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Andrew Bacevich: Why Is No Candidate Offering an Alternative to Militarized U.S. Foreign Policy?

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In a recent article, historian and retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich raised six questions that have been ignored in the 2016 presidential race. Most notably, he says, “Nearly 15 years after this 'war' was launched by George W. Bush, why hasn’t 'the most powerful military in the world,' 'the finest fighting force in the history of the world’ won it? Why isn't victory anywhere in sight?” Bacevich joins us from Boston to talk about the race and these missing questions. His new book, “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History,” will be published next month. He is professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University.

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: To talk more about the presidential race and to look at some of the questions not being raised at the debates, we’re joined by Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel and Vietnam War veteran. His new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, will be published next month. He 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.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich’s most recent article is headlined “The Six Questions Missing from the 2016 Election Debates.” He’s joining us now from Boston.

Andrew Bacevich, welcome back to Democracy Now! So what is missing from these debates?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, from my point of view, the big thing that’s missing is a willingness to take on board the progress, or lack thereof, of U.S. military involvement in the Islamic world. Certainly, there is attention in the campaign given to the ISIS campaign, the campaign against ISIS. But let us note that even as the ISIS campaign unfolds, we’re still involved in Afghanistan. You noted in your news roundup, we’ve just had a major bombing incident in Somalia, followed by a special operations raid. Last week in The New York Times, there was an article discussing the plans within the Obama administration perhaps to launch a major air campaign in Libya.

And it seems to me to be time for the American people, or for those aspiring to be the next commander-in-chief, to take stock of this military involvement in the region, which has been going on for decades now, and to ask, “How are we doing? Are we winning? What are the prospects?” And to pose those questions in a serious way would, I think, contribute to a conclusion that the militarization of U.S. policy in that part of the world has been utterly counterproductive and is making things worse, not better.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Andrew Bacevich, a lot of people in the U.S. would disagree with the claim that ISIS is not the principal threat facing Americans today. So could you explain why you think that’s not the case?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think ISIS is a—poses an existential threat to the countries in the region. It threatens the state structure that was created in the aftermath of World War I. And therefore, from that point of view, the powers in the region, whether we’re talking about Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq and others, they have a profound interest in bringing about the destruction of ISIS. But by any realistic measure, ISIS poses only a modest threat to the United States of America. It doesn’t have an air force. It doesn’t have a navy. It consists of a relatively small number of fierce fighters, not particularly well armed. And the notion that ISIS somehow threatens us, I think, is really absurd.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Do you think that there’s any evidence to suggest that the next administration, whether it’s Republican or Democrat, will be less interventionist in the Muslim world?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, if we look at the remaining Republican candidates, they are all clearly different flavors, but they’re all militarists. I would certainly evaluate Secretary Clinton as an exceedingly hawkish Democrat. Her principal achievement, if you want to call it that, as secretary of state was in pushing the intervention in Libya, which has produced catastrophic consequences.

Senator Sanders, however, is largely—it seems to me, hasn’t laid out his position. One might anticipate that given his general left-leaning view of the world, that he might be somewhat less inclined to rely on U.S. military power, might be more willing to consider alternatives to military power, but he has not yet, at least to my knowledge, really spelled out in detail where he stands on these matters. And frankly, I wish he would. I think he—I think he needs to, in order to move his candidacy beyond the economic and social justice themes that have been the core of his campaign thus far.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you know, last night at the Univision debate, we just played that clip of Bernie Sanders saying, overall, when he was talking about Latin America, everyone from Nicaragua to Chile and the ouster of the democratically elected leader Salvador Allende, said he was opposed to, you know, U.S. interventions for regime change. And then, this was Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders at the Democratic presidential debate in [New Hampshire] accusing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of being, quote, “too much into that regime change.”

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: There’s some difference of opinion with Secretary Clinton on this. Our differences are fairly deep on this issue. We disagreed on the war in Iraq. We both listened to the information from Bush and Cheney. I voted against the war.

But I think—and I say this with due respect—that I worry too much that Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change and a little bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences might be. Yes, we could get rid of Saddam Hussein, but that destabilized the entire region. Yes, we could get rid of Gaddafi, a terrible dictator, but that created a vacuum for ISIS. Yes, we could get rid of Assad tomorrow, but that would create another political vacuum that would benefit ISIS. So I think, yeah, regime change is easy, getting rid of dictators is easy. But before you do that, you’ve got to think about what happens the day after.

HILLARY CLINTON: Now, with all due respect, Senator, you voted for regime change with respect to Libya. You joined the Senate in voting to get rid of Gaddafi, and you asked that there be a Security Council validation of that with a resolution.

All of these are very difficult issues. I know that; I’ve been dealing with them for a long time. And, of course, we have to continue to do what is necessary when someone, like Gaddafi, a despot with American blood on his hands, is overturned. But I’ll tell you what would have happened. If we had not joined with our European partners and our Arab partners to assist the people in Libya, you would be looking at Syria. Now the Libyans are turning their attention to try to dislodge ISIS from its foothold and begin to try to move together to have a unified nation.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I was not the secretary of state.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at the debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, last year. Andrew Bacevich, respond.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think that she’s putting a fairly optimistic take on the prognosis in Libya. And I think Senator Sanders’s critique of her interventionism, her penchant for interventionism, deserves a far more serious response than she offers. She tends to shrug off the Iraq vote. She tends to shrug off the Libya experience as, you know, “Well, we did our best, and so what?” And I think that my point here is not—

AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t she just trying to get away from it?

ANDREW BACEVICH: —is not the partisan one—

AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t she just trying to get away from it, because, I mean, that you could say that that’s one of the key reasons that President Obama is president today? He opposed the Iraq War, and she voted for it. And now she’s dealing with the same thing with Bernie Sanders, who continually raises that key issue, that she voted for war with Iraq.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yes, but the point here really is one that needs to look beyond partisanship. That is to say, who gets the better in these debates? The real issue that, it seems to me, never gets fully addressed is this larger question of what the militarization of U.S. policy, in particular, in the Islamic world has yielded over a period of now several decades. The issue is not, specifically, what went right or wrong in Iraq, right or wrong in Libya. The issue really is, given the magnitude of the U.S. military involvement in the region, in one country after another, whether our purposes were supposedly to bring order, spread democracy, pacify, advance human rights, the total sum of our activity has produced next to nothing that is positive, has imposed great costs on ourselves and on many other nations and peoples, and shows no evidence of producing anything more positive tomorrow or the next year. So there is a need to take stock of U.S. military involvement in the region to recognize its failure, and therefore to consider alternatives. And it’s my personal judgment that there are alternatives to the militarization of U.S. policy. And quite frankly, I’d like to hear Senator Sanders be the one to begin to articulate what those alternatives might be.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And in your view, Andrew Bacevich, what are some of the alternatives to the militarized foreign policy, U.S. foreign policy, that we’ve seen so far?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, let me give you, very briefly, a three-point strategy. First of all, point number one of this strategy is self-protection. Earlier, we talked about whether or not ISIS poses a particular threat to the United States. The threat’s minor. But we need to do a better job—certainly, we need to do a better job than we did on 9/11—at simply erecting barriers to keep the bad guys from getting at us. And that is primarily a function of domestic agencies—FBI, the Coast Guard, the TSA, border agencies. Keep the bad guys out.

Point number two in this strategy—and this alludes to my previous point about it is the nations in the region who are really affected by ISIS—point number two is to, as a diplomatic task, get those nations to recognize that they have a common interest in dealing with ISIS. Yes, they are divided among themselves on any variety—other variety of fronts—religious, sectarian, historical. But their common interest in dealing with ISIS is preeminent and ought to provide the basis for a collaboration against ISIS.

Point number three, again, the big question, the big issue, it seems to me—and I know that President Obama believes this—is the difficulty of some in the Islamic world of finding a path that will reconcile belief, faith, with secular modernity. Peaceful coexistence between the West and the Islamic world will require that reconciliation between faith and modernity occurring. But it has to occur on terms of the people within the region. So, point number three, really, of that strategy is to encourage that reconciliation; to demonstrate, through our own behavior, that faith and modernity need not be at odds; and to encourage exchanges—cultural, educational—between ourselves and, in particular, young people in the Islamic world, that will help demonstrate that we are not the enemy.

Now, that’s a strategy that does not involve U.S. military power in any significant way. It’s a strategy that would have to unfold over decades. But it is a preferable alternative to permanent war, and that’s where we are now.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, what is the media not asking? What is your critique of the media right now?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, my critique of the media is that they allow this preoccupation with what happened yesterday, the day before, to transcend or to remove any larger awareness of what the United States has attempted to do, has accomplished or not accomplished, and at what cost over a period of decades. I mean, for all practical purposes, the U.S.-Iraq War of 2003-2011 has already been forgotten, not to mention the U.S. war in Iraq of 1990-'91, not to mention U.S. involvement in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 1988. If you—if one takes on board that entire experience, military—U.S. military experience in and around Iraq over a period of decades, it's hard for me to imagine that you can look at what’s going on now and say, “Well, gosh, if we just defeat ISIS, everything is going to be—everything is going to be hunky-dory.” The media is too focused on the immediate past and ignores the deeper past.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to your piece, “Has Trump Already Won?: He Has Already Changed the Republican Party and American Democracy Forever.” But I want to start by playing two short clips. This is Trump this week responding to Anderson Cooper on CNN’s question of whether Islam is at war with the West.

DONALD TRUMP: I think Islam hates us. There’s something—there’s something there that—there’s a tremendous hatred there. There’s a tremendous hatred. We have to get to the bottom of it.

AMY GOODMAN: And now I want to turn to Donald Trump at the Republican debate in Greenville, South Carolina, Trump denouncing the Iraq War, calling it a “big, fat mistake.”

DONALD TRUMP: Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake. All right? Now, you can take it anywhere you want. And it took Jeb—it took Jeb Bush, if you remember, at the beginning of his announcement, when he announced for president, took him five days. He went back. It was a mistake, it wasn’t a mistake. Took him five days before his people told him what to say. And he ultimately said it was a mistake. The war in Iraq, we spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives. We don’t even have it. Iran is taking over Iraq, with the second-largest oil reserves in the world. Obviously, it was a mistake.


DONALD TRUMP: George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes, but that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: So there was Donald Trump taking on Jeb Bush, George Bush’s brother. He would then pull out of the race. And today, actually, Jeb Bush is meeting with Kasich, Rubio and Cruz, but not meeting with Trump, before the big debate tonight. But look at those two quotes, Andrew Bacevich, fitting in with saying Muslims should be banned from the U.S., saying Islam hates America, and then George Bush lied about the—lied us into the Iraq War.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, the Iraq War was a big, fat mistake. I mean, Trump, in many respects, is a blowhard, but from time to time he actually says something that is true. What’s not true is his characterization of Islam. It’s not simply that it’s not true; it’s that it’s utterly counterproductive. It cannot provide the basis for any sort of meaningful policy, unless somehow or other a president Trump would be interested in promoting some sort of Armageddon-like conflict between the West and Islam.

I mean, my—one of my points with regard to Trump is this. There are those who compare him to a fascist. I don’t think he’s a fascist, because however evil it may have been, fascism did imply some sort of a coherent ideology. Trump has no ideology. He shoots from the hip. He contradicts himself. He speaks in generalities. He has a remarkable aptitude, I think, for manipulating and exacerbating anger and alienation in a certain part of the American population. So he’s not so much a fascist, I think, as he is a representative of a kind of a personality cult. And in a sense, that would make him that much more dangerous, were he ever to become president, because we actually don’t know what he stands for, and therefore what he would do if in the position of commander-in-chief.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you’ve suggested that departing from U.S. foreign policy orthodoxy often has fatal consequences. And I want to ask about another point that Trump has made, and this on Russia. In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper in October, Trump was asked about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Trump denounced Snowden and said he would get along very well with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

DONALD TRUMP: I think he’s a total traitor. And I would deal with him harshly. And if I were president, Putin would give him over. I would get along with Putin. I’ve dealt with Russia. Putin hates—

ANDERSON COOPER: You think you’d get along with Putin?

DONALD TRUMP: I think I’d get along with him fine. I think he’d be absolutely fine.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Trump speaking to CNN’s Anderson Cooper in October, saying that he, Trump, would get along very well with Putin. In December, Trump defended Putin after the Russian president called Trump a, quote, “very colorful, talented person.” Trump responded by saying it is, quote, “a great honor to be so nicely complimented.” In a series of interviews, Trump disputed reports of the Kremlin’s involvement in the killing of journalists, saying, quote, “Our country does plenty of killing also.” Andrew Bacevich, your response?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, I think it’s frankly a bit silly to talk about the relationship with the leader of Russia in terms of “getting along with.” Putin is not interested in, quote-unquote, “getting along with” the United States. Putin is a—is a thug. But in his own way, he is a relatively serious statesman playing a game that is defined by power and interests. I think, in many respects, Putin’s primary interest is trying to maintain his status within Russia at a time when the Russian economy is clearly having a very difficult time. So, a posture of blustering, of insisting upon the rest of the world giving respect to Russia, the respect that it deserves, plays well, I think, with his domestic constituents and helps to ease his domestic problems. But the notion that Putin wants to get along well with us, I think, is frankly absurd.

But what’s also, of course, not to be admitted, I think, or acknowledged or accepted is that Russia actually represents a very limited threat to the United States of America. There are those on the right in the United States who somehow think that Putin’s Russia can be equated to Stalin’s Soviet Union, and therefore every time Putin exercises a modest amount of muscle, that somehow that ought to lead to a U.S. military response. I think that that also would be a reckless way to approach Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: We don’t hear very much about nuclear weapons. Why do you think this is a key question that is being missed for all of these candidates to have to address, Professor Bacevich?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, it beats me. I mean, I am astonished that there has been so little attention given to the Obama administration’s announced plans to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal with smaller nuclear weapons, which, to some people, might sound reassuring. “Smaller” means, actually, more usable and, arguably, more likely to be used. The modernization program involves new ballistic missiles, a new manned bomber for the Air Force, new missile-launching submarines. This is a program—it’s publicly announced—that probably will cost a trillion dollars or more between now and its projected completion, roughly around 2045, in time for the 100th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Neither party, certainly none of the candidates, to my knowledge, have questioned whether this is going to be money well spent, why we need an expanded arsenal, how this plays with regard to the professions by, what, the last 10 presidents, all of whom have indicated that they would like to see nuclear weapons eliminated altogether. It’s another blindspot, it seems to me, in our political discourse that is baffling.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, another point that you raise that’s missing from the debates is the fact, as you say, that U.S. forces are today active in 147 countries around the world. You ask why there are troops in so many countries, saying this question can’t really be posed, because “[t]o answer it is to expose the real purpose of American globalism, which means, of course, that none of the candidates will touch it with a 10-foot pole.” Could you tell us what the answer to that question is, why U.S. troops are stationed in 147 countries and what it says about the real purpose of American globalism?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, if we compared why they’re in country A versus country B, the immediate rationale is going to differ. But when we consider that profile, the global profile that you just referred to—and that’s a global profile which has expanded in recent years but certainly has been enormous since the beginning of the Cold War, a military presence orders of magnitude greater than that of any other significant power on the face of the Earth—why are we doing that? Well, because people in Washington believe that military power, military presence, the projection of force, that these translate into influence that benefits the United States. They believe that that influence then translates into security for the United States of America. Many of them even believe that that translates into enhancing the well-being of the rest of the world. And I think that that’s a—it’s a notion implicit in U.S. national security strategy, therefore never examined, never questioned. And I think that posing those questions, it’s past time, because there’s plenty of evidence that the U.S. military presence may, in some places, contribute to stability, but in many other places it actually contributes to instability, at great cost to ourselves and others.

AMY GOODMAN: Also not mentioned at last night’s debate was the fact that the U.S. just bombed Somalia, killed 150 people. We’re told they believe that they’re militants at a training camp. It looks like the Pentagon first appeared to have initially tried to cover up the fact that it was not just drones, but also manned attacks. This is a country we are not officially at war with, and this week we first killed 150 people, the U.S. military, and now, in the last hours, another 19.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, exactly. So this—we used to call it the war on terrorism; I’m not sure if that term is actually still in circulation. But this enterprise, this war, this series of campaigns, continues to evolve, continues to expand. The authority of the president to make war wherever he chooses to now seemingly—is now seemingly beyond any sort of question. The Constitution, in that regard, has simply been thrown out the window. And to circle back to the fact that we’re in a political season, virtually none of this is discussed. Virtually none of this becomes a subject of the moderators at these interminable debates. It’s simply taken for granted that we—that war has become a normal condition.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I want to thank you, Andrew Bacevich, for joining us, retired colonel, Vietnam War veteran. His recent piece for The Nation, “The Six Questions Missing from the 2016 Election Debates.” His new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, will be published next month. He’s professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University. Among his other books, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a debate on who would beat Donald Trump. Stay with us.

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