Andrew Bacevich — a Vietnam and Gulf War veteran, West Point graduate and self-described conservative — is not a stereotypical critic of America’s military invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Bacevich, former director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University, has emerged not only as a leading critic of those wars, but of the U.S. tendency toward imperialism in general. The tragic fact that Bacevich lost his son Andy, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, to a roadside bomb in Iraq two years ago lends his views significant moral weight.
In numerous books, speeches and op-eds, Bacevich has consistently criticized America’s interventionist foreign policy as misguided. He argues that the nation should focus more on its own formidable problems — rampant consumerism, a staggering national debt, dysfunctional political leadership — and less on trying to mold the rest of the world in its image. He’s also condemned the U.S. approach to the so-called “war on terror,” arguing that terrorist networks should be viewed as crime syndicates and fought with international police powers as opposed to military interventions.
“The threat is one that military power is not going to eliminate,” Bacevich told The Washington Diplomat in a wide-ranging telephone interview from Marfa, Texas, where he was in the midst of a month-long Lannan Foundation writer’s fellowship. “My own sense of what the Bush administration set out to do after 9/11 was to employ American hard power with the expectation that the U.S. could bring about a fundamental transformation of the Islamic world.
“They thought that by changing the Islamic world we would be able to eliminate the sources of violent, anti-Western jihadism,” he added. “Over the past eight-plus years we’ve seen the results of Iraq and Afghanistan. My own reading of those results is that we will exhaust our own reservoirs of power long before we succeed in bringing about the change the Bush people thought we could. I think a different approach is in order.”
Bacevich contends that the United States should tackle terrorist threats with a patient strategy similar to the containment tactics that the country employed during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. That would effectively allow the terrorists to self-combust, he believes.
“We should return to some modified version of containment with the expectation that, as was the case with the Soviet threat, in the long run the contradictions inherent in jihadism will result in its failure.”
That’s not to say Bacevich doesn’t view al-Qaeda and other violent extremist groups as a significant threat. “I recognize there are people who are conspiring to do us great harm,” he said. “My argument is not that we should be completely passive in the face of that threat. But rather than assuming the best way to deal with that threat is to invade and occupy countries, I think we could be more effective if we treated terrorist networks as if they were a religiously motivated mafia, and undertake an international police effort — well-resourced, sustained and comprehensive — and deal with the threat that way.”
Is there any indication that U.S. political leaders are considering this approach?
“I don’t know,” Bacevich said. “It’s difficult to tell at this point. I really don’t think President Obama is going to launch another invasion of some country, but on the other hand we have this gradually increasing military involvement in places like Pakistan and Yemen that leaves you wondering exactly what this administration intends. My guess is they don’t really have a clear sense. My guess is that there is a great deal of improvisation going on — ‘My gosh, there is a problem in Yemen. What are we going to do about that problem?’”
Bacevich asserts that over the past two decades, Americans came to embrace warfare more readily as highly sophisticated weaponry emerged, imbuing the public with an inordinate amount of faith in U.S. military might. He said the popular perception of an almost invincible American military took root after the precision air strikes of the 1991 Gulf War — a campaign that Bacevich argues wasn’t nearly as successful as the Pentagon and mass media wanted us to believe.
“For roughly a dozen years after Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Americans tended to indulge in a misleading understanding of modern warfare in which they entertained the expectation that high technology was making war controllable and clean,” Bacevich explained. “America’s technological edge was allowing us to undertake wars with very high expectations of being able to control the course of events and achieve rapid decisions. That was the image of warfare that prevailed throughout the 1990s, and the early stages of Afghanistan and Iraq. Since then, people have come to realize that the image of high-tech antiseptic warfare was a false one.
“I don’t think too many people buy into the notion today that with a handful of precision-guided munitions we can rather quickly dispatch any adversary in the world,” he continued. “That said, I don’t think Americans have replaced that fraudulent image of warfare with one that actually is realistic — that takes into account what we have seen and what the country has experienced in the past eight years or so.”
Bacevich also says that the relative success of the 2007 U.S. troop surge in Iraq allowed the American public to avoid asking hard questions about the justifications for and implications of war.
“You might have thought that the failures in Iraq would have produced a willingness to rethink our attitude toward military power,” he said. “One of the unfortunate results of the surge was that it nipped that inclination in the bud. Americans at the moment are eager to put Iraq behind them. They are not inclined to think deeply about the implications of the Iraq war. The dominant impression of the Iraq war is that at the end of the day we won a great victory. I think that verdict is incorrect. But it’s an impression that suits the Republicans, and ironically it also suits the Democrats. And it has been reinforced by media reporting and commentary that has been quite superficial.”
Yet the West Point grad stops short of sounding like a pure dove. Asked when use of American military force is justified, he quickly responds: “When vital interests are at stake, and as a last resort.”
According to Bacevich, Iraq never met those criteria. Afghanistan, immediately after 9/11, did. Today? Not so much, he says.
“It’s hard for me to persuade myself that we have vital interests at stake in [Afghanistan], and I don’t believe war there is a last resort,” he said. “If you focus specifically on the circumstances of 2001, it was necessary to take down the Taliban and to make it clear that any regime that provides sanctuary to anti-American terrorists would pay a very, very heavy price. It doesn’t follow that we need to stay in Afghanistan until the cows come home, which would seem to be the position we’re in right now.”
Bacevich said he was not surprised, but was disappointed when President Obama decided to escalate U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan late last year.
“The president came to office promising big change and I think in the realm of national security policy, the Afghanistan decision really was the made-to-order opportunity to make change. He muffed that opportunity,” Bacevich argues. “To my mind, it will be really difficult for him to reel that one back in and have another go of it. We’ll have to see how things turn out, but my own expectation is that his escalation of Afghanistan will prove to be a fateful decision and it won’t be good for the country and it’s not going to be good for his presidency.”
What would ultimately be good for Obama’s presidency — though perhaps not politically palpable — would be to have the courage to cut America’s losses in the face of insurmountable odds in Afghanistan, as Bacevich pointed out in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed. “Achieving even a semblance of success, however modestly defined, will require an Afghan government that gets its act together, larger and more competent Afghan security forces, thousands of additional reinforcements from allies already heading toward the exits, patience from economically distressed Americans as the administration shovels hundreds of billions of dollars toward Central Asia, and even greater patience from U.S. troops shouldering the burdens of seemingly perpetual war,” he wrote. “Above all, success will require convincing Afghans that the tens of thousands of heavily armed strangers in their midst represent Western beneficence rather than foreign occupation.”
But what about the oft-repeated argument — proffered perhaps most frequently by congressional Republicans — that America must take the fight to the terrorists before they bring it to us? Some say Afghanistan is the perfect example of that philosophy.
“If you take that seriously then the task will be a never-ending one,” Bacevich told The Diplomat. “The so-called Christmas bomber was a Nigerian educated in the United Kingdom and radicalized in Yemen. If, indeed, we have to go get them and deal with these dysfunctional states, that would seem to say at a minimum we’ll have to invade, occupy and fix Yemen and Nigeria. And then certainly based on this logic, we’ll have to invade occupy and fix Pakistan. Even to lay out those possibilities is to see the absurdity of the notion that these people are propagating.”
Moreover, a lazy and superficial mass media has only exacerbated the problem, Bacevich asserts. “Here, I think we can tag the media as an enormous failure,” he said. “There is a great need, I think, to soberly, realistically come to terms with what warfare means in the present age so that when we decide to embark upon a war, we do it with our eyes open and so that we would do a better job of avoiding unnecessary wars.”
Like Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies who spoke to The Diplomat for this column last month, Bacevich contends that many of America’s shortcomings in Iraq and Afghanistan can be pinned on diplomatic failures. He lamented that U.S. soldiers are being asked to play diplomat and warrior in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters, noting that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others have been quite explicit that “the State Department and the culture of the U.S. Foreign Service simply is not up to the challenge we face,” Bacevich said. “There is a general recognition that the State Department doesn’t shoulder its share of the load. That’s why these additional burdens are being placed on the Department of Defense. Why the State Department is so difficult to reform is something I don’t understand. But I argue pretty strongly that the problem deserves to rank a heck of a lot higher on Washington’s list of priorities than it does.
“It deserves to be fixed,” he stressed. “We need a major effort to get the State Department to function more effectively.”
In a broader sense, Bacevich has frequently criticized what he calls America’s “messianic” approach to international affairs — a belief that American values can be imposed on foreign countries.
“There is a very well-established tradition in this country going back a century or more whereby we have tried to alleviate or ease or solve domestic problems by searching for solutions beyond our borders, most frequently by pursuing an expansionist foreign policy,” the professor explained. “For a long time, this worked quite well. Looking abroad to satisfy our internal requirements actually helped make the country more powerful and more prosperous and probably contributed to allowing us to exercise real freedom.
“But at least in my view, since the 1960s or so that correlation has failed — it no longer works,” Bacevich contends. “We really need to rethink our foreign policy and attend to our internal problems.”
In his 2008 book, “The Limits of Power: American Exceptionalism,” Bacevich specifically faults America’s voracious consumer culture, its failure to plan for an independent energy future, and a political system that seems unable to impose personal sacrifice as leading to a gradual U.S. decline.
“The recession that began in 2008 is so illustrative of the problem,” he said. “We’ve gotten ourselves in this huge financial mess and the federal government response, with most American people buying it, is that we need to spend our way out of this hole. People in government profess to understand this problem that’s coming down the road but the fact of the matter is people in government aren’t going to do a darn thing about it. They are unwilling to impose the sacrifices on the American people that have to be made.”
Bacevich also believes that rank-and-file Americans are to blame for not acknowledging the deep fiscal hole the country has gotten itself into.
“Collectively we have a remarkable capacity for denying reality we don’t want to face up to,” he said. “I hate to say it, but it will probably take some economic catastrophe worse than the one we’re facing now to drive the point home.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.