Ending Endless War: Andrew Bacevich on How Reckless Use of U.S. Military Power Caused Today’s Crisis

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President Trump has announced sanctions will be lifted on Turkey as a ceasefire remains in place in northern Syria, where Turkey invaded earlier this month after Trump withdrew U.S. troops. On Tuesday, Turkey reached an agreement with Russia that would force Syrian Kurdish forces to retreat from a wide swath of the Syrian-Turkish border. The United Nations is reporting Turkey’s offensive in northern Syria has displaced over 176,000 people, including nearly 80,000 children. The Turkish assault also led to a number of former ISIS fighters escaping from jail in northern Syria. We speak with Andrew Bacevich, co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of several books. He is professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University. “I think in any discussion of our wars, ongoing wars, it’s important to set them in some broader historical context,” Bachevich says. “To a very great extent, we created the problems that exist today through our reckless use of American military power.”

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Video squareStoryOct 17, 2019Rep. Ro Khanna: We Need a Responsible Withdrawal from Syria, Not One Oblivious to Human Life
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show in the Middle East. President Trump has announced sanctions will be lifted on Turkey as a ceasefire remains in place in northern Syria. Turkey invaded the region earlier this month after Trump withdrew support for Syrian Kurds who had helped the U.S. fight the Islamic State. While Turkey has halted its military offensive, it’s retaining control of Syrian land seized since October 9th. On Tuesday, Turkey reached an agreement with Russia that would force Syrian Kurdish forces to retreat from a wide swath of the Syrian-Turkish border. Under the deal, Turkey and Russia would carry out joint patrols of the border region. On Wednesday, President Trump vowed to pursue a new course for the United States.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: How many Americans must die in the Middle East in the midst of these ancient sectarian and tribal conflicts? After all of the precious blood and treasure America has poured into the deserts of the Middle East, I am committed to pursuing a different course, one that leads to victory for America.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: While President Trump had vowed to remove U.S. troops from Syria, he did acknowledge that some U.S. troops would stay to guard oil fields.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have secured the oil, and therefore a small number of U.S. troops will remain in the area where they have the oil. And we’re going to be protecting it, and we’ll be deciding what we’re going to do with it in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported dozens of people have been killed in Turkey’s offensive. The United Nations has said 176,000 people have been displaced, including nearly 80,000 children. Critical civilian infrastructure has been damaged. The Turkish assault also led to a number of former ISIS fighters escaping from jail in northern Syria. On Wednesday, President Trump claimed the ISIS fighters had been, quote, “largely recaptured.”

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There were a few that got out — a small number, relatively speaking — and they’ve been largely recaptured.

AMY GOODMAN: But on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper acknowledged more than a hundred ISIS fighters have escaped.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK ESPER: Based on the intelligence we have, the reporting we have, of the 11,000 or so detainees that were in prisons in northeast Syria, we’ve only had reports of a little bit more than a hundred that have escaped.

AMY GOODMAN: Esper was speaking on CNN. We’re joined now by Andrew Bacevich, co-founder of the new think tank Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He’s the author of several books, including his latest, Twilight of the American Century and America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. He’s professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University. He’s also a retired colonel and Vietnam veteran. His latest article for The Spectator USA is headlined “Does Trump have a better idea than endless wars?”

Well, let’s begin there. Andrew Bacevich, can you respond to President Trump pulling the U.S. troops away from this area in northern Syria, though saying he will keep them to guard oil fields?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, first of all, I think it’s very — we should avoid taking anything that he says at any particular moment too seriously. Clearly, he is all over the map on almost any issue that you can name. I found his comment about taking the oil in that part of Syria, as if we’re going to decide how to dispose of it, to be striking. And yet, of course, it sort of harkens back to his campaign statement about the Iraq War, that we ought to have taken Iraq’s oil as a way of paying for that war. So, I just caution against taking anything he says that seriously.

That said, clearly, a recurring theme to which he returns over and over and over again is his determination to end what he calls endless wars. He clearly has no particular strategy or plan for how to do that, but he does seem to be insistent on pursuing that objective. And here, I think we begin to get to the real significance of the controversy over Syria in our abandonment of the Kurds.

Let’s stipulate. U.S. abandonment of the Kurds was wrong. It was callous. It was immoral. It was not the first betrayal by the United States in our history, but the fact that there were others certainly doesn’t excuse this one. But apart from those concerned about the humanitarian aspect of this crisis — and not for a second do I question the sincerity of people who are worried about the Kurds — it seems to me that the controversy has gotten as big as it is in part because members of the foreign policy establishment, in both parties, are concerned about what an effort to end endless wars would mean for the larger architecture of U.S. national security policy, which has been based on keeping U.S. troops in hundreds of bases around the world, maintaining the huge military budget, a pattern of interventionism. Trump seems to think that that has been a mistake, particularly in the Middle East. I happen to agree with that critique. And I think that it is a fear that he could somehow engineer a fundamental change in U.S. policy is what really has the foreign policy establishment nervous.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, as you mentioned, Professor Bacevich, Trump has come under bipartisan criticism for this decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was one of the many Republicans to criticize Trump for his decision. In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, McConnell writes, quote, “We saw humanitarian disaster and a terrorist free-for-all after we abandoned Afghanistan in the 1990s, laying the groundwork for 9/11. We saw the Islamic State flourish in Iraq after President Barack Obama’s retreat. We will see these things anew in Syria and Afghanistan if we abandon our partners and retreat from these conflicts before they are won.” He also writes, quote, “As neo-isolationism rears its head on both the left and the right, we can expect to hear more talk of 'endless wars.' But rhetoric cannot change the fact that wars do not just end; wars are won or lost.” So, Professor Bacevich, could you respond to that and how accurate you think an assessment of that is, both what he says about Afghanistan and what’s likely to happen now with the U.S. withdrawal?

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think in any discussion of our wars, ongoing wars, it’s important to set them in some broader historical context than Senator McConnell will probably entertain. I mean, to a very great extent — not entirely, but to a very great extent — we created the problems that exist today through our reckless use of American military power.

People like McConnell and, I think, other members of the political establishment, even members of the mainstream media — The New York Times, The Washington Post — have yet to reckon with the catastrophic consequences of the U.S. invasion of Iraq back in 2003. And if you focus your attention at that start point — you could choose another start point, but if you focus your attention at that start point, then it seems to me that leads you to a different conclusion about the crisis that we’re dealing with right now. That is to say, people like McConnell want to stay the course. They want to maintain the U.S. presence in Syria, U.S. military presence. But if we look at what the U.S. military presence in that region, not simply Syria, has produced over the course of almost two decades, then you have to ask yourself: How is it that we think that simply staying the course is going to produce any more positive results?

It is appalling what Turkey has done to Syrian Kurds and the casualties they have inflicted and the number of people that have been displaced. But guess what. The casualties that we inflicted — the casualties that we inflicted and the number of people that we displaced far outnumbers what Turkey has done over the last week or so. So, I think that we need to push back against this tendency to oversimplify the circumstance, because oversimplifying the circumstance doesn’t help us fully appreciate the causes of this mess that we’re in.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to our discussion. We’re talking to professor Andrew Bacevich, retired colonel, Vietnam War veteran, co-founder of the Quincy Institute, a new Washington think tank, author of several books, including Twilight of the American Century, professor emeritus at Boston University. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with him in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Tuum” by Fridge. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. In a moment, we’re going to be going to talk about the impeachment proceedings. But right now we’re sticking with professor Andrew Bacevich, a professor emeritus at Boston University, who has formed a new group called the Quincy Institute. And we’re going to ask him about that, as well. But we’re talking about the latest developments right now in northern Syria. Presidents Erdogan and Putin met in Sochi, Russia. They’ve agreed that Turkish and Russian forces will now patrol the area of northern Syria, pushing out the Kurds in that region, as a result of the U.S. pulling out U.S. troops there. Over 175,000 Kurds have been displaced.

There is a Democratic-Republican consensus attacking President Trump for his sudden action, but I’d like now to turn to Democratic Congressmember [of] California Ro Khanna, who has long advocated for withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Middle East. We spoke to him earlier this month and asked him why he was critical of Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria.

REP. RO KHANNA: We can’t just get involved in a place and then walk away and not have some moral responsibility. We have a moral responsibility not just to the Kurds who fought with us against ISIS. We have a moral responsibility to accept Syrian refugees. We have a moral responsibility to help rebuild a society that was ravaged by civil war, where we were involved. … Well, I have called for responsible withdrawal, but not a withdrawal that is oblivious to human life in Syria or to American interests in Syria. President Trump, at the very first instance, should have notified the Kurds about what our intentions were, and notified our allies.

Well, I have called for responsible withdrawal, but not a withdrawal that is oblivious to human life in Syria or to American interests in Syria. President Trump, at the very first instance, should have notified the Kurds about what our intentions were, and notified our allies.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s California Congressmember Ro Khanna. Professor Bacevich, if you could respond to what you’ve talked about, the poking of this beast, of the pro-war establishment. Rarely, rarely do you have Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, speaking out in the Senate against President Trump, not to mention his views being echoed by many Democrats. Ro Khanna is one of the few who is raising concern about just condemning Trump for withdrawing the troops, but he’s saying it’s the way he did it. Can you respond to him talking about the moral imperatives the U.S. has now, having been there protecting the Kurds for a long period of time?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think Congressman Khanna makes the essential point, that there is a need for the United States to lower its military profile in the greater Middle East, because our military actions have been mightily destructive. They have not advanced our interests. They have not advanced the cause of peace and security. But, yes, that needs to be done responsibly. And this president is incapable of actually acting in a responsible way, if that means thinking ahead of time about what series of steps could lead to a U.S. withdrawal while minimizing the negative impact on people like the Kurds.

And sadly, of course — not that Trump seems inclined to take advice from anybody — but sadly, Trump is surrounded by so-called advisers who are themselves incapable or unwilling to think about such a deliberate and carefully thought-out withdrawal. And so we have this president who is given to impulsive statements and impulsive actions, who doesn’t have people around him who can help correct that tendency. But what Congressman Khanna said is exactly correct, in my judgment.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, during his address Wednesday, President Trump also said the Middle East was less safe now than it was prior to U.S. intervention in the region.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have spent $8 trillion on wars in the Middle East, never really wanting to win those wars. But after all that money was spent and all those lives lost, the young men and women gravely wounded, so many, the Middle East is less safe, less stable and less secure than before these conflicts began.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s Trump speaking Wednesday. I’d like to go back now to the Democratic presidential debate earlier this month. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren said U.S. troops should withdraw from the Middle East, but her campaign later issued a statement saying she meant to say not the Middle East, but Syria. This is what Warren said during the debate.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: I think that we ought to get out of the Middle East. I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East. But we have to do it the right way, the smart way. What this president has done is that he has sucked up to dictators, he has made impulsive decisions that often his own team doesn’t understand, he has cut and run on our allies, and he has enriched himself at the expense of the United States of America. In Syria, he has created a bigger-than-ever humanitarian crisis. He has helped ISIS get another foothold, a new lease on life.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s Senator Elizabeth Warren speaking earlier this month at the Democratic presidential debate. Professor Bacevich, could you respond to that and, in particular, the Warren campaign saying that she meant Syria and not the Middle East, after she clearly said during the debate the U.S. should withdraw from the Middle East?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yeah, I regret that the campaign felt called upon to correct her, you know, that this is what she actually meant to say. It seemed to me that what she said is correct. That is to say, she said we need to get out the right way and the smart way. That is to say, there needs to be a plan. There needs to be a series of steps. There needs to be an assessment of risk. There needs to be some kind of a backstop. And quite frankly, I think she’s probably smart enough, in my dealings with her, that she would be able to put together, with her advisers, that smart plan. So, why her campaign felt obliged to walk back that statement is beyond me.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, you’re speaking to us from her district, from her state, from Massachusetts. You’re one of her constituents. Well, you know, she was responding to Tulsi Gabbard, so I’d like to turn to her political rival, Democratic presidential hopeful Hawaii Congressmember Tulsi Gabbard, speaking also at the debate.

REP. TULSI GABBARD: Donald Trump has the blood of the Kurds on his hand, but so do many of the politicians in our country, from both parties, who have supported this ongoing regime change war in Syria that started in 2011, along with many in the mainstream media, who have been championing and cheerleading this regime change war. … As president, I will end these regime change wars by doing two things: ending the draconian sanctions, that are really a modern-day siege, the likes of which we are seeing Saudi Arabia wage against Yemen, that have caused tens and thousands of Syrian civilians to die and to starve, and I would make sure that we stop supporting terrorists like al-Qaeda in Syria who have been the ground force in this ongoing regime change war.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Tulsi Gabbard. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has accused the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Gabbard, of being groomed by Russia to run as a third-party candidate — again, without offering any evidence. In response, Gabbard said, quote, “You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long, have finally come out from behind the curtain,” Gabbard said, addressing Hillary Clinton. Andrew Bacevich, can you talk about this brewing battle right now?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I don’t want to get in the middle of these smears being flung back and forth, and I understand that Congresswoman Gabbard is in some respects a radioactive figure these days, but it seems to me that she was making a very essential point. You know, the Democrats are in the middle of a campaign to oust the most incompetent president that we have ever had, and therefore there is a strong tendency to charge Trump with having screwed everything up. And what Gabbard is pointing out — and it is an important, legitimate point — is that the mess that is the Middle East today is a product of actions caused by several administrations from both parties.

So this is not a situation that Trump created. Indeed, it’s a situation that Trump inherited. In his bumbling way, he seems to have a wish to extricate the United States from this mess, although, as I said previously, he actually has no idea how to do that in a meaningful way. But I think it is important for us to not lose sight of the fact that the catastrophic trajectory of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is the responsibility of both parties and several administrations. If we can’t acknowledge that history, then it seems to me we’re not going to be able to make the necessary correctives.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to ask about the situation in Afghanistan. When Trump took office, there were about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan. But under his administration, that number has risen to about 14,000. The New York Times has reported the U.S. has been quietly withdrawing some troops from the country. On Monday, the top American commander in Afghanistan said about 2,000 U.S. troops have left Afghanistan over the last year. There are still between 12,000 and 13,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country. Meanwhile, the United Nations had said civilian casualties have reached a new high in Afghanistan. A record 4,300 civilians were injured or killed in the country between July and September this year. These are the highest figures since the U.N. began counting in 2009. This comes as the U.S. is intensifying its air war. Last month, U.S. Air Force aircraft dropped 948 missiles and bombs, more than in any month in the last five years. So, Professor Bacevich, could you comment on that? And how is it that if Trump is intent on ending endless wars, he increased the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, again, you know, if we are intending to try to find consistency in the Trump administration, we’re going to look for a long, long time. And there clearly is a gap between the rhetoric of endless war — ending endless wars and the reality of what the United States military has been doing.

But what really matters here, it seems to me, is to acknowledge that the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, going on for 18 years now, has in fact failed. Remember, we launched this as Operation Enduring Freedom. The name has been changed since, but Operation Enduring Freedom. And we entered Afghanistan, with some coalition partners, intent on creating a stable, modern, democratic state that would recognize human rights. We have had — the numbers of troops on the ground over the course of time has varied, gone up, gone down, gone back up. Fact of the matter is, we have failed in Afghanistan.

So, it seems to me that both the politically appropriate and also the moral course of action is to acknowledge that failure and, again, to undertake a deliberate, smart withdrawal from this war. There have, of course, been peace negotiations underway with the Taliban for some period of time. There was a moment when it appeared that the Trump administration was fairly close to closing a deal with the Taliban. I’m not a Taliban apologist; I regret the fact that they may well end up regaining control of that country. But I don’t believe that the United States or anybody else is in a position to dictate the future of Afghanistan. We are not the first empire to have imagined that we could do that and to have come up short.

And finally, again, the failure in Afghanistan is partly Trump’s failure, but it is also a failure of Barack Obama and George W. Bush and the various people who advised them, and the various generals who have been assigned responsibility for waging this war, none of whom have been able to accomplish their assigned mission.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Bacevich, you’re going to stay with us for our impeachment discussion. But just very briefly, we identified you as the head of a new organization, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Is it accurate to say this will be a new antiwar think tank?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yes. I’m not sure why Washington needs another think tank, but we think it can. We think that there is a need to introduce a different perspective in the debate over U.S. national security policy. We are antiwar. We are not anti-military. We are not isolationist. We are in favor of dialogue, creative diplomacy, to try to solve problems and advance the cause of peace. What the foreign policy establishment has done for us over the past 30, 40 years has done nothing to advance the cause of peace. And we think that the United States, as the most powerful country in the world, can do better.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, we want you to stay with us for our discussion about impeachment, retired colonel, Vietnam War vet, co-founder of the Quincy Institute. When we come back, we go to Capitol Hill, where Republican lawmakers stormed into a secure room to disrupt the impeachment proceedings of President Trump. Stay with us.

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