Interview: Is Obama repeating Bush's mistakes? (And the dangers of supporting the troops)

On the opening page of Andrew Bacevich’s latest book is a simple dedication: “To the memory of my beloved son, Andrew John Bacevich, First Lieutenant, U.S. Army July 8, 1979-May 13, 2007.”

I did not ask Bacevich, a former Army colonel, about his son who was killed in Iraq. He’d said in a previous interview that he didn’t want to discuss it publically, and I wanted to respect that. I knew from experience that everyone deals with grief differently, and public grieving can bring its own set of difficult questions. (Though I had chosen the exact opposite path after I lost a loved one to the war—I felt compelled to write about it directly, with a barely controlled rage, inevitable consequences and criticisms be damned.)

Besides the dedication page, traces of Bacevich’s catastrophic loss are barely noticeable in his recent book, “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.” Perhaps a sharper edge here or there, but nothing obvious. How he kept the unimaginable pain from the page is admirable; my sense is that he had come to his conclusions about our collective national disasters before his own personal disaster struck. “The Limits of Power” is the crystallized, undiluted, gut-punching synthesis of the ideas he’d been writing about for the past eight years, a powerful and sober manifesto that carefully shreds the comfortable illusions we often have about our country’s place in the world.

The book is essential reading for those who have serious questions about where American foreign policy is heading–not just when Bush ran the country, but under the Obama administration as well. It offers a compact critique of the bipartisan foreign policy elite, and our entrenched national security establishment. The central question he grapples with, in a way that other authors wouldn’t dare, is, as the Washington Post review noted: “What is a sole superpower’s proper role in the world?”

Keeping with the theme of the first Hastings Report interview,Bacevich had great skepticism about the Iraq war before the invasion. And more recently, he anticipated America’s economic collapse months before it happened. In other words, he has a track record of independent thought and getting it right. He kindly gave us a moment of his time to discuss everything from Af/Pak, to how meaningless the slogan ‘I support the troops’ really is, and if what you write can actually make a difference.

Let’s start off with what’s in the news. The Obama administration is increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan and upping our commitment to Pakistan. How does that play into the themes you touched on in your book?

I would not want to suggest that President Obama is following President Bush’s policy in every detail. But it does seem to me that in Afghanistan, and potentially in Pakistan, he like Bush, believes that the United States possesses the capacity and wisdom to determine the fate of nations on the other side of the world. I don’t believe we do possess the capacity and wisdom to do that. And I regret the fact Obama has been so quick to deepen the U.S. military involvement in these places.

The parameters of the debate over Afghanistan and Pakistan have been fairly narrow. More a rearranging of deck chairs than a fundamental questioning of the enterprise.

I think that’s fair to say. To give the president his due, he’s ratcheted down our objectives so the language of the Bush era—of eliminating evil, or ending tyranny or spreading democracy—those kinds of claims aren’t being heard anymore. Having said that, there still is the same basic commitment and conviction that somehow U.S. national security requires these vast protracted exertions on the other side of the world. I take that as evidence of a vast failure of imagination.

In your book, you talk about how our civic responsiblity has essentially degraded to a point where ‘duty’ for the average American citizen means saying ‘I support the troops,” without having to bear any burden of the war. How do you fix that problem?

Well, it’s great question, I don’t have good answer for it. What I would want to do would be to promote a definition of citizenship that would entail some obligation of more than simply putting bumper stickers on the car. I’m often asked if I support conscription to close the gap between the military and society. My answer is conscription is politically infeasible. The military doesn’t want it, Congress doesn’t want it, parents of our eighteen year olds don’t want. It’s just not going to happen. It does seem to me that supporting the troops ought to mean something more than reciting slogans. Our obligation with the troops really is to make sure that they’re not abused, that they’re not used for improper purposes or sent off on foolhardy missions. In that regard, citizens have failed them, in our obligation to the troops, in allowing our political leadership to concoct radically ill advised policies.

The opening chapter of the book predicted the economic crisis months before it happened.

I don’t think I made a prediction. I was simply trying to argue that a pattern of behavior we had fallen into was not indefinitely sustainable. That there was going to be a day of reckoning. I didn’t know the day of reckoning was going to happen a month after my book came out. I’ve been kind of amused. The first chapter of my book is called the Crisis of Profligacy. I’m amused to see how frequently the word ‘profligacy’ appears in commentary now. I’m amused that suddenly it’s the conventional wisdom that the nation had been living beyond its means. That was not a prominent view back in July of 2008, now it’s the conventional wisdom. I don’t know the degree to which people are just copying my views or recycling them or whether the facts now speak for themselves.

But one of the key points you make hasn’t been accepted as conventional wisdom in the debate. The connection between our economic crisis and excesive defense spending.

I’ve been struck by the extent in Washington that the debate over national security and the debate over the economic crisis don’t connect. They are seen as two different issues. I myself believe the two are intimately connected. We have embraced a national security paradigm that we have, in part, in order to avoid dealing with domestic problems relating to the crisis of profligacy. And that national security paradigm is now serving to exacerbate the crisis of profligacy. Few people are willing to acknowledge that the relationship even exists. It’s remarkable that given the projected size of the deficit this year, 1.8 trillion dollars, nobody is standing there saying, ‘We can’t afford all this Long War stuff.’ There’s no acknowledgment that our resources have very real limits. At some point we need to begin to acknowledge our constraints and act accordingly.

It seems like the same folks who promoted the war in Iraq have now latched onto counterinsurgency as the new big idea. How did counterinsurgency became the idea of the day?

It’s not a simple story. One strand of the story is what happens within the officer corps and the rise of General Petraeus. The fact that he presided over the rewriting of this field manual [FM-3-24] and was selected by Bush to implement the doctrine as part of the surge. The second part of the story has to do with national security intellectuals who once had enthusiastically promoted the Revolution in Miltary Affairs[RMA]. During the throes of the Iraq insurgency, those who promoted RMA rather conveniently forgot they had done so, and started promoting counterinsurgency as the future of warfare. Those people had a certain amount of influence within the beltway in lending counterinsurgency a new legitimacy that really had been lost as consequence of Vietnam. Anybody in 1975 or ‘85 or ‘95 who had argued that the U.S. should view counterinsurgency as a main theme of the American approach to warfare would have laughed out of town. But by 2005 or 2007, that had emerged as a cutting edge thinking.

Did we forget the lessons of Vietnam?

In those days[Post 9-11], it was the belief that the lessons of Vietnam really were irrelevant. The U.S, had developed a new American way of war based, in particular, on exploiting our advanced technology. This new American way of war created this unstoppable military juggernaut. Therefore, any war the U.S. engaged in would be a short war and end with a decisive victory. That was the way people were reading the lessons of Operation Desert Storm or Operation Allied Force. Vietnam had become irrelevant. The last half dozen years or so have exploded the naïve expectations of this new American way of war. But now we have a new set of lessons. That counterinsurgency works. That Americans are the masters of counterinsurgency. That, combined with the reluctance to criticize the new Obama Administration, is sort narrowing the debate over Af/Pak. Once again the media seems to be slow to pose the really first order questions, like whether or not the Obama approach makes more sense than the Bush approach.

To pat myself on the back, I’ve tried to pose some of those questions, but I can’t say that it’s been very effective.

It’s one of the weird things about the way discourse works. It’s not true that in 2002 or 2003 there weren’t people writing articles questioning the coming Iraq war. What is true is that those question didn’t matter. They didn’t gain any traction. There were people shouting in the wind, but nothing coalesced. That’s where we are today. There  are people raising questions, but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t coalesce. If it doesn’t receive a level of legitimacy then it has no effect on the debate. That’s where you’re stuck. ‘I’m writing this I’m saying, and it feels like I’m spinning the wheels.’

Actually, I often do feel like I am shouting into the wind, usually with much profanity. Your books shout much more eloquently. So what keeps you going?

First of all, you don’t take yourself too seriously, that you’re going to stand the world on its ear with one thing you write. But what’s your obligation, what’s your role? Your obligation as an individual is to do the best you can do, and be content, if you are persuaded you’ve done the best you can do. If you identify the contradictions, pose the important questions, then you have to be content with that, I think. Don’t have expectations that the effort of an indvidual writing or speaking are going to be decisive. If what you write catches the moment, and it connects to what others are writing or saying, perhaps one time out of thousand you can gain a certain momentum and gain a hearing that might make difference. But you can’t count on that. Just do the best you can do, and let God sort it out.

So how was the Limits of Power received?

It sold a lot more copies than the publisher expected and I expected, so that was encouraging. Ninety-five percent of the emails I get are from people who admire or like the book. Frankly,that doesn’t mean anything. Other people might find it wrong headed and not contact me about it.

But do you think the U.S. foreign policy community is listening?

My guess is that the appeal of the book, the audience that the book reached, was the audience of average citizens in the reading public who were deeply disconcerted by the direction of U.S. policy after 9-11. They were looking for some kind of answer or explanation. Something that went beyond simply, ‘It’s the neocons fault,’ or ‘It’s all about oil.’ I provided an argument that was useful to these citizens. I have not discerned that in what you might call the policy elite if the book has had serious impact. It’s outside the elite the book found its readership.

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About michaelhastings

Journalist
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4 Responses to Interview: Is Obama repeating Bush's mistakes? (And the dangers of supporting the troops)

  1. libtree09 says:

    I am no expert on the subject but one would think that the questions of the limits of a world power would have been answered by history. Previous great powers all crumbled under the burden of administrating wide ranging armies that are notably non-productive. At least in the old days one could pillage. Old George Washington was well aware of this trap and cautioned against it. What is notable today and scarcely commented on is the influence of PR and advertising in our current problems. Politicians often point to the reckless citizen who spent beyond their means without noting the millions and millions spent conditioning and convincing them to do just that and giving them the unsecured means to accomplish their foolishness. In the same vein is the myth making and flag waving salute to the most powerful nation in the world. The idea that there is no problem or wrong that he US can’t solve with its mighty armies. Campaigns about Dafur and the like, the injustices that we somehow can cure. It ain’t so. It seems the entire country in every nook and cranny from the Pentagon to Wall Street to Main street were suckered by bullshit of our own making.

    • Michael Hastings says:

      Libtree, I hear you. I’ve been thinking alot lately about the fact that the fundamental discourse about “where we are as a country” that goes on in the mainstream debate is so deeply flawed that it doesn’t even begin to address the the levels of illusion and deception we’re faced with. (Don’t know if I’m saying exactly what I want to say, but close enough.)

  2. Ethan Porter says:

    great interview Mike. most interesting exchange may have been here, in which Bacevich seems to say yes, we’ve forgotten about Vietnam(!):

    Did we forget the lessons of Vietnam?

    In those days[Post 9-11], it was the belief that the lessons of Vietnam really were irrelevant. The U.S, had developed a new American way of war based, in particular, on exploiting our advanced technology. This new American way of war created this unstoppable military juggernaut. Therefore, any war the U.S. engaged in would be a short war and end with a decisive victory. That was the way people were reading the lessons of Operation Desert Storm or Operation Allied Force. Vietnam had become irrelevant. The last half dozen years or so have exploded the naïve expectations of this new American way of war. But now we have a new set of lessons. That counterinsurgency works. That Americans are the masters of counterinsurgency. That, combined with the reluctance to criticize the new Obama Administration, is sort narrowing the debate over Af/Pak. Once again the media seems to be slow to pose the really first order questions, like whether or not the Obama approach makes more sense than the Bush approach.

    • Michael Hastings says:

      Thanks, Ethan.

      It’s clear our national security intellectuals did forget Vietnam, then only remembered it when they decided to start promoting counterinsurgency. All this future of war stuff got replaced by: “Maybe we need to drink chai so they stop blowing us up with three dollar bombs that we can’t stop.”

      A number of politicians(like Kerry, Hillary) also had a pretty good case of amnesia of ‘Nam, odd since they’d spent the last three decades saying that the 60’s had made them who they were, but when they actually got in a position of power to put those lessons to use, they failed. What does that say about the human condition?

      And another class of folks who forgot Vietnam: journalists. Most Vietnam era journos were pretty skeptical of the war (Halberstam, Sheehan, Arnett) while a couple of journos who covered Central America were also pretty skeptical (Hedges, Dickey) while the journos and thumbsuckers who had never really had their own war were waving the flag day after day and week after week in their columns/magazine stories(and criticizing folks who brought up Vietnam as being behind the times…)

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