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Andrew Bacevich: Ongoing Wars in Iraq & Syria Continue Decades of Failed U.S. Militarism in Mideast

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The U.S. deployment of a team of special operations forces to Syria comes after the first U.S. combat casualty in Iraq in four years. Just last month, President Obama reversed course in Afghanistan, halting the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. troops fighting in the nation’s longest war. In an escalation of the air war in Syria, the United States has also announced plans to deploy more fighter planes, including 12 F-15s, to the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. On top of the wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, the U.S. continues to carry out drone strikes across the globe from Pakistan to Yemen to Somalia. “[Obama’s] policy has been one of mission creep,” says Andrew Bacevich, retired colonel, Vietnam War veteran, and international relations professor at Boston University. “The likelihood that the introduction of a handful of dozen of U.S. soldiers making any meaningful difference in the course of events is just about nil.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: During the news conference at the White House on Friday, Press Secretary Josh Earnest repeatedly refused to describe the newly deployed U.S. special forces in Syria as combat troops.

PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: The president has been quite clear about the fact that they have a—they do not have a combat mission. They have a training, advising and an assist mission. … Our military personnel will be in a train, advise and assist mission. And it means that it will not be their primary responsibility to lead the charge up the hill. … This is a mission to support the efforts of moderate opposition fighters on the ground as they take the fight to ISIL in their own country. That is the—that is what they’re trying to do, to offer training, to offer advice and to offer assistance. … And one of the options the military came back with was putting a small number, fewer than 50, special operations forces on the ground inside of Syria in a train, advise and assist role. … The president of the United States delivered a televised address in prime time on September 10th of 2014, where he made clear that there would be U.S. military personnel on the ground in the region in a train, advise and assist capacity to build up local forces.

AMY GOODMAN: Excerpts of clips of the White House news conference, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

To talk more about Obama’s endless wars, in addition to Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, we’re joined by Andrew Bacevich, retired colonel and Vietnam War veteran, professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University. His new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, will be published in April. He’s the author of several other books, including Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. In 2007, Andrew Bacevich’s son, First Lieutenant Andrew John Bacevich, was killed in action in Iraq by an improvised explosive device south of Samarra. One month before his son was killed, Professor Bacevich wrote, quote, “The truth is that next to nothing can be done to salvage Iraq. It no longer lies within the capacity of the United States to determine the outcome of events there. Iraqis will decide their own fate. We are spectators, witnesses, bystanders caught in a conflagration that we ourselves, in an act of monumental folly, touched off.”

Professor Andrew Bacevich, welcome back to Democracy Now!

ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what is happening today? As the major networks poll-dance—right?—sort of dance around the polls in the national elections for president, the focus on this, the U.S. government is increasingly entrenched in wars around the world—the latest, the announcement of increased involvement in Syria. Of course, we know about Iraq and Afghanistan. Your response?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think the way you posed the question, you’re really putting your finger on the main issue. And it is an issue that gets largely ignored by the media, and certainly ignored by those aspiring to be the next president. We have been engaged militarily in an enterprise that, by my telling, has now gone on for 35 years, beginning with the promulgation of the Carter Doctrine back in 1980, a project that assumes that somehow or other the adroit use of American military power can bring order, pacify, democratize, somehow fix large parts of the Islamic world that are increasingly enveloped in turmoil. And yet, when we look at U.S. military actions across this entire span of time, what we see is that however great U.S. military power may be, it does not suffice to achieve those objectives that our leaders claim they seek to achieve. And I think that the present moment in the Obama administration is simply a further affirmation of that larger point.

I hate to agree with the White House press secretary, but I do agree that the introduction of 50 special operations forces really does not constitute a major change in policy, because the policy of the Obama administration, since the rise of ISIS and since we began to involve ourselves in the Syrian civil war, has been one of incrementalism. Earlier you played that clip of the president warning against mission creep. His policy has been one of mission creep. And the likelihood that the introduction of a handful of dozen of U.S. soldiers, regardless of how skillful they are—the likelihood of that making any meaningful difference in the course of events is just about nil.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, you hear the White House press secretary, not even the president, because the president has said no boots on the ground—whether or not the policy is different, as you point out, there are probably many more special ops forces on the ground. But it’s what the Obama administration is admitting to that’s different.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, that’s true, but the point I’m trying to make is that when we focus on these inconsistencies—the president, you know, a year ago said X, and now the policy seems to be Y—that’s an important—it’s important to note the inconsistency, but my argument would be it’s far more important to take stock of the dimensions of this administration’s military efforts in that part of the world, and then to connect them to the military efforts undertaken by his several predecessors. Only then, it seems, do we get an appreciation of the magnitude of our military failure. And only by taking stock of the full magnitude of our military failure can we come to an appreciation of how—of the imperative of beginning to think differently about our approach to the region.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you end war? How does—I mean, I’m putting this question to a military man—right?—professor and a retired colonel, Andrew Bacevich. But talk about the different approach that could be made—for example, the Iran nuclear deal as a model.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Great question. There are two ways to end a war. The one way is to win it. And here is where I’m again taking issue with the president’s incrementalism. If one were to posit—and this is not my view, but if one were to posit that the United States has a vital U.S. national security interest in destroying ISIS and a vital U.S. national security interest in bringing a prompt end to the Syrian civil war, then it would necessarily follow that instead of this minimalist approach to waging the war, which is what we’re doing, then one ought to go all out and win it, make it—make it a big war. And yes, make it a big war, understanding that if we look at the consequences that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a big war will once again, almost assuredly, lead to unintended and undesired consequences. But if this is an important thing, one way you end the war is to go win it.

The alternative, it seems to me, is to recognize that there are some wars that are unwinnable and should not be fought, and where the—if there is a solution to the problem, it has to come from nonmilitary means. The president has repeatedly, as president, argued that he has no desire to see this country perpetually engaged in war. And yet his actions—and you earlier cited many of the different cases—his actions have belied that claim, have instead had the effect of perpetuating the war, but perpetuating them in a sense that they continue to simmer, that they do not result in any kind of a resolution. So the answer to the question, again: Either you win it, or you get out.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis, one of the things that Professor Bacevich just said is that the U.S. wars are intended to fix part of the Islamic world in turmoil. Do you think “fix,” or do they “send,” the Islamic world into turmoil?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, I think, clearly, they have sent much of the world—not only the Islamic world, but that’s the part that we’re looking at right now—into far worse than turmoil, into absolute abject tragedy, when we see the results of these wars at the human level, when we see what it’s doing to the social fabric of these societies, that is going to take generations to repair.

I think that one of the things that’s so important, we hear from President Obama, over and over again, there is no military solution. And other times we hear the military side is not enough, it’s not sufficient. That’s where it’s just wrong. The first statement is right: There is no military solution. So when you look at what President Obama is doing militarily, I think it’s important to recognize it’s not just insufficient, it’s making impossible the kinds of diplomatic and negotiated and humanitarian and other kinds of efforts that could have a chance of ending these wars.

So, for example, if you’re in Iraq and the U.S., say, they get it right for one time—this almost never happens, but say they did—they identified a camp of ISIS fighters, there were 20 of them, and they’re really bad guys, they’ve done bad things, they’re going to do more bad things. They send a drone after them. There’s no civilians anywhere in the area. Only those 20 guys get killed. And the response in the U.S. is, “Yeah! We got the bad guys.” The response in Iraq is, “Yes, once again, the U.S. is bombing Sunnis in the interests of the Shia and the Kurds.” And then you have those in the Sunni community that used to be in the military, who lost their positions when the U.S. destroyed the Iraqi military in 2003. You have the leaders of the Sunni militias, who are looking for some way to challenge this incredibly sectarian, Shia-dominated government that the U.S. has now put in power, is paying and arming. So, you have these scenarios where everything the U.S. does militarily is not only insufficient to end the war, it prevents those things that could have a possibility of winding down and ultimately ending this set of interrelated wars.

There are now eight wars being fought in Syria, all to the last Syrian. There are wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia, wars between the U.S. and Russia. There’s a host of wars being fought. But those on the ground—the people of Syria—are the ones paying the price. And all of these U.S. military actions are making it impossible to do the other things that might make possible an end to this war.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, in Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history, that President Obama has just promised to make much longer by reversing the withdrawal, the Taliban control more of the country of Afghanistan than they did when the U.S. first attacked in 2001, and at the same time you have the Taliban, who is avowed enemies of the Islamic State.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Exactly. You know, Phyllis and I have appeared on a few panels from time to time, and I have to say, we frequently disagreed, but I agree 100 percent with everything that she just said. To say that American decision makers have sought to “fix”—and I use that term in quotes—parts of the Islamic world where they intervened, whatever their intentions, the consequences have almost without exception been catastrophic.

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