(Andrew Bacevich talking with Bill Moyers)
Fire Dog Lake has some of the best book salons on the web. They run in real time for two hours with a web-based exchange between an author and FDL readers. I have had the pleasure of hosting two of these — one with Jacob Heilbrunn on his book, They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, and another with Jane Mayer on her best-selling The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals.
TPMCafe also does excellent salons — and this week, starting tomorrow (Monday), I’ll be participating with some others in a week long exchange with Pulitzer Prize winning author Barton Gellman on his book, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency. Should be an interesting week as well, and for those interested, my review of the Gellman book was published here.
But tonight, while in Germany, I got a note here that Andrew Bacevich, early Iraq War opponent and author of the new Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism was going to be online. I have become a genuine fan of Bacevichian thinking.
Bacevich’s commentary, moderated by Chris Hedges, is straight, blunt, level-headed and smartly strips down the Bush administration foreign policy disaster into its component pieces. And like an increasing number of others, Bacevich’s concerns are growing that Obama may have a tough time changing course. He’s keeping his powder dry on Obama though to see what his next appointments and first moves will be.
I have reposted below a good number of Andrew Bacevich’s responses to questions. I’m not going to post the questions as the answers themselves stand fine without them. There are a number that out to find their way into a book of aphorisms.
From Andrew Bacevich’s salon on Fire Dog Lake:
I’d say that we have entered an age that blends conspicuous consumption with corporate capitalism run amok and imperial overstretch. In short, the problem we face has multiple dimensions and won’t be easily fixed just because we are about to install a young, charismatic, and very smart president in the White House. One of the points I try to make in the book is that our predicament is in many ways a cultural one — we’ll need to change the culture to get out of this mess.
On the meaning of freedom: I hesitate to offer a definition. We live in a pluralist society so no one definition can possibly satisfy everyone. I believe, however, that any meaningful understanding of freedom has to be tethered to truth. The citizen reduced to consumer does not satisfy that standard.
What is the war on terror “about”?
My own view is this: the object of the exercise is to transform the Greater Middle East, thereby ensuring that this part of the world will no longer breed terrorists intent on killing us while also ensuring our access to strategically critical resources.
My guess is that different members of the administration entertained different meanings of “transformation.” For Cheney / Rumsfeld, transformation probably implied dominion or hegemony. For Bush / Wolfowitz, it probably meant something closer to the removal of tyrants and the export of democracy — pacification rather than dominion.
Regardless, the intent was to use American power — hard and soft — to bring about big change expected to be conducive to our interests.
Because the Bush administration both failed to understand the region of the world they set out to change and wildly overstated American power this scheme never had a chance of succeeding.
Whether Obama will embrace or junk the Global War on Terror as the organizing principle of US national security policy is certainly one of the $64 questions of the next six months.
The repudiation of the Iraq War that was at the center of his campaign early on made me hopeful that he’d junk the entire Bush approach to foreign policy.
Of late, I’m less hopeful — the promises to send more troops to Afghanistan strike me as simple-minded at best, more likely outright stupid.
I’ve come to believe that American Exceptionalism is the root of all evils.
Once you decide that you’re God’s new Chosen People, self-awareness becomes very difficult.
We need to shed our sense of uniqueness and our sense of entitlement. We need to become a normal nation.
Of course, that’s akin to saying that we should abandon our identity — which isn’t likely to happen.
If Obama persists in the GWOT — persistence is likely to mean gradual draw-down from Iraq combined with an intensified military effort in Afghanistan / Pakistan — then collapse will come when the army and the Marine Corps finally fall apart. That this has not already occurred is a tribute to the remarkable durability of the force. But that durability has limits. Once the services begin to deteriorate, the GWOT will be unsustainable.
Advice on Afghanistan: pay attention to history. Effective governance has never been exercised from Kabul. Local tribal leaders have always run the place. That should be okay with us so long as Al Qaeda is denied sanctuary. We should provide incentives to local leaders so that they will see it in their interest to keep Al Qaeda out.
Signs of the services falling apart will include the following:
Junior officers and career NCOs bailing out in large numbers (some evidence that this has already begun).
Reenlistment rates falling (this is not happening — very large re-up bonuses have been a factor).
Problems of indiscipline — AWOLs, drugs, malingering
Collective resistance — small units refusing to go on missions
Normal nations pay their bills.
Becoming a normal nation means having imports and exports in some sort of rough balance.
It means having a federal government that, genuine emergencies apart, is solvent.
It means not asserting prerogatives — such as the Bush Doctrine of preventive war — that are (rightly) denied to all others.
It means giving up on the delusion that we grasp history’s purpose and have a God-given responsibility to bring history to its intended destination.
The market can’t solve all of our problems but it can solve some of them. As the fossil fuel crisis worsens (costs plus environmental degradation) entrepreneurs will seize the moment to create alternative sources of energy. Won’t be neat, pretty, or cheap, but I don’t expect the country to grind to a halt. I do expect the country we end up with to look a lot different from the one we have now.
Within six months after 9/11 I had the impression that fear had pretty much dissipated everywhere except in Washington. Whenever Bush made some remark about the nation being “at war,” I sensed that apart from people in the military and those living inside the Beltway, no one knew what he was talking about.
The honor code to which officers subscribe is very real — and yet very limited.
Outright corruption — people being on the take — is relatively rare. So too is blatant lying.
But there is a subtler form of corruption that comes from being “loyal” to an institution such as the army and from wanting to get ahead in that institution. That’s the corruption that suppresses any inclination for critical thinking or for speaking candidly regardless of the personal consequences.
The military profession rewards courage of a certain type and is intolerant of other types of courage.
[Condoleezza Rice] not worth evaluating. She was an utter failure as national security adviser and is the least consequential secretary of state since Cordell Hull spent World War II being ignored by FDR.
On David Petraeus. . .Very smart, savvy, and politically sophisticated. His achievements in Iraq are real but less significant (and probably less permanent) than the current conventional wisdom suggests. A failure, in my mind, in his inability or refusal to face up to the defects of the GWOT as a basis for policy.
I find it distressing. The “support the troops” rhetoric generally makes me want to puke. I find it phony in the extreme. We should support the troops in ways more meaningful than fastening a bumper sticker to our SUVs. A good place to start would be to ensure that the troops are not subjected to abuse as they have been in recent years.
In response to my question on whether Obama will deploy game-changing strategies or not. . .
I’m waiting to see who he appoints to senior national security positions.
Will Kerry or Clinton as Sec State suggest that we are en route to “changing the way Washington works”? I don’t think so.
But that aside, the man is going to be mightily constrained by institutional and fiscal considerations — not to mention the fact that his election doesn’t change realities in Iran, Pakistan, the West Bank, etc.
I do wish the new president well, but he will almost inevitably disappoint those who view his election as evidence of deliverance.
— Steve Clemons