior question is not so much what to do about Afghanistan as what ought to be the basis for a sound American strategy. And then, once we have conceived of that strategy, then you ask the question, well, then how does Afghanistan fit within that strategy?

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you think that strategy should look like?

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think that the — I do believe there is a threat to the United States. Nine-eleven happened. There are people who want to launch attacks against the United States. I don’t believe it’s an existential threat. This notion that we face something called Islamofascism, this notion that al-Qaeda has the capacity to establish some new caliphate extending across the Islamic world, it’s absurd. The threat is real; the threat is limited. And I think that we should see the threat as akin to an international criminal conspiracy. And the best way to deal with an international criminal conspiracy is through an international police effort, collaborating with allies who have an interest in preventing terrorist attacks, and address the problem that way, much as — much as I think the international community attempts to address the problem of the Mafia. And that doesn’t involve occupying, invading countries, believing that you can somehow transform them.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to a speech of President Obama. He gave it last December, when he announced the United States would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. This is a part of his justification for escalating the war. He gave this speech at West Point on December 1st.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: More than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades, a time that, for all its problems, has seen walls come down and markets open and billions lifted from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress, and advancing frontiers of human liberty. For, unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours. What we have fought for, what we continue to fight for, is a better future for our children and grandchildren. And we believe that their lives will be better if other people’s children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama justifying the escalation of war. Professor Bacevich, your response?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, it’s a very sanitized version of American history that I imagine many Americans find agreeable, but it does tremendous violence to the actual facts of our post-World War II history. I mean, we are not an imperial nation in the sense that Great Britain or France, nations like that, were once imperial nations, but we are imperial. We wish to dominate. We wish to ensure that norms that work to the advantage, or perceive to work to the advantage, of the United States prevail across the world. And we are, I think, uniquely, in this moment, determined to rely on military power to enforce those norms.

And the most important thing, I think, to realize about that notion that I just described is it’s not working. I mean, we’re bankrupt in the country. We are headed towards, I think, ever greater, more difficult economic times that will result in us failing in our most fundamental obligation, laid out in the Preamble of the Constitution, which is to provide the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. The path on which we have embarked and on which we continue to pursue is very much at odds with what the founding purpose of this republic was supposed to be.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Andrew Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, retired colonel, Vietnam War vet, author of, well, the book that’s coming out this week, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. We’ll be back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest today is Andrew Bacevich. This is his first interview on his book that’s coming out tomorrow, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. I wanted to read a quote from a piece you just recently wrote, where you’re saying, “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 BACEVICH: Well, I’m referring to President Obama here. I voted for President Obama. I admire President Obama. And I want to see him make good on his promise to us to change the way Washington works. In particular, I want to see him address the Washington rules, this pattern of behavior in the realm of national security policy that I think is so wrongheaded. And I’m deeply disappointed that he has chosen not to do that.

You showed the clip from the West Point speech in December 2009, when he made the decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan and to make it Obama’s war. I think that was a tragic error. The Afghanistan decision was his opportunity to begin to chart a new course on national security policy, to begin to break away from this pattern of behavior that we’ve adhered to for the past sixty or so years. And he blew it. I can’t pretend to look into his heart and understand what factors caused him to make the decision he did. I suspect that a political calculation may have weighed more heavily than a strategic calculation or a moral calculation. And I find that deeply upsetting, because I, and I think many of us, felt that here, finally, was a public figure who — whose decisions would not be influenced primarily by political calculations.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is putting pressure on him? What is he responding to? I mean, the polls, if this is a political calculation, are not bearing up for him.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, no. I think — I mean, my guess is the President probably right now has a case of buyer’s remorse and is wishing that he hadn’t actually made the decision that he did, but it has become Obama’s war. I mean, he finds himself in a circumstance now where, having bought the war, it’s going worse now than it was last year. And he’s basically facing a reelection campaign right around the corner. Unless David Petraeus, our new commander, truly pulls a rabbit out of the hat, then President Obama will run for reelection in 2012 with this war still very much ongoing and, in all likelihood, with no end in sight.

But you asked the question, where does the pressure come from? And the pressure comes from what President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. The pressure comes from the national security apparatus. There are people in institutions who are deeply invested in maintaining the status quo. There are budgets, there are prerogatives, there are ambitions, that ostensibly get satisfied by maintaining this drive for American globalism, again, backed by an emphasis on military power. So I don’t discount for a second that the President would have had to, you know, shove aside some fairly stubborn resistance to make that course change on Afghanistan, and he chose not to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel you’ve made a radical transformation? Talk about your own trajectory in life, fighting in Vietnam, and how you came to the point you have.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I don’t know that it’s a radical transformation. I mean, I think there are many of us for whom life is a journey, and mine has been a journey. When I was a serving officer for twenty-three years, I think trying to do my best as a serving officer, I was not particularly — I did not engage in serious critical thinking. To some degree, serious critical thinking is inconsistent, perhaps, with being a professional officer.

When I got out of the Army in 1992, this was in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War. I vaguely, very vaguely, expected that — since the Cold War, this long-term national security emergency, ostensibly provided the rationale for a global military presence and global interventionism and huge defense budgets, I vaguely expected that the end of the Cold War would see us becoming more of a normal nation. And when that didn’t happen, I began to ask myself why that was the case.

And the conclusion I came up with is — I mean, in the essence of the conclusion, is that we do what we do in the world, to include in places like Afghanistan, not because we are threatened, not because we are obliged to respond to something over there; we do what we do in the world largely as a result of domestic imperatives, perceived domestic imperatives. And I think that if you evaluate US foreign policy and national security policy from that perspective, then it becomes rather obvious that we are an imperial nation, we are a hegemonic nation, we are a nation that has embraced a militarized approach to policy that sets us apart from every other liberal democracy, perhaps with the exception of Israel. And again, it doesn’t work. It’s not making us safer and more prosperous and enabling us to enjoy and pursue liberty. On the contrary, I think it generates enemies, it’s undercutting our economy, and in many respects, it’s contributing to the growth of a national security state that is at odds with the exercise of individual freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote a piece called “The End of Military History?” comparing the United States, Israel and the failure of the Western way of war, paralleling the failures of Israel and US military involvement in the last two decades.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, the point of the piece, I think, is to argue that Western nations, democratic nations, generally, took from the whole experience of the twentieth century. They concluded that war really doesn’t work very well. War is something to be avoided if at all possible. Israel and the United States, I think, took a different conclusion from the twentieth century. And the conclusion that both Israel and the United States drew was that war can work, victory is feasible, and that victory achieved can translate into political advantage. And from, I think, our present perspective, both looking at the dilemmas that Israel faces and the dilemmas that we face, the evidence is pretty clear: victory is almost impossible to achieve in a really meaningful way. And even when you think you’ve achieved a great victory, somehow the political benefits turn out to be very ephemeral.

I mean, in many respects, the Six-Day War of 1967 is viewed as one of the great military triumphs of the contemporary era, when David defeated Goliath. But if we look at the problems that beset Israel today, in many respects I think they grow directly from that ostensibly great victory, because out of victory came the conviction that a greater Israel was a feasible project. Out of greater Israel — that out of that comes the settlement movement. Out of that becomes Israel having shackled itself to the Palestinian people, whose birth rate is so much higher than that of Israeli Jews. So, you know, what exactly did they get out of the 1967 war? What did we get out of a comparably great triumph — was perceived at the time — in Operation Desert Storm back in 1991? All we did was find ourselves more deeply embedded in the greater Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe, Andrew Bacevich, that the US is fighting terrorism?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think — of course, “terrorism” is one of these words — you know, what exactly do you mean? I believe that a portion of — that part of the rationale for our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, part of the rationale, is to — is a wrongheaded, misguided effort to eliminate movements like al-Qaeda. It’s not working, and it won’t work. But that certainly is not a complete and adequate explanation of why we are in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are in that part of the world because of oil. We are in that part of the world because Washington is insistent on its — that it will demonstrate that America’s will shall not be defied, you know, that we cannot afford to back down in Afghanistan, many people in Washington believe, because that would call into question American global leadership. I think American global leadership, in many respects, is an illusion, and it’s a self-defeating illusion. But there are a variety of — if it were only one reason why we were fighting these wars, in a sense, it might be easier to turn them off. But they are perceived to serve multiple interests.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about their — what would be more effective in dealing with, for example, what happened on September 11th, is more a police action.


AMY GOODMAN: So, what force deals with a police action?

ANDREW BACEVICH: The CIA, the FBI, to some degree Special Operations Forces. I’m not — I’m, by no means, trying to suggest that we would, you know, throw flowers in the direction of al-Qaeda and expect them to like us. We are engaged in what is a serious — again, not existential — struggle with these forces.

But I think, more broadly, again, the conversation shouldn’t be simply about what do we do about the terrorists; I think the conversation has to be, what do we do about the Islamic world? And I phrase it that way — it’s kind of an inflammatory way of phrasing it, because many people in Washington think we’re supposed to do something about the Islamic world, that somehow either we have an obligation or certainly we have the ability to do something about the Islamic world. And I think that’s absurd. It’s nonsense. There are problems in the Islamic world, and the people who need to address those problems, in the first instance, are the people in the Islamic world. I mean, I have written, “Let Islam be Islam.” Let the people of the Islamic world find their own way to reconcile religious belief with the demands of modernity. That’s what we in the West have struggled to do, and have done it with some success, albeit incomplete success. We owe it to the people of the Islamic world to allow them to do the same thing. What’s our role? Our role, I think, is to demonstrate that liberal values can be compatible with religious belief. And how do we do that? Well, we do that by keeping faith with liberal values here at home and providing an example that may, in a very small way, be useful for people who live in other parts of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Andrew Bacevich. His book is Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. You were in Vietnam. I wanted to talk about the — what many are calling the equivalent of the Pentagon Papers. It’s WikiLeaks, the release of some 91,000 classified military documents relating to the war in Afghanistan by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. It remains a major concern of the Pentagon. This is Admiral Mike Mullen on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday.

    ADM. MIKE MULLEN: The leaks themselves don’t look clearly at the war that we’re in. There is an ability to put this kind of information together in the world that we’re living in. And the potential for costing us lives, I think, is significant. I said, when it first occurred, I was appalled — I remain appalled — and that the potential for the loss of lives of American soldiers or coalition soldiers or Afghan citizens is clearly there.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Defense Secretary Robert Gates on ABC’s This Week.

    DEFENSE SECRETARY ROBERT GATES: My attitude on this is that there are two — two areas of culpability. One is legal culpability, and that’s up to the Justice Department and others; that’s not my arena. But there’s also a moral culpability. And that’s where I think the verdict is guilty on WikiLeaks. They have put this out without any regard whatsoever for the consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Andrew Bacevich, your response?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, there are competing imperatives here. I mean, in many respects, I think I’m a First Amendment — I don’t know if “radical” is the correct term, but I mean, I — there are — the government lies to us. The government conceals. And anything that can help to reveal information to the public that is of relevance to our understanding of ongoing affairs, that information — people who release it, I think, in some senses, are serving the public interest.

The other issue, though, is we want to have — if we’re going to have a military, we need to have a military in which there is good order and discipline. And we want to have a military in which civilian authorities are the ones who make decisions. In that regard, having a PFC who’s leaking 90,000 classified documents, I do think —-

AMY GOODMAN: If, in fact, Manning is the one who did it.

ANDREW BACEVICH: If he’s the one -— I do think is a reprehensible action. But it’s also reprehensible when, in the summer of 2009, before President Obama had made his Afghanistan decision, that the McChrystal recommendation was leaked to the Washington Post, which effectively hijacked the debate over what the Obama administration should do about the Afghanistan war. And I don’t remember Admiral Mullen or Secretary Gates or these other people deciding that they were going to go find out who leaked the McChrystal recommendations, because I believe that that is as reprehensible as this leak of the 90,000 documents. That was a direct assault on civilian control of the military. So if you’re going to get upset about one, you ought to get upset about the other, too.

AMY GOODMAN: But the amount of information that’s coming out in these 90,000 documents, what Julian Assange calls the evidence of war crimes at every level — a few months ago, we released the document — the video from July 12th, 2007, of the US military bombing New Baghdad. They killed two Reuters employees in that one attack. And you’re seeing document after document, KIA, KIA, civilian, civilian, civilian.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, first of all, war is ugly. War is messy. You know, the notion that in an age of high technology those aspects of war are swept aside is simply not the case. I, myself, did not — I didn’t read the 90,000 documents; I read the press reports of the documents. I didn’t learn anything. I mean, yes, of course, we are killing civilians. And yes, of course, the killing of civilians in Afghanistan, even setting aside moral considerations, which I don’t think should be set aside, the killing of civilians in Afghanistan flies in the face of our supposed claim that we’re there to win the hearts and minds of the people. I’m simply saying that that didn’t come as news to me. There wasn’t a lot of news in the leaks in terms of at least changing my own sense of the nature of this conflict and how it was going.

AMY GOODMAN: But war is made up of many different actions. And, for example, we know, for example, Vietnam, My Lai was extremely significant, and there may have been many of them. But to know it, well, helps to end the war, because people, when they hear about particular cases and names and places, that’s what makes people respond.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, that’s a fair comment, although, you know, we are about what? A week into this story, and we’ll see how it unfolds. My own sense is that it’s — the WikiLeak story is not likely to have the same legs that My Lai did. But we’ll see.

AMY GOODMAN: Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War — what was your greatest revelation, do you think? Or what were you most surprised by in doing your research as you pulled this book together?

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think it was the way that people devoted to the Washington rules in the wake of Vietnam exerted themselves very effectively to ensure that the Vietnam experience would not matter. I mean, again, you mention I’m a Vietnam veteran, and I tend probably to put more emphasis on Vietnam, in a sense, than it deserves, in terms of my own worldview. But as we sit here in 2010 and reflect on the Vietnam War, what becomes increasingly apparent to me is that its policy significance turned out to be actually trivial. I mean, within five years after the fall of Saigon, we are — we’ve elected Ronald Reagan. Within fifteen years after the end of — after the fall of Saigon, we are intervening in the first Iraq war. And it is astonishing to me, in retrospect, how little this event, the Vietnam War, which tore the country apart and seemed to discredit the Washington rules, seemed to discredit our approach to national security policy and globalism — what’s astonishing is how little and how ephemeral its effect turned out to be.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, I want to thank you for being with us, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, retired colonel, Vietnam War vet. His most recent book is coming out tomorrow. It’s called Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. Thanks so much for being with us.


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