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IA-Forum Interview: Andrew Bacevich
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International Affairs Forum: In a course that you teach at Boston University entitled “Ideas and American Foreign Policy”, you examine ideas that inform the foreign policy debate and consider two specific types of ideas: “affirming” and “dissenting”. What do you mean by these terms and can you give us an example of each? Dr. Andrew Bacevich: The “affirming” ideas are those that policy makers draw on to frame or to justify the policies that they pursue. But the other types of documents we read are documents that provide ideas that critics of U.S. foreign policy draw on to frame their criticism. And truth to tell, there are some documents that can be used by both those who are justifying policy and those who are critical of policy. The very first document that we read in the course is the sermon delivered by John Winthrop on the deck of the ship Arbella in Boston Harbor in 1630, when John Winthrop is about to lead his followers ashore to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the course of this sermon he famously described the purpose of this new colony as to serve as a “city upon a hill”, to serve as an exemplar of what, in his mind, a Christian commonwealth ought to look like. This concept of America as a “city upon a hill” is something that has really echoed through the subsequent centuries. For some people, it’s a phrase that’s a source of inspiration. It sort of elicits a response of “yes, we must be that city; we must engage in a saving mission that encompasses all humankind”. There are other people who have a quite different response to that phrase who basically say “who the hell do these Americans think they are?” and see that very concept and that phrase as a symbol of arrogance. IA-Forum: In a recent Commonwealth article, you talked about the “Wilsonian conceit”. What do you mean by that? Dr. Bacevich: “Wilsonian conceit” is the notion that the United States is called upon to save the world. The word “Wilsonian” is referencing Woodrow Wilson and specifically the claims that Woodrow Wilson made particularly at the time of U.S. entry into World War I and during the course of trying to make the peace in the wake of it. And it’s clear that Woodrow Wilson himself, a deeply religious man, was personally convinced that he was serving as God’s agent in helping the United States to fulfill this saving mission that Wilson believed God certainly intended. IA-Forum: When America emerged from World War II as the “strongest, richest, and most free nation” in the world, you say that’s when things began to go wrong for America. Why? Dr. Bacevich: That’s a question that doesn’t avail itself to a simple answer, but the pre-eminence that the United States had achieved in 1945 was due not simply to actions on the part of American statesmen, but also to a confluence of circumstances. To be more specific – yes we had risen to the pinnacle of power, but in part it was because the other great powers were in a state of disarray or decline. Germany had been laid waste. Japan was prostrate. France and Great Britain were economically devastated, psychologically wounded. China still had not emerged from its so-called “century of humiliation”. Although in 1945 there was a second Great Power, the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union itself had been ravaged by the effects of World War II. As events then unfolded from 1945 onward it was almost impossible for the unique circumstances of 1945 to be preserved and from my point of view, a couple of things that did occur subsequent to 1945 had a major impact: first is a gradual erosion of American economic pre-eminence as other economies recovered; and, second as we ourselves underwent the transformation from being primarily an economy that produced things for others to buy and became an economy where seemingly the principal function of the citizen was to consume things that other people produced. So there was a process of economic decline. I think along with that there was a process whereby American statesmen first fell under the spell of military power, and while under that spell came to a fundamental misunderstanding of what military power could do and can’t do. Our policies became increasingly militarized. I think this was radically the case in the wake of the Cold War and this incorrect appreciation of military power led American statesmen to engage in a wide variety of enterprises that I think had the effect of squandering American power. IA-Forum: We seem to have moved from having soldiers fight large-scale land wars to becoming civil affairs personnel – peacemakers and road builders, not fighting forces conducting “hunt and kill” operations. You were an Army colonel. You graduated from West Point, served in Vietnam. From your perspective, what’s a soldier for today? What should their role be? Dr. Bacevich: We need to come to a sounder appreciation of the relevance and utility of military power. I believe that we should have a strong Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, but I believe that wars tend to be an exceedingly risky proposition fraught with chance yielding myriad unintended consequences, usually negative ones. Therefore we should go to war only as a last resort. And we should go to war only in order to accomplish our most important purposes. What’s happened since the end of the Cold War is that statesmen have tended to lose sight of what a risky proposition war is. They’ve assumed that we can control war. They’ve assumed that American soldiers can’t be beaten. And they’ve used force promiscuously and, I think, foolishly. So the bottom line is we need to exercise a lot more constraint in the way we send our soldiers off to accomplish things than has been the case in the last couple of decades. IA-Forum: What role do moral obligations have to play in policy making? Dr. Bacevich: It would be nice to think that they played a prominent role but my own reading of history is that that is not the case. Rarely do moral considerations figure in a very major way when any statesman, American or not American, sits down to decide what needs to be done. I think as a practical matter, moral considerations tend to be tacked on to policy that has already been decided on for other reasons. I think this is notably the case with regard to U.S. policy since 9/11. The Bush Administration was very skillful at putting a veneer of moral considerations on top of whatever it was trying to do in Afghanistan or Iraq, but I don’t think we should take seriously the argument that moral considerations really were driving U.S. policy. There are too many bad things that are happening in the world every day that we happily ignore for me to believe that moral considerations really exercise much influence in the policy realm. IA-Forum: You wrote the introduction for a recent edition of Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1952 book, The Irony of American History. You hailed it as “a master key to understanding the myths and delusions that underpin this new American view of statecraft” and described that view as a combination of “arrogance, hypocrisy, and self-delusion”. President Bush and his policies of bringing democracy to the Middle East are gone. Barack Obama is the new commander in chief. What differences do you see this change of presidential leadership making in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan? Dr. Bacevich: It’s a little bit too soon to tell, I think. I believe that one of the reasons why the coming Afghanistan decision is eliciting so much passionate debate is because people sense that President Obama’s decision on Afghanistan will signify where he stands much more broadly. I mean, if he gives into the urgings of some advisors and commentators to simply rubber-stamp the [General] McChrystal plan for Afghanistan, then in doing so he’s going to declare counterinsurgency to be the new American way of war, he’s going to in essence affirm that war is the principal U.S. response to the threat posed by jihadism, which is of course what George W. Bush believed, and he’s going to affirm that military power remains the preferred instrument of American statecraft more generally. In essence were the president to simply rubber-stamp the McChrystal proposal, he would be at the same time indicating clearly that change, the promised change, in the national security arena would be slight to nonexistent. IA-Forum: As you say, President Obama is about to announce a major foreign policy in how he proceeds in Afghanistan. I’ve heard you advocate for a counter-terrorism approach, focusing on robust defenses here in the U.S., not a counterinsurgency operation in Afghanistan. Can you briefly explain your approach? Dr. Bacevich: I begin with an analysis of our interests in Afghanistan. It seems to me that there are many people who assume that Afghanistan is a vital national security interest of the United States, that somehow we have to determine the fate of that country. And I question that assumption. I believe that our interests in Afghanistan are quite limited and indeed do not go much beyond simply ensuring that Afghanistan doesn’t become a sanctuary for Al Qaeda or other groups that are intent on trying to kill us. If that’s an accurate description of our interests there then I would say that protracted war that aims to pacify the country is completely unnecessary, not to mention probably completely unaffordable. So we have to ask ourselves if there are more cost-effective ways to accomplish our limited purposes and I think what’s now being called the counter-terrorism approach, or the Biden Plan, at least offers one possible alternative to what [General] McChrystal is giving us. What it says is basically that rather than occupying the place from now until the cows come home, we will maintain a comprehensive system of surveillance, we will do our darnedest to track Al-Qaida presence and activities and, to the extent that we can, come up with actionable intelligence then we will try to take out, dismantle, the Al-Qaida network, and therefore prevent Afghanistan from being the sanctuary that it was in September of 2001. I’m not saying that would be easy. I’m not saying it would provide a perfect fail-safe system. I am suggesting that it’s quite likely that that would be more effective than an open-ended counterinsurgency campaign and would also be much, much cheaper. IA-Forum: Do you think that the drones that are going into Pakistan, either CIA-controlled or if they were U.S. Army-controlled or Air Force, do you think that makes sense in this counter-terrorism approach? Dr. Bacevich: I think it makes sense if we’re killing the right people. That’s very difficult for us as observers who don’t have access to classified information to be able to comment on that specific question. If you go by press reports, it would appear that we’re killing civilians with some frequency and to the extent that we are, that’s a bad thing. It’s a bad thing because it’s immoral. It’s also a bad thing because killing civilians simply assists the jihadists in their effort to find new recruits. So I’ve got nothing again drones. I’ve got nothing against drones doing attacks on Al Qaeda, but we need to make sure that we’re killing the right people not the wrong people. IA-Forum: The New York Times ran a story on October 16 reporting that Al Qaeda militant groups and the Taliban are tightening their links to bring down the Pakistani state within Pakistan. What role do you think the U.S. has in dealing with Pakistan’s problems that affect Afghanistan? Dr. Bacevich: We need to be very realistic. Pakistan is a country of 175 million people. Pakistan is a country with weak institutions, with a history of its military meddling in politics, with a history in which U.S-Pakistani relationships have radical ups and downs. Frankly the Pakistanis would be fools, based on the past, to take seriously any sudden American professions of being friends. So it’s a tough nut to crack and I would say that the first thing we need to do is to be exceedingly realistic about what we can do and what we can’t do. My view would be that if Pakistan is going to be able to deflect this threat to its stability, it’s going to be because Pakistan wants to undertake that task. What can we do? Well, we can provide a certain amount of advice and encouragement. We can provide a certain amount of materiel assistance, but at the end of the day, it’s going to be up to the Pakistanis to decide if they want to be governed by the Taliban or be governed by the existing system. IA-Forum: In your book, The Limits of Power, you talk about the new American ethic of self-gratification, our obsession with having more. You write that few have considered how this preoccupation affects U.S. relations with the rest of the world. How do U.S. citizens fit into U.S. foreign affairs? What role should they be playing? Dr. Bacevich: I guess what I would like to see is citizens be good citizens and to behave responsibly and to rather than just chanting “freedom, freedom, freedom”, to perhaps consider what is the meaning of freedom and how one lives consistent with an ethic of freedom. And therefore to perhaps come to the conclusion that freedom ought to be something more than simply conspicuous consumption and doing what I darn well please. If citizens behave that way, then it seems to me that an indirect second order result might be to ease some of our foreign policy complications. IA-Forum: Do you see Americans who question the policies and actions of their national leaders in times of war, those who dissent, as patriotic? Dr. Bacevich: Of course. Absolutely. The Constitution doesn’t have a proviso that somehow the First Amendment gets suspended in times of war. There have been times in emergencies when the right to free speech and other political rights have been curtailed and are suspended. World War I would be a very good example of that. And I think, in general, historians view those curtailments as having been utterly misguided. IA-Forum: At a recent public forum in Cambridge, you said global Islamic jihadists reject modernity, but that the Western ethos of consumption and individual autonomy will conquer the Muslim world as it has Christendom. Do you agree with Samuel Huntington that this is a “clash of civilizations”? Dr. Bacevich: No, I think the Huntington thesis is vastly over-simplified. What I was trying to suggest is that, and I don’t say this claiming to have any particular expertise with regard to Islam, but it does seem to me that in a very broad way we could say that within the Islamic world there’s a great struggle that is going on in which people are trying to reconcile their religious tradition with modernity. We in the West also underwent that struggle during the period of the Reformation and during the period of the Enlightenment. Again, speaking very broadly, the reconciliation between religion and modernity that we in the West reached is one in which to a great degree we put God and politics in completely separate boxes and that is an approach which permits citizens who are believers to believe and yet doesn’t complicate our politics. But in the Islamic world, that notion of keeping God and politics in separate boxes is completely alien. They believe that God permeates political considerations and this creates enormous complications. Enormous conflicts. Some of that conflict then expresses itself in animosity directed against the West. My view is that they’re going to have to sort that out in their way at their time and it’s absurd for us to pretend that somehow we can instruct them in that. The George W. Bush approach to the global war on terror presumed that we could instruct them, that we could use American power and through the adroit use of American power we could transform countries in the Middle East. We could transform Afghanistan. That we could transform Iraq. This turned out to be a vast miscalculation. IA-Forum: Thank you, Dr. Bacevich. Dr. Andrew Bacevich is a Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University. A graduate of the U. S. Military Academy, he received his Ph.D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University. He is the author of The Limits of Power: American Exceptionalism (2008). Dr. Bacevich’s essays and reviews have appeared in a wide variety of scholarly and general interest publications.

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Thu, December 10, 2009 04:00 AM (about 115113 hours ago)
My question is this the right policy of President Obama to send 30,000 troops in Afghnistan because as we know already 70,000 American soldier still in Afghanistan and other allied military froces as well. So is this the rational decision of President to counter the terrorist? or it would create more problem for America in coming years?
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