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Andrew Bacevich: The U.S. Needs to Abandon “Militarized Approach” to Middle East and Build Peace

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We continue our conversation with Andrew Bacevich, president and co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is a retired colonel, Vietnam War veteran and author of, most recently, of “The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.” Bacevich says the crisis with Iran, sparked by President Trump’s assassination of top general Qassem Soleimani, is just the latest in a long series of ill-advised American actions in the Middle East. “The only conceivable way for us to begin to extricate ourselves from this terrible mess in the region … is to abandon this militarized approach and to take a more balanced position with regard to the rivalries in the region,” Bacevich says.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. On Monday, I spoke with another retired colonel. That was U.S. Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff from 2002 to 2005. Wilkerson talked about how the U.S. worked with the Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, who Trump just had assassinated, how the U.S. worked with him to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan.

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Soleimani and his entourage were actually helping us in Afghanistan in 2001, early 2002, to fight the Taliban. We got indispensable help from Iran in that regard.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you elaborate on what Soleimani did back when you were in the Bush administration? You were working with him.

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, what we had in the first days of our reaction on Afghanistan was not really a military action. It was a CIA action. Donald Rumsfeld actually got furious with the Army because it couldn’t get into Afghanistan fast enough. If you look at a map, you will see why it couldn’t get into Afghanistan fast enough. Of course, we had to go over to Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and ask them for overflight rights and for logistics rights and so forth in order to even get into Afghanistan.

But what you had was you had essentially a war between the Taliban, Mullah Omar and his group, what was left of al-Qaeda, and the Northern Alliance, which the CIA had been supporting all along. They had killed Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir,” the guy who was really leading the Northern Alliance, too. Al-Qaeda had killed him about the same time they did the 9/11 attacks. So it was really chaotic.

When we did get some special operators in, and we got a lot of aircraft in with, of course, precision-guided munitions, then we began to turn the tide. And we began to get to a situation where — I can tell you, we were almost apoplectic at the time — we didn’t know who was going to invest Kabul. We didn’t know that we hadn’t just turned Kabul over to the Northern Alliance, and thus to a continuation of the last 30 years of warfare. So, we were very anxious to make sure everything worked the way we wanted it to after that so-called victory.

And one of the people — one of the groups that helped us the most, as you might imagine, were the Iranians, because the Iranians looked at the Taliban as their enemy, too. You may recall that the Taliban had killed some Iranian diplomats and others in the months prior. So the Iranians were all for our eliminating the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, and so pitched in to help.

As I said, once President Bush had given his speech about the “axis of evil” and included Iran in that, their desire to help was not quite as ardent as it was before. But they, nonetheless, realizing, as Iran almost always does — I hate these people who say they’re irrational. They’re far more rational than we are. Let me say that again: The leadership in Tehran is far more rational than the leadership in Washington. So, they decided they would continue to help us, because, after all, the enemy of my enemy — you know, all that old, good business about the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And they did in fact continue to help us, all the way through the Bonn conference. And Soleimani was part of that at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is a colonel who was deeply involved with this at the time, the chief of staff of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who gave that speech at the U.N. pushing for war, saying that there were weapons of mass destruction. That was Lawrence Wilkerson. He was responding to Pence tweeting out that Soleimani and his entourage were actually helping us in — he was saying that Pence’s words were laughable, that, you know, Pence had just recently — had just tweeted that Soleimani “Assisted in the clandestine travel to Afghanistan of 10 of the 12 terrorists who carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States,” trying to link Soleimani to the 9/11 attacks. So, he says that he actively supported fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. And as even Trump admitted yesterday in his speech, the Iranians were also fighting against ISIS. And if you can talk about that, that part of this, what is happening right now with this battleground, now going back to Iraq, a place you know very well, and taking out Soleimani, who was key in fighting ISIS?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Was that directed at me?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, Andrew Bacevich.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yes. I think Larry Wilkerson was making the key point. And that is that Iran is a nation-state that pursues its own interests. We tend to think — many Americans tend to think of Iran in ideological terms, that it’s a revolutionary state. Now, there is a veneer of ideology. There are these demonstrations in which people chant “Death to America.” It seems to me we would be wise to take all of that with a grain of salt — not to ignore it, but to not let that define our understanding of what to expect from Iran.

It would make far greater sense to assume that they were concerned with the security of their nation, the well-being of their people and the survival of the regime. We have, for far too long — we, the United States, have, for far too long, tended to view this part of the world through a Manichaean lens, in which there are good guys and there are bad guys. And we find ourselves in this peculiar situation where the Iranians are bad guys, and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia ends up being the good guys. This is absurd. That Manichaean perspective is one of the things I think that sustains the militarized approach to U.S. policy that we have been following in this region for decades now: the conviction that somehow the appropriate use of American military power is going to destroy the evildoers and enable the good guys to prevail. That hasn’t happened. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work.

And I do believe that the only conceivable way for us to begin to extricate ourselves from this terrible mess in the region — the instability, the chaos, the violence, that we have helped to stoke — the only way for us to begin to resolve that is to abandon this militarized approach and to take a more balanced position with regard to the rivalries in the region. We’re not for good guys versus bad guys. What we should be for is finding a way to end the instability and to create some semblance of peace. And the further use of American military power, which multiple administrations have now undertaken, the reliance on American military power, has not advanced our purposes and will not. And the beginning of wisdom lies in acknowledging that fact.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Professor Bacevich, I want to go back to 2017, when, in fact, President Trump indicated that the U.S. might not entirely be the good guys, as you said. This was just weeks after his inauguration in an interview with Fox host Bill O’Reilly. He was asked about his relationship to Putin. This is what he said.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I say it’s better to get along with Russia than not. And if Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS, which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world —


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: — major fight, that’s a good thing. Will I get along with him? I have no idea. It’s very possible I won’t.

BILL O’REILLY: He’s a killer, though. Putin’s a killer.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What? You think our country’s so innocent? Do you think our country’s so innocent?

BILL O’REILLY: I don’t know of any government leaders that are killers in America.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, take a look at what we’ve done, too. We’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve been against the war in Iraq from the beginning.

BILL O’REILLY: Yeah, mistakes are different than —

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There have been a lot of mistakes. OK, but a lot of people were killed. So —

BILL O’REILLY: All right.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: — a lot of killers around, believe me.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s President Trump, just newly inaugurated in February 2017, speaking to Bill O’Reilly, who’s of course no longer at Fox News. Your response, Professor Bacevich?

ANDREW BACEVICH: So you’re backing me into a corner, where I have to say something good about President Trump, because if he — who knows if he even knew what he was saying and whether — how serious he was in saying it?

But there is great wisdom in acknowledging that we are not innocent. We have not been innocent in the Middle East. We have not been innocent in the entire history of our republic, since 1776. We have enjoyed enormous success in accumulating wealth and power. But the process of accumulation has been one that involved doing evil things. Not all of it’s evil.

But I do believe that the president is absolutely right that if we are able to acknowledge that we are not innocent, then that is a point of departure for re-evaluating our role in the world at the present moment, because if we are not innocent, then that gives you a different perspective — for example, on this latest dust-up between the United States and Iran.

All of that said, one of the great difficulties with this president, that whatever he said on Tuesday, he’s almost certain to contradict by Thursday or the next week, and he reverses course. And so, it’s very, very difficult to — given all that he says, whether in speeches or in tweets, it’s very difficult to pull the threads of continuity out of his many remarks in order to ascertain what he really believes and what he really thinks, because he is such a contradictory figure.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, President Clinton famously bombed Iraq when he was being impeached. And then you have the president, Trump, as he’s being impeached and going to a Senate impeachment trial, assassinating Soleimani. You wrote, in an article last month, “If Ukraine Is Impeachable, What’s Afghanistan?” and you talk about Afghanistan being the far greater crime. If you can talk about what is happening in Washington right now? At the same time Trump is making his announcement yesterday about Iran, about Soleimani, about increased sanctions strangling Iran, on the same day, he’s meeting with the Senate majority leader, he’s meeting with Mitch McConnell, going through what this Senate impeachment trial will be.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, what I was referring to in the piece that you just referenced was the Afghanistan Papers, the documents that The Washington Post had revealed a couple weeks earlier, huge trove of documents, which demonstrated, beyond any doubt whatsoever, that the American people have been lied to about the Afghanistan War, the longest war in our country. We were constantly told that there was light at the end of the tunnel, when the people running the war understood that no progress was being made, when the people running the war themselves acknowledged that they had had no strategy, no understanding of the problem that they were dealing with.

And the point I was trying to make in that piece is, and I certainly look forward to the day when Trump is no longer in office, but if his — whatever we want to call it, his antics with regard to Ukraine, are worthy of impeachment, then, by God, what are we to say of a war that is now in its 19th year, that we have been lied to repeatedly, that has led to the loss of thousands of American lives, tens of thousands of American wounded, I think more than 100,000 Afghans dead, couple trillion dollars of money expended? I mean, how does that compare?

And my answer is that that is indeed a far greater crime. Now, that’s not a crime that necessarily we can pin on one particular individual. But in terms of an issue that demands scrutiny by our politicians, by the American people, I think Afghanistan is a far greater crime. And it saddens me greatly that here we are in the midst of the impeachment issue, now with the Iran crisis also having erupted — it saddens me greatly that the Afghanistan Papers have pretty much disappeared as an issue of any particular public interest. And I think that’s a failure on the part of the media not to have stuck with that and pursue the Afghanistan Papers’ revelations more deeply.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Professor Bacevich, before we conclude, I’d like to turn to your book, which, of course, explains, in part, how we got to where we are, especially the U.S. role in the Middle East, the broader Middle East. The book is called The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory. Now, you begin the book with an epigraph from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. The epigraph reads, quote, “In America, though, life seems to move faster than anywhere else on the globe and each generation is promised more than it will get: which creates, in each generation, a furious, bewildered rage, the rage of people who cannot find solid ground beneath their feet.” That’s James Baldwin, whom you quote in this book, The Age of Illusions. So, Professor Bacevich, explain why you chose that quote and your understanding of why the consensus that was reached by the foreign policy and military establishment elites following the Cold War, you say, led to the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

ANDREW BACEVICH: So, I believe that that quotation by James Baldwin captures where we were, where we came to be as a country by November 2016 and the election that installed Donald Trump in office. That is to say that a people who were bewildered and enraged, who felt that they had no place to stand, turned the country over to someone who is manifestly ill-equipped to serve as president, because they were intent on repudiating the policy consensus that had existed during the post-Cold War period. Now, that’s a phrase I use in the book to refer to the period, roughly quarter-century, between the end of the Cold War, fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989, to the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

1989, a moment of enormous euphoria, we believed we had won, we had triumphed. We believed, in the famous title of the essay by Francis Fukuyama, that “the end of history” had arrived. And I argue that a policy elite, from that moment on, set out to exploit what they believed as our great triumph.

And their exploitation took the form of some very specific notions. One of them was globalization, the conviction that corporate capitalism on a global scale was going to create unprecedented wealth and, they believed, work to the benefit of everyone. They also believed in a permanently supreme American military power that could keep order in the planet and bring about the further advance or export of American values.

And operationalizing those ideas, which is what the post-Cold War presidents — Clinton, Bush Jr. and Obama — did, led to results quite other than those expected. Globalization did make some people really, really rich. And it also created economic inequality that we have never seen in our nation, at least never seen since the end of the 19th century. It left behind millions and millions of Americans. And this notion of American military supremacy as enabling us to keep order and to export our values, well, all it did was to plunge us into a series of wars, some of which we don’t have any idea how to end.

So, I think what happened — there are lots of explanations for how Trump got elected. The earlier discussion of ads on Facebook, I’m sure, played a role. But my argument would be that the central explanation for Trump’s victory, that the election was a repudiation. It was Americans who were not served, and indeed were hurt, by the post-Cold War consensus saying, “No, we’re not going to put up with this anymore.”

Unfortunately, that led to the election of somebody who is utterly incapable of correcting the mistakes of the post-Cold War period, reuniting the country and putting us on a more sensible course, hence the continuation of this crisis, which will last throughout the Trump years and, in all likelihood, will last beyond the Trump years.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, we want to thank you for being with us, retired colonel, Vietnam War veteran, professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University, now president and co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His book is now out, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory. Andrew Bacevich lost his son in Iraq.

When we come back, inside China’s push to turn Muslim minorities into an army of workers. Stay with us.

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