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Demonization of Iran Is a “Mistake” That Has Trapped the U.S. in Perpetual Middle East Conflict

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After the Biden administration launched airstrikes targeting an Iranian-backed militia in Syria and Iraq, military historian Andrew Bacevich says the United States needs to reassess its decades-long hostility toward Iran. “The demonization of Iran is now a well-established reality of our contemporary politics. It’s a mistake,” he says. “Over the past 40 years or so, we’ve decided that Iran needs to be classified as an evil power, and I think that that inclination makes it very difficult for us to come to a reasoned understanding of how we got so deeply enmeshed in the Persian Gulf and how it is that we end up basically in the pocket of the Saudis.” Bacevich also discusses the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and warns that a Taliban takeover of the country could spark another refugee crisis.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the constant targeting of Iran as a justification for everything that has happened — you yourself received a letter, you wrote about in The Boston Globe, from a law firm to join a class-action suit on the loss of your son because Iran was responsible for the Iraq War — going right to this latest attack on Syria and Iraq by the Biden administration — the second time it did this — citing Iranian-backed militias, at the same time that the U.S. is supposedly attempting to rejoin the U.S. nuclear pact that Trump pulled out of?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, the demonization of Iran is now a well-established sort of reality of our contemporary politics. I think it’s a — it’s a mistake. You know, we have a narrative that describes U.S.-Iranian relations that dates back to the hostage crisis of the late 1970s. Our narrative doesn’t include anything that happened before then. Our narrative does not include the CIA’s overthrow of Iranian President Mosaddegh back in the early 1950s. And so, over the past 40 years or so, we’ve decided that Iran needs to be classified as an evil power, and I think that that inclination makes it very difficult for us to come to a reasoned understanding of how we got so deeply enmeshed in the Persian Gulf and how it is that we end up basically in the pocket of the Saudis, who do not share our values, who do not share our interests, and taking their side in their competition with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I don’t want to sound like I’m an Iranian apologist. Theirs is an oppressive government that denies basic freedoms. I do think it would be reasonable for us to at least acknowledge that Iran has its own security interests.

You know, think about 9/11 and its aftermath. George W. Bush declares a “global war on terrorism.” He singles out what he calls the “axis of evil” — Iraq, Iran, North Korea — as the principal targets. We’re going to war, and we’re going to war against the axis of evil. George W. Bush announces the Bush doctrine, which grants us the right, the prerogative, to wage preventive war. In other words, we can go — we claim the prerogative of waging war against whoever we want to. George W. Bush then implements that claim by invading Iraq in 2003.

Well, what the heck would be the response of Iranian leaders to that set of circumstances? I think, quite logically, they would say, “Wait a second. We’re next on the hit list. If the Americans succeed in achieving their objectives in Iraq, then the Americans are going to come back after us.” And therefore, the Iranian response, I think, was quite logical. That is to say, Iran did whatever it could to assist the Iraqi resistance to the U.S. occupation, which occurred, of course, as a result of initiating an illegal war. I’m not defending the Iranian government, but I think that their behavior was quite rational, one might even say justified.

And until we, as a nation, until our political leaders are willing to take on that perspective, I think it will be very difficult for us to come to a more reasoned and balanced approach to U.S. policy in that part of the world. And quite frankly, something of the same logic applies to the way that people in Washington today are talking about the challenges posed by the People’s Republic of China. I think a first principle of strategy needs to be to try to look at the situation from the perspective of the other side. Only then is it possible to avoid the kind of errors that have plagued us in our use of military power since 9/11.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Andrew, I’d like to ask about Afghanistan, the U.S., the Biden administration making the decision to bring the longest war in U.S. history to a close, U.S. troops — most U.S. troops likely to withdraw within days. Now, many people — there was the intelligence assessment that was just revealed earlier this week that Afghanistan could fall to the Taliban; the present regime, the present administration of Ashraf Ghani, could fall within six months of the U.S. withdrawal; others warning of a possible civil war with the U.S. withdrawal. Now, you’ve said, even as a staunch advocate of American withdrawal from Afghanistan, that the U.S. withdrawal does not absolve the U.S. of responsibility for what comes next. What do you see as that responsibility? And what do you anticipate happening in Afghanistan?

ANDREW BACEVICH: You know, I tell you, the events seem to be moving so quickly there, it’s hard to keep up with them. We had that interview by General Scott Miller, the U.S. general commanding the remnant of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, that was strikingly candid and, I thought, pessimistic. So, things could fall apart there more quickly than I think almost anyone realizes. We’ll see. Nothing is guaranteed.

But what’s our responsibility? It’s moral. It’s humanitarian. First of all, we have a responsibility to Afghans who supported the U.S. effort over the past two decades. If they want to leave, we need to make it possible for them to leave. That means accelerating the approval of special visas for those individuals and their families to leave the country and come to the United States, if they wish to do so. My general sense is that there’s a recognition of the moral imperative of doing that, but not a heck of a lot of urgency. It’s also possible, just as with what happened after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan back in 1979, that there could be a major refugee problem that stems out of any return of the Taliban to power. We need to own that. We need to be acting now to try to prepare for providing assistance to refugees who leave Afghanistan and go to neighboring countries.

But I think there are also — beyond the moral question, there is a strategic issue. And the strategic issue centers on, A, the realization that our military efforts, along with our coalition partners, our efforts to create a legitimate government in Kabul, supported by effective security forces, that effort has definitively failed. And so what? Well, the “so what” is that there will be other nations in the region that have a shared interest in preventing Afghanistan from descending into absolute chaos. You referenced the reports of Afghan militias preparing themselves for what will, in effect, be a civil war. We need to engage with neighboring countries that have — that share our interest in preventing that chaos from occurring. No guarantee that we can prevent that. Ultimately, Afghans are going to decide the fate of Afghanistan. But neighbors can have some influence on the course of events. This is the time for creative and intensive diplomacy on our part.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, Professor Bacevich, why did you title your book After the Apocalypse?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I wrote it — I wrote it last year. And I wrote it last year when the word “apocalypse” or “apocalyptic” were becoming pretty commonplace in media reporting. What was this all about? Well, it was about — I noticed in your lead-in, Amy, you referred to the “climate crisis.” And I realized I’m always referring to things like “climate change.” No, you’re right. We’re in the midst of a climate crisis — the climate crisis, combined with the coronavirus crisis, combined with an economic crisis, combined with the crisis of the incompetent, dishonest Trump presidency, combined with the crisis of wars we don’t know how to shut down. So I was trying to write a book that was going to reflect on how this collection, unprecedented collection, of crises confronting the nation should lead us to rethink the role that we play in the world. And so, that’s — it’s a short book, but that’s basically what the book is about.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, I want to thank you for being with us, president and co-founder of the antiwar think tank Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, retired colonel, Vietnam War veteran, professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University. His new book, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed.

When we come back, we look at Ethiopia. Stay with us.

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