|Contents||Bulletin||Scripting in shell and Perl||Network troubleshooting||History||Humor|
|News||The History of Media-Military-Industrial Complex Concept||Recommended Links||American Exceptionalism||National Security State||What Bush hath wrought|
|“As many frustrated Americans who have joined the Tea Party realize,
we cannot stand against big government at home while supporting it abroad. We cannot talk about fiscal
responsibility while spending trillions on occupying and bullying the rest of the world. We cannot talk about the budget
deficit and spiraling domestic spending without looking at the costs of maintaining an American empire of more than 700
military bases in more than 120 foreign countries. We cannot pat ourselves on the back for cutting a few thousand dollars
from a nature preserve or an inner-city swimming pool at home while turning a blind eye to a Pentagon budget that nearly
equals those of the rest of the world combined.”
– Ron Paul
New American militarism of Neocon mint is not that different from the old Soviets militarism (in its Trotskyite variety), eager to spread the blessings of Scientific Socialism toward other countries. Here the role of scientific socialism is played by "democracy", but Trotsky idea of Permanent Revolution remains intact. This new justification for Crusades has the same problems as two previous. But it does not matter as the key role of democracy here is the same as in quote "the goal justifies the means"
There are several very insightful reviews of Bacevich latest book The New American Militarism- How Americans Are Seduced by War on Amazon. I strongly recommend to read them.
Bacevich argues that the new militarism came about because of a convergence of several social forces (and as such has significant social base):
For your convenience some of them which I judge to be the most insightful are reproduced below:
Andrew J. Bacevich's The New American Militarism: How Americans Are seduced By War, Oxford University Press, New York, 2005, ISBN 0-19-517338-4, is the most coherent analysis of how America has come to its present situation in the world that I have ever read. Bacevich, Professor of International Relations and Director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University, is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and holds a Ph.D. in history from Princeton. And he is retired military officer. This background makes him almost uniquely qualified to comment on the subject.
Bacevich admits to an outlook of moderate conservatism. But in ascribing fault for our plight to virtually every administration since W.W. II, he is even handed and clear eyed. Since he served in the military, he understands the natural bureaucratic instincts of the best of the officer corps and is not blinded by the almost messianic status that they have achieved in the recent past.
His broad brush includes the classic period, the American Revolution - especially the impact of George Washington, but he moves quickly to the influence of Woodrow Wilson and his direct descendants of our time, the Neoconservatives. The narrative accelerates and becomes relevant for us in the depths of the despair of Vietnam. At that juncture, neocon intellectuals awakened to the horror that without a new day for our military and foreign policy, the future of America would be at stake. At almost the same time, Evangelical Christians abandoned their traditional role in society and came to views not dissimilar to the neocons. America had to get back on track to both power and goodness. The results of Vietnam on American culture, society, and - especially - values were abhorrent to both these groups.
The perfect man to idealize and mythologize America's road back was Ronald Reagan. Again, Bacevich does not shrink from seeing through the surreal qualities brought to the Oval Office by Reagan to the realities beneath them. The Great Communicator transformed the Vietnam experience into an abandonment of American ideals and reacquainted America with those who fought that horrible war. Pop culture of the period, including motion pictures such as Top Gun and best selling novels by many, including Tom Clancy completely rehabilitated the image of the military.
The author describes how Evangelical leaders came to find common cause with the neocons and provided the political muscle for Reagan and his successors of both parties to discover that the projection of military might become a reason for being for America as the last century closed.
One of his major points is that the all volunteer force that resulted from the Vietnam experience has been divorced from American life and that sending this force of ghosts into battle has little impact on our collective psyche. This, too, fit in with the intellectual throw weight of the neocons and the political power of the Evangelicals.
Separate from but related to the neocons, Bacevich describes the loss of strategic input by the military in favor of a new priesthood of intellectual elites from institutions such as the RAND Corporation, The University of Chicago and many others. It was these high priests who saw the potential that technology provided for changing the nature of war itself and how American power might be projected with `smart weapons' that could be the equivalent of the nuclear force that could never be used.
So it was that when the war we are now embroiled in across the globe - which has its antecedents back more than twenty years - all of these forces weighed heavily on the military leaders to start using the force we'd bought them. The famed question by Secretary of State Madeline Albright to General Colin Powell: "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?" had to have an answer and the skirmishes and wars since tended to provide it.
Bacevich clearly links our present predicaments both at home and abroad to the ever greater need for natural resources, especially oil from the Persian Gulf. He demolishes all of the reasons for our bellicosity based on ideals and links it directly to our insatiable appetite for oil and economic expansion. Naturally, like thousands of writers before him, he points out the need for a national energy policy based on more effective use of resources and alternative means of production.
It is in his prescriptions that the book tends to drift. The Congress must do its constitutionally mandated jobs or be thrown out by the people. Some of his ideas on military education are creative and might well close the gap between the officer corps and civilians that he points to as a great problem.
But it is the clearly written analysis that makes this book shine. It should be a must read for those who wonder how we got to Iraq and where we might be heading as a society. The nation is in grave danger, and this is a book that that shows how we got to this juncture. Where we go from here is up to us. If we continue as we are, our options may narrow and be provided by others.
READ THIS BOOK
===This review is from: The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (Hardcover)
In his book The New American Militarism (2005), Andrew Bacevich desacralizes our idolatrous infatuation with military might, but in a way that avoids the partisan cant of both the left and the right that belies so much discourse today. Bacevich's personal experiences and professional expertise lend his book an air of authenticity that I found compelling. A veteran of Vietnam and subsequently a career officer, a graduate of West Point and later Princeton where he earned a PhD in history, director of Boston University's Center for International Relations, he describes himself as a cultural conservative who views mainstream liberalism with skepticism, but who also is a person whose "disenchantment with what passes for mainstream conservatism, embodied in the present Bush administration and its groupies, is just about absolute." Finally, he identifies himself as a "conservative Catholic." Idolizing militarism, Bacevich insists, is far more complex, broader and deeper than scape-goating either political party, accusing people of malicious intent or dishonorable motives, demonizing ideological fanatics as conspirators, or replacing a given administration. Not merely the state or the government, but society at large, is enthralled with all things military.
Our military idolatry, Bacevich believes, is now so comprehensive and beguiling that it "pervades our national consciousness and perverts our national policies." We have normalized war, romanticized military life that formally was deemed degrading and inhuman, measured our national greatness in terms of military superiority, and harbor naive, unlimited expectations about how waging war, long considered a tragic last resort that signaled failure, can further our national self-interests. Utilizing a "military metaphysic" to justify our misguided ambitions to recreate the world in our own image, with ideals that we imagine are universal, has taken about thirty years to emerge in its present form. It is this marriage between utopians ends and military means that Bacevich wants to annul.
How have we come to idolize military might with such uncritical devotion? He likens it to pollution: "the perhaps unintended, but foreseeable by-product of prior choices and decisions made without taking fully into account the full range of costs likely to be incurred" (p. 206). In successive chapters he analyzes six elements of this toxic condition that combined in an incremental and cumulative fashion.
- After the humiliation of Vietnam, an "unmitigated disaster" in his view, the military set about to rehabilitate and reinvent itself, both in image and substance. With the All Volunteer Force, we moved from a military comprised of citizen-soldiers that were broadly representative of all society to a professional warrior caste that by design isolated itself from broader society and that by default employed a disproportionate percentage of enlistees from the lowest socio-economic class. War-making was thus done for us, by a few of us, not by all of us.
- Second, the rise of the neo-conservative movement embraced American Exceptionalism as our national end and superior coercive force as the means to franchise it around the world.
- Myth-making about warfare sentimentalized, sanitized and fictionalized war. The film Top Gun is only one example of "a glittering new image of warfare."
- Fourth, without the wholehearted complicity of conservative evangelicalism, militarism would have been "inconceivable," a tragic irony when you consider that the most "Christian" nation on earth did far less to question this trend than many ostensibly "secular" nations.
- Fifth, during the years of nuclear proliferation and the fears of mutually assured destruction, a "priesthood" of elite defense analysts pushed for what became known as the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). RMA pushed the idea of "limited" and more humane war using game theory models and technological advances with euphemisms like "clean" and "smart" bombs. But here too our "exuberance created expectations that became increasingly uncoupled from reality," as the current Iraq debacle demonstrates.
- Finally, despite knowing full well that dependence upon Arab oil made us vulnerable to the geo-political maelstroms of that region, we have continued to treat the Persian Gulf as a cheap gas station. How to insure our Arab oil supply, protect Saudi Arabia, and serve as Israel's most important protector has always constituted a squaring of the circle. Sordid and expedient self interest, our "pursuit of happiness ever more expansively defined," was only later joined by more lofty rhetoric about exporting universal ideals like democracy and free markets, or, rather, the latter have only been a (misguided) means to secure the former.
Bacevich opens and closes with quotes from our Founding Fathers. In 1795, James Madison warned that "of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other." Similarly, late in his life George Washington warned the country of "those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hotile to republican liberty."K. Johnson:Robert S. Frey
Relevant and Objective,Author Andrew Bacevich has superb credentials on military, diplomatic, and historical issues. A Vietnam Veteran, 25+ year career in the Army and now professor of International Relations, Bacevich is one of the few that has the experience *and* knowledge to dissect what has been occurring in American socio-political culture and society for the last several decades. Bacevich notes the current focus on the military to solve the world's problems and to promote America's interests is not the sole work of a President and Congress, but the combination of culture, mentality, political, and now primarily economic, interests. This book has tons of footnoting, which allows you to delve further into these issues on your own.
January 3, 2007
The author astutely reinforces the fact that the Militarist Mentality won't change, regardless of which political party is in control of the Executive and Houses of Congress in the United States. Here only some examples out of many:
Entry of the U.S. military into the Middle East:
THE CARTER DOCTRINE:
The Carter Doctrine was prescribed at the State of the Union Address in 1980. Another civilian prescription utilizing the military as medicine to alleviate and even cure, political symptoms. This Doctrine began a new era of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, specifically using the American military to enforce its economic interests and lifestyle dependence on oil. The Carter Doctrine was a major shift in American foreign policy in the Middle East. It specifically stated that use of the military can and will be used to enforce U.S. economic interests.
At his State of the Union Address, Carter stated:
"Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be declared as an assault on the vital interest of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force" (p. 181).
Worth noting is that the Carter Doctrine was declared during the Cold War, when there was a adversary to check U.S interests. Today, that rival is gone.
Some argue the so-called 'War on Terror' is merely a historical continuation of American foreign policy interests in using its military to promote its geo-political and economic interests.
WAR AS SPECTATOR SPORT:
War has been, and now is presented as a spectacle. No different than a spectator sport. Live reports, video display, and laymen presentations of new technology, usually via video, to the civilian public at press conferences.
One example of many are current U.S. newspaper reports: they don't use the term "wounded" when reporting about American soldiers in Iraq. They use the euphemistic term, "injured." "17 Iraqis 'wounded' and 3 American soldiers 'injured.'" Similar to a football game. Slogans such as "Shock and Awe, Support the Troops," and deck of cards identifying the most wanted Baath party members. "Freedom is not Free." Many American military personel (and civilians) have internalized this propaganda.
Using Hollywood To Enhance "Honor" and perpetuate myths:
Bacevich carefully details the planned and choreographed footage of George W. Bush dressed as a fighter pilot on the USS Abraham Lincoln. This was intentionally and specifically lifted from the movie "Top Gun." Immediately after this planned footage, an action figure doll was created and sold for $39.99. It was called the "Elite Force Aviator: George W. Bush: U.S. President and Naval Aviator" (p. 31).
Well-dressed, handsome, and beautiful anchors report about the war in such series as "The Week in War." More simulation of the spectator sport of war in our pop culture. One segment in the "Week in War program" is called "The Fallen," where the photo of a soldier, his name, age, and hometown are presented, and the date of his death. Then the cameramen go to his family's home. Often a family picture of the "fallen soldier" is shown. Then, an interview with the somber, and at times tearful family in their living room, sitting on their couch: "He was a good kid. He always wanted to help people."
The "Fallen" is related to a concept that the Germans began about 300 years ago. This concept is called the "Cult of the Fallen Soldier." When a soldier is killed in war he is elevated to a higher status because of his death. He is placed on a pedestal, because somehow, and in some enigmatic way, he "sacrificed" for a noble cause that is often abstract or confusing to the public. To further simplify the confusion and sullenness resulting from the soldier's death, religion is often injected into the deceased soldiers elevation on a pedestal. You can see this Cult of the Fallen Soldier in Arlington, Virgina today, and in many military cemeteries around the world.
GLORIFICATION OF THE MILITARY THROUGH MOVIES:
Bacevich notes moves and their role. "Top Gun" had a tremendous impact in many ways. Pop culture, and Navy recruiting sky-rocketing. As for the flurry of "Vietnam war movies," again the noble concepts of "courage, honor, fear, triumph" are latently and explicitly reinforced to the public of all ages and socio-economic levels.
It took me a chapter or two to get used to Bacevich's writing style, but I grew to like it.
Chapters: 1) Wilsonians Under Arms 2) The Military Professions at Bay 3) Left, Right, Center 4) California Dreaming 5) Onward 6) War Club 7) Blood for Oil 8) Common Defense
"Support" for the military is often incorrectly linked with one's "patriotism." This faulty thinking is perpetuated by the electronic and print media in often subtle forms but extremely effective forms, and at times very explicit and in aggressive manners. The government intentionally steers the publics' focus to the 'Military aspects of war' to avoid attention to the more realistic and vital 'political aspects.' The latter being at the real heart of the motivation, manner, and outcome of most *political* conflicts.
Bacevich notes journalists: journalist Thomas Friedman complained that a Super Bowl half-time show did not honor the "troops." He then drove to the Command Center to visit and speak with the "troops." Soon after, he carried on with his own self-centered interests, like everyone else.
The military in and of itself is not dangerous nor pernicious. The military doesn't formulate foreign policy. The military just implements it, carrying out the orders and instructions of elitist civilians who have never served in the armed forces. It's not the military nor the men and women serving in it, we must be wary of. It's the civilians masters with vested interests in the governmental and corporate world who must be held accountable.
General Creighton Abrams wanted to diminish the influence of civilian control over the military after Vietnam. Civilians and politicians were making military decisions. It seems the situation is similar in 2007. Chairman of the JCS Peter Pace sounds political. History will be the judge.
This is a very insightful book for those interested in recent history as well as the current situation the United States is in. The troops should be supported for what they do. Because unfortunately they are the ones that pay the price for elitist decisions made by upper-class civilians from the Ivy League cliques that run the U.S. politically and economically.
Highly recommended and relevant to our contemporary times and our future.
Andrew Bacevich did excellent reasearch and writing in this book. I'll think we'll be hearing a lot more of him. Hopefully He'll get more access to the public. If - the mainstream media allows it.nbsp;An Informed, Insightful, and Highly Readable Account of American Foreign Policy Today,Dr. Lee D. Carlson
December 23, 2006
Andrew J. Bacevich's "The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War," should be read and considered carefully by every member of the national political leadership in the United States as well as by adult Americans in general. Bacevich brings impeccable credentials to his work in this book--professor of history and international relations at Boston University, West Point graduate, and veteran of the Vietnam conflict. His writing is engaging, insightful, and historically well anchored. Importantly, this work is highly accessible and eminently readable. The level of documentation is very valuable as well. Finally, the book is not about fault-finding and finger-pointing toward any one national figure or group.
What I found most beneficial was that the book presented well-argued alternative historical "meta-narratives" that are much more closely aligned with post-World War II historical events and processes than the ones currently accepted as "conventional wisdom." A case in point is the periodization of World War IV beginning with President Carter's pronouncements regarding the Persian Gulf area in 1980 rather than with the terrorist attacks on America on 9/11. "The New American Militarism" carefully and credibly brings together the many seemingly disparate actions, decisions, and events of the past 60+ years (e.g., the atomic bombing of Japan, Vietnam, oil shortages of the 1970s and 80s, the end of the Cold War, the First Gulf War, etc.) and illustrates important patterns and trends that help to explain why United States' foreign policy is what it is today. Dr. Bacevich's book helps us understand and appreciate that the global projection of American military power today has deep roots in the national decisions and behaviors of the second half of the twentieth century.
Robert S. Frey, M.A., MBA, MSM
Adjunct Professor, History
Brenau UniversityR. Albin:
Interesting, insightful, and motivating,
October 21, 2006
Why is it that some people, including this reviewer, are reluctant to criticize the writings or verbalizations of those Americans that have been or are currently in the military? This is particularly true for those officers and soldiers who have served in combat. To be critical of someone is who has faced such horror would be a sacrilege. Their opinions on subjects, especially those related to war and the military, are given much higher weight than those that have never been in the military. What is the origin of this extreme bias and does it not thwart attempts to get at the truth in matters of war and politics? If a war is illegal or immoral, are not the soldiers who participate in it themselves war criminals, deserving the severest condemnation?
The author of this book sheds light on these questions and gives many more interesting opinions on what he has called the 'new American militarism.' If one examines carefully American history, it is fair to say that Americans have been reluctant to go to war, preferring instead to settle conflicts via negotiation and trade agreements. Americans have been led to the horrors of war kicking and screaming, and breath a sigh of relief when they are over. Historically, Americans have applied extreme skepticism to those politicians, like Woodrow Wilson, who wanted to participate in World War I to make the world "safe for democracy." So if Americans are "seduced by war", as the author contends they have been in recent decades, an explanation must be found. It is tempting to say that they have been merely "brainwashed", and contemporary neuroscience lends some credence to this claim, but one must still be open to alternative explanations, and let the evidence determine the proper interpretation. Once the causes have been identified, it becomes necessary to find methodologies and strategies to counter these causes, lest we find ourselves in another unnecessary and brutal conflict, initiated by some who do not directly participate in it, and have no intention ever to do so.
This book is not a scientific study, but instead is a collection of opinions, mostly supported by anecdotal evidence, to support the author's thesis. On the surface his opinions do seem plausible, but one must still apply to his writings the same level of skepticism applied to other studies of the same kind. It does seem reasonable to believe for example that current attitudes about war are governed by the American failure in Vietnam, Carter's supposed ineptitude in dealing with the resulting loss in "self-esteem" of the American populace, and Reagan's exploitation or correction of this loss. But more evidence is needed to set such a conclusion in stone.
The author though is intellectually honest enough to admit that he has not obtained the "definitive version of the truth" on the new American militarism within the pages of his book. His words are more "suggestive than conclusive" he writes, and he welcomes criticism and alternative interpretations. Vietnam, oil and energy considerations, 9-11, and the media all have a role to play in the current American attitudes about war he argues. Further analysis though is needed, and cognizance must be made that all readers, including this reviewer, are embedded in the same culture as the author, and subjected to the same ideological, historical, and media pressures. We must be extremely cautious in our acceptance of what we find in print and indeed in all information outlets. And we must learn that soldiers, active duty or otherwise, are not infallible and must be subjected to the same criticism as any other citizen. This is again, very difficult to do, and this difficulty is perhaps the best evidence for the author's thesis.Adam Bahner
Exceptional Polemic; 4.5 Stars,
October 19, 2006
This concise and well written book is the best kind of polemic; clear, well argued, and designed to provoke debate. Bacevich is definitely interested in persuading readers of the truth of his views but his calm and invective free prose, insistence on careful documentation, and logical presentation indicate that his primary concern is promote a high level of discussion of this important issue. Bacevich argues well that a form of militarism based on an exaggerated sense of both American mission and American power, specifically military power, has infected public life. He views this militarism as both leading to unecessary and dangerous adventures abroad, epitomized by the Iraq fiasco, and corrupting the quality of domestic debate and policy making. Beyond documenting the existence of this phenomenon, Bacevich is concerned with explicating how this form of militarism, which he views as contrary to American traditions, came to be so popular.
Bacevich argues well that the new militarism came about because of a convergence of actions by a number of different actors including our professional military, neoconservative intellectuals and publicists, evangelical Christians, resurgent Republican party activists, and so-called defense intellectuals. For a variety of reasons, these sometimes overlapping groups converged on ideas of the primacy of American military power and the need to use it aggressively abroad. Bacevich devotes a series of chapters to examining each of these actors, discussing their motivations and actions, often exposing shabby and inconsistent thinking. Some of these, like the role of neoconservative intellectuals and the Religous Right, are fairly well known.
Others, like the behavior of professional military over the last generation, will be novel to many readers. Bacevich's chapters have underlying themes. One is the persisent occurrence of ironic events as the actions of many of these groups produced events counter to their goals. The post-Vietnam professional military attempted to produce a large, vigorous military poised to fight conventional, WWII-like, combats. This force was intended to be difficult for politicians to use. But as these often highly competent professionals succeeded to restoring the quality of the American military, the temptation to use it became stronger and stronger, and control escaped the professionals back into the hands of politicians as varied as Bush II and Clinton. Another theme is that politicians seized on use military force as an alternative to more difficult and politically unpalatable alternatives. Jimmy Carter is described correctly as initiating the American preoccupation with control of the Persian Gulf oil supplies, which has generated a great deal of conflict over the past generation. Bacevich presents Carter as having to act this way because his efforts to persuade Americans to pursue sacrifice and a rational energy policy were political losers. Ronald Reagan is presented as the epitome of this unfortunate trend.
Bacevich is generally convincing though, perhaps because this is a short book, there are some issues which are presented onesidely. For example, its true that Carter began the military preoccupation with the Persian Gulf. But, its true as well that his administration established the Dept. of Energy, began a significant program of energy related research, moved towards fuel standards for vehicles and began the regulatory policies that would successfully improve energy efficiency for many household items. No subsequent administration had done more to lessen dependence on foreign oil.
Bacevich also omits an important point. As he points out, the different actors that sponsored the new militarism tended to converge in the Republican Party. But, as has been pointed out by a number of analysts, the Republican Party is a highly disparate and relatively unstable coalition. The existence of some form of powerful enemy, perceived or real, is necessary to maintain Republican solidarity. The new militarism is an important component of maintaining the internal integrity of the Republican party and at unconciously appreciated as such by many important Republicans.
An interesting aspect of this book is that Bacevich, a West point grad, former career Army officer, and self-described cultural conservative, has reproduced many of the criticisms put forward by Leftist critics.
Bacevich concludes with a series of interesting recommendations that are generally rational but bound to be controversial and probably politically impossible. Again, this is an effort to change the nature of the discussion about these issues.How Permanent Military Deployment Became Congruent With World Peace,M. Ward:
June 29, 2006
In The New American Militarism, Andrew J. Bacevich contends that American culture and policy since the end of the Cold War has merged a militaristic ethos with a utopian global imaginary. He notes that American militarism is a "bipartisan project" with "deep roots" that even garner support on the political margins, with some leftist activists seeing a humanitarian mission for U.S. global military hegemony. He traces these roots to the worldview of Woodrow Wilson, who envisioned a globe "remade in America's image and therefore permanently at peace." Yet Wilson's view was moderated by a public and policy perception of war as an ugly, costly, brutal, traumatic and unpredictable last resort. This is corroborated by the massive military demobilizations that followed U.S. involvement in both world wars. Bacevich also points to works of popular culture, from Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet On The Western Front to Oliver Stone's Platoon, that reflect on the inhumanity of war from World War I through Vietnam.
Bacevich sees a massive deviation from these historical trends after the end of the Cold War. While conceding that a permanent military mobilization was expected during the Cold War (from roughly NSC-68 to the fall of the Berlin Wall)--no significant demobilization followed. Forces slated for deactivation were quickly mobilized for Operation Desert Storm. No successful popular culture critiques of that war's brutality would emerge. The author sees the end of the cold war and Desert Storm as framing a period of "new American militarism" that breaks from historical precedent in several regards. He claims that since the 1988 presidential campaign, the character of the presidency has emphasized military more than civilian leadership. This contradicts previous presidents of military stature (e.g. Grant, Eisenhower) who obsessively positioned themselves as civilians. Post-Cold War military budgets have been dramatically larger despite no global adversary. The public has uncritically accepted a permanent military stance. The perception of war as ghastly and treacherous has been replaced with war as a clinical and technologically managed spectacle. The link between the covenant of citizenship and military service has been replaced by a specialized force of volunteers. The numbers of veterans serving in congress has steadily decreased since World War II. Bacevich correlates this with the shunning of military service by elites as the military has increasingly drawn from areas of the population that are poor and brown. Because of this, force is "outsourced" and in turn the stature of soldiers has dramatically increased through an infrastructure of praise by the majority who are not involved in military operations. Senior military officers have tremendous clout in politics, policy, and spending.
To understand this new militarism, Bacevich notes that it is point-for-point an inversion of Vietnam's military milieu. There, politicians up through the president framed themselves as civilians, officers felt out of touch with bureaucratic decisions, and war was perceived as carnal and bumbling. The book traces cultural responses to Vietnam that reformed the American relationship to militarism. As military leaders like Creighton Abrams sought to mandate broad political investment for military action by creating interdependence with reserves and to limit the criteria for deployment with the Weinberger doctrine, politicians like Ronald Reagan rehabilitated an American demoralization that peaked with Carter's failed Operation Eagle Claw by invoking popular culture mythologies like Rambo.
Bacevich is unabashedly religious. He ultimately couches America's outsourced and technocratic militarism as a departure from natural Gods in the pursuit of a scientistic idol that more perfectly regulates human affairs. He openly sees in this scientism the same flaw and outcome as Communism or Fascism. He suggests that affirmation of military service across economic privilege would raise the stakes of military engagements and help to contradict the cultural illusions that form the basis of American militarism. (That war is technical, distant, clinical, predictable, outsourced, humane, and everything contrary to what writers like Remarque tell us.) He meticulously synthesizes a new paradigm that relates the difficult subjects of military policy and popular sanction. In this regard, The New American Militarism is an exciting contribution to historical scholarship.David Friedman:
The New American Militarism - A Bipolar Look at Todays State of Affairs,
February 4, 2006
Andrew J. Bacevichs', The New American Militarism, gives the reader an important glimpse of his background when he wrote that, as a Vietnam veteran, the experience baffled him and he wrote this book in an effort to "sift through the wreckage left by the war." After the Vietnam War, the author stayed in the military because he believed being an American soldier was a "true and honorable" calling. Bacevich states he is a devoted Catholic and a conservative who became disillusioned with mainstream conservatism. He also states that he believes the current political system is corrupt and functions in ways inconsistent with genuine democracy.
Bacevich states that he tried to write this book using facts in an unbiased way. However, he cautions the reader that his experiences have shaped his views and that his views are part of this book. This is a way to tell the reader that although he tried to remain unbiased, his background and biases find voice in this book. I believe the authors warning are valid; he draws heavily upon his background and biases to support his thesis.
The book is about American militarism, which Bacevich describes as the "misleading and dangerous conceptions of war, soldiers, and military institutions" that have become part of the American conscience and have `perverted' US national security policy. According to Bacevich, American militarism has subordinated the search for the common good to the permanent value of military effectiveness that will bankrupt the US economically and morally. Bacevich supports this thesis by discussing issues that have contributed to this state of affairs.
Bacevich believes the current state of American militarism has roots dating back to the Wilson administration. Wilson's vision was to remake the world in America's image. God Himself willed the universal embrace of liberal democracies and Wilson saw the US as a `divine agent' to make the world a safe and democratic place. Today, with no serious threat to keep our military forces in check, we are now, more than ever, free to spread liberal democracy using military force, if necessary.
Considering the military, Bacevich makes the point that the militarism of America is also due, in part, to the officer corps of the US military trying to rehabilitate the image and profession of the soldier after the Vietnam War. Officers attempted to do this by reversing the roles of the soldiers and the politicians that was problematic during the Vietnam War. They tried to establish the primacy of the military over the civilians in decisions as to how to use the military. The Weinberger and Powell doctrines were the manifestation of this idea by spelling out conditions for the use of the US military in combat.
Neo-conservatives further enhanced the trend of militarism. They see US power as an instrument for good and the time was right to use the military to achieve the final triumph of Wilson's idea of spreading American liberal democracy around the globe.
Religion also played a role. According to Bacevich, evangelical Protestants see the US as a Christian nation singled out by God and Americans are His chosen people. These evangelicals believed the Vietnam War was not only a military crisis, but also a cultural and moral crisis threatening our status. Evangelicals looked to the military to play a pivotal role in saving the US from internal collapse due to the higher expression of morals and values found in the military. The military would become the role model to reverse the trend of godlessness and social decay.
Another set of actors that contributed to American militarism were the defense intellectuals whose main contribution was to bring the military back under civilian control. According to Bacevich, they laid the groundwork of our current policy of `preventative war' and reinforced American militarism.
Finally, Bacevich accuses politicians of deceiving the American public as to the true nature of American militarism by wrapping militarism in the comfortable trappings of nationalism. By using labels such as the Global War on Terrorism, politicians are using a political sleight-of-hand trick to hide our true militaristic nature in patriotic terms. Bacevich concludes his book with a list of recommendations to mitigate the current trend of American militarism.
Bacevich seems to create a mosaic of conspiracy perpetrated by sinister actors aimed at deceiving an unsuspecting public as to the true nature of American militarism. Until the last chapter where Bacevich tells the reader that there is no conspiracy, it is very easy to believe there might be one lurking in the shadows. I was shocked when I reached Bacevich's recommendations. The contrast between his recommendations and the rest of the book is astounding. I was expecting highly provocative recommendations that would match the tone of the rest of the book. However, his recommendations were solid and well thought out...delivered in the calm manner one would expect from a political scientist. Nevertheless, in the end, Bacevich's message leading up to his recommendations were hard to swallow. I believe he wrote this book not to enlighten but to be provocative in order to sell books and build his status in academic circles. If Bacevich's aim was to build a convincing argument on a serious subject, he needed to be less provocative and more clinical.
What is militarism? What is it, particularly as applied to today's America? West Point educated Andrew Bacevich opens his book with a concise statement: "Today as never before in their history Amercans are enthralled with military power. The global military supremacy that the United States presently enjoys . . . has become central to our national identity." This is the basic premise of The New American Militarism. Anyone who does not accept the accuracy of this statement, or is unconcerned about its implications should probably not read this book--it will only annoy them. For those, however, who are concerned about how militarism is increasingly seeping into our core values and sense of national destiny, or who are disturbed by the current glaring disconnect between what our soldiers endure "over there", and the lack of any sacrifice or inconvenience for the rest of us "over here", this book is a must-read.Patrick Connor
Refreshingly, Bacevich approaches the new American militarism as neither a Democrat nor Republican, from neither the left nor the right. No doubt, those with a stake in defending the policy of the present Administration no matter how foolish, or in castigating it as the main source of our current militarism, will see "bias" in this book. The truth though is that Bacevich makes a genuine effort to approach his subject in a spirit of open and disinterested inquiry. He has earned the right to say, near the end of his book, that "this account has not sought to assign or impute blame." As a result, he is not stymied by the possibility of embarrassing one political side or the other by his arguments or conclusions. This leads to a nuanced and highly independent and original treatment of the subject.
In chronicling the rise of American militarism, Bacevich rightly starts with Wilson's vision of American exceptionalism: an America leading the world beyond the slaughterhouse of European battlefields to an international order of peaceful democratic states. But where President Wilson wanted to create such a world for the express purpose of rendering war obsolete, Bacevich notes that today's "Wilsonians" want to export American democracy through the use of force. He follows this overview with an insider's thumbnail history of American military thinking from Vietnam to the first Gulf war. He explains how the military in effect re-invented itself after Vietnam so as to make it far more difficult "to send the Army off to fight while leaving the country behind." Today's highly professionalized and elite force is largely the result of this thinking. In turn this professional military presented to the country and its civilian leaders a re-invented model of war: war waged with surgical precision and offering "the prospect of decision rather than pointing ineluctably toward stalemate and quagmire." Gulf War I was the triumphant culmination of this model. The unintended and ironic consequence, of course, was that war and the aggressive projection of American military power throughout the world came to be viewed by some in our nation's leadership as an increasingly attractive policy option.
The body of the book analyzes how the legitimate attempt to recover from the national trauma of Vietnam led ultimately to a militarism increasingly reflected in crucial aspects of American life. In religion he traces how a "crusade" theory of warfare has supplanted the more mainstream "just war" theory. In popular culture he discusses the rise of a genre of pop fiction and movies reflecting a glamorized and uncritical idealization of war (he examines "An Officer and A Gentleman", "Rambo: First Blood Part II", and "Top Gun" as examples). In politics he identifies the neo-conservative movement as bringing into the mainstream ideas that "a decade earlier might have seemed reckless or preposterous"; for example the idea that the United States is "the most revolutionary force on earth" with an "inescapable mission" to spread democracy -- by the sword if necessary. Bacevich calls these ideas "inverted Trotskyism", and notes that the neo-conservative movement shares with Mao the assumption that revolution springs "from the barrel of a gun".
Bacevich concludes his book with a pithy ten-point critique offered as a starting point for "a change in consciousness, seeing war and America's relationship to war in a fundamentally different way." Among his points are greater fidelity to the letter and the spirit of the Constituional provisions regarding war and the military, and increased strategic self-sufficiency for America. Perhaps the most important points of his critique are those about ending or at least reducing the current disconnect between er how we might reduceAndrew S. Rogers:
Careful observers will note the abolute claims that lie under the surface of these criticisms. If you criticize anything about the United States, you're automatically anti-Bush. If you question the wisdom of viewing the military as a first-option in handling international problems, you're even worse: a liberal anti-Bush peacenick. History supposedly demonstrates that diplomacy never works with any "tyrant" (whatever that is), while war allegedly always work. It's just one stark claim after another, with never any gray area in the middle.
If you read the book, this "you're either with us or with the terrorists, either dream war or hate President Bush" mentality should remind you of something. It very closely resembles the description Bacevich gives of neoconservatism, which he says engenders a worldview that is constantly in crisis mode. Things are always so dire for neocons, Bacevich explains, that only two feasible options present themselves at any given time: doing what the neocons want (usually deploying military force in pursuit of some lofty but unrealistic goal), or suffering irreversible and potentially fatal setbacks to our national cause.
Is it really surprising that the reviews of this book from a neocon mindset are also the reviews giving one star to a book that sytematically critiques and upends neoconservatism?
In actuality, as many have pointed out already, Bacevich is "anti-Bush" only insomuch as he is anti-neoconservative. Bacevich openly states that he throws his full weight behind traditionally conservative issues, like small government and lower taxes. Indeed, he is a devoutly religious social conservative who himself severed twenty years in the Army officer corps. This is why his exposee on America's new militarism has so much credibility.
Since he was in the military, he knows that sometimes the military is necessary to handle situations that develop in the world. However he also understands that the military is often grossly unfit to handle certain situations. This is the main theme of his book. At its core, the story is about how, in response to Vietnam, military leaders worked frightfully hard to rebuild the military and to limit the freedom of starry-eyed civilians to use the armed forces inappropriately.
Their most important objective was to ensure that no more Wilsonian misadventures (like Vietnam) would happen. The officer corps did this by carving out a space of authority for the top brass, from which they could have unprecedented input in policy decisions, and be able to guide strategy and tactics once the military deployed into action. After ascending to a position of greater prominence, they implemented the "Weinberger Doctrine," followed by the "Powell Doctrine," both specifically tailored to avoid Vietnam-style quagmires. The Gulf War, claims Bacevich, saw the fruition of fifteen years of hard work to accomplish these reforms. And they worked beautifully.
However, the end of the last decade saw the Neo-conservatives challenge the status quo. And with the election of W. Bush, they were finally in a position where their ideas could again have a disproportionate influence on foreign policy. What we now have in Iraq is another military quagmire, where the solution must be political, but where military occupation renders political solutions impossible.
This story is about how the military profession emerged from the post-Vietnam wilderness, dazzled the world during the first Gulf War, then once again lost its independent ability to craft related policies with the arrival of Rummie and the neocons.
It's a fascinating story, and Bacevich relates it skillfully.Izaak VanGaalen:
Baedecker on the road to perdition,
December 5, 2005
I was sorry to see Andrew J. Bacevich dismiss Chalmers Johnson's 2004 The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (The American Empire Project) quite as quickly as he did (on page 3 of the introduction, in fact), because I think these two books, taken together, provide probably the best -- and certainly the most historically-informed -- look at the rise and consequences of American empire. I endorse "The New American Militarism" as heartily as I did "The Sorrows of Empire."
Bacevich's capsule summary of Johnson's work notwithstanding, both these books take the long view of America's international military presence and are quick to grasp one key point. As Bacevich notes on page 205, "American militarism is not the invention of a cabal nursing fantasies of global empire and manipulating an unsuspecting people frightened by the events of 9/11. Further, it is counterproductive to think in these terms -- to assign culpability to a particular president or administration and to imagine that throwing the bums out will put things right."
In several insightful chapters, Bacevich traces the rise of militarism over the course of several administrations and many decades. A former Army officer himself, the author is particularly insightful in charting the efforts of the military's officer corps to recover from the stigma of Vietnam and reshape the *ethos* of the armed services as an elite intentionally separate from, and morally superior to, the society it exists to defend. But the officers are only one of the strands Bacevich weaves together. He also looks at the influence of the "defense intellectuals;" the importance of evangelical Christians and how their view of Biblical prophecy shapes their understanding of politics; the rise of (yes) the neo-conservatives; and even the role of Hollywood in changing America's understandings of the "lessons of Vietnam" and the re-glamorization of the military in films like "Top Gun."
The author is a sharp-eyed analyst, but also an engaging writer, and he gives the reader a lot to think about. I was intrigued, for example, by his discussion of how "supporting the troops" has become the *sine qua non* of modern politics and how doing so has replaced actual military service as an indicator of one's love of country. More fundamentally, his identification and analysis of "World War III" (already over) and "World War IV" (currently underway, and declared [surprisingly] by Jimmy Carter) struck me as a remarkably useful lens for interpreting current events.
In tying his threads together, Bacevich is not afraid to make arguments and draw conclusions that may make the reader uncomfortable. As the passage I quoted above makes clear, for example, someone looking for a straightforward declaration that "It's all Bush's fault!" will have to go someplace else. As a further implication of the above passage, Bacevich argues that the "defense intellectuals," the evangelicals, and even the neocons were and are doing what they believe are most likely to promote peace, freedom, and the security of the American people. "To the extent that we may find fault with the results of their efforts, that fault is more appropriately attributable to human fallibility than to malicious intent" (p. 207). Additionally, Bacevich is unashamed of his military service, holds up several military leaders as heroes, has some choice words for the self-delusions of leftist "peace activists," and even argues that federal education loans should be made conditional on military service.
This doesn't mean the president and his fellow conservatives get off much easier, though. Bacevich is roundly critical of Bush and his administration, including Colin Powell; dismisses the Iraq invasion ("this preposterous enterprise" [p. 202]); and in a move that will probably get him crossed off the Thayer Award nominations list, suggests officer candidates be required to graduate from civilian universities instead of West Point (his alma mater) or Annapolis -- intellectually-isolated institutions that reinforce the officer caste's separation from civil society.
So this book isn't one that will blindly reinforce anyone's prejudices. In part for that reason -- but mostly for its trenchant analysis, readable prose, and broad historical view -- I'm happy to list "The New American Militarism" as one of the best and most important books I've read in some time. Perhaps even since "The Sorrows of Empire."Militarism and Public Opinion,
August 12, 2005
According to many of the custodians of public opinion, Andrew Bacevich has earned his right to a fair hearing. Not only is he a graduate of West Point, a Vietnam veteran, and a conservative Catholic, he is a professor of international relations and a contributor to "The Weekly Standard" and "The National Review." Obviously, if he were a left-leaning anti-war Democrat and a contributor to, say, "The Nation," he wouldn't be taken seriously as a critic of American militarism - he would be merely another "blame-America-first" defeatist.
Bacevich sees militarism manifesting itself in some disquieting ways. Traditionally America has always gauged the size of its military with the magnitude of impending threats. After the Civil War, World War I and II, the military was downsized as threats receded. Not so after the fall of the Soviet Union. The military budget has continued to grow and the expenditures are greater - by some measures - than all other countries combined. American military forces are now scaling the globe and the American public seems quiet comfortable with it. And everyone else is growing uneasy.
The mindset of the current officer corps is dominant control in all areas "whether sea, undersea, land, air, space or cyberspace." In other words, supremacy in all theaters. Self-restraint has given way to the normalization of using military force as a foreign policy tool. From 1989 (Operation Just Cause) to 2002 (Operation Iraqi Freedom) there have been nine major military operations and a number of smaller ones. The end of the Cold War has given the US a preponderance of military strength (the proverbial unipolar moment) that has enamoured successive administrations with the idea of using military force to solve international problems. In earlier times, war was always an option of the last resort, now it is a preventative measure.
War, according to Bacevich, has taken on a new aesthetic. During World War I and II, and also Vietnam and Korea the battlefield was a slaughterhouse of barbarism and brutality. Now, with the advent of the new Wilsonianism in Washington, wars are seen as moments of national unity to carry out a positive agenda, almost as if it were international social work.
The modern soldier is no longer looked upon as a deadbeat or a grunt, but rather as a skilled professional who is undertaking socially beneficial work. In fact, in a poll taken in 2003, military personnel consider themselves as being of higher moral standards than the nation they serve.
In the political classes, the Republicans have traditionallly been staunchly pro-military, but now even Democrats have thrown off their ant-military inclinations. When Kerry was running for president he did not question Bush's security policies, he was actually arguing that Bush had not gone far enough. Kerry wanted to invest more in military hardware and training. Even liberal Michael Ignatieff argues that US military intervention should be used to lessen the plight of the oppressed and that we should be assisting them in establishing more representative government.
But superpowers are not altruistic; they are only altruistic to the extent that it serves their self-interest. That's probably why Ignatieff will not get much of a hearing and Bacevich will. This book should give us pause as to why the range of opinion in the America on the use of military force is so narrow. If there is one voice that stands a chance of being heeded, it is from this conservative ex-soldier. \
The US may have been an expansionist and aggressive power as history shows. But unlike European peers, the American public never really took to the seductions of militarism. That is, until now. This is an important and occasionally brilliant book that tells a forty-year tale of creeping over-reliance on the military. And a heck-of an important story it is. I like the way Bacevich refuses to blame the Bush administration, even though they're the ones who've hit the accelerator. Actually the trend has been in motion for some time, especially since 1980 and Reagan's revival of military glory, contrived though it was.
Each chapter deals with an aspect of this growing militariism movement. How intellectual guru Norman Podhoretz and other elites got the big engine together, how twenty million evangelical passengers abandoned tradition and got on board, and how a crew of enthusiastic neo-cons charted a destination -- nothing less than world democracy guaranteed by American military might. All in all, the ride passes for a brilliant post-cold war move. Who's going to argue with freeing up the Will of the People, except for maybe a few hundred million Sharia fanatics. Yet, it appears none of the distinguished crew sees any contradiction between dubious means and noble end, nor do they seem particularly concerned with what anybody else thinks. (Sort of like the old Soviets, eager to spread the blessings of Scientific Socialism.) However, as Bacevich pounts out, there's a practical problem here the crew is very alert to. Policing the world means building up the institutions of the military and providing a covering mystique to keep John Q. Public supportive, especially with tax dollars and blood supply. In short, the mission requires sanitizing the cops on the beat and all that goes into keeping them there. It also means overcoming a long American tradition of minding-one's-own-business and letting the virtues of democratic self-governance speak for themselves. But then, that was an older, less "responsible" America.
Bacevich's remedies harken back to those older, quieter traditions -- citizen soldiers, a real Department of Defense, a revived Department of State, and a much more modest role in international affairs.With this book, Bacevich proves to be one of the few genuine conservatives around, (a breed disappearing even faster than the ranks of genuine liberals). Much as I like the book, especially the thoughtful Preface, I wish the author had dealt more with the economic aspects of build-up and conquest. But then that might require a whole other volume, as globalization and the number of billion-dollar servicing industries expands daily. At day's end, however, someone needs to inform a CNN- enthralled public that the military express lacks one essential feature. With all its hypnotizing bells and whistles, history shows the momentum has no brakes. Lessons from the past indicate that, despite the many seductions, aggressive empires make for some very unexpected and fast-moving train wrecks. Somebody needs to raise the alarm. Thanks Mr. Bacevich for doing your part.
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Andrew Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University, discusses his open letter to Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz; the long overdue accounting of the Bush administration’s real reasons for waging an unnecessary war in Iraq; the dumb ideas floating around in the brains of very smart guys; and Obama’s continuation of Bush’s preventive war doctrine.
March 27, 2013 | Antiwar.com
The Militarization of American Life: From women in combat to the invasion of the sciences
As the American Empire transforms itself from a constitutional republic into a social democratic monstrosity – where everyone is "equal," and no one is free – egalitarianism is the fuel that runs the engine of imperialism. A perfect example is the recent announcement that the US military is getting with the times and allowing women in combat. What’s pretty disheartening is that not even the woman’s-place-is-in-the-home Neanderthals of the "traditionalist" camp even bothered to oppose this: for them, a more efficient war machine is much more important than any attachment to such "archaic" ideas as the men do the fighting while the women wait at home.
This innovation was followed up pretty quickly by a new proposal: that as long as we allow gays in the military we ought to allow transsexuals in, too. After all, the usual objections to women in combat don’t apply to them: they have the genetic makeup of men, and the sexual equipment of women (or as close as surgical science can conjure) – so why not?
In America, everyone has the "equal right" to kill, torture, maim, and otherwise abuse those who dare defy the wishes of our wise and benevolent rulers. This is what happens when egalitarianism displaces liberty at the core of the American psyche.
Women, gays, transsexuals, and presumably dwarves afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome – all have an "equal right" to commit mass murder. Did the leftists who brought this Political Correctness down on our heads ever dream of the uses to which it would be put? And now that they’ve "grown up" and made their peace with the Empire, do they even care? Of course they don’t. All they care about is the great god Equality, on whose altar every value they every pretended to hold is being slaughtered.
It isn’t just them, however: militarism is a disease that spreads without effort, once it’s implanted in the body politic. It quite naturally infects the sciences, what with the diversion of scientific and technical talent that might have gone into productive civilian projects, and I’m not just talking about the hard sciences. Witness the co-opting of the "soft" science of anthropology by the same people who brought us the war in Afghanistan and the "COIN" strategy that was supposed to give us victory. These folks have created the so-called Human Terrain System, which seeks to utilize anthropology as a weapon in counterinsurgency warfare. Billions are being poured into "scientific research" on how best to subdue recalcitrant natives out in the colonies: when you’re talking about the military-industrial complex, it isn’t just Lockheed-Martin and Boeing.
The marriage of science and militarism is nothing new, but there are some resistors. As Inside Higher Education reports:
"The eminent University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins resigned from the National Academy of Sciences on Friday, citing his objections to its military partnerships and to its electing as a member Napoleon Chagnon, a long-controversial anthropologist who is back in the news thanks to the publication of his new book, Noble Savages." [Hat tip: Jordan Bloom at The American Conservative]
You don’t have to be an anthropologist to get in on the action: yes, you too can access via live webcast the April 3 Pentagon/NAS "workshop," "New Directions in Assessing Individuals and Groups,"and hear the keynote address by Frederick Vollrath, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness and Force Management. I’ll bet those anthropologists are making out like bandits!
As for Napoleon Chagnon – could a novelist have gotten away with such a name? – he is an extremely dubious character who apparently believes violence is not only genetically encoded in humans, but that there is an evolutionary bias in favor of homicidal homo sapiens. Instead of an atavistic trait surviving from pre-civilized man, wars of aggression – according to the Chagnonite version of biological determinism – are the mark of high civilization. It is a Bizarro World perspective on the nature of human progress, one that owes much to that great anthropologist, the Marquis de Sade.
Chagnon dismisses his critics as "left-wing anthropologists" and "anti-Darwinian romantics": he and his claque present themselves as true "scientists," and treat the study of anthropology – that is, of human nature – as if it were one of the "hard" sciences, like chemistry. Armed with "scientific" certitude, their one-dimensional view of life – "impoverished," as one critic remarked – is the perfect instrument of the modern Warfare State: bloodless, dogmatic, and cruel. Chagnon’s elevation to the NAS – which used to be a prestigious organization – is an absolute disgrace, and Prof. Sahlins was right to render his resignation in protest.
Citing his own objections to Chagnon’s research methods – see here – Sahlins went on to explain the core reason for his resignation. Because of "the toll" that military action overseas "has taken on the blood, treasure, and happiness of American people, and the suffering it has imposed on other peoples,” Sahlins said, “the NAS, if it involves itself at all in related research, should be studying how to promote peace, not how to make war."
In this age of Empire, militarism pervades American culture like a poisonous fog, hypnotizing a complacent population with narratives that valorize and justify a foreign policy of perpetual war. It reaches into every corner of everyday life, from the war propaganda spewed forth by the "mainstream" media to the movies we watch and what we learn in "science" class. Once this kind of cultural rot sets in, it is hard to root out: this is the true meaning of decadence, of a society suffering the latter stages of a fatal hubris.
Yet root it out we must. The battle for peace must be waged on the cultural and scientific front, as well as in the day to day world of the pundits and the Washington policy wonks. Indeed, victory on the battlefield of the culture necessarily precedes success on the political front, as we should have learned back in the 1960s.
July 15, 2011 | Antiwar.com
In a free economy, the banks that invested trillions in risky mortgages and other fool’s gold would have taken the hit. Instead, however, what happened is that the American taxpayers took the hit, paid the bill, and cleaned up their mess – and were condemned to suffer record unemployment, massive foreclosures, and the kind of despair that kills the soul.
How did this happen? There are two versions of this little immorality tale, one coming from the "left" and the other from the "right" (the scare-quotes are there for a reason, which I’ll get to in a moment or two).
The "left" version goes something like this:
The evil capitalists, in league with their bought-and-paid for cronies in government, destroyed and looted the economy until there was nothing left to steal. Then, when their grasping hands had reached the very bottom of the treasure chest, they dialed 911 and the emergency team (otherwise known as the US Congress) came to their rescue, doling out trillions to the looters and leaving the rest of America to pay the bill.
The "right" version goes something like the following:
Politically connected Wall Streeters, in league with their bought-and-paid-for cronies in government, destroyed and looted the economy until there was nothing left to steal. Then, when their grasping hands had reached the very bottom of the treasure chest, they dialed BIG-GOV-HELP and the feds showed up with the cash.
The first thing one notices about these two analyses, taken side by side, is their similarity: yes, the "left" blames the free market, and the "right" blames Big Government, but when you get past the blame game their descriptions of what actually happened look like veritable twins. And as much as I agree with the "right" about their proposed solution – a radical cut in government spending – it is the "left" that has the most accurate analysis of who’s to blame.
It is, of course, the big banks – the recipients of bailout loot, the ones who profited (and continue to profit) from the economic catastrophe that has befallen us.
During the 1930s, the so-called Red Decade, no leftist agitprop was complete without a cartoon rendering of the top-hatted capitalist with his foot planted firmly on the throat of the proletariat (usually depicted as a muscular-but-passive male in chains). That imagery, while crude, is largely correct – an astonishing statement, I know, coming from an avowed libertarian and "reactionary," no less. Yet my leftist pals, and others with a superficial knowledge of libertarianism, will be even more surprised that the founder of the modern libertarian movement, also an avowed (and proud) "reactionary," agreed with me (or, rather, I with him):
"Businessmen or manufacturers can either be genuine free enterprisers or statists; they can either make their way on the free market or seek special government favors and privileges. They choose according to their individual preferences and values. But bankers are inherently inclined toward statism.
"Commercial bankers, engaged as they are in unsound fractional reserve credit, are, in the free market, always teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Hence they are always reaching for government aid and bailout.
"Investment bankers do much of their business underwriting government bonds, in the United States and abroad. Therefore, they have a vested interest in promoting deficits and in forcing taxpayers to redeem government debt. Both sets of bankers, then, tend to be tied in with government policy, and try to influence and control government actions in domestic and foreign affairs."
That’s Murray N. Rothbard, the great libertarian theorist and economist, in his classic monograph Wall Street, Banks, and American Foreign Policy. If you want a lesson in the real motivations behind our foreign policy of global intervention, starting at the very dawn of the American empire, you have only to read this fascinating treatise. The essence of it is this: the very rich have stayed very rich in what would otherwise be a dynamic and ever-changing economic free-for-all by securing government favors, enjoying state-granted monopolies, and using the US military as their private security guards. Conservatives who read Rothbard’s short book will never look at the Panama Canal issue in the same light again. Lefties will come away from it marveling at how closely the libertarian Rothbard comes to echoing the old Marxist aphorism that the government is the "executive committee of the capitalist class."
Rothbard’s account of the course of American foreign policy as the history of contention between the Morgan interests, the Rockefellers, and the various banking "families," who dealt primarily in buying and selling government bonds, is fascinating stuff, and it illuminates a theme common to both left and right commentators: that the elites are manipulating the policy levers to ensure their own economic interests unto eternity.
In normal times, political movements are centered around elaborate ideologies, complex narratives that purport to explain what is wrong and how to fix it. They have their heroes, and their villains, their creation myths and their dystopian visions of a dark future in store if we don’t heed their call to revolution (or restoration, depending on whether they’re hailing from the "left" or the "right").
You may have noticed, however, that these are not normal times: we’re in a crisis of epic proportions, not only an economic crisis but also a cultural meltdown in which our social institutions are collapsing, and with them longstanding social norms. In such times, ideological categories tend to break down, and we’ve seen this especially in the foreign policy realm, where both the "extreme" right and the "extreme" left are calling for what the elites deride as "isolationism." On the domestic front, too, the "right" and "left" views of what’s wrong with the country are remarkably alike, as demonstrated above. Conservatives and lefties may have different solutions, but they have, I would argue, a common enemy: the banksters.
This characterization of the banking industry as the moral equivalent of gangsters has its proponents on both sides of the political spectrum, and today that ideological convergence is all but complete, with only "centrists" and self-described pragmatists dissenting. What rightists and leftists have in common, in short, is a very powerful enemy – and that’s all a mass political movement needs to get going.
In normal times, this wouldn’t be enough: but, as I said above, these most assuredly aren’t normal times. The crisis lends urgency to a process that has been developing – unfolding, if you will – for quite some time, and that is the evolution of a political movement that openly disdains the "left" and "right" labels, and homes in on the main danger to liberty and peace on earth: the state-privileged banking system that is now foreclosing on America.
This issue is not an abstraction: we see it being played out on the battlefield of the debt ceiling debate. Because, after all, who will lose and who will win if the debt ceiling isn’t raised? The losers will be the bankers who buy and sell government bonds, i.e. those who finance the War Machine that is today devastating much of the world. My leftie friends might protest that these bonds also finance Social Security payments, and I would answer that they need to grow a spine: President Obama’s threat that Social Security checks may not go out after the August deadline is, like everything out that comes out of his mouth, a lie. The government has the money to pay on those checks: this is just his way of playing havoc with the lives of American citizens, a less violent but nonetheless just as evil version of the havoc he plays with the lives of Afghans, Pakistanis, and Libyans every day.
This isn’t about Social Security checks: it’s about an attempt to reinflate the bubble of American empire, which has been sagging of late, and keep the government printing presses rolling. For the US government, unlike a private entity, can print its way out of debt – or, these days, by simply adding a few zeroes to the figures on a computer screen. A central bank, owned by "private" individuals, controls this process: it is called the Federal Reserve. And the Fed has been the instrument of the banksters from its very inception [.pdf], at the turn of the 19th century – not coincidentally, roughly the time America embarked on its course of overseas empire.
There is a price to be paid, however, for this orgy of money-printing: the degradation, or cheapening, of the dollar. Most of us suffer on account of this policy: the only beneficiaries are those who receive those dollars first, before it trickles down to the rest of us. The very first to receive them are, of course, the bankers, but there’s another class of business types who benefit, and those are the exporters, whose products are suddenly competitive with cheaper foreign goods. This has been a major driving force behind US foreign policy, as Rothbard points out:
"The great turning point of American foreign policy came in the early 1890s, during the second Cleveland Administration. It was then that the U.S. turned sharply and permanently from a foreign policy of peace and non-intervention to an aggressive program of economic and political expansion abroad. At the heart of the new policy were America’s leading bankers, eager to use the country’s growing economic strength to subsidize and force-feed export markets and investment outlets that they would finance, as well as to guarantee Third World government bonds. The major focus of aggressive expansion in the 1890s was Latin America, and the principal Enemy to be dislodged was Great Britain, which had dominated foreign investments in that vast region.
"In a notable series of articles in 1894, Bankers’ Magazine set the agenda for the remainder of the decade. Its conclusion: if ‘we could wrest the South American markets from Germany and England and permanently hold them, this would be indeed a conquest worth perhaps a heavy sacrifice.’
"Long-time Morgan associate Richard Olney heeded the call, as Secretary of State from 1895 to 1897, setting the U.S. on the road to Empire. After leaving the State Department, he publicly summarized the policy he had pursued. The old isolationism heralded by George Washington’s Farewell Address is over, he thundered. The time has now arrived, Olney declared, when ‘it behooves us to accept the commanding position… among the Power of the earth.’ And, ‘the present crying need of our commercial interests,’ he added, ‘is more markets and larger markets’ for American products, especially in Latin America.’"
The face of the Enemy has long since changed, and Britain is our partner in a vast mercantilist enterprise, but the mechanics and motivation behind US foreign policy remain very much the same. You’ll note that the Libyan "rebels," for example, set up a Central Bank right off the bat, even before ensuring their military victory over Gadhafi – and who do you think is going to be selling (and buying) those Libyan "government" bonds? It sure as heck won’t be Joe Sixpack: it’s the same Wall Streeters who issued an ultimatum to the Tea Party, via Moody’s, that they’ll either vote to raise the debt ceiling or face the consequences.
But what are those consequences – and who will feel their impact the most?
It’s the bankers who will take the biggest hit if US bonds are downgraded: the investment bankers, who invested in such a dodgy enterprise as the US government, whose "full faith and credit" isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. In a free market, these losers would pay the full price of their bad business decisions – in our crony-capitalist system, however, they win.
They win because they have the US government behind them — and because their strategy of degrading the dollar will reap mega-profits from American exporters, whose overseas operations they are funding. The "China market," and the rest of the vast undeveloped stretches of the earth that have yet to develop a taste for iPads and Lady Gaga, all this and more will be open to them as long as the dollar continues to fall.
That this will cripple the buying power of the average American, and raise the specter of hyper-inflation, matters not one whit of difference to the corporate and political elites that control our destiny: for with the realization of their vision of a World Central Bank, in which a new global currency controlled by them can be printed to suit their needs, they will be set free from all earthly constraints, or so they believe.
With America as the world policeman and the world banker – in alliance with our European satellites – the Washington elite can extend their rule over the entire earth. It’s true we won’t have much to show for it, here in America: with the dollar destroyed, we’ll lose our economic primacy, and be subsumed into what George Herbert Walker Bush called the "New World Order." Burdened with defending the corporate profits of the big banks and exporters abroad, and also with bailing them out on the home front when their self-created bubbles burst, the American people will see a dramatic drop in their standard of living – our sacrifice to the gods of "internationalism." That’s what they mean when they praise the new "globalized" economy.
Yet the American people don’t want to be sacrificed, either to corporate gods or some desiccated idol of internationalism, and they are getting increasingly angry – and increasing savvy when it comes to identifying the source of their troubles.
This brings us to the prospects for a left-right alliance, both short term and in the long run. In the immediate future, the US budget crisis could be considerably alleviated if we would simply end the wars started by George W. Bush and vigorously pursued by his successor. Aside from that, how many troops do we still have in Europe – more than half a century after World War II? How many in Korea – long after the Korean war? Getting rid of all this would no doubt provide enough savings to ensure that those Social Security checks go out – but that’s a bargain Obama will never make.
All those dollars, shipped overseas, enrich the military-industrial complex and their friends, the exporters – and drain the very life blood out of the rest of us. Opposition to this policy ought to be the basis of a left-right alliance, a movement to bring America home and put America first.
In the long term, there is the basis for a more comprehensive alliance: the de-privileging of the banking sector, which cemented its rule with the establishment of the Federal Reserve. That, however, is a topic too complex to be adequately covered in a single column, and so I’ll just leave open the intriguing possibility.
"Left" and "right" mean nothing in the current context: the real division is between government-privileged plutocrats and the rest of us. What you have to ask yourself is this: which side are you on?
Andrew Bacevich has a wonderful essay, in the form of an open letter to Paul Wolfowitz, in the current Harper's. You have to subscribe to read it -- but, hey, you should be subscribing to any publication whose work you value. This essay isolates the particular role Wolfowitz had in the cast of characters that led us to war. As a reminder, they included:
- Dick Cheney, who was becoming a comic-book churl by this stage of his public life;
- Colin Powell, the loyal soldier, staffer, and diplomat whose "Powell Doctrine" and entire life's work stood in opposition to the kind of war that he, with misguided loyalty, was to play so central a role in selling;
- Tony Blair, the crucial ally who added rhetorical polish and international resolve to the case for war;
- Donald Rumsfeld, with his breezy contempt for those who said the effort would be difficult or long;
- Paul Bremer, whose sudden, thoughtless dismantling of the Iraqi army proved so disastrous;
- Condoleezza Rice, miscast in her role as White House national-security advisor;
- George Tenet, the long-time staffer who cooperated with the "slam-dunk!" intelligence assessment despite serious disagreement within the CIA;
- and of course George W. Bush himself, whose combination of limited knowledge and strong desire to be "decisive" made him so vulnerable to the argument that the "real" response to the 9/11 attacks should be invading a country that had nothing to do with them.
But Paul Wolfowitz was in a category of his own because he was the one who provided the highest-concept rationale for the war. As James Galbraith of the University of Texas has put it, "Wolfowitz is the real-life version of Halberstam's caricature of McNamara" [in The Best and the Brightest].
Bacevich's version of this assessment is to lay out as respectfully as possible the strategic duty that Wolfowitz thought the U.S. would fulfill by invading Iraq. Back before the war began, I did a much more limited version of this assessment as an Atlantic article. As Bacevich puts it now, Wolfowitz was extending precepts from his one-time mentor, Albert Wohlstetter, toward a model of how the United States could maximize stability for itself and others.
As with the best argumentative essays, Bacevich takes on Wolfowitz in a strong rather than an oversimplified version of his world-view. You have to read the whole thing to get the effect, but here is a brief sample (within fair-use limits):
With the passing of the Cold War, global hegemony seemed America's for the taking. What others saw as an option you, Paul, saw as something much more: an obligation that the nation needed to seize, for its own good as well as for the world's....Bacevich explains much more about the Wohlstetter / Wolfowitz grand view. And then he poses the challenge that he says Wolfowitz should now meet:
Although none of the hijackers were Iraqi, within days of 9/11 you were promoting military action against Iraq. Critics have chalked this up to your supposed obsession with Saddam. The criticism is misplaced. The scale of your ambitions was vastly greater.
In an instant, you grasped that the attacks provided a fresh opportunity to implement Wohlstetter's Precepts, and Iraq offered a made-to-order venue....In Iraq the United States would demonstrate the efficacy of preventive war.... The urgency of invading Iraq stemmed from the need to validate that doctrine before the window of opportunity closed.
One of the questions emerging from the Iraq debacle must be this one: Why did liberation at gunpoint yield results that differed so radically from what the war's advocates had expected? Or, to sharpen the point, How did preventive war undertaken by ostensibly the strongest military in history produce a cataclysm?
Not one of your colleagues from the Bush Administration possesses the necessary combination of honesty, courage, and wit to answer these questions. If you don't believe me, please sample the tediously self-exculpatory memoirs penned by (or on behalf of) Bush himself, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Tenet, Bremer, Feith, and a small squad of eminently forgettable generals...
What would Albert [Wohlstetter] do? I never met the man (he died in 1997), but my guess is that he wouldn't flinch from taking on these questions, even if the answers threatened to contradict his own long-held beliefs. Neither should you, Paul. To be sure, whatever you might choose to say, you'll be vilified, as Robert McNamara was vilified when he broke his long silence and admitted that he'd been "wrong, terribly wrong" about Vietnam. But help us learn the lessons of Iraq so that we might extract from it something of value in return for all the sacrifices made there. Forgive me for saying so, but you owe it to your country.
Anyone who knows Andrew Bacevich's story will understand the edge behind his final sentence. But you don't have to know that to respect the challenge he lays down. I hope Paul Wolfowitz will at some point rise to it.
For another very valuable assessment of who was right and wrong, when, please see John Judis's piece in The New Republic.
"As prophet, Reinhold Niebuhr warned that what he called 'our dreams of managing history' — dreams borne out of a peculiar combination of arrogance, hypocrisy, and self-delusion — posed a large and potentially mortal threat to the United States. Today we ignore that warning at our peril.
Since the end of the Cold War the management of history has emerged as the all but explicitly stated purpose of American statecraft. In Washington, politicians speak knowingly about history's clearly discerned purpose and about the responsibility of the United States, at the zenith of its power, to guide history to its intended destination.
In Niebuhr's view, although history may be purposeful, it is also opaque, a drama in which both the story line and the dénouement remain hidden from view. The twists and turns that the plot has already taken suggest the need for a certain modesty in forecasting what is still to come. Yet as Niebuhr writes, 'modern man lacks the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management.'
Such humility is in particularly short supply in present-day Washington. There, especially among neoconservatives and neoliberals, the conviction persists that Americans are called up on to serve, in Niebuhr's most memorable phrase, 'as tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection.'"
Andrew J. Bacevich
I might have subtitled this, A Plunder Society: The Three Trillion Dollar self-serving adventures of the military-industrial empire.
Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.
Calgacus, as chronicled by Tacitus in his Agricola
The homepage for this interview is here.
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Category: arrogance, dollar hegemony
Sep 17, 2012 | Newsweek and The Daily Beast
The death of a U.S. ambassador raises questions about America’s foreign-policy assumptions. PrintEmailComments (5) Visibly shocked and grief-stricken, Hillary Clinton gave voice to a question many Americans were asking last week: “How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?” She was responding to the news that the U.S. ambassador to Libya and members of his staff had been killed during an attack on the American Consulate in the cradle of the Libyan revolution, Benghazi.
The Tahrir Square protesters wanted more than just a change of presidents. (Johann Rousselot)
The question is as apt as it is poignant. America’s role in helping to topple the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had been counted as one of the Obama administration’s few clear-cut foreign-policy successes. Good had triumphed over evil. Prompt and timely action by the United States had averted genocide. When victorious rebels finally dragged Gaddafi from a culvert and killed him, Clinton summed it up crisply: “We came, we saw, he died.” The outcome seemed definitive.
As it turned out, things weren’t as simple as they looked. In the Arab world, the overthrow of tyrants—however welcome—settles little and unsettles much. The story has been the same in Iraq, Egypt, and Yemen. In all likelihood it will repeat itself yet again if the Free Syrian Army prevails in its struggle against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
But why the Arab anger against the United States? Why the absence of gratitude among the very people the United States helped save, in the very countries Americans helped liberate? The way Secretary Clinton frames the question practically guarantees a self-satisfying but defective answer. Still, don’t blame her: the rest of the foreign-policy establishment isn’t doing any better.
The question is predicated on three propositions that are regarded as sacrosanct in the venues where U.S. policymakers and would-be policymakers congregate and exchange business cards. First: humanity yearns for liberation, as defined in Western (meaning predominantly liberal and secular) terms. Second: the United States has a providentially assigned role to nurture and promote this liberation, advancing what George W. Bush once termed the Freedom Agenda. Third: given that America’s intentions are righteous and benign—okay, maybe not always, but most of the time—the exercise of U.S. power on a global scale merits respect and ought to command compliance.
Belief in these three propositions depends on viewing history as ultimately a good-news story. If the good news appears mingled with bad, the imperative for the faithful is to try harder. Forget about Baghdad and Kabul: onward to Damascus and Tehran.
Yet history is not a good-news story. Its destination and purpose remain indecipherable, even (or especially) to an “intelligence community” that purports to peer into the future, but cannot even provide adequate warning of attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities. Not that our civilian thinkers are doing much better. These days the shelf life of the Big Idea that’s marketed as explaining everything in three words or less—Unipolar Moment, End of History, Clash of Civilizations, Indispensable Nation—is about six months.
What’s the next surprise lurking just around the bend? Long before last week’s sudden eruption of anti-American violence across the Muslim world, the answer to that question was clear: God knows, and he’s not saying.
The notion that American power can be counted on to deliver American-style freedom is particularly wrongheaded when applied to the Muslim world. The problem is not that Arabs, Iranians, Afghans, or Pakistanis have an aversion to freedom. On the contrary, they’ve provided abundant evidence that they hunger for it. Rather, the problem is that 21st-century Muslims don’t necessarily buy America’s 21st-century definition of the term—a definition increasingly devoid of moral content. Instead, the varied inhabitants of a dauntingly complex Islamic world want to decide for themselves what the exercise of freedom should entail. Many of them believe it should consist of something more than individual autonomy and conspicuous consumption.
What they are demanding, in short, is their collective right to self-determination. That desire has made them seem stubbornly unreceptive to outside tutelage, and painfully sensitive to perceived expressions of disrespect, no matter how insignificant the source—even in the form of a preposterously bad film made by some demented jackass. Insults directed at the Prophet Mohammad are going to provoke a hostile response among the world’s Muslims, much as Christians once reacted to the heresies propounded by those who dared to question the doctrines and prerogatives of the Holy Roman Church. Back then, defying the pope could land you in serious trouble.
The problem with the foreign-policy tradition to which Secretary Clinton adheres (and to which any secretary of state appointed by a President Romney undoubtedly would also subscribe) is that it refuses to allow Muslims to set their own course. In fact, U.S. foreign policy is fundamentally incapable of permitting it. For Washington simply to step aside, letting Libyans and Egyptians work out their own problems in their own way, would imperil certain moderately important American interests. More important, it would imply giving up the illusion that the United States models freedom in its truest form and that it can identify and direct history’s course. In effect, it would concede the limitations of American power and American perspicacity.
This country’s political class is unwilling to make any such concessions. That much is obvious to anyone who bothered to watch the twin celebrations of American exceptionalism that constituted the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Several commentators noted the paucity of attention given by either party to the war in Afghanistan, now approaching its 11th anniversary with victory nowhere in sight. With even greater justification they might have noted the two parties’ reticence regarding the even more disastrous and utterly unnecessary Iraq War. Seldom has the American propensity for turning away from unpleasant facts been more vividly and irresponsibly displayed. This avoidance testifies to a refusal to learn.
Egyptian revolutionaries shared a desire with other Muslims: self-determination. (Johann Rousselot)
The murder of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and his colleagues was a despicable act. The Obama administration is right to demand that the Libyan government bring the perpetrators to justice, and the United States should apply whatever pressure is necessary to ensure compliance. Yet whatever the outcome of this particular crisis, the underlying problems will remain unaltered between the United States and the nations of the Islamic world.
Diplomats like Ambassador Stevens are willing to put their lives at risk “because they believe that the United States must be a force for peace and progress,” Secretary Clinton said last week. Who could doubt her sincerity? But in the face of decade upon decade of contrary experience, what could possibly convince Libyans or Egyptians, Iraqis or Iranians, Afghans or Pakistanis that such faith in America’s idealism has any basis in fact? No doubt the United States has helped on occasion to advance the cause of peace and progress in the Islamic world. Washington did finally abandon the dictatorship of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. But it happened only after decades of unstinting support for his regime. The United States has aligned itself all too often with the forces of despotism and oppression. And this tendency has persisted even on Secretary Clinton’s watch; just look at the U.S. response to the Arab Awakening’s appearance in Bahrain.
Sometimes the only remedy for a badly damaged relationship is to give it a protracted cooling-off period. Time and distance may not make hearts grow fonder, but they can allow old grudges to ease. Stay away from your philandering ex-husband awhile and the old rogue might not seem so bad after all.
Such a breathing spell is very much in order for America’s dealings with the nations of the Islamic world. No preaching; no getting in their knickers; please, God, no “nation building.” For how long? Given the poisonous nature of existing relations, an intermission of something like a century sounds about right.
In the meantime, if we Americans think we have something to teach others, let’s do it as exemplars—that is, assuming we’re willing to close the yawning gap between the values we loudly profess and the way we actually behave.
Andrew J. Bacevich is currently a visiting fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
May 30, 2012 | Antiwar.com
They have a way of slipping under the radar, whether heading into Pakistan looking for Osama bin Laden, Central Africa looking for Joseph Kony, or Yemen presumably to direct local military action against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. I’m talking, of course, about U.S. special operations forces. These days, from Somalia to the Philippines, presidential global interventions are increasingly a dime a dozen; and they are normally spearheaded by those special ops troops backed by CIA or Air Force drones. Few Americans even notice.
An ever expanding secret military cocooned inside the U.S. military, special operations types remain remarkably, determinedly anonymous. With the exception of their commander, Admiral William McRaven, they generally won’t even reveal their last names in public, which only contributes to their growing mystique in this country.
But for a crew so dedicated to anonymity, they also turn out to be publicity hounds of the first order. In 2011, for instance, active-duty U.S. Navy Seals (first-name only please!) became movie stars, spearheading a number one box office hit, Act of Valor. It was the film equivalent of a vanity-press production, focused as it did on their own skills in battle in… hmm, the Philippines (to prevent a terror strike against the U.S.). A team of SEALs even parachuted onto Sunset Boulevard for the film’s Hollywood premiere.
Then last week another special ops team, in coordination with their Norwegian and Australian counterparts, heroically rescued the mayor of Tampa Bay, held ” hostage.” They also rappelled down from helicopters and arrived in Humvees to secure the area around the Tampa Convention Center, which will service 15,000 members of the media when the Republicans hit town to nominate Mitt Romney for president. Whew! Another close publicity call!
It was a mock assault on terror watched by thousands of Tampa residents, all timed to the annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, also in town and swarmed by 8,000 attendees, including McRaven. Its goal: to bring together special operators from around the world and the industry that arms and accessorizes them. (U.S. special ops forces have a $2 billion purchasing budget each year for all the gadgets the defense industry can produce.)
Oh, and if you want a measure of how hot the special ops guys are these days, how much everyone wants to horn in on their act, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke before the conference, offering, according to Danger Room’s David Axe, “a vision in which shadowy U.S. and allied Special Operations Forces, working hand in hand with America’s embassies and foreign governments, together play a key role preventing low-intensity conflicts.” And if those conflicts aren’t prevented, then the Foreign Service, Clinton assured her listeners, will be happy to lend its “language and cultural skills” to the fighting prowess of the special ops troops. Diplomacy? It’s so old school in such a sexy, new, “covert” war-fightin’ world.
The basic principle is simple enough: if you see a juggernaut heading your way, duck. As TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, editor most recently of The Short American Century, makes clear, war American-style is heading back “into the shadows” and it’s going to be one roller-coaster of a scary ride. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Bacevich discusses what we don’t know about special operations forces, click here or download it to your iPod here.) TomUnleashed
Globalizing the Global War on Terror
by Andrew J. Bacevich
As he campaigns for reelection, President Obama periodically reminds audiences of his success in terminating the deeply unpopular Iraq War. With fingers crossed for luck, he vows to do the same with the equally unpopular war in Afghanistan. If not exactly a peacemaker, our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president can (with some justification) at least claim credit for being a war-ender.
Yet when it comes to military policy, the Obama administration’s success in shutting down wars conducted in plain sight tells only half the story, and the lesser half at that. More significant has been this president’s enthusiasm for instigating or expanding secret wars, those conducted out of sight and by commandos.
President Franklin Roosevelt may not have invented the airplane, but during World War II he transformed strategic bombing into one of the principal emblems of the reigning American way of war. General Dwight D. Eisenhower had nothing to do with the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. Yet, as president, Ike’s strategy of Massive Retaliation made nukes the centerpiece of U.S. national security policy.
So, too, with Barack Obama and special operations forces. The U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) with its constituent operating forces — Green Berets, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, and the like — predated his presidency by decades. Yet it is only on Obama’s watch that these secret warriors have reached the pinnacle of the U.S. military’s prestige hierarchy.
John F. Kennedy famously gave the Green Berets their distinctive headgear. Obama has endowed the whole special operations “community” with something less decorative but far more important: privileged status that provides special operators with maximum autonomy while insulating them from the vagaries of politics, budgetary or otherwise. Congress may yet require the Pentagon to undertake some (very modest) belt-tightening, but one thing’s for sure: no one is going to tell USSOCOM to go on a diet. What the special ops types want, they will get, with few questions asked — and virtually none of those few posed in public.
Since 9/11, USSOCOM’s budget has quadrupled. The special operations order of battle has expanded accordingly. At present, there are an estimated 66,000 uniformed and civilian personnel on the rolls, a doubling in size since 2001 with further growth projected. Yet this expansion had already begun under Obama’s predecessor. His essential contribution has been to broaden the special ops mandate. As one observer put it, the Obama White House let Special Operations Command “off the leash.”
As a consequence, USSOCOM assets today go more places and undertake more missions while enjoying greater freedom of action than ever before. After a decade in which Iraq and Afghanistan absorbed the lion’s share of the attention, hitherto neglected swaths of Africa, Asia, and Latin America are receiving greater scrutiny. Already operating in dozens of countries around the world — as many as 120 by the end of this year — special operators engage in activities that range from reconnaissance and counterterrorism to humanitarian assistance and “direct action.” The traditional motto of the Army special forces is “De Oppresso Liber” (“To Free the Oppressed”). A more apt slogan for special operations forces as a whole might be “Coming soon to a Third World country near you!”
The displacement of conventional forces by special operations forces as the preferred U.S. military instrument — the “force of choice” according to the head of USSOCOM, Admiral William McRaven — marks the completion of a decades-long cultural repositioning of the American soldier. The G.I., once represented by the likes of cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s iconic Willie and Joe, is no more, his place taken by today’s elite warrior professional. Mauldin’s creations were heroes, but not superheroes. The nameless, lionized SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden are flesh-and blood Avengers. Willie and Joe were “us.” SEALs are anything but “us.” They occupy a pedestal well above mere mortals. Couch potato America stands in awe of their skill and bravery.
This cultural transformation has important political implications. It represents the ultimate manifestation of the abyss now separating the military and society. Nominally bemoaned by some, including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, this civilian-military gap has only grown over the course of decades and is now widely accepted as the norm. As one consequence, the American people have forfeited owner’s rights over their army, having less control over the employment of U.S. forces than New Yorkers have over the management of the Knicks or Yankees.
As admiring spectators, we may take at face value the testimony of experts (even if such testimony is seldom disinterested) who assure us that the SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets, etc. are the best of the best, and that they stand ready to deploy at a moment’s notice so that Americans can sleep soundly in their beds. If the United States is indeed engaged, as Admiral McRaven has said, in “a generational struggle,” we will surely want these guys in our corner.
Even so, allowing war in the shadows to become the new American way of war is not without a downside. Here are three reasons why we should think twice before turning global security over to Admiral McRaven and his associates.
Goodbye, accountability. Autonomy and accountability exist in inverse proportion to one another. Indulge the former and kiss the latter goodbye. In practice, the only thing the public knows about special ops activities is what the national security apparatus chooses to reveal. Can you rely on those who speak for that apparatus in Washington to tell the truth? No more than you can rely on JPMorgan Chase to manage your money prudently. Granted, out there in the field, most troops will do the right thing most of the time. On occasion, however, even members of an elite force will stray off the straight-and-narrow. (Until just a few weeks ago, most Americans considered White House Secret Service agents part of an elite force.) Americans have a strong inclination to trust the military. Yet as a famous Republican once said: trust but verify. There’s no verifying things that remain secret. Unleashing USSOCOM is a recipe for mischief.
Hello, imperial presidency. From a president’s point of view, one of the appealing things about special forces is that he can send them wherever he wants to do whatever he directs. There’s no need to ask permission or to explain. Employing USSOCOM as your own private military means never having to say you’re sorry. When President Clinton intervened in Bosnia or Kosovo, when President Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, they at least went on television to clue the rest of us in. However perfunctory the consultations may have been, the White House at least talked things over with the leaders on Capitol Hill. Once in a while, members of Congress even cast votes to indicate approval or disapproval of some military action. With special ops, no such notification or consultation is necessary. The president and his minions have a free hand. Building on the precedents set by Obama, stupid and reckless presidents will enjoy this prerogative no less than shrewd and well-intentioned ones.
And then what…? As U.S. special ops forces roam the world slaying evildoers, the famous question posed by David Petraeus as the invasion of Iraq began — “Tell me how this ends” — rises to the level of Talmudic conundrum. There are certainly plenty of evildoers who wish us ill (primarily but not necessarily in the Greater Middle East). How many will USSOCOM have to liquidate before the job is done? Answering that question becomes all the more difficult given that some of the killing has the effect of adding new recruits to the ranks of the non-well-wishers.
In short, handing war to the special operators severs an already too tenuous link between war and politics; it becomes war for its own sake. Remember George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror”? Actually, his war was never truly global. War waged in a special-operations-first world just might become truly global — and never-ending. In that case, Admiral McRaven’s “generational struggle” is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a TomDispatch regular. He is editor of the new book The Short American Century, just published by Harvard University Press. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Bacevich discusses what we don’t know about special operations forces, click here or download it to your iPod here.
Copyright 2012 Andrew J. Bacevich
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.
September 08, 2008 | The American Conservative
Never have so many shoppers owed so much …
By Andrew J. Bacevich
No less than in 1776, a passion for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness remains at the center of America’s civic theology. The Jeffersonian trinity summarizes our common inheritance, defines our aspirations, and provides the touchstone for our influence abroad.
Yet if Americans still cherish the sentiments contained in the Declaration of Independence, they have radically revised their understanding. For the majority of contemporary Americans, the essence of those “inalienable rights” centers on a relentless quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors.
Others have bemoaned the cultural implications of this development. Few, however, have considered how an American preoccupation with “more” has affected U.S. relations with the rest of the world. Yet the foreign-policy implications of our self-indulgence are almost entirely negative. Over the past six decades, efforts to satisfy spiraling consumer demand have given birth to a condition of profound dependency. The ethic of self-gratification saddles us with costly commitments abroad that we are increasingly ill-equipped to sustain while confronting us with dangers to which we have no ready response. As the prerequisites of the American way of life have grown, they have outstripped the means to satisfy them.
The restless search for a buck and the ruthless elimination of anything standing in the way have long been central to the American character. Touring the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville noted the “feverish ardor” of its citizens to accumulate. Yet even as the typical American “clutches at everything,” the Frenchman wrote, “he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications.”
To quench their ardor, Americans looked abroad, seeking to extend the reach of U.S. power. The pursuit of fresh gratifications expressed itself collectively in an urge to expand territorially and commercially. This expansionist project was well begun when Tocqueville’s Democracy in America appeared, most notably through Jefferson’s acquisition of the Louisiana Territory and through ongoing efforts to remove (or simply eliminate) Native Americans.
Preferring to remember their story somewhat differently, Americans look to politicians to sanitize their past. When, in his 2005 inaugural address, George W. Bush identified the promulgation of freedom as “the mission that created our nation,” neoconservative hearts beat a little faster, as they did when he went on to declare that America’s “great liberating tradition” now required the U.S. to devote itself to “ending tyranny in our world.” But Bush was simply putting his own gloss on a time-honored conviction ascribing to the United States a uniqueness of character and purpose. From its founding, America has expressed through its behavior a providential purpose. Renewing this tradition of American exceptionalism has long been one of the presidency’s primary extraconstitutional obligations.
Yet to credit the United States with possessing a liberating tradition is equivalent to saying that Hollywood has a “tradition of artistic excellence.” The movie business is just that—a business. If a studio occasionally produces a film of aesthetic value, that may be cause for celebration, but profit, not revealing truth and beauty, defines the purpose of the enterprise.
The same can be said of the enterprise launched on July 4, 1776. The hardheaded lawyers, merchants, farmers, and plantation owners gathered in Philadelphia did not set out to create a church. They founded a republic. Their purpose was not to save mankind. It was to ensure that people like themselves enjoyed unencumbered access to the Jeffersonian trinity.
In the years that followed, the U.S. achieved remarkable success in making good on those aims. But never during the course of America’s transformation from a small power to a great one did the United States exert itself to liberate others absent an overriding perception that the nation had security or economic interests at stake. From time to time, although not nearly as frequently as we like to imagine, some of the world’s unfortunates managed as a consequence to escape from bondage. The Civil War did produce emancipation. Yet to explain the conflagration as a response to the plight of enslaved African-Americans is to engage in immense oversimplification. Near the end of World War II, GI’s did liberate the surviving inmates of Nazi death camps. Yet for those who directed the American war effort, the fate of European Jews never figured as more than an afterthought.
Crediting the United States with a great liberating tradition distorts the past and obscures the motive behind U.S. foreign policy. To insist that the liberation of others has never been more than an ancillary motive of U.S. policy is not cynicism; it is a prerequisite to self-understanding
If the young United States had a mission, it was not to liberate but to expand. “Of course,” declared Theodore Roosevelt in 1899, “our whole national history has been one of expansion.” TR spoke truthfully. The founders viewed stasis as tantamount to suicide. From the outset, Americans evinced a compulsion to acquire territory and extend their commercial reach.
Depending on the circumstances, the U.S. relied on diplomacy, hard bargaining, bluster, chicanery, intimidation, or naked coercion. We infiltrated land belonging to our neighbors and proclaimed it our own. We harassed, filibustered, and launched full-scale invasions. We engaged in ethnic cleansing. At times, we insisted that treaties be considered sacrosanct. On other occasions, we jettisoned agreements that had outlived their usefulness.
As the methods varied, so did the rationales. We touted our status as God’s new Chosen People, erecting a “city upon a hill” to illuminate the world. We acted at the behest of providential guidance or responded to the urgings of our “manifest destiny.” We declared our obligation to spread the Gospel or to “uplift little brown brother.” With Woodrow Wilson as our tutor, we shouldered our responsibility to “show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.” Critics who derided these claims as bunkum—the young Lincoln during the war with Mexico, Mark Twain after the imperial adventures of 1898, Sen. Robert La Follette amid “the war to end all wars”—scored points but lost the argument. Periodically revised and refurbished, American exceptionalism only gained currency.
From expansion came abundance. Out of abundance came substantive freedom. Documents drafted in Philadelphia promised liberty. Making good on those promises required a political economy that facilitated the creation of wealth on an enormous scale.
Writing over a century ago, historian Frederick Jackson Turner made the essential point. “Not the Constitution, but free land and an abundance of natural resources open to a fit people,” he wrote, made American democracy possible. William Appleman Williams found an even tighter correlation. For Americans, he observed, “abundance was freedom and freedom was abundance.”
In short, expansion fostered prosperity, which in turn created the environment within which Americans pursued their dreams of freedom even as they argued about just who deserved to share in that dream. The promise—and reality—of ever-increasing material abundance kept that argument within bounds. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, Americans came to count on an ever larger economic pie to anesthetize the unruly and ameliorate tensions related to class, race, religion, and ethnicity. Money became the preferred lubricant for keeping social and political friction within tolerable limits. Americans, Reinhold Niebuhr observed, “seek a solution for practically every problem of life in quantitative terms,” certain that more is better.
This relationship between expansion, abundance, and freedom reached its apotheosis in the aftermath of World War II. Assisted by the fratricidal behavior of the European powers and reckless Japanese policies that culminated in the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. emerged as a global superpower, while the American people came to enjoy a standard of living that made them the envy of the world. By 1945, the “American Century” forecast by Henry Luce only four years earlier seemed miraculously at hand. The United States was the strongest, the richest, and—in the eyes of its white majority at least—the freest nation in the world.
It possessed nearly two-thirds of the world’s gold reserves and more than half its manufacturing capacity. As measured by value, its exports more than doubled its imports. The dollar had displaced the British pound sterling as the global reserve currency, making the United States the world’s money manager. Among the world’s producers of oil, steel, airplanes, automobiles, and electronics, it ranked first.
Militarily, the United States possessed unquestioned naval and air supremacy, underscored until August 1949 by an absolute nuclear monopoly, affirmed thereafter by an indisputable edge in military technology. Immediate neighbors were weak and posed no threat. Adversaries were far away and possessed limited reach.
The two decades following World War II marked the zenith of what historian Charles Maier called the Empire of Production. Unquestioned economic superiority endowed the United States with a high level of strategic self-sufficiency, translating into remarkable freedom of action. In his Farewell Address, George Washington dreamed of the day when the U.S. might acquire strength sufficient “to give it, humanly speaking, the command of its own fortunes.” Strength, the first president believed, would allow the nation to assert real independence, enabling Americans to “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.” In the wake of World War II, that moment had emphatically arrived.
It soon passed. Even before 1950, the United States had begun to import foreign oil. At first, the quantities were trifling. Over time, they grew. Yet the U.S. continued churning out a never-ending array of goods, its preeminence seemingly beyond challenge.
In the 1960s, however, the empire of production began to come undone. Within another 20 years—thanks to permanently negative trade balances, a crushing defeat in Vietnam, oil shocks, stagflation, the shredding of a moral consensus that could not withstand the assaults of Elvis Presley, “the pill,” and the counterculture, along with news reports that God had died—it had become defunct. In its place, according to Maier, there emerged a new Empire of Consumption. Just as the lunch-bucket-toting factory worker has symbolized the empire of production in its heyday, the teenager, daddy’s credit card in her blue jeans and headed to the mall, now emerged as the empire of consumption’s emblematic figure.
We can fix the tipping point with precision. Prior to the Vietnam War, efforts to expand American power to promote American abundance usually proved conducive to American freedom. After Vietnam, efforts to expand American power continued; but when it came to either abundance or freedom, the results became increasingly problematic.
In retrospect, the economic indicators signaling an erosion of dominance seem obvious. The costs of the Vietnam War—and President Johnson’s attempt to conceal them while pursuing his vision of a Great Society—destabilized the economy, as evidenced by deficits, inflation, and a weakening dollar. In August 1971, Nixon tacitly acknowledged the disarray by devaluing the dollar and suspending its convertibility into gold.
That was only the beginning. Prior to the 1970s, because the U.S. had long been the world’s producer of petroleum, American oil companies determined the global price of oil. In 1972, domestic production peaked and began its irreversible decline. The year before, the prerogative of setting the price of crude had passed to a new producer’s group, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
With U.S. demand for oil steadily increasing, so did reliance on imports. In 1971, after decades in the black, the United States had a negative trade balance. In 1973, and again in 1975, exports exceeded imports in value. From then on, it was all red ink; never again would American exports equal imports.
By the late 1970s, a period of slow growth and high inflation, the still-forming crisis of profligacy was already causing distress. The first protracted economic downturn since World War II confronted Americans with a fundamental choice. They could curb their appetites and learn to live within their means or deploy dwindling reserves of U.S. power in hopes of obliging others to accommodate their penchant for conspicuous consumption. They opted for the latter.
Here lies the true pivot of contemporary American history, far more relevant to our present predicament than events like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of the Soviet Union. Between the summer of 1979 and the spring of 1983, “global leadership,” the signature claim of U.S. foreign policy, underwent a subtle transformation. Although the United States kept up the pretense that the rest of the world could not manage without its guidance and protection, leadership became less a choice than an imperative. The exercise of global primacy offered a way of compensating for the erosion of dominant economic position. Yet whatever deference Washington was able to command could not conceal the extent to which the U.S. was becoming beholden to others.
On July 15, 1979, Jimmy Carter delivered the first of two pivotal speeches. Although widely regarded as a failed president, Carter, in this instance at least, demonstrated remarkable foresight. He not only appreciated the looming implications of dependence but anticipated the implications of allowing this condition to fester.
In the summer of 1979, inflation had reached 11 percent, 7 percent of American workers were unemployed, and the prime lending rate stood at 15 percent and was still rising. Worse yet, in January, Iranian revolutionaries ousted the shah, resulting in a second “oil shock.” If Carter hoped to win a second term, he needed to turn things around quickly.
The president had originally intended to speak on July 5, focusing his address exclusively on energy. At the last minute, he decided to postpone it. Instead, he spent ten days sequestered at Camp David, using the time “to reach out and listen to the voices of America.” The speech he delivered bore little resemblance to the one he had planned to give ten days earlier. The energy crisis, he suggested, was a symptom of a far greater crisis: “I want to speak to you first tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.”
Carter then proceeded to kill any chance of re-election. In American political discourse, fundamental threats are by definition external. Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, or international communism could threaten the United States. That very year, Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries had emerged to pose another such threat. That the actions of everyday Americans might pose a comparable threat amounted to heresy. Yet Carter dared to suggest that the real danger to American democracy lay within.
The nation was experiencing “a crisis of confidence,” he announced. “It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” This erosion of confidence threatened “to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”
Americans had strayed from the path of righteousness. “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God,” the president continued,
too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.
The American crisis of confidence was an outward manifestation of an underlying crisis of values. Carter implied that he was merely voicing concerns that his listeners already shared: that average Americans viewed their lives as unsatisfying rituals of buying and longed for something more meaningful.
“We are at a turning point in our history,” Carter announced.
There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility.
The continued pursuit of this idea of freedom was “a certain route to failure.” The alternative—a course consistent with “all the traditions of our past [and] all the lessons of our heritage”—pointed down “another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values.”
As portrayed by Carter, the mistaken idea of freedom was quantitative: it centered on the never-ending quest for more while exalting narrow self-interest. His conception of authentic freedom was qualitative: it meant living in accordance with permanent values. At least by implication, it meant settling for less.
How Americans dealt with the question of energy, the president believed, would determine which idea of freedom would prevail. With this in mind, Carter outlined a six-point program designed to end what he called “this intolerable dependence on foreign oil.” Although he expressed confidence that the United States could one day regain energy independence, he acknowledged that in the near term “there [was] simply no way to avoid sacrifice.” Implicit in Carter’s speech was the suggestion that sacrifice just might be a good thing. For the sinner, penance must necessarily precede redemption.
As an effort to reorient public policy, Carter’s appeal failed completely. Americans showed little enthusiasm for the president’s brand of freedom with its connotations of virtuous austerity. Not liking the message, Americans shot the messenger.
Carter’s speech did enjoy a long and fruitful life—chiefly as fodder for his political opponents. The most formidable was Ronald Reagan. He portrayed himself as conservative but was, in fact, the modern prophet of profligacy—the politician who gave moral sanction to the empire of consumption. Beguiling his fellow citizens with talk of “morning in America,” Reagan added to America’s civic religion two crucial beliefs: credit has no limits, and the bills will never come due. Balance the books, pay as you go, save for a rainy day—Reagan’s abrogation of these ancient bits of folk wisdom did as much to recast America’s moral constitution as did sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
When it came to confidence, the former governor wanted it known that he had lots of it. In a jab at Carter, he alluded to those “who would have us believe that the United States, like other great civilizations of the past, has reached the zenith of its power” and who “tell us we must learn to live with less.” Reagan rejected these propositions. He envisioned a future in which the U.S. would gain even greater power while Americans would enjoy ever greater prosperity. The sole obstacle was the federal government. His solution was to pare down the bureaucracy, reduce federal spending, and cut taxes.
On one point at least, Reagan agreed with Carter: “The only way to free ourselves from the monopoly pricing power of OPEC is to be less dependent on outside sources of fuel.” Yet Reagan had no interest in promoting energy independence through reduced consumption. When it came to energy, he was insistent: “We must decide that ‘less’ is not enough.”
History remembers Reagan as a fervent Cold Warrior. Yet, in announcing his candidacy, he devoted little attention to the Soviet Union. His language was measured, not belligerent. He did not denounce the Soviets for being “evil.” He made no allusions to rolling back communism. In outlining his views on foreign policy, he focused on his vision of a “North American accord,” an economic union linking the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
He approvingly quoted Tom Paine on Americans having the power to “begin the world over again.” He endorsed John Winthrop’s charge that God had commanded Americans to erect “a city upon a hill.” And he cited (without attribution) Franklin D. Roosevelt’s entreaty for Americans to keep their “rendezvous with destiny.” Reagan did not call on Americans to tighten their belts. He saw no need for sacrifice. He rejected Carter’s dichotomy between quantity and quality. Above all, he assured his countrymen that they could have more.
Despite the advantages of incumbency, Carter suffered a crushing defeat. Reagan carried all but four states and won the popular vote by well over eight million. It was a landslide and a portent.
Reagan’s inaugural address served as an occasion to recite conservative bromides. He made a show of decrying the profligacy of the recent past: “For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children’s future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals.” He vowed to put America’s economic house in order: “You and I, as individuals, can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but for only a limited period of time. Why, then, should we think that collectively, as a nation, we’re not bound by that same limitation?” Reagan reiterated an oft-made promise “to check and reverse the growth of government.”
He would do none of these things. In each case, he did just the reverse. During the Carter years, the federal deficit had averaged $54.5 billion annually. During the Reagan era, deficits skyrocketed, averaging $210.6 billion over the course of Reagan’s two terms. Federal spending nearly doubled, from $590.9 billion in 1980 to $1.14 trillion in 1989. The federal government did not shrink. It grew, the bureaucracy swelling by nearly 5 percent.
To call Reagan a hypocrite is to miss the point. The Reagan Revolution was never about fiscal responsibility or small government. Far more accurately than Carter, Reagan understood what made Americans tick: they wanted self-gratification, not self-denial. Although always careful to embroider his speeches with inspirational homilies and testimonials to old-fashioned virtues, Reagan mainly indulged American self-indulgence.
There was a revolution; it just had little to do with the tenets of conservatism. The true nature of the revolution becomes apparent only in retrospect. Reagan unveiled it in remarks that he made on March 23, 1983. History remembers this as the occasion when the president announced his Strategic Defense Initiative. Embedded in Reagan’s remarks were two radical propositions: the minimum requirements of U.S. security required a status akin to invulnerability and modern technology was bringing this utopian goal within reach. Star Wars introduced into mainstream politics the proposition that Americans could be safe only if the United States enjoyed permanent global military supremacy. Here was Reagan’s preferred response to the crisis that Carter had identified. Here, too, can be found the strategic underpinnings of George W. Bush’s global war on terror.
Whereas Carter had summoned Americans to mend their ways, Reagan obviated any need for soul-searching by inviting his fellow citizens to carry on. For Carter, ending American dependence on foreign oil meant promoting moral renewal at home. Reagan—and Reagan’s successors—mimicked Carter in bemoaning the nation’s growing energy dependence but did next to nothing to curtail that dependence. Instead, they wielded U.S. military power to ensure access to oil, hoping thereby to prolong the empire of consumption. Carter had portrayed quantity (the American preoccupation with what he had called “piling up material goods”) as fundamentally at odds with quality (authentic freedom as he defined it). Reagan reconciled what was, to Carter, increasingly irreconcilable. In Reagan’s view, quality (advanced technology converted to military use by highly skilled soldiers) could sustain quantity (a consumer economy based on the availability of cheap credit and cheap oil).
A consensus emerged based on the conviction that the American military could dominate the planet as Reagan had proposed to dominate outer space. In Washington, confidence that a high-quality military establishment, dexterously employed, could enable the U.S., always with high-minded intentions, to organize the world to its liking became a self-evident truth. In this malignant expectation—not in any of the conservative ideals for which he is retrospectively venerated—lies the essence of the Reagan legacy.
By the end of his presidency, 41 percent of the oil consumed domestically came from abroad. It was during his first term that growing demand for Chinese goods produced the first negative trade balance with that country. In the same period, Washington—and the American people more generally—resorted to borrowing. The U.S. had long touted its status as a creditor nation as a symbol of overall economic strength. That, too, ended during the Reagan era. Even as the United States began accumulating trillions of dollars of debt, the inclination of individual Americans to save began to disappear. For most of the postwar era, personal savings had averaged a robust 8-10 percent of disposable income. In 1985, that figure began a slide toward zero.
American profligacy during the 1980s had a powerful effect on foreign policy. On one hand, Reagan’s willingness to spend without limit helped bring the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion. On the other, American habits of conspicuous consumption drew the U.S. ever more deeply into the vortex of the Islamic world, saddling an increasingly debt-ridden and energy-dependent nation with commitments it could neither shed nor sustain.
Yet it would be a mistake to imply that there were two Reagans—the farsighted statesman who won the Cold War and the chucklehead who bollixed up U.S. relations with the Islamic world. Cold War policy and Middle Eastern policy did not exist in separate compartments. Reagan-era exertions undertaken to win “World War III” inadvertently paved the way for “World War IV,” while leaving the United States in an appreciably weaker position to conduct that struggle.
Reagan never questioned the proposition that the American way of life required ever larger quantities of energy. Since satisfying American demand by expanding domestic oil production was never anything but a mirage, Reagan instead crafted policies to alleviate the risks associated with dependency. The splendid army he helped create found eventual employment not in defending the West against totalitarianism but in trying to impose an American imperium on the Persian Gulf.
Whatever their professed ideological allegiance, Reagan’s successors have all adhered to the hallowed tradition of decrying America’s energy dependence without taking any meaningful action to address this addiction. That Americans might shake the habit by choosing a different course is a possibility few are willing to contemplate. After all, as George H.W. Bush declared in 1992, “The American way of life is not negotiable.”
The presidents who followed have relied increasingly on military power to sustain that way of life. The unspoken assumption has been that profligate spending on what politicians euphemistically refer to as “defense” can sustain profligate domestic consumption of energy and imported manufactures. That the antidote to our ailments might lie within rather than on the other side of the world received no consideration at all.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001 only hardened this disposition. Donald Rumsfeld summarized the prevailing view: “We have two choices. Either we change the way we live, or we must change the way they live. We choose the latter.”
As it trained its sights on modifying the way “they” lived, the Bush administration looked to America’s Armed Forces as its agent of change. Through a war of liberation, the United States intended to convert Iraq into what Paul Wolfowitz termed the first Arab democracy. Yet, as they prepared for a showdown with Saddam, Wolfowitz and others in the administration were looking beyond Baghdad. Iraq only qualified as an interim objective. The ultimate purpose was to transform a huge swath of the Islamic world from Morocco through Pakistan and Central Asia to Indonesia and the southern Philippines. Here was an imperial vision on a colossal scale, a worthy successor to older claims of “manifest destiny” or an American mission to “make the world safe for democracy.”
One might have thought that implementing such a vision would require sustained and large-scale national commitment. “War costs money,” Franklin D. Roosevelt reminded his countrymen after Pearl Harbor. “That means taxes and bonds and bonds and taxes. It means cutting luxuries and other non-essentials.” At the outset of its war on terrorism, the Bush administration saw things differently. Even as the U.S. embarked on a global conflict expected to last decades, the president reduced taxes. Rather than asking Americans to trim their appetite for luxuries, he called on them to carry on as if nothing had occurred. Barely two weeks after the World Trade Center collapsed, the president was prodding citizens to “Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida.” As late as December 2006, with the situation in Iraq looking grim, the wartime president noted with satisfaction that the holiday spending binge was off to “a strong beginning.” Yet he summoned Americans to make even greater exertions: “I encourage you all to go shopping more.”
The role allotted to the American people was to pretend that the conflict did not exist. Despite claims that his would be a generational struggle, the president never considered restoring the draft. Nor did he expand the size of the Armed Forces. This guaranteed that the 0.5 percent of the population that made up the all-volunteer force would bear the brunt of any sacrifice. With only a handful of dissenters, the remaining 99.5 percent of Americans happily endorsed this distribution of effort.
Predictably, as the scope of military operations grew, so did the level of military spending. During the Bush years, the Pentagon’s budget more than doubled, reaching $700 billion by 2008. Unlike in Operation Desert Storm when Germany, Japan, and friendly Gulf states ponied up tens of billions, the burden fell entirely on Washington.
Less predictably, although perhaps not surprisingly, spending on entitlements also rose in the years after 9/11. Abetted by Congress, the administration conducted a war of guns and butter, including huge increases in Medicare and Social Security. The federal budget went into the red and stayed there.
In the name of preserving the American way of life, President Bush and his lieutenants committed the nation to a breathtakingly ambitious project of near global domination. Hewing to a tradition that extended at least as far back as Jefferson, they intended to expand American power to further the cause of American freedom. Freedom assumed abundance. Abundance seemingly required access to cheap and abundant oil. Guaranteeing access to that oil demanded that the U.S. remove all doubts about who called the shots in the Persian Gulf.
Yet that way of life, based for at least two generations on an ethic of excess, drastically reduced the resources available for such an all-encompassing imperial enterprise. Encouraged by President Bush to attend to their personal priorities, Americans lost no time disengaging from the war he had launched. While soldiers fought, people consumed. With the United States possessing less than 3 percent of the world’s known oil reserves and Americans burning one out of every four barrels of petroleum produced worldwide, oil imports reached 60 percent of daily national requirements and kept rising. The personal-savings rate continued to plummet. In 2006, total public debt topped $9 trillion, nearly 70 percent of the gross national product.
In February of that year, a provocative article in the New York Times Magazine posed the question, “Is freedom just another word for many things to buy?” Through their actions after 9/11, as before, tens of millions of Americans answered in the affirmative. Given the extent to which consumption had become the driveshaft of the global economy, the Bush administration welcomed the average citizen’s inclination to ignore the war and return to the mall.
Yet once the Iraq War demonstrated the shortcomings of shock and awe, there was no obvious way to reconfigure the empire of consumption into an empire of global liberation. The horrors of Sept. 11 notwithstanding, most Americans subscribed to a limited-liability version of patriotism, one that emphasized the display of bumper stickers in preference to shouldering a rucksack.
As conditions in Iraq worsened, the disparity between pretensions and capacities became painfully evident. A generation of profligacy had produced strategic insolvency. The administration had counted on the qualitative superiority of U.S. forces compensating for their limited numbers. The enemy did not cooperate. And although the United States is a wealthy nation with a population of over 300 million, closing the gap between means and ends posed a daunting task. By February 2005, Max Boot was suggesting that the armed forces “open up recruiting stations from Budapest to Bangkok, Cape Town to Cairo, Montreal to Mexico City.”
The United States had a shortage of soldiers; it also lacked funds. The longer the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raged, the more costly they became. By 2007, to sustain its operations the U.S. command in Baghdad was burning through $3 billion per week. That same year, the overall costs of the Iraq War topped the $500 billion mark, with some estimates suggesting that the final bill could reach $2 trillion.
Although these figures were widely reported, they had almost no political impact in Washington, indicating the extent to which habits of profligacy had become entrenched. Congress responded to budget imbalances not by trimming spending or increasing revenues but by raising the debt ceiling by $3.015 trillion between 2002 and 2006. Future generations could figure out how to pay the bills.
All this red ink finally began to generate nervous speculation about a coming economic collapse comparable in magnitude to the Great Depression. Americans continued to insist, however, that the remedy to the nation’s problems lay in the Persian Gulf rather than at home. The slightest suggestion that the United States ought to worry less about matters abroad and more about setting its own house in order elicited from the political elite shrieks of “isolationism,” the great imaginary sin to which Americans are allegedly prone. Yet beginning to put our house in order would be to open up a whole new array of options, once again permitting the United States to “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”
Long accustomed to thinking of the U.S. as a superpower, Americans have yet to realize that they have forfeited command of their own destiny. The reciprocal relationship between expansionism, abundance, and freedom—each reinforcing the other—no longer exists. If anything, the reverse is true: expansionism squanders American wealth and power, while putting freedom at risk. As a consequence, the strategic tradition to which Jefferson and Polk, Lincoln and McKinley, TR and FDR all subscribed has been rendered not only obsolete but pernicious.
Rather than confronting this reality, American grand strategy since the era of Reagan, and especially throughout the era of George W. Bush, has been characterized by attempts to wish reality away. Policy-makers have been engaged in a de facto Ponzi scheme intended to extend indefinitely the American line of credit. The fiasco of the Iraq War and the quasi- permanent U.S. occupation of Afghanistan illustrate the results and prefigure what is yet to come if the crisis of American profligacy continues unabated.
Andrew J. Bacevich teaches international relations at Boston University. This essay is adapted from The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew J. Bacevich. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2008 by Andrew J. Bacevich. All rights reserved.
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This is the bluntest, toughest, most scathing critique of American imperialism as it has become totally unmoored after the demise of the Soviet Communist empire and taken to a new level by the Bush administration. Even the brevity of this book - 182 pages - gives it a particular wallop since every page "concentrates the mind".
In the event a reader knows of the prophetic work of the American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, you will further appreciate this book. Bacevich is a Niebuhr scholar and this book essentially channels Niebuhr's prophetic warnings from his 1952 book, "The Irony of American History". The latter has just been reissued by University of Chicago Press thanks to Andrew Bacevich who also contributed an introduction.
In essence, American idealism as particularly reflected in Bush's illusory goal to "rid the world of evil" and to bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East or wherever people are being tyrannized, is doomed to failure by the tides of history. Niebuhr warned against this and Bacevich updates the history from the Cold War to the present. Now our problems have reached crisis proportions and Bacevich focuses on the three essential elements of the crisis: American profligacy; the political debasing of government; and the crisis in the military.
What renders Bacevich's critique particularly stinging, aside from the historical context he gives it (Bush has simply taken an enduring American exceptionalism to a new level), is that he lays these problems on the doorstep of American citizens. It is we who have elected the governments that have driven us toward near collapse. It is we who have participated willingly in the consumption frenzy in which both individual citizens and the government live beyond their means. Credit card debt is undermining both government and citizenry.
This pathway is unsustainable and this book serves up a direct and meaningful warning to this effect. Niebuhrian "realism" sees through the illusions that fuel our own individual behavior and that of our government. There are limits to American power and limits to our own individual living standards and, of course, there are limits to what the globe can sustain as is becoming evident from climate changes.
American exceptionalism is coming to an end and it will be painful for both individual citizens and our democracy and government to get beyond it. But we have no choice. Things will get worse before they get better. Bacevich suggests some of the basic ways that we need to go to reverse the path to folly. He holds out no illusions that one political party or the other, one presidential candidate or the other, has the will or the leadership qualities to change directions. It is up to American citizens to demand different policies as well as to govern our own appetites.
While this is a sobering book, it is not warning of doomsday. Our worst problems are essentially of our own making and we can begin to unmake them. But we first have to come to terms with our own exceptionalism. We cannot manage history and there are no real global problems that can be solved by military means, or certainly not by military means alone.
Cliche or not, this is a "Must Read" book, August 15, 2008
Fellow citizen, you need to read this book!
Submitted by Jim Quinn from The Burning Platform
War Pigs - The Fall Of A Global Empire
We will bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security.” -Dwight D. Eisenhower
“How far can you go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without?” -Dwight D. Eisenhower
Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses
Evil minds that plot destruction
Sorcerers of deaths construction
In the fields the bodies burning
As the war machine keeps turning
Death and hatred to mankind
Poisoning their brainwashed minds, oh lord yeah!
Black Sabbath – War Pigs
As Americans mindlessly celebrate another Memorial Day with cookouts, beer and burgers, the U.S. war machine keeps churning. As we brutally enforce our will on foreign countries, we create more people that hate us. They don’t hate us for our freedom. They hate us because we have invaded and occupied their countries. They hate us because we kill innocent people with predator drones. They hate us for our hypocrisy regarding democracy and freedom. Just when we had the opportunity to make a sensible decision by leaving Iraq and exiting the Middle East quagmire, Obama made the abysmal choice to casually sacrifice more troops in the Afghan shithole. We have thrown over $1.3 trillion down Middle East rat holes over the last 11 years with no discernible benefit to the citizens of the United States. George Bush and Barack Obama did this to prove they were true statesmen. The Soviet Union killed over 1 million Afghans, while driving another 5 million out of the country and retreated as a bankrupted and defeated shell after ten years. Young Americans continue to die, for whom and for what? Our foreign policy during the last eleven years can be summed up in one military term, SNAFU – Situation Normal All Fucked Up. These endless foreign interventions under the guise of a War on Terror are a smoke screen for what is really going on in this country. When a government has unsolvable domestic problems, they try to distract the willfully ignorant masses by proactively creating foreign conflicts based upon false pretenses. General Douglas MacArthur understood this danger to our liberty.
“I am concerned for the security of our great Nation; not so much because of any threat from without, but because of the insidious forces working from within.”
Economic Opportunity Cost
“You can’t say civilization don’t advance… in every war they kill you in a new way.” – Will Rogers
Any doubt that the Military Industrial Complex is as strong as ever should be removed after examining Obama’s 2012 Budget which has $900 billion dedicated to our military machine. We spent $370 billion in 2001, $620 billion in 2006, and now this liberal anti-war Democrat from Illinois is spending 45% more than that war monger Bush who was burned in effigy by the anti-war Democrats during Iraq War protests. It seems both parties are war pigs.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, leaving the United States as the only remaining superpower on earth. Since 1990, the United States has depleted the U.S. Treasury of $11.5 trillion for spending on War. With no military on earth capable of challenging us why would there be a need to spend this much on the military? Over this same time frame the U.S. spent $500 billion on science, space & technology and $70 billion on energy, a mere 6% of the spending on invading sovereign countries. Military expenditures benefit humanity in no way. If these trillions had been invested by the private sector or devoted to energy and scientific research, our economy might not be a hollowed out shell, dependent on China for financing and oil exporting countries for energy. Neo-Cons argue the Arms Industry employs millions and benefits the country. These companies employ brilliant engineers and scientists who spend their days developing weapons that kill people more efficiently. If they had been employed manufacturing high tech goods to export around the world, inventing new technologies that didn’t obliterate human beings, newer safer nuclear power plants, a more efficient electric grid, upgrading our deteriorating infrastructure, or finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, would the United States be better off today?
The National Debt in 1990 was $3.2 trillion. Today, it is $15.7 trillion. This is a 500% increase in twenty-two years. What benefit has $11.5 trillion of spending on War produced for the United States or the world? In 2001, spending on Defense was 17% of total governmental spending. In 2012, Defense, Homeland Security, and war spending account for 25% of government spending. In the meantime, major cities experience blackouts due to an overloaded electrical grid, our 156,000 structurally deficient bridges crumble, one hundred year old water pipes burst under our streets every day, and we transfer over $300 billion per year to foreign countries for our precious oil. The 19 terrorist hijackers who implemented their plan with box cutters, spent less than $500,000 to pull off their 9/11 acts of terror – not war. The United States will directly spend at least $3 trillion on our wars of choice in response, while turning our country into a prison camp and stripping our citizens of their freedoms and liberties for perceived security and safety.
You would think we must be trying to keep up with our enemies by spending $900 billion per year on past and present military adventures. But one look at the following chart reveals the United States is spending almost as much as the rest of the world combined. The two countries considered potential rivals, China and Russia, spent $200 billion combined in 2010. This is 22% of U.S. spending. From a foreign viewpoint, one must wonder why the U.S. is spending such vast sums on our military. They can only conclude that it is for offensive intentions rather than defensive. The United States soil has not been attacked by a foreign power since December 7, 1941. Prior to that surprise attack, a foreign power hadn’t attacked the U.S. since the War of 1812. With this stupendous level of wasteful spending, our leaders feel compelled to interfere in the business of sovereign states and dictate how they should govern their nations . When you have an enormous hammer, every country looks like a nail.
Laughably, the neo-con hawks and Fox News pundits declare that our military is a hollow shell and needs much greater funding to insure our safety from attack by our many enemies. Other countries, such as China and Russia, feel they have no choice but to increase their expenditures on the military. On a percentage basis, they have more than doubled their expenditures in the last ten years, and still are a drop in the ocean compared to American Empire spending. The fact is that the U.S., China and Russia all have enough nuclear weapons to obliterate the world – mutually assured destruction. The United States could realistically protect itself from attack with only the 18 ballistic missile nuclear submarines we have in commission.
When did Americans lose their ability to distinguish between intellectual and moral pygmies like George Bush, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney versus statesmen like Dwight D. Eisenhower? The Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive war when our country was not threatened has proven to be financially and diplomatically disastrous and his blueprint is being followed by our Nobel Peace Prize President in his saber rattling with Iran. Following this policy puts them in fine company.
“Preventive war was an invention of Hitler. Frankly, I would not even listen to anyone seriously that came and talked about such a thing.” -Dwight D. Eisenhower
The U.S. borrowed $807 billion from China, Japan and oil exporting countries to wage a war in Iraq that was based on false pretenses. None of the terrorist hijackers on 9/11 were Iraqis, they had no links to Al Qaeda, and Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Historian Barbara Tuchman description of “war as the unfolding of miscalculations” was never so fitting. In 2002, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld estimated the costs of the war in the range of $50 to $60 billion, a portion of which he believed would be financed by other countries. The United States invaded Iraq to secure the 115 billion barrels of oil reserves, pure and simple. We traded the blood of young Americans for oil because we chose to not develop a cohesive logical energy policy in the last 30 years. Americans, not in the military, sacrificed nothing in the last 11 years of war. We bought BMW SUVs, 6,000 square foot McMansions, flat screen HDTVs, iPads, iPhones and Rolexes while less than 1% of Americans fought and died, with the cost passed to future unborn generations. We are a country of chickenhawks, willing to sacrifice the few so the ruling class can comfortably relax on their decks sipping wine, believing Fox News propaganda about terrorists lurking behind every bush, and filling up their Mercedes convertibles for their excursions to the summer cottage in the Hamptons.
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
As we spend $900 billion per year on instruments of destruction, 49 million Americans live in poverty, with 46 million on food stamps. There are 3 to 4 million people homeless in any given year. Military Veterans, who make up 13% of the population, account for 23% of the homeless. This is another example of Federal government politicians using young Americans to fulfill their agenda and then tossing them away like pieces of garbage. With the country supposedly three years into an economic recovery, tent cities of homeless dot the landscape across the nation. We pour billions into killing technology while millions of American families are forced to live in tents or sleep in their cars.
As the world spends $1.7 trillion per year on new methods of killing, millions die the old fashioned way.
- 13 million people per year die from starvation in the world.
- The FAO says that 925 million people worldwide are undernourished.
- For the price of one missile, a school full of hungry children could eat lunch every day for 5 years.
- One child dies every 5 seconds as a result of hunger – 700 every hour – 16 000 each day – 6 million each year – 60% of all child deaths (2002-2008 estimates)
What kind of a civilized society allocates 44% of the taxes taken from its people to war? Only 2.5% of your taxes go to science, energy, and environment. Only 2.2% of your taxes go to education and jobs. You produce the results that you would expect from your investments. A full 13% of our population doesn’t have a high school diploma (20% of African Americans & 43% of Latinos) and only 30% have a college degree. How do we expect to lead the world in technology and research with these figures? We do lead the world in government issued student loan debt with $1 trillion and rising.
Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role to the poor
Time will tell on their power minds
Making war just for fun
Treating people just like pawns in chess
Wait till their judgment day comes, yeah!
Black Sabbath – War Pigs
George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Barack Obama are cowardly politicians who never had the “pleasure” of coming under fire in battle. The brilliant anti-war novel Catch-22 describes these men perfectly.
“Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three.”
The world has been a huge game of Risk for these warmongers, with young Americans as the game pieces. Instead of conquering Kamchatka in a board game, these non-veterans sent 6,470 Americans to their deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan for a false cause. Their ideology of empire convinced them they could change the world into their image of how it should be, and their re-election campaigns were funded with millions from the purveyors of death – the arms industry.
“In modern war… you will die like a dog for no good reason.” – Ernest Hemingway
Another 47,545 Americans have been badly wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three of these despicable politicians have written their memoirs, raking in millions for telling lies and half-truths. The 6,470 dead Americans won’t have a chance to write their memoirs or get rich. They will never get a chance to see their kids’ graduate college or walk their daughter down the aisle at her wedding. Their children will grow up with a giant hole in their hearts. Their widows will never recover from their endless heartache.
Politician chickenhawks who send our young people to their deaths for oil and ideology will receive their reward on judgment day if there is a just God.
As National Guard troops have been deployed over and over again to Iraq and Afghanistan, they must realize that Catch-22 is alive and well in today’s military.
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”
”That’s some catch, that catch-22,” he observed.
”It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed
American soldiers, who have completed their duty to country, have been lied to and had the rules of the game changed again and again. Their politician leaders have reneged on their promises by sending men and women back to the war zone or not letting them come home on the timeline that was agreed to. Meanwhile, their families have gone bankrupt, lost their houses, and saw their marriages dissolve. Politicians started these wars and are too cowardly and prideful to accept failure.
“The military don’t start wars. Politicians start wars.” – General William Westmoreland
Over 1,300 more Americans died needlessly when Barack Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, chose to double down in Afghanistan to prove he was as tough as Bush and McCain. Another man who has never been under fire needed to prove his manliness to his opponents and his constituency. He should have studied the words of former Presidents who were under fire.
“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower
“My first wish is to see this plague of mankind, war, banished from the earth.” - George Washington
President Obama follows the standard Presidential game plan and dutifully gives patriotic speeches at military bases proclaiming the bravery and sacrifice of our troops. These are the words of politicians. The brutal reality for troops is much different. Representative Ron Paul in November 2003 described the early mistreatment of our soldiers:
- Fort Stewart, Georgia housed hundreds of injured reserve and National Guard soldiers in deplorable conditions who were forced to wait months just to see a doctor. These soldiers made huge sacrifices, leaving their families and jobs to fight in Iraq. They found themselves living in hot, crowded, unsanitary barracks and waiting far too long to see overworked doctors. This was hardly the heroes’ welcome they might have expected. Only an exposé in a major newspaper brought attention to their plight, prompting an embarrassed Defense department to rush additional doctors to the base.
- Some wounded soldiers convalescing at Walter Reed hospital in Washington were forced to pay for hospital meals from their own pockets. Other soldiers returning stateside for a two-week liberty had to buy their own airfare home from the east coast. Still others paid for desert boots, night vision goggles, and other military necessities with personal funds.
- Existing federal rules forced disabled veterans to give up their military retirement pay in order to receive VA disability benefits. This meant that every VA disability dollar paid to a veteran was deducted from his retirement pay, effectively creating a “disabled veterans tax.” No other group of federal employees is subject to this unfair standard; in every other case disability pay is viewed as distinct from standard retirement pay.
The Humvees that soldiers were forced to drive did not have enough protective armor. In December 2004, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was giving one of his usual inspirational speeches when Army Spc. Thomas Wilson of the 278th Regimental Combat Team, a unit that consisted mainly of reservists from the Tennessee Army National Guard asked him a question:
“Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?”
This set off what the AP described as “a big cheer” from his comrades in arms. Rumsfeld paused, asked Wilson to repeat the question, then finally replied, “You go to war with the army you have.” Besides, he added, “You can have all the armor in the world on a tank and it can be blown up.” I’m glad Donald Rumsfeld has a clear conscience. History will not be kind to this despicable excuse for a human being.
Rumsfeld also sent Americans into battle without protective body armor. Only after bad publicity did the proper protection reach the troops. The blood of dead soldiers is on Rumsfeld’s hands. While President Bush sacrificed by not golfing, terribly wounded soldiers were sent to Walter Reed Hospital to recover. Instead they entered hell on earth. Outpatient mistreatment was reported in 2004, but nothing was done. In 2004 and 2005, articles appeared in the Washington Post and in Salon interviewing First Lt. Julian Goodrum about his court martial for seeking medical care elsewhere due to poor conditions at WRAMC. A Washington Post expose in 2007 finally revealed the horrible mistreatment of our brave wounded soldiers. These reporters uncovered the following conditions:
- WRAMC’s Building 18 was described in the article as rat- and cockroach-infested, with stained carpets, cheap mattresses, and black mold, with no heat and water reported by some soldiers at the facility. The unmonitored entrance created security problems, including reports of drug dealers in front of the facility. Injured soldiers stated they are forced to “pull guard duty” to obtain a level of security.
- The typical soldier was required to file 22 documents with eight different commands – most of them off-post – to enter and exit the medical processing world, according to government investigators. Sixteen different information systems were used to process the forms, but few of them could communicate with one another. This complicated system has required some soldiers to prove they were in the Iraq War or the War in Afghanistan in order to obtain medical treatment and benefits because Walter Reed employees were unable to locate their records.
There was a tremendous surge in suicides by soldiers who have been pushed beyond their limits as they increased by 80% between 2004 and 2008. There are almost as many deaths by suicide as deaths in combat:
- Overall, the services reported 434 suicides by personnel on active duty, significantly more than the 381 suicides by active-duty personnel reported in 2009. The 2010 total is below the 462 deaths in combat, excluding accidents and illness. In 2009, active-duty suicides exceeded deaths in battle.
- Soldiers returning from long tours in Iraq or Afghanistan suffering from combat stress were sometimes met with scorn from their superiors and something bordering on neglect from some medical officials. As their largely untreated problems deteriorated, their marriages unraveled under the strain. They turned to alcohol and drugs and in some cases saw no other way out than suicide.
- Healthcare officials at various installations who are struggling to help say they’re overwhelmed by huge numbers of troops returning from two, three or even four deployments with acute mental problems from combat.
- Statistics on Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, obtained in 2011 through a Freedom of Information Act request by a San Francisco newspaper, found that more than 2,200 soldiers died within two years of leaving the service, and about half had been undergoing treatment for post-traumatic stress or other combat-induced mental disorders at the time.
- For five years, beginning in 2005, a service member died by suicide every 36 hours, according to the report by the Center for New American Security.
Nearly 20% of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan — 300,000 in all — report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, yet only slightly more than half have sought treatment, according to a RAND Corporation report. Many service members said they do not seek treatment for psychological illnesses because they fear it will harm their careers. But even among those who do seek help for PTSD or major depression, only about half receive treatment that researchers consider “minimally adequate” for their illnesses. Recent studies expect PTSD to affect 30% of all returning veterans.
For all the glory and accolades of dying for chickenhawks like Dick Cheney, enlisted soldiers make between $17,000 and $32,000 per year. The military evidently does not prepare them well for the outside world as their unemployment rate is 12.1% versus the national rate of 8.2%. The pandering Obama gives speeches and the criminal bankers at JP Morgan have their PR maggots create TV commercials about hiring veterans, but the numbers don’t lie. A country can be measured by how well it treats its veterans. Our leaders talk a good game, but their actions prove they don’t care about the human costs of war. They are busy planning their next move in their game of Risk.
Now in darkness, world stops turning
As the war machine keeps burning
No more war pigs of the power
Hand of God has struck the hour
Day of Judgment, God is calling
On their knees, the war pigs crawling
Begging mercy for their sins
Satan, laughing, spreads his wings
All right now!
Black Sabbath – War Pigs
Omar Bradley, the last five star General in the U.S. military, was known as the “soldier’s general” during World War II. He was portrayed by Karl Malden in the movie Patton as a thoughtful man who cared about his troops. He was one of the key architects of the Normandy invasion and led the 12th Army Group consisting of 900,000 men until the end of the war. After the war, Bradley headed the Veterans Administration for two years. He is credited with doing much to improve its health care system and with helping veterans receive their educational benefits under the G.I. Bill of Rights. He ultimately rose to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Contrast the words of the fictional Colonel Kilgore from the movie Apocalypse Now, with the words of General Bradley:
Kilgore: I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ‘em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like
[ sniffing, pondering ]
victory. Someday this war’s gonna end…
[ suddenly walks off ]
“The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.” - Omar Bradley
We need giants like Omar Bradley and Dwight D. Eisenhower to lead our country through the difficult times ahead. These men knew the horrors of war and didn’t act like it was a game of chess. Instead we will be led by intellectual and ethical infants, Obama or Romney. There are no wise men with a conscience and high moral standards in power today. Only those with no conscience and a willingness to lie are able to gain power in today’s world. General Bradley understood that morality was ultimately more important than power and strength in determining the progress of a country. His words are those of someone who knew we had failed in our moral duty:
“We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”
Peacemakers are ridiculed and shunned in America today. Those who preach diplomacy and non-interventionism, like Ron Paul, are scorned and ignored. Old men who care more about their own power than the human race are willing to sacrifice the blood of young people for precious oil, phony nationalism, their own strategic interests or corporate interests disguised as philosophical agendas. The world is a game for these old men. They care about their personal legacy and rigid ideologies. War and militarism are a failure of passion over reason. Albert Einstein, whose discovery brought about this age of potential world destruction, had no love for these blind warriors.
“He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice.”
The overwhelming cost of maintaining a global empire eventually bankrupted Rome and Great Britain. Treasures were wasted, young men were needlessly sacrificed in the name of the flag, and the morality of leaders sank to unprecedented levels. The U.S. had advanced financially and technologically for more than a century, but since the takeover of our economic system by private banking and corporate interests in 1913 we have seen continuous war, continuous currency debasement, and continuous moral decay. How far will we decline before a sufficient number of Americans are outraged enough to lead a new American Revolution?
Our current situation reminds me of the movie Planet of the Apes. The apes are divided into a strict class system: the gorillas as police, military, and hunters; the orangutans as administrators, politicians and lawyers; and the chimpanzees as intellectuals and scientists. Humans, who cannot talk, are considered feral vermin and are hunted and used for scientific experimentation. The United States is now in the control of gorillas and orangutans. If we continue down the current path of financial and moral decay, allowing the Military Industrial Complex, criminal bankers and corrupt politicians to push us into further world conflicts, we will experience the shock and horror that George Taylor, played by Charlton Heston, displayed in the final scene of Planet of the Apes .
George Taylor: Oh my God. I’m back. I’m home. All the time, it was… We finally really did it.
[ screaming ]
You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!
The War Pigs must be stopped before it’s too late. The Military Industrial Complex, with the unwavering support of central bankers printing unlimited amounts of fiat currency, while controlling the scoundrel puppets in Washington DC, will destroy this country in their never ending quest for power and profits. One man fights a lonely battle against these forces of oppression. We must join his legion and take this country back from the war pigs.
“As many frustrated Americans who have joined the Tea Party realize, we cannot stand against big government at home while supporting it abroad. We cannot talk about fiscal responsibility while spending trillions on occupying and bullying the rest of the world. We cannot talk about the budget deficit and spiraling domestic spending without looking at the costs of maintaining an American empire of more than 700 military bases in more than 120 foreign countries. We cannot pat ourselves on the back for cutting a few thousand dollars from a nature preserve or an inner-city swimming pool at home while turning a blind eye to a Pentagon budget that nearly equals those of the rest of the world combined.” – Ron Paul
Nov 26, 2011 | TomDispatch
In every aspect of human existence, change is a constant. Yet change that actually matters occurs only rarely. Even then, except in retrospect, genuinely transformative change is difficult to identify. By attributing cosmic significance to every novelty and declaring every unexpected event a revolution, self-assigned interpreters of the contemporary scene - politicians and pundits above all - exacerbate the problem of distinguishing between the trivial and the non-trivial.
Did 9/11 "change everything"? For a brief period after September 2001, the answer to that question seemed self-evident: of course it did, with massive and irrevocable implications. A mere decade later, the verdict appears less clear. Today, the vast majority of
Americans live their lives as if the events of 9/11 had never occurred. When it comes to leaving a mark on the American way of life, the likes of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have long since eclipsed Osama bin Laden. (Whether the legacies of Jobs and Zuckerberg will prove other than transitory also remains to be seen.)
Anyone claiming to divine the existence of genuinely Big Change Happening Now should, therefore, do so with a sense of modesty and circumspection, recognizing the possibility that unfolding events may reveal a different story.
All that said, the present moment is arguably one in which the international order is, in fact, undergoing a fundamental transformation. The "postwar world" brought into existence as a consequence of World War II is coming to an end. A major redistribution of global power is underway. Arrangements that once conferred immense prerogatives upon the United States, hugely benefiting the American people, are coming undone.
In Washington, meanwhile, a hidebound governing class pretends that none of this is happening, stubbornly insisting that it's still 1945 with the so-called American Century destined to continue for several centuries more (reflecting, of course, God's express intentions).
Here lies the most disturbing aspect of contemporary American politics, worse even than rampant dysfunction borne of petty partisanship or corruption expressed in the buying and selling of influence. Confronted with evidence of a radically changing environment, those holding (or aspiring to) positions of influence simply turn a blind eye, refusing even to begin to adjust to a new reality.
Big change happening now
The Big Change happening before our very eyes is political, economic, and military. At least four converging vectors are involved.
First, the Collapse of the Freedom Agenda: In the wake of 9/11, the administration of George W Bush set out to remake the Greater Middle East. This was the ultimate strategic objective of Bush's "global war on terror".
Intent on accomplishing across the Islamic world what he believed the United States had accomplished in Europe and the Pacific between 1941 and 1945, Bush sought to erect a new order conducive to US interests - one that would permit unhindered access to oil and other resources, dry up the sources of violent Islamic radicalism, and (not incidentally) allow Israel a free hand in the region. Key to the success of this effort would be the US military, which Bush (and many ordinary Americans) believed to be unstoppable and invincible - able to beat anyone anywhere under any conditions.
Alas, once implemented, the Freedom Agenda almost immediately foundered in Iraq. The Bush administration had expected Operation Iraqi Freedom to be a short, tidy war with a decisively triumphant outcome. In the event, it turned out to be a long, dirty (and very costly) war yielding, at best, exceedingly ambiguous results.
Well before he left office in January 2009, Bush himself had abandoned his Freedom Agenda, albeit without acknowledging its collapse and therefore without instructing Americans on the implications of that failure. One specific implication stands out: we now know that US military power, however imposing, falls well short of enabling the United States to impose its will on the Greater Middle East. We can neither liberate nor dominate nor tame the Islamic world, a verdict from the Bush era that Present Barack Obama's continuing misadventures in "AfPak" have only served to affirm.
Trying harder won't produce a different result. Outgoing secretary of defense Robert Gates caught the new reality best: "Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it."
To be sure, Freedom Agenda dead-enders - frequently found under K in your phone book - continue to argue otherwise. Even now, for example, Kagans, Keanes, Krauthammers and Kristols are insisting that "we won" the Iraq War - or at least had done so until Obama fecklessly flung away a victory so gloriously gained. Essential to their argument is that no one notices how they have progressively lowered the bar in defining victory.
Back in 2003, they were touting Saddam Hussein's overthrow as just the beginning of American domination of the Middle East. While Saddam's departure was said to have "made the world a better place," today, just getting out of Baghdad with US forces intact has become the operative definition of success, ostensibly vindicating the many thousands killed and maimed, millions of refugees displaced, and trillions of dollars expended.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia remains in the field, conducting some 30 attacks per week against Iraqi security forces and civilians. This we are expected not to notice. Some victory.
Second, the Great Recession: In the history of the American political economy, the bursting of speculative bubbles forms a recurring theme. Wall Street shenanigans that leave the plain folk footing the bill are an oft-told tale. Recessions of one size or another occur at least once a decade.
Yet the economic downturn that began in 2008 stands apart, distinguished by its severity, duration, and resistance to even the most vigorous (or extravagant) remedial action. In this sense, rather than resembling any of the garden-variety economic slumps or panics of the past half-century, the Great Recession of our own day recalls the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Instead of being a transitory phenomenon, it seemingly signifies something transformational. The Great Recession may well have inaugurated a new era - its length indeterminate but likely to stretch for many years - of low growth, high unemployment, and shrinking opportunity. As incomes stagnate and more and more youngsters complete their education only to find no jobs waiting, members of the middle class are beginning to realize that the myth of America as a classless society is just that. In truth, the game is rigged to benefit the few at the expense of the many - and in recent years, the fixing has become ever more shamelessly blatant.
This realization is rattling American politics. In just a handful of years, confidence in the Washington establishment has declined precipitously. Congress has become a laughing stock. The high hopes raised by Obama's election have long since dissipated, leaving disappointment and cynicism in their wake.
One result, on both the far right and the far left, has been to stoke the long-banked fires of American radicalism. The energy in American politics today lies with the Tea Party Movement and Occupy Wall Street, both expressing a deep-seated antipathy toward the old way of doing things. Populism is making one of its periodic appearances on the American scene.
Where this will lead remains, at present, unclear. But ours has long been a political system based on expectations of ever-increasing material abundance, promising more for everyone. Whether that system can successfully deal with the challenges of managing scarcity and distributing sacrifice ranks as an open question. This is especially true when those among us who have been making out like bandits profess so little willingness to share in any sacrifices that may be required.
Third, the Arab Spring: As with the floundering American economy, so with Middle Eastern politics: predicting the future is a proposition fraught with risk. Yet without pretending to forecast outcomes - Will Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya embrace democracy? Can Islamic movements coexist with secularized modernity? this much can be safely said: the ongoing Arab upheaval is sweeping from that region of the world the last vestiges of Western imperialism.
Europeans created the modern Middle East with a single purpose in mind: to serve European interests. With the waning of European power in the wake of World War II, the United States - gingerly at first, but by the 1980s without noticeable inhibition - stepped in to fill the void. What had previously been largely a British sphere now became largely an American one, with the ever-accelerating tempo of US military activism testifying to that fact.
Although Washington abjured the overt colonialism once practiced in London, its policies did not differ materially from those that Europeans had pursued. The idea was to keep a lid on things, exclude mischief-makers, and at the same time extract from the Middle East whatever it had on offer. The preferred American MO
Dilbert was to align with authoritarian regimes, offering arms, security guarantees, and other blandishments in return for promises of behavior consistent with Washington's preferences. Concern for the wellbeing of peoples living in the region (Israelis excepted) never figured as more than an afterthought.
What events of the past year have made evident is this: that lid is now off and there is little the United States (or anyone else) can do to reinstall it. A great exercise in Arab self-determination has begun. Arabs (and, arguably, non-Arabs in the broader Muslim world as well) will decide their own future in their own way. What they decide may be wise or foolish. Regardless, the United States and other Western nations will have little alternative but to accept the outcome and deal with the consequences, whatever they happen to be.
A Washington inhabited by people certain that decisions made in the White House determine the course of history will insist otherwise, of course. Democrats credit Obama's 2009 Cairo speech with inspiring Arabs to throw off their chains. Even more laughably, Republicans credit George W Bush's "liberation" of Iraq for installing democracy in the region and supposedly moving Tunisians, Egyptians, and others to follow suit.
To put it mildly, evidence to support such claims simply does not exist. One might as well attribute the Arab uprising to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Those expecting Egyptians to erect statues of Obama or Bush in Cairo's Tahrir Square are likely to have a long wait.
Fourth, Beleaguered Europe's Quest for a Lifeline: To a considerable extent, the story of the 20th century - at least the commonly-told Western version of that story - is one of Europe screwing up and America coming to the rescue. The really big screw-ups were, of course, the two world wars. In 1917 and again after December 1941, the United States sent large armies to deal with those who had disturbed the peace. After the first war, the Americans left. After the second, they stayed, not only providing soldiers to safeguard Western Europe, but also rejuvenating the shattered economies of the European democracies.
Even with the passing of a half-century, the Marshall Plan stands out as a singular example of enlightened statecraft - and also as a testimonial to America's unsurpassed economic capacity following World War II. Saving continents in dire distress was a job that only the United States could accomplish.
That was then. Today, Europe has once again screwed up, although fortunately this time there is no need for foreign armies to sort out the mess. The crisis of the moment is an economic one, due entirely to European recklessness and irresponsibility (not qualitatively different from the behavior underlying the American economic crisis).
Will Uncle Sam once again ride to the rescue? Not a chance. Beset with the problems that come with old age, Uncle Sam can't even mount up. To whom, then, can Europe turn for assistance? Recent headlines tell the story: "Cash-Strapped Europe Looks to China For Help" "Europe Begs China for Bailout" "EU takes begging bowl to Beijing" "Is China the Bailout Saviour in the European Debt Crisis?" The crucial issue here isn't whether Beijing will actually pull Europe's bacon out of the fire. Rather it's the shifting expectations underlying the moment. After all, hasn't the role of European savior already been assigned? Isn't it supposed to be Washington's in perpetuity? Apparently not.
Back to the future In the words of the old Buffalo Springfield song: "Something's happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear."
American politicians stubbornly beg to differ, of course, content to recite vapid but reassuring cliches about American global leadership, American exceptionalism, and that never-ending American Century. Everything, they would have us believe, will remain just as it has been - providing the electorate installs the right person in the Oval Office.
"To those nations who continue to resist the unstoppable march of human, political and economic freedom," declares Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, "we will make clear that they are on the wrong side of history, by ensuring that America's light shines bright in every corner of the globe, representing a beacon of hope and inspiration."
"This is America's moment," insists Mitt Romney. "We should embrace the challenge, not shrink from it, not crawl into an isolationist shell, not wave the white flag of surrender, nor give in to those who assert America's time has passed ... I will not surrender America's role in the world." With an unsurprising absence of originality, the title of Romney's campaign "white paper" on national security is "An American Century".
Governor Rick Perry's campaign web site offers this important insight: "Rick Perry believes in American exceptionalism, and rejects the notion our president should apologize for our country but instead believes allies and adversaries alike must know that America seeks peace from a position of strength."
For his part, Newt Gingrich wants it known that "America is still the last, best hope of mankind on earth."
The other Republican candidates (Ron Paul always excepted) draw from the same shallow and stagnant pool of ideas. To judge by what we might call the C Wright Mills standard of leadership - "men without lively imagination are needed to execute policies without imagination devised by an elite without imagination" - all are eminently qualified for the presidency. Nothing is wrong with America or the world, they would have us believe, that can't be fixed by ousting Obama from office, thereby restoring the rightful order of things.
"Is America Over?" That question adorns the cover of the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, premier organ of the foreign policy establishment. As is typically the case with that establishment, Foreign Affairs is posing the wrong question, one designed chiefly to elicit a misleading, if broadly reassuring answer.
Proclaim it from the rooftops: No, America is not "over". Yet a growing accumulation of evidence suggests that America today is not the America of 1945. Nor does the international order of the present moment bear more than a passing resemblance to that which existed in the heyday of American power. Everyone else on the planet understands this. Perhaps it's finally time for Americans - starting with American politicians - to do so as well. Should they refuse, a painful comeuppance awaits.
Andrew J Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author, among other works, of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War and the editor of The Short American Century: A Postmortem, forthcoming from Harvard University Press. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Bacevich discusses how his students have come to accept perpetual American war as normalcy click here, or download it to your iPod here.
(Copyright 2011 Andrew Bacevich.)
Andrew J. Bacevich | October 25, 2011
For students of twentieth-century American statecraft, George Kennan has long ranked as an intriguing figure, second in that respect only to Henry Kissinger. But unlike Kissinger, who served as both national security adviser and secretary of state (for a time holding both offices simultaneously), Kennan never occupied a top-tier position. A career diplomat who never actually dictated policy, he provided a rationale or framework for those who did. As Kissinger once wrote, “Kennan came as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history.” Yet power resides not with the author of a doctrine but with those who order its transformation into policy and then control its implementation. This Kennan never did.
Very much like Kissinger, however, Kennan continued to cast a long shadow for decades after his nominal departure from public life. He remained a presence. What he said and wrote mattered—or at least seemed to. The Kennan mystique derives less from the imprint he left on policy than from the elusiveness of his outlook and character. When it came to expressing his views, Kennan was never one to hesitate. He wrote compulsively. Over the course of a long life—he died in 2005 at age 101—he left behind an enormous paper trail, consisting of official documents, Congressional testimony, lectures, essays, well over a dozen books (including his two-volume memoirs), letters, diaries and even poetry. Kennan the poet will never rank alongside Robert Lowell or William Carlos Williams. As a prose stylist, however, he could display an almost ethereal grace, which either explains or makes more mystifying his perpetual complaint about others never quite grasping what he meant. Throughout his life, he remained—and almost certainly wished to remain—difficult to label or to pin down.
John Lewis Gaddis’s achievement in this comprehensive official biography is to unwrap the Kennan enigma. Enjoying unprecedented access to all Kennan’s papers, having interviewed Kennan and members of his family, Gaddis has taken the measure of his man. Yet even while insisting resolutely on his subject’s claim to greatness, Gaddis succeeds chiefly in revealing Kennan’s frailties and foibles. The man in full turns out to have been all too human.
Born in Milwaukee in 1904—his mother died shortly after his birth—Kennan grew up in a strait-laced middle-class household where propriety took precedence over affection. After graduating from a nearby military high school, he enrolled at Princeton, where he demonstrated an aptitude for history while also immersing himself in contemporary American fiction, with fellow Princetonian F. Scott Fitzgerald being a particular favorite. The Great Gatsby, he later recalled, “went right into me and became part of me.” In his memoirs, Kennan portrays his college years as a melancholy period of isolation and loneliness. Gaddis demonstrates that the truth was otherwise: Kennan enjoyed himself at Princeton, cheering for the football team, playing in dance bands and participating as an upperclassman in the ritual hazing of first-year students.
A summer spent rambling through Europe with a college chum convinced Kennan, at loose ends regarding his future, that diplomacy might provide a suitable career. Upon graduation from Princeton in 1925, he successfully applied for a position in the newly created Foreign Service. After a diplomatic apprenticeship in Geneva and Hamburg, he jumped at a State Department offer to train as a Soviet specialist—this at a time when the United States had no diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. It was a life-altering decision. Kennan became a Russophile, with an abiding fondness for Chekhov.
His affinity for Russian culture and admiration for the Russian people were matched only by his loathing of the Soviet system, which he encountered firsthand in 1933. With commercial considerations uppermost in mind, the newly elected president, Franklin Roosevelt, decided that year to restore relations with the Kremlin, appointing William Bullitt as US ambassador. The State Department posted Kennan to Bullitt’s staff and charged him with reopening the US embassy in Moscow, closed since the Bolshevik Revolution. Kennan remained in Moscow until 1936, having by then long since concluded that anyone expecting a “friendly” Soviet-American relationship to bloom was simply naïve.
Assignments to Prague, Berlin (he was interned for five months after Germany declared war on the United States in December 1941) and Lisbon followed. By 1944 he was back in Moscow, serving as right-hand man to Ambassador W. Averell Harriman. Courtesy of Hitler, the United States and the Soviet Union were now allies of a kind. Yet Kennan’s second posting in Moscow did nothing to improve his opinion of the Soviet system.
* * *
The Soviet-American alliance did not survive the collapse of Hitler’s Reich. And in February 1946, with US officials already gripped by an increasingly anti-Soviet mood, Kennan—chargé d’affaires during Harriman’s temporary absence—sent Washington the most influential cable ever drafted by a career diplomat. According to Gaddis, a leading scholar of the cold war who teaches at Yale, the so-called Long Telegram—more than 5,000 words in all—was “the geopolitical equivalent of a medical X-ray, penetrating beneath alarming symptoms to yield at first clarity, then comprehension, and finally by implication a course of treatment.”
Yet as in business or entertainment or politics, so too in statecraft: timing is everything. In this instance, Kennan’s was exquisite. “Here was a case where nothing but the whole truth would do,” he wrote in his memoirs. “They had asked for it. Now, by God, they would have it.” Mustering all the assurance acquired during the years spent studying and dealing with the Soviet government, he unleashed a thunderbolt. Further efforts to get along with the Kremlin were pointless. Soviet ambitions and US interests were irreconcilable. Protecting those interests required a radically new approach—a sustained and comprehensive effort to prevent any further expansion of Soviet power. Over time—not likely to be very long in Kennan’s estimation—such a strategy of containment would cause the Soviet Union to collapse from within.
As an exercise in expository writing, Kennan later remarked, the Long Telegram resembled “one of those primers put out by alarmed congressional committees or by the Daughters of the American Revolution, designed to arouse the citizenry to the dangers of the Communist conspiracy.” He wasn’t exaggerating. Kennan classified the Soviet leadership as “neurotic” and the Soviet system as “archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries.” Whatever the accuracy of this assessment, in policy circles it elicited an enthusiastically positive response. Kennan’s missive, Gaddis acknowledges, served in effect to “provide the rationale for the course upon which the [Truman] administration had already embarked.”
In an instant, Kennan’s reputation was made. Summoned back to Washington, he soon became director of policy planning, a position created by Secretary of State George Marshall to address questions of basic strategy. As the go-to guy on all matters related to the Soviet Union, Kennan bent himself to the task of converting containment from concept to policy. Out of the ensuing period of intense activity came all manner of large initiatives: the Marshall Plan, NATO and early experiments with covert dirty tricks, some succeeding (funneling money to anti-communist Italian political parties, for example), others failing abysmally (attempting to subvert the Kremlin-aligned government of Albania). In each of these episodes and more, Kennan was in the thick of things.
Not least of all, an essay called “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” the handiwork of a mysterious “X,” appeared in the Summer 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, instantly becoming a must-read for anyone with the slightest interest in public policy: here was the definitive explanation of why the USSR behaved as it did and how the United States needed to respond, the essential themes of the Long Telegram repackaged for public consumption. The roughly five minutes it took enterprising journalists to identify Kennan as the essay’s author catapulted him from influential insider to intellectual celebrity. In the world of ideas, doors swung open. Publishers, editors, columnists, the presidents of universities and foundations: everyone wanted a piece of Mr. X.
* * *
All of which thrust the subject of this sudden adulation into a deep funk. Although intensely ambitious and hungry for recognition, Kennan found it almost impossible to derive lasting satisfaction from any of his achievements. Morose and self-absorbed, he instinctively responded to any perceived slight or setback by being sorry for himself. Feelings of inadequacy and guilt (periodic marital infidelity evoked acute qualms of conscience) found expression in bouts of illness, real or imagined, that landed him in the hospital or confined him to bed, keeping him hors de combat for weeks on end.
Complementing this tendency to moodiness was Kennan’s relentlessly negative assessment of his country and countrymen. He disdained American culture as shallow and materialistic. He derided the political system, especially the deference accorded the unwashed masses by vote-grubbing office-seekers. “I hate democracy,” he complained in a letter to his sister. “I hate the press…; I hate the ‘peepul.’” That was in the 1930s. By the ’50s Kennan professed that “for my own country, I have not a shred of hope, not one.” By the ’80s he was describing the United States as “a wasteland, a garbage dump, a sewer.” “The America I know and love and owe allegiance to,” he once wrote, was the America “of John Hay and Henry Adams and [Theodore] Roosevelt”—that is, an America that had long since ceased to exist. In Kennan’s America, an “enlightened and responsible” elite would wield political authority, with the right to vote restricted to those possessing the proper “character, education, and inclination,” criteria intended to exclude blacks, most women and all city-dwelling Jews and Catholics recently arrived from Eastern or Southern Europe. This was elitism laced with bigotry and seasoned with a hint of authoritarianism.
Kennan, in other words, was a man distinctly at odds with the times (not to mention the culture) into which he had been born. As a consequence, Gaddis observes, he was “allergic to orthodoxy”—even (or especially) any orthodoxy he had played a hand in promulgating. No sooner had a strategy that Kennan was credited with devising become dogma than he commenced to pick it apart.
With its this-far-and-no-further premise, for example, containment necessarily meant that a Germany divided between East and West by the outcome of World War II should remain divided for the foreseeable future. Yet as early as 1949, Kennan was advocating withdrawal of all occupation forces to permit the reunification of a neutralized Germany, a prospect equally unacceptable to the Kremlin, America’s European allies and even most Germans. Containment’s us-against-them logic lumped together all communists as adversaries, unless proven otherwise. Yet in the immediate wake of Mao Zedong’s victory in China’s civil war, Kennan urged that the Truman administration act with “resolution, speed, ruthlessness, and self-assurance” to oust 300,000 Kuomintang troops from Taiwan “the way that Theodore Roosevelt might have done it.” State Department colleagues must have thought he’d taken leave of his senses; after submitting the proposal, Kennan withdrew it the same day.
As if perversely intent on soiling his own nest, the father of containment transformed himself into an archcritic of containment, which inevitably limited his further utility in policy-making circles. To Kennan’s considerable distress, he soon found that his views no longer commanded automatic attention. His renown remained intact, but his influence waned. Eased out of policy planning in late 1949, he never again wielded significant clout, although for years he nursed increasingly improbable hopes of being invited back to redeem American statecraft.
Kennan’s appointment as US ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1951, therefore, came as a sort of consolation prize. But this third tour in Moscow proved if anything more frustrating than the previous two. Stalin couldn’t be bothered to see him, which Kennan took to be a calculated affront. Feeling isolated and besieged, he had the CIA provide him with cyanide vials in case the need to commit suicide should arise. Less than a year into his assignment, talking to reporters while on a visit to Berlin, the ambassador compared living conditions in Moscow to his internment in Hitler’s Germany. When Kennan’s comments made the newspapers, the Soviets promptly declared him persona non grata. Gaddis suggests that Kennan’s gaffe was intentional, the most efficient way of arranging an exit and getting back to Washington, where the newly elected President Eisenhower might anoint him under secretary of state. But with the doctrinaire John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s choice to head the State Department, deeming Kennan insufficiently hawkish, no such appointment was in the cards. Apart from his brief service as President Kennedy’s ambassador to Yugoslavia, Kennan’s direct involvement in policy-making had all but ended.
* * *
Yet a new career almost immediately commenced. Batting aside offers from various A-list universities bidding for his services, Kennan accepted J. Robert Oppenheimer’s invitation to join the Institute for Advanced Study, at Princeton. This remained Kennan’s base for the rest of his active life, nearly a half-century devoted to writing diplomatic history and darkly expounding on the issues of the day.
Kennan became a one-man Greek chorus, denouncing the crassness of American culture, lamenting the degradation of the environment and warning against the impending threat of nuclear apocalypse. His views enjoyed wide dissemination and always received a respectful hearing—before being promptly discarded. He was, in short, the embodiment of the public intellectual, “a mystic and a visionary,” according to Isaiah Berlin, at a time when Washington belonged to functionaries who knew the assigned script by heart and could be counted on to recite their lines.
As with other mystics and visionaries, Kennan could be unpredictable and even erratic. His proposed response to the 1968 Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, for example, was to reinforce the US garrison in West Germany with another 100,000 troops. Yet in 1973 he insisted that Washington refrain even from expressing sympathy for Soviet dissidents like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov so as to avoid upsetting the Kremlin. The 1975 Helsinki Accords elicited sharp disapproval: “two years of wrangling over language…one of it committing anyone specifically to anything.” And when revolutionaries in 1979 seized the US embassy in Tehran, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “the United States should simply declare war on Iran.”
None of these dubious judgments disrupted the flow of awards and recognition that Kennan steadily accumulated: two Pulitzers, two National Book Awards, the Bancroft and Francis Parkman prizes for history, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal, the Albert Einstein Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, more than two dozen honorary degrees—just about every trinket on offer apart from a Super Bowl ring.
All the while, Kennan lamented that his life had come to nothing, venting his unhappiness in his diary. “I have nothing to live for,” he complained soon after his formal retirement from government employment. “I am an exile wherever I go.” Or this: “I am utterly without relationship to this country and this age.” Or again: “I am determined that if I cannot have all, or the greater part, of what I want, no one is going to deprive me of the glorious martyrdom of having none of it.” Kennan wallowed in self-pity. “My role,” he wrote on another occasion, is “that of a prophet.”
It was for this that I was born. And my tragedy is to enact this part at a time when it becomes increasingly doubtful that there will, as little as ten or twenty years hence, be anyone left to recognize the validity of the prophecies, or whether, indeed any record of these prophecies will have survived….
Gaddis describes Kennan’s diary as “the most remarkable work of sustained self-analysis—and certainly self-criticism—since The Education of Henry Adams.” Based on the extracts reprinted in the book, the comparison seems misplaced. Unlike Kennan, Adams experienced significant personal tragedy (for one, his wife committed suicide). He also evinced a far more acute appreciation of the problems following in the wake of modernity, not least the moral confusion to which the advent of the machine age was giving rise. Adams possessed in abundance one quality that Kennan lacked altogether: a sense of humor. And, blessedly, Adams was not a whiner.
* * *
In his conclusion, Gaddis ranks Kennan among the great Americans of the twentieth century, locating that greatness in his “timeless, transcendent teaching.” This is an odd judgment, not easily sustained by the evidence that Gaddis has compiled in this fat book. In fact, Kennan’s “teaching”—if by that word we mean the public expression of his views—was all over the map, as likely to be informed by overstatement or ill temper as by wisdom and foresight.
Like many intellectuals, Kennan did best when confining himself to generalities: “We must be gardeners and not mechanics in our approach to world affairs.” In his education George W. Bush apparently overlooked that particular Kennanesque nugget, for which Americans have ample cause for regret. The Kennan oeuvre contains other aphorisms that would do Jeremiah proud: “Providence has a way of punishing those who persist long and willfully in ignoring great realities.” With Washington today willfully ignoring realities at home and abroad, that one stings.
Yet great teachers do not compromise truth. This Kennan did when promoting views to which he happened (if only in passing) to subscribe. One of his most memorable sentences comes at the conclusion of “The Source of Soviet Conduct.” After suggesting that the “thoughtful observer” should “find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin’s challenge to American society,” Kennan offered this peroration:
He will rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.
This patently dishonest curtsy to American exceptionalism was violently at odds with what Kennan believed. Indeed, a few short years before, a letter to his sister included a rather different assessment of the United States: “Ignorant and conceited, we now enter blindly on a future with which we are quite unqualified to cope.” In the essay that made him famous, Kennan engaged in blatant pandering, suppressing his almost comically low opinion of his countrymen. Mr. X’s aim was not to educate or enlighten but to manipulate and sell. The sales job worked, of course, setting an example mimicked ever since by the demagogues who routinely cite history’s purposes and America’s supposedly special calling to promote US meddling in some far quarter of the globe. No wonder Kennan subsequently had occasion to regret his words.
Rather than a great man (does such a creature exist?), Kennan exemplifies the fate and the misfortune of someone an inscrutable Providence briefly smiles on and then just as quickly casts aside. Gaddis includes this observation by Bismarck: “By himself the individual can create nothing; he can only wait until he hears God’s footsteps resounding through events and then spring forward to grasp the hem of his mantle—that is all.” For a brief interval after World War II, Kennan faintly detected God’s footsteps and ever so briefly became history’s foot servant. Yet that moment soon passed, leaving the gloomy Kennan to spend the remainder of his life vainly trying to recapture it.
January 6, 2011 | Tomgram
Can you believe that, in certain circles, support for obesity is becoming an American birthright (as in “the freedom to be…”) and a political position? Like various radio and TV shock jocks, Sarah Palin has been attacking Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity initiative as yet another example of “the nanny state run amok.” (It’s enough to make you hyperventilate on the couch while watching “Law and Order” reruns!) Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell let loose a blast at the National Football League for postponing a Philadelphia-Minnesota game because of an upcoming blizzard. “We're becoming a nation of wussies,” he thundered. (It’s enough to make you text and tweet up a storm from that same couch!)
A question arises: Doesn’t anybody have anything better to do? I mean, aren’t there a few more salient problems to attack in our American world, like the decline and fall of just about everything? Take the U.S. military, about which -- as TomDispatch regular and retired Lieutenant Colonel William Astore points out -- American presidents (and the rest of our political crew) can never say enough hyperbolically praiseworthy things. Well, bad times are supposed to be great for military recruitment. But even if a flood of gays and lesbians sign on as soon as Do-Ask-I’ll-Tell becomes official policy, there are other long-term impediments to producing an effective fighting force.
In April 2010, for instance, a group of retired top brass and others released a report claiming that 27% of Americans between 17 and 24 are “too fat to fight.” “Within just 10 years, the number of states reporting that 40 percent of their 18- to 24-year-olds are obese or overweight went from one [Kentucky] to 39.” No reason to focus on that, though. After all, it was so last year.
Just as the year ended, however, the Education Trust issued a report indicating that nearly a quarter of all applicants to the Armed Forces, despite having a high-school diploma, can’t pass the necessary military entrance exam. This isn’t Rhodes Scholarships we’re talking about, but not having “the reading, mathematics, science, and problem-solving abilities” to become a bona fide private in the U.S. Army. We’re talking the sort of basic that, according to an Education Trust spokesperson, makes it “equally likely that the men and women who don't pass the test are [also] unprepared for the civilian workforce."
Last month, as if to emphasize the seriousness of the problem, Shanghai’s students came in number one in the Program for International Student Assessment, a well-respected test given to 15-year-old students in 65 countries in reading, science, and math skills. U.S. students came in a glorious 17th in reading, 23rd in math, and 31st in science. In today's dispatch, Astore asks whether the U.S. military is actually “the finest fighting force in the history of the world.” Then there’s that other question: These days, can anyone call the United States the finest nation in the world with a straight face? The fattest? Maybe, though we’re behind various Pacific island nations for that honor. The least well educated? Not yet, but heading that way. Maybe it’s time for Congress to launch a No-Nation-Left-Behind program -- for us. Think about it while you’re eating those s’mores Sarah Palin is plugging. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Astore discusses the military nightmares of a fading empire, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.) Tom
Freedom Fighters for a Fading Empire
What It Means When We Say We Have the World’s Finest Fighting Force
By William J. Astore
Words matter, as candidate Barack Obama said in the 2008 election campaign. What to make, then, of President Obama’s pep talk last month to U.S. troops in Afghanistan in which he lauded them as “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known”? Certainly, he knew that those words would resonate with the troops as well as with the folks back home.
In fact, this sort of description of the U.S. military has become something of a must for American presidents. Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush, for example, boasted of that military as alternately “the greatest force for freedom in the history of the world” and “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.” Hyperbolic and self-promoting statements, to be sure, but undoubtedly sincere, reflecting as they do an American sense of exceptionalism that sits poorly with the increasingly interconnected world of the twenty-first century.
I’m a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a historian who teaches military history. The retired officer in me warms to the sentiment of our troops as both unparalleled fighters and selfless liberators, but the historian in me begs to differ.
Let’s start with the fighting part of the equation. Are we truly the world’s greatest fighting force, not only at this moment, but as measured against all militaries across history? If so, on what basis is this claim made? And what does such triumphalist rhetoric suggest not just about our national narcissism, but Washington’s priorities? Consider that no leading U.S. politician thinks to boast that we have the finest educational system or health-care system or environmental policies “that the world has ever known.”
Measured in terms of sheer destructive power, and our ability to project that power across the globe, the U.S. military is indeed the world’s “finest” fighting force. Our nuclear arsenal remains second to none. Our air forces (including the Navy’s carrier task forces, the Army’s armada of helicopter gunships, and the CIA’s fleet of unmanned aerial drones prosecuting a “secret” war in Pakistan) dominate the heavens. Our Navy (“a global force for good,” according to its new motto) rules the waves -- even more so than old Britannia did a century ago. And well should we rule the skies and seas, given the roughly one trillion dollars a year we spend on achieving our vision of “full spectrum dominance.”
But this awesome ability to exercise “global reach, global power” hardly makes us the finest military force ever. After all, “finest” shouldn’t be measured by sheer strength and reach alone. First and foremost, of course, should come favorable results set against the quality of the opponents bested. To use a sports analogy, we wouldn’t call the Pittsburgh Steelers “the finest team in NFL history” simply because they annihilated Penn State in football. Similarly, we can’t measure the success of today’s U.S. military solely in terms of amazingly quick (if increasingly costly and ultimately dismal) “victories” over the Taliban in 2001 or Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces in 2003.
To carry the football analogy a few yards further, one might ask when our “finest fighting force” had its last Super Bowl win. Certainly, 1918 and 1945 (World Wars I and II) were such wins, even if as part of larger coalitions; 1953 (Korea) was a frustrating stalemate; 1973 (Vietnam) was a demoralizing loss; 1991 (Desert Storm in Iraq) was a distinctly flawed win; and efforts like Grenada or Panama or Serbia were more like scrimmages. Arguably our biggest win, the Cold War, was achieved less through military means than economic power and technological savvy.
To put it bluntly: America’s troops are tough-minded professionals, but the finest fighting force ever? Sir, no, sir.
We’re Number One!
Americans often seem to live in the eternal now, which makes it easier to boast that our military is the finest ever. Most historians, however, are not so tied to nationalistic rhetoric or the ceaseless present. If asked to identify the finest fighting force in history, my reaction -- and I would hardly be alone in the field -- would be to favor those peoples and empires which existed for war alone.
Examples immediately spring to mind: the Assyrians, the Spartans, the Romans, the Vikings, the Mongols, and the Nazis. These peoples elevated their respective militaries and martial prowess above all else. Unsurprisingly, they were bloodthirsty and ruthless. Unstinting ambition for imperial goals often drove them to remarkable feats of arms at an unconscionable and sometimes difficult to sustain cost. Yes, the Spartans defeated the Athenians, but that internecine quarrel paved the way for the demise of the independent Greek city states at the hands of Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander (soon enough to be known as “the Great”).
Yes, the Romans conquered an empire, but one of their own historians, Tacitus, put in the mouth of a Celtic chieftain this description of being on the receiving end of Roman “liberation”:
"The Romans’ tyranny cannot be escaped by any act of reasonable submission. These brigands of the world have exhausted the land by their rapacity, so they now ransack the sea. When their enemy is rich, they lust after wealth; when their enemy is poor, they lust after power. Neither East nor West has satisfied their hunger. They are unique among humanity insofar as they equally covet the rich and the poor. Robbery, butchery, and rapine they call 'Empire.' They create a desert and call it 'Peace.'"
Talk about tough love.
The Romans would certainly have to be in the running for “finest military” of all time. They conquered many peoples, expanded far, and garrisoned vast areas of the Mediterranean, North Africa, and what would become Europe, while their legions marched forth, often to victory (not to speak of plunder), for hundreds of years. Still, the gold medal for the largest land empire in history -- and the finest fighting force of all time -- must surely go to the thirteenth century Mongols.
Led by Genghis Khan and his successors, Mongol horsemen conquered China and the Islamic world -- the two most powerful, sophisticated civilizations of their day -- while also exerting control over Russia for two and a half centuries. And thanks to a combination of military excellence, clever stratagem, fleetness of foot (and far more important, hoof), flexibility, and when necessary utter ferocity, they did all this while generally being outnumbered by their enemies.
Even the fighting power of the finest militaries waxed and waned, however, based in part on the quality of those leading them. The Macedonians blossomed under Philip and Alexander. It was not simply Rome that conquered Gaul, but Julius Caesar. The Mongols were at each other’s throats until Genghis Khan united them into an unstoppable military machine that swept across a continent. The revolutionary French people in their famed levée en masse had martial fervor, but only Napoleon gave them direction. History’s finest fighting forces are associated closely with history’s greatest captains.
Measure that against the American military today. General David Petraeus is certainly a successful officer who exhibits an enviable mastery of detail and a powerful political sense of how to handle Washington, but a Genghis Khan? An Alexander? A Caesar? Even “King David,” as he’s been called both by admirers and more than a few detractors, might blush at such comparisons. After all, at the head of the most powerfully destructive force in the Middle East, and later Central Asia, he has won no outright victories and conquered nothing. His triumph in Iraq in 2006-2007 may yet prove more “confected” than convincing.
As for our armed forces, though most Americans don’t know it, within U.S. military circles much criticism exists of an officer corps of “tarnished brass” that is deficient in professionalism; of generals who are more concerned with covering their butts than leading from the front; of instruction at military academies that is divorced from war’s realities; of an aversion “to innovation or creativity… [leading to] an atmosphere of anti-intellectualism” that undermines strategy and makes a hash of counterinsurgency efforts. Indeed, our military’s biting criticism of itself is one of the few positive signs in a fighting force that is otherwise overstretched, deeply frustrated, and ridiculously overpraised by genuflecting politicians.
So I’m sorry, President Obama. If you wish to address the finest fighting force the world has ever known, you’ll need a time machine, not Air Force One. You’ll have to doff your leather Air Force-issue flight jacket and don Mongolian armor. And in so doing, you’ll have to embrace mental attitudes and a way of life utterly antithetical to democracy and the rights of humanity as we understand them today. For that is the price of building a fighting force second to none -- and one reason why our politicians should stop insisting that we have one.
“The Greatest Force for Human Liberation”
Two centuries ago, Napoleon led his armies out of France and brought “liberty, equality, and fraternity” to much of the rest of ancien régime Europe -- but on his terms and via the barrel of a musket. His invasion of Spain, for example, was viewed as anything but a “liberation” by the Spanish, who launched a fierce guerrilla campaign against their French occupiers that sapped the strength of Napoleon’s empire and what was generally considered the finest fighting force of its moment. British aid to the insurgency helped ensure that this campaign would become Napoleon’s “Spanish ulcer.”
The “Little Corporal” ultimately decided to indirectly strike back at the British by invading Russia, which was refusing to enforce France’s so-called continental blockade. As Napoleon’s army bled out or froze solid in the snows of a Russian winter, the Prussians and the Austrians found new reasons to reject French “fraternity.” Within years, Napoleon’s empire was unsaddled and destroyed, a fate shared by its leader, sent into ignominious exile on the island of Saint Helena.
Like Napoleon’s fired up revolutionary troops, the American military also sees itself as on a mission to spread democracy and freedom. Afghans and Iraqis have, however, proven no more eager than the Spaniards of two centuries ago to be “liberated” at gun (or “Hellfire” missile) point, even when the liberators come bearing gifts, which in today’s terms means the promise of roads, jobs, and “reconstruction,” or even cash by the pallet.
Because we Americans believe our own press releases, it’s difficult to imagine others (except, of course, those so fanatic as to be blind to reality) seeing us as anything but well-intentioned liberators. As journalist Nir Rosen has put it: “There’s… a deep sense among people in the [American] policy world, in the military, that we’re the good guys. It’s just taken for granted that what we’re doing must be right because we’re doing it. We’re the exceptional country, the essential nation, and our role, our intervention, our presence is a benign and beneficent thing.”
In reporting on our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Rosen and others have offered ample proof for those who care to consider it that our foreign interventions have been anything but benign or beneficent, no less liberating. Our invasion of Iraq opened the way to civil war and mayhem. For many ordinary Iraqis, when American intervention didn’t lead to death, destruction, dislocation, and exile, it bred “deep humiliation and disruption” as well as constant fear, a state of affairs that, as Rosen notes, is “painful and humiliating and scary.”
In Afghanistan, Rosen points out, most villagers see our troops making common cause with a despised and predatory government. Huge infusions of American dollars, meanwhile, rarely trickle down to the village level, but instead promote the interests of Afghan warlords and foreign businesses. Small wonder that, more than nine years later, a majority of Afghans say they want to be liberated from us.
If the U.S. military is not “the greatest force for human liberation” in all history, what is? Revealingly, it’s far easier to identify the finest fighting force of history. If put on the spot, though, I’d highlight the ideas and ideals of human dignity, of equality before the law, of the fundamental value of each and every individual, as the greatest force for human liberation. Such ideals are shared by many peoples. They may sometimes be defended by the sword, but were inscribed by the pens of great moralists and thinkers of humanity’s collective past. In this sense, when it comes to advancing freedom, the pen has indeed been mightier than the sword.
Freedom Fighters for a Fading Empire
The historian John Lukacs once noted: “There are many things wrong with the internationalist idea to Make the World Safe for Democracy, one of them being that it is not that different from the nationalist idea that What Is Good for America Is Good for the World.”
In our post-9/11 world, whatever our rhetoric about democratizing the planet, our ambitions are guided by the seemingly hardheaded goal of making Americans safe from terrorists. A global war on terrorism has, however, proven anything but consistent with expanding liberty at home or abroad. Indeed, the seductive and self-congratulatory narrative of our troops as selfless liberators and the finest freedom fighters around actually helps blind us to our violent methods in far-off lands, even as it distances us from the human costs of our imperial policies.
Though we officially seek to extinguish terrorists, our actions abroad serve as obvious accelerants to terror. To understand why this is so, ask yourself how comforted you would be if foreign military “liberators” kicked in your door, shouted commands in a language you didn’t understand, confiscated your guns, dragged your father and brothers and sons off in cuffs and hoods to locations unknown, all in the name of “counterterror” operations? How comforted would you be if remotely piloted drones hovered constantly overhead, ready to unleash Hellfire missiles at terrorist “targets of opportunity” in your neighborhood?
Better not to contemplate such harsh realities. Better to praise our troops as so many Mahatma Gandhis, so many freedom fighters. Better to praise them as so many Genghis Khans, so many ultimate warriors.
At a time of feared national decline, our leaders undoubtedly prescribe military action in part to comfort us (and themselves) and restore our sense of potency and pride. In doing so, they violate the famous phrase long associated with the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular. He welcomes reader comments at email@example.com. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Astore discusses the military nightmares of a fading empire, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.
Copyright 2011 William J. Astore
[Note for TomDispatch readers: Andrew Bacevich’s new book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, is now deservedly a New York Times bestseller. This website first posted the introduction to the book, “The Unmaking of a Company Man,” already among TD’s most popular pieces, in August. If you missed it, check it out by clicking here. The book has since received superb reviews in the New York Times (“a tough-minded, bracing and intelligent polemic against some 60 years of American militarism... the country is lucky to have a fierce, smart peacemonger like Bacevich…”) and Washington Post (“brilliant”). Make sure it’s on your bookshelf and a small reminder: whenever you travel to Amazon.com by clicking on a TomDispatch book link or book-cover link and buy a book we recommend or anything else, we get a small cut of your purchase, which helps keep us afloat. Many thanks. Tom]
We know the endpoint of the story: another bestseller for Bob Woodward, in this case about a president sandbagged by his own high command and administration officials at one another’s throats over an inherited war gone wrong. But where did the story actually begin? Well, here’s the strange thing: in a sense, Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, which focuses heavily on an administration review of Afghan war policy in the fall of 2009, begins with... Woodward. Of course -- thank heavens for American media amnesia -- amid all the attention his book is getting, no one seems to recall that part of the tale.
Here it is: President Obama got sandbagged by the leaked release of what became known as “the McChrystal plan,” a call by his war commander in the field General Stanley McChrystal (and assumedly the man above him, then-Centcom Commander General David Petraeus) for a 40,000-troop counterinsurgency “surge.” As it happened, Bob Woodward, Washington Post reporter, not bestselling book writer, was assumedly the recipient of that judiciously leaked plan from a still-unknown figure, generally suspected of being in or close to the military. On September 21, 2009, Woodward was the one who then framed the story, writing the first stern front-page piece about the needs of the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Its headline laid out, from that moment on, the president’s options: “McChrystal: More Forces or ‘Mission Failure’” And its first paragraph went this way: “The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan warns in an urgent, confidential assessment of the war that he needs more forces within the next year and bluntly states that without them, the eight-year conflict ‘will likely result in failure,’ according to a copy of the 66-page document obtained by The Washington Post.”
The frustration of a commander-in-chief backed into a corner by his own generals, the angry backbiting Woodward reportedly reveals in his book, all of it was, at least in part, a product of that leak and how it played out. In other words, looked at a certain way, Woodward facilitated the manufacture of the subject for his own bestseller. A nifty trick for Washington’s leading stenographer.
The set of leaks -- how appropriate for Woodward -- that were the drumbeat of publicity for the new book over the last week also offered a classic outline of just how limited inside-the-Beltway policy options invariably turn out to be (no matter how fierce the debate about them). As one Washington Post piece put it: “[T]he only options that were seriously considered in the White House involved 30,000 to 40,000 more troops.” All in all, it’s a striking example of how the system really works, of how incestuously and narrowly -- to cite the title of Andrew Bacevich’s bestselling new book -- Washington rules. Tom
Prisoners of War
Bob Woodward and All the President’s Men (2010 Edition)
By Andrew J. Bacevich
Once a serious journalist, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward now makes a very fine living as chief gossip-monger of the governing class. Early on in his career, along with Carl Bernstein, his partner at the time, Woodward confronted power. Today, by relentlessly exalting Washington trivia, he flatters power. His reporting does not inform. It titillates.
A new Woodward book, Obama’s Wars, is a guaranteed blockbuster. It’s out this week, already causing a stir, and guaranteed to be forgotten the week after dropping off the bestseller lists. For good reason: when it comes to substance, any book written by Woodward has about as much heft as the latest potboiler penned by the likes of James Patterson or Tom Clancy.
Back in 2002, for example, during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Woodward treated us to Bush at War. Based on interviews with unidentified officials close to President George W. Bush, the book offered a portrait of the president-as-resolute-war-leader that put him in a league with Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. But the book’s real juice came from what it revealed about events behind the scenes. “Bush’s war cabinet is riven with feuding,” reported the Times of London, which credited Woodward with revealing “the furious arguments and personal animosity” that divided Bush’s lieutenants.
Of course, the problem with the Bush administration wasn’t that folks on the inside didn’t play nice with one another. No, the problem was that the president and his inner circle committed a long series of catastrophic errors that produced an unnecessary and grotesquely mismanaged war. That war has cost the country dearly -- although the people who engineered that catastrophe, many of them having pocketed handsome advances on their forthcoming memoirs, continue to manage quite well, thank you.
To judge by the publicity blitzkrieg announcing the arrival of Obama’s Wars in your local bookstore, the big news out of Washington is that, even today, politics there remains an intensely competitive sport, with the participants, whether in anger or frustration, sometimes speaking ill of one another.
Essentially, news reports indicate, Woodward has updated his script from 2002. The characters have different names, but the plot remains the same. Talk about jumping the shark.
So we learn that Obama political adviser David Axelrod doesn’t fully trust Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. National security adviser James Jones, a retired Marine general, doesn’t much care for the likes of Axelrod, and will say so behind his back. Almost everyone thinks Richard Holbrooke, chief State Department impresario of the AfPak portfolio, is a jerk. And -- stop the presses -- when under the influence of alcohol, General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, is alleged to use the word “f**ked.” These are the sort of shocking revelations that make you a headliner on the Sunday morning talk shows.
Based on what we have learned so far from those select few provided with advance copies of the book -- mostly reporters for the Post and The New York Times who, for whatever reason, seem happy to serve as its shills -- Obama’s Wars contains hints of another story, the significance of which seems to have eluded Woodward.
The theme of that story is not whether Dick likes Jane, but whether the Constitution remains an operative document. The Constitution explicitly assigns to the president the role of commander-in-chief. Responsibility for the direction of American wars rests with him. According to the principle of civilian control, senior military officers advise and execute, but it's the president who decides. That's the theory, at least. Reality turns out to be considerably different and, to be kind about it, more complicated.
Obama’s Wars reportedly contains this comment by President Obama to Secretary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates regarding Afghanistan: "I'm not doing 10 years... I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars."
Aren’t you, Mr. President? Don’t be so sure.
Obama’s Wars also affirms what we already suspected about the decision-making process that led up to the president’s announcement at West Point in December 2009 to prolong and escalate the war. Bluntly put, the Pentagon gamed the process to exclude any possibility of Obama rendering a decision not to its liking.
Pick your surge: 20,000 troops? Or 30,000 troops? Or 40,000 troops? Only the most powerful man in the world -- or Goldilocks contemplating three bowls of porridge -- could handle a decision like that. Even as Obama opted for the middle course, the real decision had already been made elsewhere by others: the war in Afghanistan would expand and continue.
And then there’s this from the estimable General David Petraeus: "I don't think you win this war,” Woodward quotes the field commander as saying. “I think you keep fighting... This is the kind of fight we're in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids' lives."
Here we confront a series of questions to which Woodward (not to mention the rest of Washington) remains steadfastly oblivious. Why fight a war that even the general in charge says can’t be won? What will the perpetuation of this conflict cost? Who will it benefit? Does the ostensibly most powerful nation in the world have no choice but to wage permanent war? Are there no alternatives? Can Obama shut down an unwinnable war now about to enter its tenth year? Or is he -- along with the rest of us -- a prisoner of war?
President Obama has repeatedly stated that in July 2011 a withdrawal of U. S. troops from Afghanistan will commence. No one quite knows exactly what that means. Will the withdrawal be symbolic? General Petraeus has already made it abundantly clear that he will entertain nothing more. Or will July signal that the Afghan War -- and by extension the Global War on Terror launched nine years ago -- is finally coming to an end?
Between now and next summer attentive Americans will learn much about how national security policy is actually formulated and who is really in charge. Just don’t expect Bob Woodward to offer any enlightenment on the subject.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book is Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.
Copyright 2010 Andrew J. Bacevich
: August 5, 2010AN OUTSTANDING ASSESSMENT OF THE "WASHINGTON RULES": USA WARTIME POLICIES & ACTIONS,Loyd E. Eskildson "Pragmatist" (Phoenix, AZ.)
Five ENGROSSING Stars!! This is Andrew J Bacevich's outstanding, deeply researched, hard-hitting work of scholarship, assessing America's national and foreign policies as well as the personalities and groups that have led us into the business of confrontation, power projection, and war, time and time again. Essentially this book is the outgrowth of Mr. Bacevich's 20 year self-education, which began at the age of 41 as a military officer who began to see the international world in a new light based on an epiphany at Berlin's Brandenburg gate. Looking at over six decades of wartime policy and actions in the "American Century", Mr Bacevich discloses the "Washington Rules" and the credo wherein the USA has assumed the mantle of attempting to "lead, save, liberate, and transform" the world to assure international order and peace. He takes us from the Truman-era administrations to the Obama administration, detailing how the "sacred trinity" of global military presence, global power projection, global interventionism is used to achieve those ends, using his "Washington Rules" as the template. The Jimmy Carter segment was particularly eye-opening. Mr Bacevich shows that regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats are in power, the US has had an attitude that we are uniquely qualified to take on the worldwide foes of peace and democracy, forgetting, revising, or ignoring the painful lessons of World War II, Vietnam, and beyond that might have taken the USA into periods of unprecedented peace, instead of numerous conflicts.
Lessons that the author shows President Obama is clearly in the midst of learning, using a modified sacred trinity. Written in engaging prose, this is a very absorbing work of research with sections that some may find very troubling based on the decisions of our leaders. If I could recommend one book that President Obama and the Congress should read, this is it. But it should also be read by those who were and were not alive during our mid-20th Century wars and military encounters.
My Highest Recommendation! Five ABSORBING Stars!! (This review is based on a Kindle download in iPhone mode and Kindle text-to-speech mode.)
Time has expired on the 'American Century,' says retired Col. Bacevich, and this is the time to reject militarism and recognize that fixing Detroit takes precedence over Afghanistan. Bacevich's aim is to re-examine assumptions, habits, and precepts that have defined our foreign/military policy since the end of WWII. All well and good, but Bacevich devotes too many pages to recounting how we got to this point post-WWII, mostly focused on individuals such as Curtis LeMay, Allen Dulles, Maxwell Taylor, etc.
Almost no attention is given to how support for Israel, Iraq War I and the subsequent stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia, etc. brought us 9/11, a never-ending state of War on Terrorism, and the organizational monstrosity known as the Dept. of Homeland Security with its 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies consuming unknown billions of dollars.
Our self-appointed role of leading, liberating, and saving the world through activism, hard power, and negotiating from strength continues today - DOD has become the Department of Global Policing, and President Obama finds himself continuing the model laid down since 1945. The author also skims over too quickly how we have exhausted the authority and goodwill acquired immediately after WWII - via the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Iraq I and II, Afghanistan I and II, the 2007 Recession, going from the world's largest creditor to debtor nation, decades of trade and government deficits, energy profligacy, decaying cities, manufacturing, and infrastructure, Katrina, supporting dictators and human rights abusers, etc.
DOD consumes $700 billion/year (I'm assuming that includes Iraq and Afghanistan), while stationing 300,000 troops abroad in 761 sites in 39 nations, plus 90,000 sailors and marines at sea. Our expenditures approximate those of the rest of the world combined. and are propelling us towards insolvency and perpetual war.
An excellent example of how we are digging ourselves into a hole occurred just this week when the U.S. announced the State Department is in advanced discussions with Vietnam to share nuclear fuels and technologies in a deal that would preserve Hanoi's right to enrich uranium indigenously. This obviously undermines our containment stance vs. North Korea and Iran, and is intended to somehow intimidate China. Similarly, the U.S. is also supporting India's enrichment and military-fuel capability efforts - again to somehow intimidate China.
Meanwhile, we also parade a flotilla of ships nearby off South Korea to intimidate North Korea, and further irritate China. (They now have, or soon will have, supersonic missiles capable of raining down on our aircraft carrier task forces - a great example of asymmetric warfare that makes our Navy look obsolete and a near total waste.) And then we wonder why China is modernizing its military.
Col. Bacevich's conclusion - "It's time (for America) to choose."
Groupthink is alive and thriving in Washington, D.C., argues Bacevich, who's convinced that America's mightily militaristic and endlessly idealistic approach to the rest of the world is costing the country dearly. Boiling down his argument to the simplest terms: the world would get along just fine without this overarmed global policeman, and more important, the United States would fare far better at home if it weren't squandering so many of its gifts abroad.
What's the Big Deal?The Pentagon, a nearly three-quarter-trillion-dollar agency, is the largest industrial organization on the planet. And it's armed to the gills. Washington's best and brightest minds—in Bacevich's estimate, the "elected and appointed officials, corporate executives and corporate lobbyists, admirals and generals, functionaries staffing the national security apparatus, media personalities, and policy intellectuals," who are all deriving "profit, power, and privilege" from the status quo—have not only failed you and me, they are steadily running the country into ruin. Though at times he makes his argument with the wrong tools, Bacevich's chief concern—that we're misusing our military—couldn't be more important.
Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent WarAndrew Bacevich's new book. A relevant new book everyone should pick up and read.
From the first chapter:—Chris Sinnard
This book aims to take stock of conventional wisdom in its most influential and enduring form, namely the package of assumptions, habits, and precepts that have defined the tradition of statecraft to which the United States has adhered since the end of World War II – the era of global dominance now drawing to a close. This postwar tradition combines two components, each one so deeply embedded in the American collective consciousness as to have but disappeared from view.
The first component specified norms according to which the international order ought to work and charges the United States with responsibility for enforcing those norms. Call this the American credo. In the simplest terms, the credo summons the United States – and the United States alone – to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world. In a celebrated manifesto issued at the dawn of what he termed “The American Century,” Henry R. Luce made the case for this spacious conception of global leadership. Writing in Life magazine in early 1941, the influential publisher exhorted his fellow citizens to “accept wholeheartedly our to duty to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit.” Luce thereby captured what remains even today of the credo's essence.
Luce's concept of an American Century, an age of unquestioned American global primacy, resonated, especially in Washington. His evocative phrase found a permanent place in the lexicon of national politics. (Recall that the neoconservatives who, in the 1990s, lobbied for more militant U.S. Policies named their enterprise the Project for a New American Century). So, too, did Luce's expansive claim of prerogatives to be exercised by the United States. Even today, whenever public figures allude to America's responsibility to lead, they signal their fidelity to this creed. Along with respectful allusions to God and “the troops,” adherence to Luce's credo has become a de facto prerequisite for high office. Question its claims and your prospects of heard in the hubbub of national politics becomes nil.
Note, however, that the duty Luce ascribed to Americans has two components. It is not only up to American, he wrote, to choose the purposes for which they would bring their influence to bear, but to choose the means as well. Here we confront the second component of the postwar tradition of American statecraft.
Every great military power has its distinctive signature. For Napoleonic France, it was the levee en masse - the people in arms animated by the ideals of the revolution. For Great Britain in the heyday of empire, it was command of the seas, sustained by a dominant fleet and a network of far-flung outposts from Gibraltar and the Cape of Good Hope to Singapore and Hong Kong. Germany from the 1860s to the 1940s (and Israel from 1948 to 1973) took another approach, relying on a potent blend of tactical flexibility and operational audacity to achieve battlefield superiority.
The abiding signature of American military power since World War II has been of a different order altogether. The United States has not specialized in any particular type of war. It has not adhered to a fixed tactical style. No single service or weapon has enjoyed constant favor. At times, the armed forces have relied on citizen-soldiers to fill their ranks; at other times, long-service professionals. Yet an examination of the past sixty years of U.S. military policy and practice does reveal important elements of continuity. Call the sacred trinity: an abiding conviction that the minimum essentials of international peace and order require the United States to maintain a global military presence, to configure its forces for global power projection, and to counter existing or anticipated threats by relying on a policy of global interventionism.
Together, credo and trinity – the one defining purpose, the other practice – constitute the essence of the way that Washington has attempted to govern and police the American Century. The relationship between the two is symbiotic. The trinity leads plausibility to the credo's vast claims. For its part, the credo justifies the trinity's vast requirements and exertions. Together they provide the basis for an enduring consensus that imparts a consistency to U.S. policy regardless of which political party may hold the White House. From the era of Harry Truman to the age of Barack Obama, that consensus has remained intact. It defines the rules to which Washington adheres; it determines the precepts by which Washington rules.
The persistence of these rules has also provided an excuse to avoid serious self-engagement. From this perspective, confidence that the credo and the trinity will oblige others to accommodate themselves to America's needs or desires – whether for cheap oil, cheap credit, or cheap consumer goods – has allowed Washington to postpone or ignore problems demanding attention here at home. Fixing Iraq or Afghanistan ends up taking precedence over Cleveland and Detroit. Purporting to support the troops in their crusade to free the world obviates any obligation to assess the implications of how Americans themselves choose to exercise freedom.
When Americans demonstrate a willingness to engage seriously with others, combined with the courage to engage seriously with themselves, then the real education just might begin.
September 30, 2008 | Bigpicture
Is an imperial presidency destroying what America stands for?
Bill Moyers sits down with history and international relations expert and former US Army Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich who identifies three major problems facing our democracy: the crises of economy, government and militarism, and calls for a redefinition of the American way of life.
click for video
click for video
September 26, 2008
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.
Here in New York a new season is opening on and off Broadway. But nothing, not even a comic opera, can compete with the spectacle, drama and farce of what's happening in Washington and on Wall Street.
If it is possible for a political system, like individuals, to become deranged, so unhinged from reality there is no longer any regard for the consequences, we saw the process this week. It's nothing but bizarre, and for a supposedly mature democracy, deeply troubling.
For technical reasons we had to tape this broadcast before John McCain finally made up his mind about whether to show up for the debate tonight. So we decided not to try and second guess events.
Instead, we are going to hear some truth-telling from a man who says our country's in deep trouble and needs a renewed commitment to critical thinking, honest words, and hard choices.
In this slim volume on THE LIMITS OF POWER, Andrew J. Bacevich goes to the root causes of our discontent and to our broken and foundering politics. That many people agree with this unsentimental diagnosis was apparent when we first aired this interview a few weeks ago, your emails poured in to pbs.org. In a matter of hours his book had become a best-seller.
Now, with chaos in Washington and the markets, it seems a good time to give this soldier, scholar, and patriot another hearing. He has found an audience across the political spectrum, whether writing for THE NATION or THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE magazines, lecturing to college classes or testifying before Congress.
ANDREW BACEVICH: ...fixing our problems before fixing the world's problems.
BILL MOYERS: Bacevich speaks truth to power, no matter who's in power, which may be why those on both the left and right listen to him. Perhaps it's also because when he challenges American myths and illusions, he does so from a patriotism forged in the fire of experience as a soldier in Vietnam.
After 23 years in the army, this West Point graduate has been teaching international relations and history at Boston University.
Andrew J. Bacevich is with me now, welcome to the JOURNAL.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you very much for having me.
BILL MOYERS: It's been a long time since I've read a book in which I highlighted practically every third sentence. So, it took me a while to read, what is in fact, a rather short book. You began with a quote from the Bible, the Book of Second Kings, chapter 20, verse one. "Set thine house in order." How come that admonition?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I've been troubled by the course of U.S. foreign policy for a long, long time. And I wrote the book in order to sort out my own thinking about where our basic problems lay. And I really reached the conclusion that our biggest problems are within.
I think there's a tendency on the part of policy makers and probably a tendency on the part of many Americans to think that the problems we face are problems that are out there somewhere, beyond our borders. And that if we can fix those problems, then we'll be able to continue the American way of life as it has long existed. I think it's fundamentally wrong. Our major problems are at home.
BILL MOYERS: So, this is a version of "Physician, heal thyself?"
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, yes, "Physician, heal thyself," and you begin healing yourself by looking at yourself in the mirror and seeing yourself as you really are.
BILL MOYERS: Here is one of those neon sentences. Quote,
"The pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit. The chief desire of the American people," you write, "is that nothing should disrupt their access to these goods, that oil, and that credit. The chief aim of the U.S. government is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part of through the distribution of largesse here at home, and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad."
In other words, you're saying that our foreign policy is the result of a dependence on consumer goods and credit.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Our foreign policy is not something simply concocted by people in Washington D.C. and imposed on us. Our foreign policy is something that is concocted in Washington D.C., but it reflects the perceptions of our political elite about what we want, we the people want. And what we want, by and large - I mean, one could point to many individual exceptions - but, what we want, by and large is, we want this continuing flow of very cheap consumer goods.
We want to be able to pump gas into our cars regardless of how big they may happen to be, in order to be able to drive wherever we want to be able to drive. And we want to be able to do these things without having to think about whether or not the book's balanced at the end of the month, or the end of the fiscal year. And therefore, we want this unending line of credit.
BILL MOYERS: You intrigued me when you wrote that "The fundamental problem facing the country will remain stubbornly in place no matter who is elected in November." What's the fundamental problem you say is not going away no matter whether it's McCain or Obama?
ANDREW BACEVICH: What neither of these candidates will be able to, I think, accomplish is to persuade us to look ourselves in the mirror, to see the direction in which we are headed. And from my point of view, it's a direction towards ever greater debt and dependency.
BILL MOYERS: And you write that "What will not go away, is a yawning disparity between what Americans expect, and what they're willing or able to pay." Explore that a little bit.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think one of the ways we avoid confronting our refusal to balance the books is to rely increasingly on the projection of American military power around the world to try to maintain this dysfunctional system, or set of arrangements that have evolved over the last 30 or 40 years.
But, it's not the American people who are deploying around the world. It is a very specific subset of our people, this professional army. We like to call it an all-volunteer force-
BILL MOYERS: Right.
ANDREW BACEVICH: - but the truth is, it's a professional army, and when we think about where we send that army, it's really an imperial army. I mean, if as Americans, we could simply step back a little bit, and contemplate the significance of the fact that Americans today are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ask ourselves, how did it come to be that organizing places like Iraq and Afghanistan should have come to seem to be critical to the well-being of the United States of America.
There was a time, seventy, eighty, a hundred years ago, that we Americans sat here in the western hemisphere, and puzzled over why British imperialists went to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. We viewed that sort of imperial adventurism with disdain. But, it's really become part of what we do. Unless a President could ask fundamental questions about our posture in the world, it becomes impossible then, for any American President to engage the American people in some sort of a conversation about how and whether or not to change the way we live.
BILL MOYERS: How is Iraq a clear manifestation, as you say, of this, "yawning disparity between what Americans expect, and what they're willing to pay?"
ANDREW BACEVICH: Let's think about World War Two. A war that President Roosevelt told us was essential to U.S. national security, and was. And President Roosevelt said at the time, because this is an important enterprise, you, the American people, will be called upon to make sacrifices. And indeed, the people of the United States went off to fight that war in large numbers. It was a national effort. None of that's been true with regard to Iraq. I mean, one of the most striking things about the way the Bush Administration has managed the Global War on Terror, which President Bush has compared to World War Two.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
ANDREW BACEVICH: One of the most striking things about it is that there was no effort made to mobilize the country, there was actually no effort even made to expand the size of the armed forces, as a matter of fact. The President said just two weeks or so after 9/11, "Go to Disney World. Go shopping." Well, there's something out of whack here, if indeed the Global War on Terror, and Iraq as a subset of the Global War on Terror is said to be so critically important, on the one hand. And on the other hand, when the country basically goes about its business, as if, really, there were no War on Terror, and no war in Iraq ongoing at all.
BILL MOYERS: "So it is," you write, "seven years into its confrontation with radical Islam, the United States finds itself with too much war for too few warriors and with no prospect of producing the additional soldiers needed to close the gap." When I hear all this talk about increasing the troops in Afghanistan from two to three battalions, maybe even more, I keep asking myself, where are we going to get those troops?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, and of course the answer is, they have to come from Iraq. I mean, as we speak, the security conditions in Iraq have improved a little bit, and in a sense, it's just in time, because what the Pentagon wants to do is to draw down its presence in Iraq to some degree, not in order to give those troops a breather, but in order to redeploy them after a period of retraining to Afghanistan, because Afghanistan is going so poorly. So, we're having a very difficult time managing two wars which, in the 20th century context, they're actually relatively small.
BILL MOYERS: You say, "U.S. troops in battle dress and body armor, whom Americans profess to admire and support, pay the price for the nation's refusal to confront our domestic dysfunction." What are we not confronting?
ANDREW BACEVICH: The most obvious, the blindingly obviously question, is energy. It's oil. I think historians a hundred years from now will puzzle over how it could be that the United States of America, the most powerful nation in the world, as far back as the early 1970s, came to recognize that dependence on foreign oil was a problem, posed a threat, comprised our freedom of action.
How every President from Richard Nixon down to the present one, President Bush, declared, "We're gonna fix this problem." None of them did. And the reason we are in Iraq today is because the Persian Gulf is at the center of the world's oil reserves. I don't mean that we invaded Iraq on behalf of big oil, but the Persian Gulf region would have zero strategic significance, were it not for the fact that that's where the oil is.
Back in 1980, I think, President Carter, in many respects when he declared the Carter Doctrine, and said that henceforth, the Persian Gulf had enormous strategic significance to the United States and the United States is not going to permit any other country to control that region of the world.
And that set in motion a set of actions that has produced the militarization of U.S. policy, ever deeper involvement in the region, and in essence, has postponed that day of reckoning when we need to understand the imperative of having an energy policy, and trying to restore some semblance of energy independence.
BILL MOYERS: And this is connected, as you say in the book, in your first chapters, of what you call "the crisis of profligacy."
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, we don't live within our means. I mean, the nation doesn't, and increasingly, individual Americans don't. Our saving - the individual savings rate in this country is below zero. The personal debt, national debt, however you want to measure it, as individuals and as a government, and as a nation we assume an endless line of credit.
As individuals, the line of credit is not endless, that's one of the reasons why we're having this current problem with the housing crisis, and so on. And my view would be that the nation's assumption, that its line of credit is endless, is also going to be shown to be false. And when that day occurs it's going to be a black day, indeed.
BILL MOYERS: You call us an "empire of consumption."
ANDREW BACEVICH: I didn't create that phrase. It's a phrase drawn from a book by a wonderful historian at Harvard University, Charles Maier, and the point he makes in his very important book is that, if we think of the United States at the apex of American power, which I would say would be the immediate post World War Two period, through the Eisenhower years, into the Kennedy years. We made what the world wanted. They wanted our cars. We exported our television sets, our refrigerators - we were the world's manufacturing base. He called it an "empire of production."
BILL MOYERS: Right.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Sometime around the 1960s there was a tipping point, when the "empire of production" began to become the "empire of consumption." When the cars started to be produced elsewhere, and the television sets, and the socks, and everything else. And what we ended up with was the American people becoming consumers rather than producers.
BILL MOYERS: And you say this has produced a condition of profound dependency, to the extent, and I'm quoting you, "Americans are no longer masters of their own fate."
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, they're not. I mean, the current debt to the Chinese government grows day by day. Why? Well, because of the negative trade balance. Our negative trade balance with the world is something in the order of $800 billion per year. That's $800 billion of stuff that we buy, so that we can consume, that is $800 billion greater than the amount of stuff that we sell to them. That's a big number. I mean, it's a big number even relative to the size of our economy.
BILL MOYERS: And you use this metaphor that is intriguing. American policy makers, quote, "have been engaged in a de facto Ponzi scheme, intended to extend indefinitely, the American line of credit." What's going on that resembles a Ponzi scheme?
ANDREW BACEVICH: This continuing tendency to borrow and to assume that the bills are never going to come due. I testified before a House committee six weeks ago now, on the future of U.S grand strategy. I was struck by the questions coming from members that showed an awareness, a sensitivity, and a deep concern, about some of the issues that I tried to raise in the book.
"How are we gonna pay the bills? How are we gonna pay for the commitment of entitlements that is going to increase year by year for the next couple of decades, especially as baby boomers retire?" Nobody has answers to those questions. So, I was pleased that these members of Congress understood the problem. I was absolutely taken aback when they said, "Professor, what can we do about this?" And their candid admission that they didn't have any answers, that they were perplexed, that this problem of learning to live within our means seemed to have no politically plausible solution.
BILL MOYERS: You say in here that the tipping point between wanting more than we were willing to pay for began in the Johnson Administration. "We can fix the tipping point with precision," you write. "It occurred between 1965, when President Lyndon Baines Johnson ordered U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam, and 1973, when President Richard Nixon finally ended direct U.S. involvement in that war." Why do you see that period so crucial?
ANDREW BACEVICH: When President Johnson became President, our trade balance was in the black. By the time we get to the Nixon era, it's in the red. And it stays in the red down to the present. Matter of fact, the trade imbalance becomes essentially larger year by year.
So, I think that it is the '60s, generally, the Vietnam period, slightly more specifically, was the moment when we began to lose control of our economic fate. And most disturbingly, we're still really in denial. We still haven't recognized that.
BILL MOYERS: Now you go on to say that there was another fateful period between July 1979 and March of 1983. You describe it, in fact, as a pivot of contemporary American history. That includes Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, right?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I would be one of the first to confess that - I think that we have misunderstood and underestimated President Carter. He was the one President of our time who recognized, I think, the challenges awaiting us if we refused to get our house in order.
BILL MOYERS: You're the only author I have read, since I read Jimmy Carter, who gives so much time to the President's speech on July 15th, 1979. Why does that speech speak to you so strongly?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, this is the so-called Malaise Speech, even though he never used the word "malaise" in the text to the address. It's a very powerful speech, I think, because President Carter says in that speech, oil, our dependence on oil, poses a looming threat to the country. If we act now, we may be able to fix this problem. If we don't act now, we're headed down a path in which not only will we become increasingly dependent upon foreign oil, but we will have opted for a false model of freedom. A freedom of materialism, a freedom of self-indulgence, a freedom of collective recklessness. And what the President was saying at the time was, we need to think about what we mean by freedom. We need to choose a definition of freedom which is anchored in truth, and the way to manifest that choice, is by addressing our energy problem.
He had a profound understanding of the dilemma facing the country in the post Vietnam period. And of course, he was completely hooted, derided, disregarded.
BILL MOYERS: And he lost the election. You in fact say-
ANDREW BACEVICH: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: This speech killed any chance he had of winning reelection. Why? Because the American people didn't want to settle for less?
ANDREW BACEVICH: They absolutely did not. And indeed, the election of 1980 was the great expression of that, because in 1980, we have a candidate, perhaps the most skillful politician of our time, Ronald Reagan, who says that, "Doom-sayers, gloom-sayers, don't listen to them. The country's best days are ahead of us."
BILL MOYERS: Morning in America.
ANDREW BACEVICH: It's Morning in America. And you don't have to sacrifice, you can have more, all we need to do is get government out of the way, and drill more holes for oil, because the President led us to believe the supply of oil was infinite.
BILL MOYERS: You describe Ronald Reagan as the "modern prophet of profligacy. The politician who gave moral sanction to the empire of consumption."
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, to understand the truth about President Reagan, is to understand why so much of what we imagined to be our politics is misleading and false. He was the guy who came in and said we need to shrink the size of government. Government didn't shrink during the Reagan era, it grew.
He came in and he said we need to reduce the level of federal spending. He didn't reduce it, it went through the roof, and the budget deficits for his time were the greatest they had been since World War Two.
BILL MOYERS: And do you remember that it was his successor, his Vice President, the first President Bush who said in 1992, the American way of life is not negotiable.
ANDREW BACEVICH: And all presidents, again, this is not a Republican thing, or a Democratic thing, all presidents, all administrations are committed to that proposition. Now, I would say, that probably, 90 percent of the American people today would concur. The American way of life is not up for negotiation.
What I would invite them to consider is that, if you want to preserve that which you value most in the American way of life, and of course you need to ask yourself, what is it you value most. That if you want to preserve that which you value most in the American way of life, then we need to change the American way of life. We need to modify that which may be peripheral, in order to preserve that which is at the center of what we value.
BILL MOYERS: What do you value most?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think the clearest statement of what I value is found in the preamble to the Constitution. There is nothing in the preamble to the Constitution which defines the purpose of the United States of America as remaking the world in our image, which I view as a fool's errand. There is nothing in the preamble of the Constitution that ever imagined that we would embark upon an effort, as President Bush has defined it, to transform the Greater Middle East. This region of the world that incorporates something in order of 1.4 billion people.
I believe that the framers of the Constitution were primarily concerned with focusing on the way we live here, the way we order our affairs. To try to ensure that as individuals, we can have an opportunity to pursue our, perhaps, differing definitions of freedom, but also so that, as a community, we could live together in some kind of harmony. And that future generations would also be able to share in those same opportunities.
The big problem, it seems to me, with the current crisis in American foreign policy, is that unless we do change our ways, the likelihood that our children, our grandchildren, the next generation is going to enjoy the opportunities that we've had, is very slight, because we're squandering our power. We are squandering our wealth. In many respects, to the extent that we persist in our imperial delusions, we're also going to squander our freedom because imperial policies, which end up enhancing the authority of the imperial president, also end up providing imperial presidents with an opportunity to compromise freedom even here at home. And we've seen that since 9/11.
BILL MOYERS: The disturbing thing that you say again and again in here, is that every President since Reagan has relied on military power to conceal or manage these problems that stem from the nation's habits of profligacy, right?
ANDREW BACEVICH: That's exactly right. And again, this is, I think, this is another issue where one needs to be unsparing in fixing responsibility as much on liberal Democratic presidents as conservative Republican ones. I think that the Bush Administration's response to 9/11 in constructing this paradigm of a global war on terror, in promulgating the so called, Bush Doctrine of Preventive War, in plunging into Iraq - utterly unnecessary war - will go down in our history as a record of recklessness that will be probably unmatched by any other administration.
But, doesn't really mean that Bill Clinton before him, or George Herbert Walker Bush before him, or Ronald Reagan before him, were all that much better. Because they all have seen military power as our strong suit. They all have worked under the assumption that through the projection of power, or the threat to employ power, that we can fix the world. Fix the world in order to sustain this dysfunctional way of life that we have back here.
BILL MOYERS: So, this brings us to what you call the political crisis of America. And you say, "The actual system of government conceived by the framers no longer pertains." What pertains?
ANDREW BACEVICH: I am expressing in the book, in a sense, what many of us sense, even if many of us don't really want to confront the implications. The Congress, especially with regard to matters related to national security policy, has thrust power and authority to the executive branch. We have created an imperial presidency. The congress no longer is able to articulate a vision of what is the common good. The Congress exists primarily to ensure the reelection of members of Congress.
As the imperial presidency has accrued power, surrounding the imperial presidency has come to be this group of institutions called the National Security State. The CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the other intelligence agencies. Now, these have grown since the end of World War Two into this mammoth enterprise.
But the National Security State doesn't work. The National Security State was not able to identify the 9/11 conspiracy. Was not able to deflect the attackers on 9/11. The National Security State was not able to plan intelligently for the Iraq War. Even if you think that the Iraq War was necessary. They were not able to put together an intelligent workable plan for that war.
The National Security State has not been able to provide the resources necessary to fight this so called global war on terror. So, as the Congress has moved to the margins, as the President has moved to the center of our politics, the presidency itself has come to be, I think, less effective. The system is broken.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, you say no one knows what they're doing, including the President. No one in Washington, as you say, that's the political crisis, as you define it, no one in Washington knows what they're doing.
ANDREW BACEVICH: What I mean specifically is this. The end of the Cold War coincided almost precisely with the first Persian Gulf War of 1990, 1991, Operation Desert Storm. Operation Desert Storm was perceived to be this great, historic, never before seen victory. It really wasn't.
BILL MOYERS: The mother of all battles-
ANDREW BACEVICH: Right, I mean-
BILL MOYERS: Schwarzkopf cam-
ANDREW BACEVICH: Politically, and strategically, the outcome of that war was far more ambiguous than people appreciated at the time. But nonetheless, the war itself was advertised as this great success, demonstrating that a new American way of war had been developed, and that this new American way of war held the promise of enabling the United States to exercise military dominion on a global basis in ways that the world had never seen.
The people in the Pentagon had developed a phrase to describe this. They called it, "full spectrum dominance." Meaning, that the United States was going to exercise dominance, not just capability, dominance across the full spectrum of warfare. And this became the center of the way that the military advertised its capabilities in the 1990s. That was fraud. That was fraudulent.
To claim that the United States military could demonstrate that kind of dominance flew in the face of all of history and in many respects, set us up for how the Bush Administration was going to respond to 9/11. Because if you believed that United States military was utterly unstoppable, then it became kind of plausible to imagine that the appropriate response to 9/11 was to embark upon this global war to transform the greater Middle East. Had the generals been more cognoscente of the history of war, and of the nature of war, then they might have been in a better position to argue to Mr. Rumsfeld, then the Secretary of Defense, or to the President himself, "Be careful." "Don't plunge ahead." Recognize that force has utility, but that utility is actually quite limited. Recognize that when we go to war, almost inevitably, there are going to be unanticipated consequences. And they're not going to be happy ones.
Above all, recognize that, when you go to war, it's unlikely there's a neat tidy solution. It's far more likely that the bill that the nation is going to pay in lives and in dollars is going to be a monumental one. My problem with the generals is that, with certain exceptions, one could name as General Shinseki, with certain exceptions-
BILL MOYERS: Who said, "We are going to need half a million men if we go into Iraq." And-
ANDREW BACEVICH: Right.
BILL MOYERS: -he was shown the door for telling the truth.
ANDREW BACEVICH: By and large, the generals did not speak truth to power.
BILL MOYERS: One of the things that comes through in your book is that great truths are contained in small absurdities. And you use the lowly IED, the improvised explosive device, or roadside bomb, that's taken such a toll of American forces in Iraq, to get at a very powerful truth. Tell me about that.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well war - wars are competitions. The adversary develops capabilities. Your enemy develops capabilities. And you try to develop your own capabilities to check what he can do to you to be able to, overcome his capabilities.
One of the striking things about the Iraq War, and in which we had been fighting against, technologically at least, a relatively backward or primitive adversary, one of the interesting things is they have innovated far more adeptly and quickly than we have.
BILL MOYERS: The insurgents.
ANDREW BACEVICH: The insurgents have. And an example of that is the IED, which began as a very low tech kind of primitive mine. And, over time, became ever more sophisticated, ever more lethal, ever more difficult to detect, ever more difficult to check. And those enhancements in insurgent IED capability continually kept ahead of our ability to innovate and catch up.
BILL MOYERS: And I think you say, in your book, that it costs the price of a pizza to make a roadside bomb?
ANDREW BACEVICH: That's right. Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: This is what our men and women are up against in Afghanistan-
ANDREW BACEVICH: The point is to say that the reality of war is always a heck of a lot more complicated than you might imagine the day before the war begins. And, rather than looking to technology to define the future of warfare, we ought to look - really look at military history.
BILL MOYERS: And what do we learn when we look to the past?
ANDREW BACEVICH: What we should learn from history is that preventive war doesn't work. The Iraq War didn't work. And, therefore, we should abandon notions, such as the Bush Doctrine of preventive war. We should return to the just war tradition. Which sees force as something that is only used as a last resort. Which sees war as something that is justifiable for defensive purposes.
BILL MOYERS: How, then, do we fight what you acknowledge, in the book, is the perfectly real threat posed by violent Islamic extremism?
ANDREW BACEVICH: I think we need to see the threat for what it is. It is a real threat. It's not an existential threat. The 19 hijackers that killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11 didn't succeed because they had advanced technology, because they were particularly smart, because they were ten feet tall.
They succeeded because we let our guard down and we were stupid. We need to recognize that the threat posed by violent Islamic radicalism, by terrorist organizations, al Qaeda, really is akin to a criminal conspiracy, a violent conspiracy, a dangerous conspiracy. But it's a criminal enterprise. And the primary response to a criminal enterprise is policing.
Policing as in organizations like the FBI, intelligence organizations, some special operations forces. That would undertake a concerted campaign to identify and root out and destroy this criminal conspiracy. But that doesn't require invading and occupying countries. Again, one of the big mistakes the Bush Administration made, and it's a mistake we're still paying for, is that the President persuaded us that the best way to prevent another 9/11 is to embark upon a global war. Wrong. The best way to prevent another 9/11 is to organize an intensive international effort to root out and destroy that criminal conspiracy.
BILL MOYERS: You, in fact, say that, instead of a bigger army, we need a smaller more modest foreign policy. One that assigns soldiers missions that are consistent with their capability. "Modesty," I'm quoting you, "requires giving up on the illusions of grandeur to which the end of the Cold War and then 9/11 gave rise. It also means reining in the imperial presidents who expect the army to make good on those illusions." Do you expect either John McCain or Barack Obama to rein in the "imperial presidency?"
ANDREW BACEVICH: No. I mean, people run for the presidency in order to become imperial presidents. The people who are advising these candidates, the people who aspire to be the next national security advisor, the next secretary of defense, these are people who yearn to exercise those kind of great powers.
They're not running to see if they can make the Pentagon smaller. They're not. So when I - as a distant observer of politics - one of the things that both puzzles me and I think troubles me is the 24/7 coverage of the campaign.
Parsing every word, every phrase, that either Senator Obama or Senator McCain utters, as if what they say is going to reveal some profound and important change that was going to come about if they happened to be elected. It's not going to happen.
BILL MOYERS: It's not going to happen because?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Not going to happen - it's not going to happen because the elements of continuity outweigh the elements of change. And it's not going to happen because, ultimately, we the American people, refuse to look in that mirror. And to see the extent to which the problems that we face really lie within.
We refuse to live within our means. We continue to think that the problems that beset the country are out there beyond our borders. And that if we deploy sufficient amount of American power we can fix those problems, and therefore things back here will continue as they have for decades.
BILL MOYERS: I was in the White House, back in the early 60s, and I've been a White House watcher ever since. And I have never come across a more distilled essence of the evolution of the presidency than in just one paragraph in your book.
You say, "Beginning with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, "the occupant of the White House has become a combination of demigod, father figure and, inevitably, the betrayer of inflated hopes. Pope. Pop star. Scold. Scapegoat. Crisis manager. Commander in Chief. Agenda settler. Moral philosopher. Interpreter of the nation's charisma. Object of veneration. And the butt of jokes. All rolled into one." I would say you nailed the modern presidency.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, and the - I think the troubling part is, because of this preoccupation with, fascination with, the presidency, the President has become what we have instead of genuine politics. Instead of genuine democracy.
We look to the President, to the next President. You know, we know that the current President's a failure and a disappoint - we look to the next President to fix things. And, of course, as long as we have this expectation that the next President is going to fix things then, of course, that lifts all responsibility from me to fix things.
One of the real problems with the imperial presidency, I think, is that it has hollowed out our politics. And, in many respects, has made our democracy a false one. We're going through the motions of a democratic political system. But the fabric of democracy, I think, really has worn very thin.
BILL MOYERS: The other consequence of the imperial presidency, as you point out, is that, for members of the political class, that would include the media that covers the political class, serving, gaining access to, reporting on, second guessing, or gossiping about the imperial president are about those aspiring to succeed him, as in this campaign, has become an abiding preoccupation.
ANDREW BACEVICH: I'm not - my job is not to be a media critic. But, I mean, one - you cannot help but be impressed by the amount of ink spilled on Obama and McCain compared to how little attention is given, for example, to the races in the Senate and the House. Now, one could say perhaps that makes sense, because the Congress has become such a dysfunctional body. But it really does describe a disproportion, I think of attention that is a problem.
BILL MOYERS: Would the imperial presidency exist were it not for the Congress?
ANDREW BACEVICH: No. I think that the imperial presidency would not exist but for the Congress. Because the Congress, since World War II, has thrust power and authority onto the presidency.
BILL MOYERS: Here is what I take to be the core of your analysis of our political crisis. You write, "The United States has become a de facto one party state. With the legislative branch permanently controlled by an incumbent's party. And every President exploiting his role as Commander in Chief to expand on the imperial prerogatives of his office."
ANDREW BACEVICH: One of the great lies about American politics is that Democrats genuinely subscribe to a set of core convictions that make Democrats different from Republicans. And the same thing, of course, applies to the other party. It's not true. I happen to define myself as a conservative.
Well, what do conservatives say they stand for? Well, conservatives say they stand for balanced budgets. Small government. The so called traditional values.
Well, when you look back over the past 30 or so years, since the rise of Ronald Reagan, which we, in many respects, has been a conservative era in American politics, well, did we get small government?
Do we get balanced budgets? Do we get serious as opposed to simply rhetorical attention to traditional social values? The answer's no. Because all of that really has simply been part of a package of tactics that Republicans have employed to get elected and to - and then to stay in office.
BILL MOYERS: And, yet, you say that the prime example of political dysfunction today is the Democratic Party in relation to Iraq.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I may be a conservative, but I can assure you that, in November of 2006, I voted for every Democrat I could possibly come close to. And I did because the Democratic Party, speaking with one voice, at that time, said that, "Elect us. Give us power in the Congress, and we will end the Iraq War."
And the American people, at that point, adamantly tired of this war, gave power to the Democrats in Congress. And they absolutely, totally, completely failed to follow through on their commitment. Now, there was a lot of posturing. But, really, the record of the Democratic Congress over the past two years has been - one in which, substantively, all they have done is to appropriate the additional money that enables President Bush to continue that war.
BILL MOYERS: And you say the promises of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi prove to be empty. Reid and Pelosi's commitment to forcing a change in policy took a backseat to their concern to protect the Democratic majority.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Could anybody disagree with that?
BILL MOYERS: You say, and this is another one of my highlighted sentences, that "Anyone with a conscience sending soldiers back to Iraq or Afghanistan for multiple combat tours, while the rest of the country chills out, can hardly be seen as an acceptable arrangement. It is unfair. Unjust. And morally corrosive." And, yet, that's what we're doing.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Absolutely. And I think - I don't want to talk about my son here.
BILL MOYERS: Your son?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: You dedicate the book to your son.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Yeah. Well, my son was killed in Iraq. And I don't want to talk about that, because it's very personal. But it has long stuck in my craw, this posturing of supporting the troops. I don't want to insult people.
There are many people who say they support the troops, and they really mean it. But when it comes, really, down to understanding what does it mean to support the troops? It needs to mean more than putting a sticker on the back of your car.
I don't think we actually support the troops. We the people. What we the people do is we contract out the business of national security to approximately 0.5 percent of the population. About a million and a half people that are on active duty.
And then we really turn away. We don't want to look when they go back for two or three or four or five combat tours. That's not supporting the troops. That's an abdication of civic responsibility. And I do think it - there's something fundamentally immoral about that.
Again, as I tried to say, I think the global war on terror, as a framework of thinking about policy, is deeply defective. But if one believes in the global war on terror, then why isn't the country actually supporting it? In a meaningful substantive sense?
Where is the country?
BILL MOYERS: Are you calling for a reinstatement of the draft?
ANDREW BACEVICH: I'm not calling for a reinstatement of the draft because I understand that, politically, that's an impossibility. And, to tell you the truth, we don't need to have an army of six or eight or ten million people. But we do need to have the country engaged in what its soldiers are doing. In some way that has meaning. And that simply doesn't exist today.
BILL MOYERS: Well, despite your loss, your and your wife's loss, you say in this powerful book what, to me, is a paradox. You say that, "Ironically, Iraq may yet prove to be the source of our salvation." And help me to understand that.
ANDREW BACEVICH: We're going to have a long argument about the Iraq War. We, Americans. Not unlike the way we had a very long argument about the Vietnam War. In fact, maybe the argument about the Vietnam War continues to the present day. And that argument is going to be - is going to cause us, I hope, to ask serious questions about where this war came from.
How did we come to be a nation in which we really thought that we could transform the greater Middle East with our army?
What have been the costs that have been imposed on this country? Hundreds of billions of dollars. Some projections, two to three trillion dollars. Where is that money coming from? How else could it have been spent? For what? Who bears the burden?
Who died? Who suffered loss? Who's in hospitals? Who's suffering from PTSD? And was it worth it? Now, there will be plenty of people who are going to say, "Absolutely, it was worth it. We overthrew this dictator." But I hope and pray that there will be many others who will make the argument that it wasn't worth it.
It was a fundamental mistake. It never should have been undertaking. And we're never going to do this kind of thing again. And that might be the moment when we look ourselves in the mirror. And we see what we have become. And perhaps undertake an effort to make those changes in the American way of life that will enable us to preserve for future generations that which we value most about the American way of life.
BILL MOYERS: The book is "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism." Andrew J. Bacevich, thank you for being with me.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you very much.
BILL MOYERS: I have to believe that if Barack Obama and John McCain took time to read THE LIMITS OF POWER, this would be a different campaign. The reality just might sober them up.
A personal word if you will at the end of this frenzied and dangerous week. All week I've thought of my father — and his friend in the White House. My father dropped out of the fourth grade and never returned to high school because his family needed him to pick cotton to help ends meet. The Great Depression knocked him down and almost out. He never made more than $100 a week in his working life, and he made that only when he joined the union in the last job he held. He voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in four straight elections and would have gone on voting for him until kingdom come if he'd had the chance. When I asked him why, he said, "Because he was my friend."
Now, my father of course never met FDR; no politician ever paid him much note. But when Roosevelt died, my father wept. I puzzled at how it was a struggling young husband and father, lucky enough to get a job as a day laborer on the highway to Oklahoma City, could believe that the patrician in the White House knew what life was like for people like him.
Then, one day, years later, listening to a compilation of Franklin Roosevelt's speeches, I understood. Listen, and I think you will understand too. Remember, it's 1933-- chaos has descended across the country. Millions are out of work, their savings gone, their pantries empty, and a quarter of the banks are closed. Everything that's tied down is coming loose. And there on the banks of the Red River a young couple with one son and about to have another, sat listening to the radio, listening to the new president being sworn into office, listening to this:
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties…a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence and an equally great number toil with little return…Yes, the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths.
This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly…let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…
BILL MOYERS: And so my father took heart. No false promises. No passing the buck. No pandering. Just a simple truth: when the new president said we can do this, my father knew he was included. He never forgot it, never stopped believing his friend in the White House believed in him.
That's it for the JOURNAL.
Before we go, I want to call your attention to a special broadcast scheduled to air on many of these PBS stations next week, as part of the series, "POV." "Critical Condition" is the powerful story of four patients struggling to survive, to survive not only illness but America's failing health care system, where treatment is all too often delayed or denied.
WOMAN: A lot of people are dying, and they're dying because they don't have health care.
I'm Bill Moyers. We'll see you next week.
August 15, 2008 | t r u t h o u t
During an interview on Bill Moyers this week, Andrew Bacevich, retired Army colonel and author of "The Limits of Power," said, "There is nothing in the Preamble to the Constitution which defines the purpose of the United States of America as remaking the world in our image, which I view as a fool's errand. (Photo/Illustration: Damien Donck / Newsweek)In a letter written in 1648, Swedish statesman Axel Oxenstierna, chancellor to both King Gustavus Adolphus and Queen Christina, counseled, "Know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed."
The fighting between Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia is an unnerving reminder of that, and of how quickly the balance of global power can be tilted from unexpected directions with barely a warning.
Some hawks and neo-cons called for NATO intervention or even suggested we send in Stinger missiles or the 82nd Airborne as a peacekeeping force. President Bush warned, "Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century."
Perhaps, but the reality of the early 21st century is that, in the short run, at least, the president's words ring hollow. In spite of past promises of support to Georgia, Russia is key to our efforts in the Middle East and our European allies are dependent on Russia for energy. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have both our military strength and our international credibility stretched perilously thin at a time when oil-rich Russia is reemerging as a superpower. We've boxed ourselves in.
It was in that light that I came upon the Oxenstierna quote the other night, while re-reading the late historian Barbara Tuchman's "The March of Folly," a knowing compendium, from ancient Troy to Vietnam, of the ways in which, given half a chance, those in power will steer their ships of state straight into the rocks. In the first chapter, she also quotes American President John Adams: "While all other sciences have advanced" - you can almost hear him sighing - "government is at a stand; little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago."
Andrew J. Bacevich probably would agree with all of the above. The retired Army colonel, a West Point graduate, teaches history and international relations at Boston University. His latest book, "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism," explores our nation's current predicament, not just on the world stage, but here at home as well. He spoke with my colleague, Bill Moyers, on this week's edition of the PBS series, Bill Moyers Journal.
Bacevich speaks truth to power, no matter who's in power, which may be why those of both the left and right are eager to hear his views. Perhaps it's also because when he challenges American myths and illusions, he does so from a genuine patriotism forged in the fire of his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam and the death a year ago of his son, an Army lieutenant in Iraq. "The Limits of Power" is dedicated to the young man, but the senior Bacevich, a man of quiet, solid gravitas, holds his grief privately between himself and his family.
"Our foreign policy is something that is concocted in Washington, DC, but it reflects the perceptions of our political elite about what we the people want," he told Moyers. "And what we want, by and large is ... this continuing flow of very cheap consumer goods. We want to be able to pump gas into our cars regardless of how big they may happen to be. And we want to be able to do these things without having to think about whether or not the books are balanced at the end of the month, or the end of the fiscal year."
To that end, he says, "One of the ways we avoid confronting our refusal to balance the books is to rely increasingly on the projection of American military power around the world to try to maintain this dysfunctional system or set of arrangements that have evolved over the last 30 or 40 years."
"... I think historians a hundred years from now will puzzle over how it could be that the United States of America, the most powerful nation in the world, as far back as the early 1970's came to recognize that dependence on foreign oil was a problem, posed a threat, compromised our freedom of action. How every president from Richard Nixon down ... declared, 'We're going to fix the problem.' [But] none of them did."
He continued, "The clearest statement of what I value is found in the Preamble to the Constitution. There is nothing in the Preamble to the Constitution which defines the purpose of the United States of America as remaking the world in our image, which I view as a fool's errand. I believe that the framers of the Constitution were primarily concerned with focusing on the way we live here, the way we order our affairs. To try to ensure that as individuals, we can have an opportunity to pursue our, perhaps, differing definitions of freedom, but also so that, as a community, we could live together in some kind of harmony. And that future generations would also be able to share in those same opportunities.... With the current crisis in American foreign policy, unless we do change our ways, the likelihood that our children, our grandchildren, the next generation will enjoy the opportunities that we've had is very slight because we're squandering our power. We are squandering our wealth."
Bacevich believes, "The Congress, especially with regard to matters related to national security policy, has thrust power and authority to the executive branch. We have created an imperial presidency. The Congress no longer is able to articulate a vision of what is the common good. The Congress exists primarily to ensure the reelection of members of Congress."
That imperial presidency, he says, "has made our democracy a false one. We're going through the motions of a democratic political system. But the fabric of democracy, I think, really has worn very thin."
Iraq, Bacevich concludes, "was a fundamental mistake. It never should have been undertaken. And we're never going to do this kind of thing again." This might, he thinks, "be the moment when we look ourselves in the mirror [and] ... see what we have become. And perhaps undertake an effort to make those changes in the American way of life that will enable us to preserve for future generations that which we value most about the American way of life."
Andrew Bacevich's words should echo down the corridors of Congress and the halls of the White House, no matter who becomes our next president.
Andrew Bacevich is a conservative historian who spent twenty-three years serving in the US Army. He also lost his son in Iraq last year. In a new book titled The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Bacevich argues that although many in this country are paying a heavy price for US domestic and foreign policy decisions, millions of Americans simply continue to shop, spend and satisfy their appetite for cheap oil, credit and the promise of freedom at home. Bacevich writes, “As the American appetite for freedom has grown, so too has our penchant for empire.” [includes rush transcript]
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Andrew Bacevich, Retired colonel who spent twenty-three years in the US Army. He is professor of history and international relations at Boston University and writes for a wide spectrum of publications including The Nation, Foreign Affairs, the Los Angeles Times, and The American Conservative. He became a staunch critic of the Iraq war and Bush’s foreign policy and is the author of several books, including The New American Militarism. His latest book is called The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.
AMY GOODMAN: Our next guest is Andrew Bacevich. He’s a conservative historian. He spent twenty-three years serving in the US Army. He also lost his son in Iraq. Andrew Bacevich writes, “In joining the Army, my son was following in his father’s footsteps: Before he was born, I had served in Vietnam. As military officers, we shared an ironic kinship of sorts, each of us demonstrating a peculiar knack for picking the wrong war at the wrong time.”
Andrew Bacevich holds both parties accountable for the Iraq war. As he writes, “To be fair, responsibility for the war’s continuation now rests no less with the Democrats who control Congress than with the president and his party. After my son’s death, my state’s senators, Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, telephoned to express their condolences. Stephen F. Lynch, our congressman, attended my son’s wake. Kerry was present for the funeral Mass. My family and I greatly appreciated such gestures. But when I suggested to each of them the necessity of ending the war, I got the brushoff.” Bacevich goes on to write, “To whom do Kennedy, Kerry and Lynch listen? We know the answer: to the same people who have the ear of George W. Bush and Karl Rove—namely, wealthy individuals and institutions.”
Andrew Bacevich has just published a new book. It’s called The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. He joins me here in the firehouse studio.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Bacevich.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you very much for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: How hard was it to write this book after your son’s death? This is not theoretical for you.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I try not to talk about my son’s death, because it’s a private matter, and to tell you the truth, I don’t want to do anything that even looks like it might be exploiting his memory. I would say that I imagine that some of the energy that informed the writing a book came from the emotional response to my son’s death. But the content, the critique, is unrelated to that tragedy.
The content of the book very much reflects my dismay at the direction of US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. There’s a lot in the book that tries to hold the Bush administration accountable for recent events, but I would not for a second want to suggest that the crisis in which we find ourselves today ought to be laid simply at the foot of the Bush administration or the Republican Party, because it’s been a long time coming.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by “exceptionalism”?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, this is not an idea that’s original with me. It’s clear that from the founding of the Anglo-American colonies, from the time that John Winthrop made his famous sermon and declared that “we shall be as a city upon a hill” a light to the world—it’s clear that, from the outset, there has been a strong sense among Americans that we are a special people with a providential mission.
In the twentieth century, probably going back to roughly the time of Woodrow Wilson, certainly since the end of the Cold War, this concept of a providential mission, a responsibility to the world, has translated into a sense of empowerment or prerogative to determine the way the world is supposed to work, what it’s supposed to look like, and also, over the last twenty years or so, an increasing willingness to use military force to cause the world to look the way we want it to look. And I think that that expression of American exceptionalism is one that’s not only utterly false, but is greatly at odds with own interests as a country.
AMY GOODMAN: You write, “Recalling how Washington saw the post-Cold War world and America’s place in or atop it helps us understand why policymakers failed to anticipate, deter or deflect the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.”
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean-–and again, this is very much not something that one would lay at the foot of the Bush administration, but you recall that at the end of the Cold War, when history had supposedly ended, when globalization, which really was a synonym for Americanization, was thought to be sweeping the world and creating a new order, when Democrats and Republicans alike declared with great confidence that not only was the US the sole superpower, but that the US possessed military might such as the world had never seen, well, an attack on Manhattan killing 3,000 Americans wasn’t something that was supposed to happen.
So the focus in the ’90s in the Clinton era and the focus into the first nine months we saw of the Bush era was very much out there somewhere, you know, where we were going to sort out the problems of the world. Nobody was paying attention to the possibility of actually having to defend the United States of America. So, there we were, spending on defense—well, “defense” in quotes—defending on our military probably as much as the rest of the world was spending on their militaries, and yet our military simply wasn’t prepared to perform what ought to be its primary mission, and that is defending the people of the United States of America.
AMY GOODMAN: You say the Department of Defense didn’t actually do defense. It was prepared—it specialized in power projection.
ANDREW BACEVICH: It still doesn’t do defense. I mean, it is a remarkable thing, I think, that the reflexive response to 9/11 is, first of all, to create a new bureaucratic entity that supposedly does defend the country—that’s the Department of Homeland Security, as we call it—but to continue to see the purpose of the Department of Defense, so-called, as power projection.
So, what has the Department of Defense been doing for the last seven years since 9/11? Well, been fighting a war in—where? Afghanistan. And a second one in Iraq. Now, I think you can make the case for Afghanistan, at least in terms of you can make a case for the necessity of holding the Taliban accountable for having given sanctuary to al-Qaeda. You can’t make any case for the invasion of Iraq as related to the global war on terror. And frankly, it’s becoming rather difficult, I think, to make a case for the continuation of the Afghanistan war as part of the global war on terror.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, you identified me as a conservative, and I don’t deny that label, but I think in this particular context what conservatism means is to be realistic in understanding how the world works and being respectful of history and taking care not to overstate one’s own capacity to influence events.
And I think, in that regard, if we look at Afghanistan today, we have to see a country that historically, at least as I understand Afghan history, has never really functioned as an integrated and coherent nation state. It’s never been ruled from Kabul. It’s always been ruled from the—in the provinces by people you might call tribal chiefs. You might call them warlords, you can call them local bosses, but authority has been widely distributed. But we are engaged in a project in which we insist that we’re going to transform Afghanistan into something more or less like a modern, coherent nation state, and indeed, we insist that it has to conform to our notions of liberal democracy.
Were we able to actually do that, I think it would be a wonderful thing. But seven years or so into this project, I’m not sure we can do it. Matter of fact, I’m increasingly persuaded that we can’t do it, and therefore—and I think in your news summary you made reference to this—you know, for somebody like Senator Obama to say, “Elect me. I’ll win the global war on terror by sending more troops to Afghanistan,” I think ought to give people pause and, frankly, ought to cause them to wonder how much change an Obama administration would make with regard to a foreign policy. That’s not an argument for voting for McCain, by a long shot, but it suggests the narrowness of the debate over foreign policy.
AMY GOODMAN: So how is this narrowness taking place? I mean, yes, you have McCain saying we’ll be in Iraq for a hundred years. You have Obama speaking out against the war, but he votes with McCain for funding for the war all through the years —
ANDREW BACEVICH: Right, right, right.
AMY GOODMAN: —as a senator, and then he says we’ll send thousands more, we should send thousands more troops to Afghanistan.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Right, right. I think there are differences between the two, but I think we should see the differences as differences in operational priorities. McCain insists that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror and that it must be won, and it’s clear that if we, the American people, elect him, that we will be engaged in Iraq for a long, long time. Senator Obama says, “No, Afghanistan is the central front in the global war on terror. Elect me and will shift our military effort to Afghanistan.” It’s a difference, but it’s a difference in operational priorities; it’s not a difference in strategy.
Both of them—McCain explicitly, I think Obama implicitly—endorse the notion that a global war on terror really provides the right frame for thinking about US national security policy going forward. A real debate would be one in which we would have one candidate, and certainly it would be McCain, arguing for the global war on terror and an opponent who was questioning whether the global war on terror makes sense. I don’t think it makes sense.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this, the global war on terror.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, the phrase itself is one that really ought to cause people to have their heads snap back a little bit, because President Bush and others around him—Rumsfeld was certainly very clear on this—it’s a war, it’s global, and how long is it going to go on? Well, they said from the outset it’s going to go on for decades. In the Pentagon, there’s a phrase that gets used, “generational war,” a war that lasts a generation or more.
Well, we need to ask ourselves whether that really makes sense? What are the costs entailed by waging war for a generation? Where does the money come from? What are we not doing because we’re spending all this money on war? And in a very human sense, who actually pays the cost? I mean, who serves? Who doesn’t serve? Whose social needs are getting met, and whose are not getting met, as a consequence of having open-ended global war be this national priority?
It seems to me that were we to accurately gauge the actually existing threat—and there is a threat. I mean, 9/11 happened. There are people out there who want to kill us. But were we to actually gauge that threat in a realistic way, we would see that open-ended global war is not only unnecessary, but it’s probably counterproductive, that there are better ways to go about keeping us secure than to engage in global war.
AMY GOODMAN: And I want to talk about those ways after break. We’re talking to Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel, spent twenty-three years in the US Army, now a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He’s just written the book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Professor Andrew Bacevich, retired colonel who spent twenty-three years in the US Army, now a professor at Boston University. And his latest book is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.
Could you talk about the cost of war and how the militarists learned from your war, from Vietnam, how we are insulated from the true cost?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Yeah, this is not something people intended to happen, but it’s an unintended consequence that we today really need to intend to. This is the way I would tell the story. President Nixon ends the draft and creates the so-called all-volunteer force, which really is a professional army. When Nixon ends the draft, he doesn’t do it because he thinks having a professional army would be in the nation’s interest. What Nixon is trying to do is to basically cut the antiwar movement off at the knees, and his calculation was that by ending the draft, kids would get out of the streets and go back to class. And to some degree, he actually was right. It’s worth remembering that the JCS at the time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were opposed to ending the draft, because they felt that they could never find enough volunteers to fill the force.
By the time we get into the 1980s, those JCS concerns have been proven incorrect, and we do end up with, I think, a magnificent professional army. In terms of what you want an army to be like and to do, they are competent, they are disciplined, they know their business. Alas, after the end of the Cold War, we have a political elite—and again, I would emphasize both parties—who decide that, gosh, with this great army we have, shouldn’t we go find some use for it? And the post-Cold War period, beginning with the elder Bush, sees this pattern of interventionism—you know, Panama, Iraq, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, on and on and on—mostly small conflicts, mostly brief conflicts, conflicts in which we, the people, sit on the sidelines and mostly applaud, and the all-volunteer force seems like the most successful federal program of the recent decades. Until you get to Iraq, because Iraq turns out to be not a short war, not a clean war, protracted, ugly, rightfully, I think, controversial and unpopular.
But what we have found is that we, the people, have so distanced ourselves from the professional army that unless you have a family member serving in uniform—and most people don’t—you don’t know where this military is, you don’t know what it’s like, and you really don’t have much say in the way it’s used.
President Bush exploits that after 9/11. He decides he knows how it wants to be used. And, of course, for the first time in our history, when we go to war, instead of a president turning to the Congress and turning to the country and say, “We’re going to have to change the way we do business, because we’re at war,” President Bush actually says, “Go to Disney World. Go shopping. Go back to doing what you have been doing for the last ten years, and I’ll take care of everything.” And I have to say, the great majority of the American people—I don’t think listeners of your show or of yours or your show—but the great majority of the American people basically did what Bush said and in tuned the war out and allowed the burden to fall on a very small percentage of the population, which I find, frankly, morally objectionable.
AMY GOODMAN: Who benefits, Andrew Bacevich?
ANDREW BACEVICH: From the war? There are obviously corporations, contractors who benefit, and I would not—never want to dismiss that, but I don’t really think that that provides us an adequate explanation of how we got into this fix. I think who really benefits or what benefits is the political status quo. The national security state, the apparatus of the national security state benefits. It’s gotten larger since 9/11, immensely larger. The tacit bargain between our political leaders and the American people, which basically assumes that our culture of consumption, our refusal to save, our addiction to oil, as President Bush himself described it, that all of these things can be sustained indefinitely, if we can simply employ our military power in ways to shape the world to our liking.
Now, of course, what we found over the past five, six years is, our military power is really not nearly as great as many people imagined it to be back in the 1990s, and war has not become an effective instrument of politics, as many people imagined back in the 1990s.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about massive amounts of money that go into the military, and yet it can be stopped by an IED.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, it’s an interesting thing. I mean, the military’s self-image, or the image of the military that many national security experts had developed during the 1990s, was that because our military was so adept at exploiting information technology, that in every respect we were faster than any prospective opponent: we could think faster, we could decide faster, we could see faster, we could use our weapons faster.
One of the great ironies, I think, of the Iraq war is that our adversary, who in a technological sense, we would say, has been fairly primitive, our adversary has actually acted much more quickly than we have. In the competition between the improvised explosive devices as a major weapons system that they have used and our efforts to defeat that system, they have repeatedly acted more quickly than we have. And there’s an important lesson there, I think. And the lesson is, technology is not all it’s cracked up to be when it comes to military affairs.
AMY GOODMAN: The first meeting of Barack Obama and McCain was with an evangelical reverend, Rick Warren, in California, and they talked about evil and good, and they talked. And McCain said he will go to the gates of Hell and back to get Osama bin Laden. Your thoughts?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I’m a conservative, and this is another one of those things that leads me to believe that not only is President Bush not a conservative, but Senator McCain is not, either.
Of course there is evil in the world and there is good in the world, but guess what? Some of the evil is right here. I mean, to view international politics through this lens of good and evil leads you to vastly oversimplify and I think also leads you to make reckless decisions. Bush’s—I do believe President Bush genuinely—not cynically, genuinely—saw Saddam Hussein as evil, and I think he actually genuinely believes that—again, consistent with this notion of American exceptionalism—that we were called upon to bring democracy to Iraq. But what a ludicrous way to view US-Iraqi relations over the past twenty or thirty years, because if you really look at US-Iraqi relations or US policy in the Middle East over the last twenty, thirty, fifty, sixty years, it’s impossible to see the question as simply one of good versus evil. It’s not black and white; it’s grey. And you need to see the world as grey if you’re going to be a sensible statesman.
AMY GOODMAN: Where do you see all this heading? Your last chapter is “The Limits of Power.” Why don’t people on the ground, overwhelmingly opposed to the war, have a say now?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think we have. Again, I don’t mean to make this as a statement that applies to 100 percent of the American people, but I think the great majority of us basically have allowed ourselves to become seduced by this culture of consumption, of not taking seriously the notion that someday the bills come due, that you can’t simply run up a line of credit that stretches from here to infinity. We don’t want to look ourselves in the mirror. We don’t want to recognize the need to make some changes in the way we live.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you see the end of American empire?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Yes, I do. And I think the key question is, will the American empire end catastrophically because of our blind insistence that we will not change? Or will we be able to disengage ourselves from and dismantle the American empire in a sensible, reasonable way that will do the least damage to the world and the least damage to ourselves?
AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, I want to thank you very much for being with us. His book is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.
The conservative case for Barack Obama
By Andrew J. Bacevich
Barack Obama is no conservative. Yet if he wins the Democratic nomination, come November principled conservatives may well find themselves voting for the senator from Illinois. Given the alternatives—and the state of the conservative movement—they could do worse.
Granted, when it comes to defining exactly what authentic conservatism entails, considerable disagreement exists even (or especially) among conservatives themselves. My own definition emphasizes the following:
a commitment to individual liberty, tempered by the conviction that genuine freedom entails more than simply an absence of restraint;
a belief in limited government, fiscal responsibility, and the rule of law;
veneration for our cultural inheritance combined with a sense of stewardship for Creation;
a reluctance to discard or tamper with traditional social arrangements;
respect for the market as the generator of wealth combined with a wariness of the market’s corrosive impact on humane values;
a deep suspicion of utopian promises, rooted in an appreciation of the sinfulness of man and the recalcitrance of history.
Accept that definition and it quickly becomes apparent that the Republican Party does not represent conservative principles. The conservative ascendancy that began with the election of Ronald Reagan has been largely an illusion. During the period since 1980, certain faux conservatives—especially those in the service of Big Business and Big Empire—have prospered. But conservatism as such has not.
The presidency of George W. Bush illustrates the point. In 2001, President Bush took command of a massive, inefficient federal bureaucracy. Since then, he has substantially increased the size of that apparatus, which during his tenure has displayed breathtaking ineptitude both at home and abroad. Over the course of Bush’s two terms in office, federal spending has increased 50 percent to $3 trillion per year. Disregarding any obligation to balance the budget, Bush has allowed the national debt to balloon from $5.7 to $9.4 trillion. Worse, under the guise of keeping Americans “safe,” he has arrogated to the executive branch unprecedented powers, thereby subverting the Constitution. Whatever else may be said about this record of achievement, it does not accord with conservative principles.
As with every Republican leader since Reagan, President Bush has routinely expressed his support for traditional values. He portrays himself as pro-life and pro-family. He offers testimonials to old-fashioned civic virtues. Yet apart from sporting an American flag lapel-pin, he has done little to promote these values. If anything, the reverse is true. In the defining moment of his presidency, rather than summoning Americans to rally to their country, he validated conspicuous consumption as the core function of 21st-century citizenship.
Should conservatives hold President Bush accountable for the nation’s cultural crisis? Of course not. The pursuit of instant gratification, the compulsion to accumulate, and the exaltation of celebrity that have become central to the American way of life predate this administration and derive from forces that lie far beyond the control of any president. Yet conservatives should fault the president and his party for pretending that they are seriously committed to curbing or reversing such tendencies. They might also blame themselves for failing to see the GOP’s cultural agenda as contrived and cynical.
Finally, there is President Bush’s misguided approach to foreign policy, based on expectations of deploying American military might to eliminate tyranny, transform the Greater Middle East, and expunge evil from the face of the earth. The result has been the very inverse of conservatism. For Bush, in the wake of 9/11, ideology supplanted statecraft. As a result, his administration has squandered American lives and treasure in the pursuit of objectives that make little strategic sense.
For conservatives to hope the election of yet another Republican will set things right is surely in vain. To believe that President John McCain will reduce the scope and intrusiveness of federal authority, cut the imperial presidency down to size, and put the government on a pay-as-you-go basis is to succumb to a great delusion. The Republican establishment may maintain the pretense of opposing Big Government, but pretense it is.
Social conservatives counting on McCain to return the nation to the path of righteousness are kidding themselves. Within this camp, abortion has long been the flagship issue. Yet only a naïf would believe that today’s Republican Party has any real interest in overturning Roe v. Wade or that doing so now would contribute in any meaningful way to the restoration of “family values.” GOP support for such values is akin to the Democratic Party’s professed devotion to the “working poor”: each is a ploy to get votes, trotted out seasonally, quickly forgotten once the polls close.
Above all, conservatives who think that a McCain presidency would restore a sense of realism and prudence to U.S. foreign policy are setting themselves up for disappointment. On this score, we should take the senator at his word: his commitment to continuing the most disastrous of President Bush’s misadventures is irrevocable. McCain is determined to remain in Iraq as long as it takes. He is the candidate of the War Party. The election of John McCain would provide a new lease on life to American militarism, while perpetuating the U.S. penchant for global interventionism marketed under the guise of liberation.
The essential point is this: conservatives intent on voting in November for a candidate who shares their views might as well plan on spending Election Day at home. The Republican Party of Bush, Cheney, and McCain no longer accommodates such a candidate.
So why consider Obama? For one reason only: because this liberal Democrat has promised to end the U.S. combat role in Iraq. Contained within that promise, if fulfilled, lies some modest prospect of a conservative revival.
To appreciate that possibility requires seeing the Iraq War in perspective. As an episode in modern military history, Iraq qualifies at best as a very small war. Yet the ripples from this small war will extend far into the future, with remembrance of the event likely to have greater significance than the event itself. How Americans choose to incorporate Iraq into the nation’s historical narrative will either affirm our post-Cold War trajectory toward empire or create opportunities to set a saner course.
The neoconservatives understand this. If history renders a negative verdict on Iraq, that judgment will discredit the doctrine of preventive war. The “freedom agenda” will command as much authority as the domino theory. Advocates of “World War IV” will be treated with the derision they deserve. The claim that open-ended “global war” offers the proper antidote to Islamic radicalism will become subject to long overdue reconsideration.
Give the neocons this much: they appreciate the stakes. This explains the intensity with which they proclaim that, even with the fighting in Iraq entering its sixth year, we are now “winning”—as if war were an athletic contest in which nothing matters except the final score. The neoconservatives brazenly ignore or minimize all that we have flung away in lives, dollars, political influence, moral standing, and lost opportunities. They have to: once acknowledged, those costs make the folly of the entire neoconservative project apparent. All those confident manifestos calling for the United States to liberate the world’s oppressed, exercise benign global hegemony, and extend forever the “unipolar moment” end up getting filed under dumb ideas.
Yet history’s judgment of the Iraq War will affect matters well beyond the realm of foreign policy. As was true over 40 years ago when the issue was Vietnam, how we remember Iraq will have large political and even cultural implications.
As part of the larger global war on terrorism, Iraq has provided a pretext for expanding further the already bloated prerogatives of the presidency. To see the Iraq War as anything but misguided, unnecessary, and an abject failure is to play into the hands of the fear-mongers who insist that when it comes to national security all Americans (members of Congress included) should defer to the judgment of the executive branch. Only the president, we are told, can “keep us safe.” Seeing the war as the debacle it has become refutes that notion and provides a first step toward restoring a semblance of balance among the three branches of government.
Above all, there is this: the Iraq War represents the ultimate manifestation of the American expectation that the exercise of power abroad offers a corrective to whatever ailments afflict us at home. Rather than setting our own house in order, we insist on the world accommodating itself to our requirements. The problem is not that we are profligate or self-absorbed; it is that others are obstinate and bigoted. Therefore, they must change so that our own habits will remain beyond scrutiny.
Of all the obstacles to a revival of genuine conservatism, this absence of self-awareness constitutes the greatest. As long as we refuse to see ourselves as we really are, the status quo will persist, and conservative values will continue to be marginalized. Here, too, recognition that the Iraq War has been a fool’s errand—that cheap oil, the essential lubricant of the American way of life, is gone for good—may have a salutary effect. Acknowledging failure just might open the door to self-reflection.
None of these concerns number among those that inspired Barack Obama’s run for the White House. When it comes to foreign policy, Obama’s habit of spouting internationalist bromides suggests little affinity for serious realism. His views are those of a conventional liberal. Nor has Obama expressed any interest in shrinking the presidency to its pre-imperial proportions. He does not cite Calvin Coolidge among his role models. And however inspiring, Obama’s speeches are unlikely to make much of a dent in the culture. The next generation will continue to take its cues from Hollywood rather than from the Oval Office.
Yet if Obama does become the nation’s 44th president, his election will constitute something approaching a definitive judgment of the Iraq War. As such, his ascent to the presidency will implicitly call into question the habits and expectations that propelled the United States into that war in the first place. Matters hitherto consigned to the political margin will become subject to close examination. Here, rather than in Obama’s age or race, lies the possibility of his being a truly transformative presidency.
Whether conservatives will be able to seize the opportunities created by his ascent remains to be seen. Theirs will not be the only ideas on offer. A repudiation of the Iraq War and all that it signifies will rejuvenate the far Left as well. In the ensuing clash of visions, there is no guaranteeing that the conservative critique will prevail.
But this much we can say for certain: electing John McCain guarantees the perpetuation of war. The nation’s heedless march toward empire will continue. So, too, inevitably, will its embrace of Leviathan. Whether snoozing in front of their TVs or cheering on the troops, the American people will remain oblivious to the fate that awaits them.
For conservatives, Obama represents a sliver of hope. McCain represents none at all. The choice turns out to be an easy one.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His next book, The Limits of Power, will be published in August.
Tom Engelhardt interviews Andrew Bacevich
I wait for him on a quiet, tree and wisteria-lined street of red-brick buildings. Students, some in short-sleeves on this still crisp spring morning, stream by. I'm seated on cold, stone steps next to a sign announcing the Boston University Department of International Relations.
He turns the corner and advances, wearing a blue blazer, blue shirt and tie, and khaki slacks and carrying a computer in a black bag. He's white haired, has a nicely weathered face, and the squared shoulders and upright bearing of a man, born in Normal, Illinois, who attended West Point, fought in the Vietnam War, and then had a 20-year military career that ended in 1992.
Now a professor of history at Boston University, he directs me to a spacious, airy office whose floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the picturesque street. A tasseled cap and gown hang on a hook behind the door - perhaps because another year of graduation is not far off. I'm left briefly to wait while he deals with an anxious student, there to discuss his semester mark. Soon enough though, he seats himself behind a large desk with a cup of coffee and prepares to discuss his subjects of choice, American militarism and the American imperial mission.
Andrew Bacevich is a man on a journey - as he himself is the first to admit. A cultural conservative, a former contributor to such magazines as the Weekly Standard and the National Review, a former Bush Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, he discovered some time in the 1990s that his potential conservative allies on foreign policy had fallen in love with the idea of the American military and its imagined awesome power to change the world. They had jumped the tracks and left him behind. A professed cold warrior, in those years he took a new look at our American past - and he's not stopped looking, or reconsidering, since.
What he discovered was the American empire, which became the title of a book he published in 2002. In 2005, his fierce, insightful book on American dreams of global military supremacy, The New American Militarism, How Americans Are Seduced by War, appeared. It would have been eye-opening no matter who had written it, but given his background it was striking indeed.
Forceful and engaged (as well as engaging), Bacevich throws himself into the topic at hand. He has a barely suppressed dramatic streak and a willingness to laugh heartily at himself. But most striking are the questions that stop him. Just as you imagine a scholar should, he visibly turns over your questions in his mind, thinking about what may be new in them.
He takes a sip of coffee and, in a no-nonsense manner, suggests that we begin.
Tomdispatch: In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, you said the revolt of the retired generals against Secretary of Defense [Donald] Rumsfeld represented the beginning of a search for a scapegoat for the Iraq War. I wondered whether you also considered it a preemptive strike against the Bush administration's future Iran policy.
Andrew Bacevich: The answer is yes. It's both really. Certainly, it's become incontrovertible that the Iraq War is not going to end happily. Even if we manage to extricate ourselves and some sort of stable Iraq emerges from the present chaos, arguing that the war lived up to the expectations of the Bush administration is going to be very difficult. My own sense is that the officer corps - and this probably reflects my personal experience to a great degree - is fixated on Vietnam and still believes the military was hung out to dry there.
The officer corps came out of the Vietnam War determined never to repeat that experience and some officers are now angry to discover that the army is once again stuck in a quagmire. So we are in the early stages of a long argument about who is to be blamed for the Iraq debacle. I think, to some degree, the revolt of the generals reflects an effort on the part of senior military officers to weigh in, to lay out the military's case. And the military's case is: We're not at fault. They are; and, more specifically, he is - with Rumsfeld being the stand-in for [Vietnam-era secretary of defense] Robert McNamara.
Having said that, with all the speculation about the Bush administration's interest in expanding the "global war on terror" to include Iran, I suspect the officer corps, already seeing the military badly overstretched, doesn't want to have any part of such a war. Going public with attacks on Rumsfeld is one way of trying to slow whatever momentum there is toward an Iran war.
I must say, I don't really think we're on a track to have a war with Iran any time soon - maybe I'm too optimistic here [he laughs] - but I suspect even the civilian hawks understand that the United States is already overcommitted, that to expand the war on terror to a new theater, the Iranian theater, would in all likelihood have the most dire consequences, globally and in Iraq.
TD: Actually, I was planning to ask about your thoughts on the possibility of an Iranian October surprise.
Bacevich: You mean, attacking Iran before the upcoming fall election? I don't see Karl Rove - because an October surprise would be a political ploy - signing off on it. I think he's cunning, calculating, devious, but not stupid. With the president's popularity rating plummeting due to unhappiness with the ongoing war, it really would be irrational to think that yet another war would turn that around or secure continued Republican control of both houses of Congress.
TD: It seems that way to me with gas assumedly soaring to $120 a barrel or something like that ...
Bacevich: Oh gosh, oh my gosh, yes ...
TD: But let me throw this into the mix, because I've seen no one mention it: If you look at the list of retired commanders who came out against Rumsfeld, they're all from the Army or Marines. We always say the military is overextended, but only part of it is - and I note the absence of admirals or anybody connected to the Air Force.
Bacevich: That's a good point. One could argue that the revolt of the generals actually has a third source. If the first source is arguing about who's going to take the fall for Iraq and the second is trying to put a damper on war in Iran, the third has to do with Rumsfeld's military transformation project. To oversimplify, transformation begins with the conviction that the military since the end of the Cold War has failed to adapt to the opportunities and imperatives of the information age. Well before September 11, the central part of Rumsfeld's agenda was to "transform" - that was his word - this old Cold-War-style military, to make it lighter, more agile, to emphasize information technology and precision weapons.
Well, if you're in the Air Force, or you're a Navy admiral, particularly one in the aviation community, that recipe sounds pretty good. It sounds like dollars, like programs being funded. But if you're in the Army or the Marine Corps, becoming lighter and more agile sounds like cutting divisions or like getting rid of tanks and artillery; it sounds like a smaller Marine Corps.
Both the initial stage of the Afghanistan War and the invasion of Iraq were specifically designed by Rumsfeld as projects to demonstrate what a transformed military could do. Hence, his insistence on beginning the Iraq War without a major build-up, on invading with a relatively small force, on having the ground intervention accompany the air campaign rather than having a protracted air campaign first as in the first Gulf War. All the literature about both Afghanistan and Iraq now shows that the war-planning process was filled with great civil/military tension. The generals argued, "Mr Secretary, here's the plan; we want to do a Desert Storm Two against Iraq," and Rumsfeld kept replying, "I want something smaller, think it over again and get back to me" - reflecting his intention to demonstrate his notion of how America will henceforth fight its wars.
Well, now we can see the outcome and it's at best ambiguous. That is to say, the early stages of Afghanistan and Iraq proved to be smashing successes. The smaller, agile forces performed remarkably well in demolishing both the Taliban and the Ba'ath Party regime; but in both cases, genuine victory has proven enormously elusive. This gets us to the third basis for the generals' gripe. When they talk about Rumsfeld's incompetence and micromanagement, they're arguing against the transformation project and on behalf of those services which have footed most of the bill.
TD: Just to throw one other thing into the mix, if there were a campaign against Iran, it would be a Navy and Air Force one.
Bacevich: It would begin with a Navy and Air Force campaign, but it wouldn't end that way. If the Army generals could be assured that we know exactly where the Iranian nuclear program is, that we have the targeting data and the munitions to take it out ... Well, that would be one thing, but we don't have that assurance. From the Army and Marine Corps perspective, an air attack might begin a war with Iran, but the war would not end there. As is the case in both Afghanistan and Iraq, some sort of ugly aftermath would be sure to follow and the Navy and the Air Force aren't going to be there, at least not in large numbers.
TD: What about the Iraq War at present?
Bacevich: There are a couple of important implications that we have yet to confront. The war has exposed the shallowness of American military power. I mean, since the end of the Cold War we Americans have been beating our chests about being the greatest military power the world has ever seen. [His voice rises.] Overshadowing the power of the Third Reich! Overshadowing the Roman Empire!
Wait a sec. This country of 290 million people has a force of about 130,000 soldiers committed in Iraq, fighting something on the order of 10-20,000 insurgents and a) we're in a war we can't win, b) we're in the fourth year of a war we probably can't sustain much longer. For those who believe in the American imperial project, and who see military supremacy as the foundation of that empire, this ought to be a major concern: What are we going to do to strengthen the sinews of American military power, because it's turned out that our vaunted military supremacy is not what it was cracked up to be. If you're like me and you're quite skeptical about this imperial project, the stresses imposed on the military and the obvious limits of our power simply serve to emphasize the imperative of rethinking our role in the world so we can back away from this unsustainable notion of global hegemony.
Then, there's the matter of competence. I object to the generals saying that our problems in Iraq are all due to the micromanagement and incompetence of Mr Rumsfeld - I do think he's a micromanager and a failure and ought to have been fired long ago - because it distracts attention from the woeful performance of the senior military leaders who have really made a hash of the Iraq insurgency. I remember General Swannack in particular blaming Rumsfeld for Abu Ghraib. I'll saddle Rumsfeld with about 10% of the blame for Abu Ghraib, the other 90% rests with the senior American military leaders in Baghdad ...
TD: General Ricardo Sanchez signed off on it ...
Bacevich: Sanchez being number one. So again, if one is an enthusiast for American military supremacy, we have some serious thinking to do about the quality of our senior leadership. Are we picking the right people to be our two, three, and four-star commanders? Are we training them, educating them properly for the responsibilities that they face? The Iraq War has revealed some major weaknesses in that regard.
TD: Do you think that the neo-cons and their mentors, Rumsfeld and the vice president, believed too deeply in the hype of American hyperpower? Ruling groups, even while manipulating others, often seem to almost hypnotically convince themselves as well.
Bacevich: That's why I myself tend not to buy into the charge that Bush and others blatantly lied us into this war. I think they believed most of what they claimed. You should probably put believe in quotes, because it amounts to talking yourself into it. They believed that American omnipotence, as well as know-how and determination, could imprint democracy on Iraq. They really believed that, once they succeeded in Iraq, a whole host of ancillary benefits were going to ensue, transforming the political landscape of the Middle East. All of those expectations were bizarre delusions and we're paying the consequences now.
You know, the neo-conservatives that mattered were not those in government like Douglas Feith or people on the National Security Council staff, but the writers and intellectuals outside of government who, in the period from the late '70s through the '90s, were constantly weaving this narrative of triumphalism, pretending to insights about power and the direction of history. Intellectuals can put their imprint on public discourse. They can create an environment, an atmosphere. When the events of September 11, 2001, left Americans shocked and frightened and people started casting about for an explanation, a way of framing a response, the neo-conservative perspective was front and center and had a particular appeal. So these writers and intellectuals did influence policy, at least for a brief moment.
TD: Here's something that puzzles me. When I look at administration actions, I see a Middle Eastern catastrophe in the midst of which an Iranian situation is being ratcheted up. Then there's China, once upon a time the enemy of choice for the neo-cons and Rumsfeld, and now here we are this summer having the largest naval maneuvers since Vietnam, four carrier task forces, off the Chinese coast. Then - as with Cheney's recent speech - there's the attempted rollback of what's left of the USSR, which has been ongoing. On the side, you've got the Pentagon pushing little Latin American bases all the way down to Paraguay. So many fronts, so much overstretch, and no backing down that I can see. What do you make of this?
Bacevich: My own sense is that this administration has largely exhausted its stock of intellectual resources; that, for the most part, they're preoccupied with trying to manage Iraq. Beyond that, I'm hard-pressed to see a coherent strategy in the Middle East or elsewhere. In that sense, Iraq is like Vietnam. It just sucks up all the oxygen. Having said that, before being eclipsed by September 11 and its aftermath, China was indeed the enemy-designate of the hawks, and a cadre of them is still active in Washington. I would guess that large naval exercises reflect their handiwork. Still, I don't think there's been a resolution within the political elite of exactly how we ought to view China and what the US relationship with China will be.
Why the hell we're extending bases into Latin America is beyond me. Rumsfeld just announced that he has appointed an admiral as the head of US Southern Command. Now this has almost always been an Army billet, once or twice a Marine billet, never a Navy one. I got an email today from someone who suggested that this was another example of Rumsfeld's "boldness". My response was: Well, if he was bold, he'd simply shut down the Southern Command. Wouldn't it be a wonderful way to communicate that US-Latin American relations had matured to the point where they no longer revolved around security concerns? Wouldn't it be interesting for Washington to signal that there is one region of the world that does not require US military supervision; that we really don't need to have some four-star general parading around from country to country in the manner of some proconsul supervising his quarter of the American Empire?
Now, I have friends who think that [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez poses a threat to the United States. I find that notion utterly preposterous, but it does reflect this inclination to see any relationship having any discord or dissonance as requiring a security - that is, military - response. I find it all crazy and contrary to our own interests.
TD: One thing that's ratcheted up in recent years is the way the Pentagon's taken over so many aspects of policy, turning much of diplomacy into military-to-military relations.
Bacevich: If you look at long-term trends, going back to the early Cold War, the Defense Department has accrued ever more influence and authority at the expense of the State Department. But there's another piece to this - within the Defense Department itself, as the generals and the senior civilians have vied with one another for clout. When Rumsfeld and [Paul] Wolfowitz came into office they were determined to shift the balance of civil/military authority within the Pentagon. They were intent on trimming the sails of the generals. You could see this in all kinds of ways, some symbolic. Regional commanders used to be called CINCs, the acronym for commander-in-chief. Rumsfeld said: Wait a minute, there's only one commander-in-chief and that's my boss, so you generals who work for me, you're not commanders-in-chief any more. Now the guy who runs US Southern Command is just a "combatant commander".
Also indicative of this effort to shift power back to the civilians is the role played by the joint chiefs of staff, which has been nonexistent for all practical purposes. Accounts of the planning and conduct of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars make clear that they had virtually no influence at all. They were barely, barely consulted. Ever since Colin Powell was chairman of the joint chiefs and became a quasi-independent power broker, presidents have chosen weak chairmen. Presidents want top officers to be accommodating rather than forceful personalities who might hold independent views. I'm sure General Myers of the Air Force is a wonderful man and a patriot, but he served four years as chairman after September 11 and did so without leaving any discernible mark on policy. And that's not accidental. It reflects Rumsfeld's efforts to wrest authority back towards the office of the Secretary of Defense.
TD: Isn't this actually part of a larger pattern in which authority is wrested from everywhere and brought into this commander-in-chief presidency?
Bacevich: That's exactly right. I've just finished a review of Cobra II, this new book by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor. A major theme of the book is that people like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz saw September 11 as a great opportunity. Yes, it was a disaster. Yes, it was terrible. But by God, this was a disaster that could be turned to enormous advantage.
Here lay the chance to remove constraints on the exercise of American military power, enabling the Bush administration to shore up, expand, and perpetuate US global hegemony. Toward that end, senior officials concocted this notion of a "global war on terror", really a cover story for an effort to pacify and transform the broader Middle East, a gargantuan project which is doomed to fail. Committing the United States to that project presumed a radical redistribution of power within Washington. The hawks had to cut off at the knees institutions or people uncomfortable with the unconstrained exercise of American power. And who was that? Well, that was the CIA. That was the State Department, especially the State Department of Secretary Colin Powell. That was the Congress - note this weird notion that the Congress is somehow limiting presidential prerogatives - and the hawks also had to worry about the uniformed military, whom they considered "averse to risk" and incapable of understanding modern warfare in an information age.
TD: And you might throw in the courts. After all, the two men appointed to the Supreme Court are, above all else, believers in the unitary executive theory of the presidency.
Bacevich: Yes, it fits. I would emphasize that it's not because Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz are diabolical creatures intent on doing evil. They genuinely believe it's in the interests of the United States, and the world, that unconstrained American power should determine the shape of the international order. I think they vastly overstate our capabilities. For all of their supposed worldliness and sophistication, I don't think they understand the world. I am persuaded that their efforts will only lead to greater mischief while undermining our democracy. Yet I don't question that, at some gut level, they think they are acting on your behalf and mine. They are all the more dangerous as a result.
Part 2 of Andrew Bacevich's interview, "Drifting down the path to perdition".
Tom Engelhardt is editor of Tomdispatch and the author of The End of Victory Culture. (Copyright 2006 Tomdispatch. Used with permission) >
DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA
Drifting down the path to perdition
Part 2 of Tom Engelhardt's interview Andrew Bacevich, a former military man and now a vocal critic of US foreign policy
(See also Part 1, The delusions of global hegemony)
Tomdispatch: I'd like to turn to the issue of oil wars, energy wars. That seems to be what holds all this incoherent stuff together - minds focused on a world of energy flows. Recently, I reread [president Jimmy] Carter's 1979 energy speech. Isn't it ironic that he got laughed out of the room for his sweater and for urging a future of alternative fuels on us, while we latched on to his Rapid Deployment Force for the Persian Gulf? As you argue in your book, The New American Militarism, this essentially starts us on what you call "World War IV".
Andrew Bacevich: I remember the Carter speech. I was a relatively young man at the time. In general, I have voted for Republicans, although not this Republican in 2004 [George W Bush]. But I did vote for Carter because I was utterly disenchanted with [president Richard] Nixon and [his national security adviser Henry] Kissinger. [President Gerald] Ford seemed weak, incompetent. And I remember being dismayed by the Carter speech because it seemed so out of sync with the American spirit. It wasn't optimistic; it did not promise that we would have more tomorrow than we have today, that the future would be bigger and better. Carter essentially said: If we are serious about freedom, we must really think about what freedom means - and it ought to mean something more than acquisition and conspicuous consumption. And if we're going to preserve our freedom, we have to start living within our means.
It did not sit well with me at the time. Only when I was writing my militarism book did I take another look at the speech, and then it knocked me over. I said to myself: This guy got it. I don't know how, but he really got it, in two respects. First, he grasped the essence of our national predicament, of being seduced by a false and even demeaning definition of freedom. Second, he understood that cheap oil was the drug that was leading us willy-nilly down this path. The two were directly and intimately linked: a growing dependence on seemingly cheap foreign oil and our inability to recognize what we might call the ongoing cultural crisis of our time.
Carter gives the so-called malaise speech, I think, in July '79. The Russians invade Afghanistan in December '79. Then comes Carter's State of the Union Address in January 1980 in which he, in a sense, recants, abandoning the argument of July and saying, by God, the Persian Gulf is of vital interest to the United States and we'll use any means necessary in order to prevent somebody else from controlling it. To put some teeth in this threat he creates the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, which sets in motion the militarization of US policy that has continued ever since. So July 1979 to January 1980, that's the pivotal moment that played such an important role in bringing us to where we are today. But of course we didn't understand that then - certainly I didn't. In July 1979, Carter issued a prescient warning. We didn't want to listen. So we blew it.
Fast-forward to 2006, and President Bush is telling us, thank you very much, that we're addicted to oil. I heard [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi on the radio over the weekend saying that the Democrats now have a plan to make us energy-independent by 2020. She's lying through her teeth. There's no way anybody can make us energy-independent by then. We needed to start back in 1979, if not before. Even to achieve independence from Persian Gulf oil will be an enormously costly, painful process that none of the politicians in either party are willing to undertake. [Gasoline] is now roughly US$3 a gallon [nearly 80 cents a liter]. I heard some guy on a talk show the other day say: "Whaddya think we should do? I think we should all park our cars on the Interstate [highway] and stop traffic until the government does something." What does he actually want the government to do, I wondered? Conquer another country?
We Americans are in deep denial, unwilling to accept that we're going to have to change the way we live for our own good. Empire does not offer the recipe for preserving our freedom. Learning to live within our means just might. Jimmy Carter was the one guy, back in July of '79, who really had the guts to say that. Unfortunately, he didn't have the guts to stick with it.
TD: I always wonder what would have happened if we had dumped a bunch of money into research and development for alternative fuels back then.
Bacevich: The funding for the Iraq war is now in the hundreds of billions of dollars. [Economist] Joseph Stiglitz projects that total costs could go to $2 trillion. What would a trillion dollars have done for research into alternative fuels? I don't know, but something ... something! What do you get for a trillion dollars in Iraq? Nothin'. It's just nuts!
TD: I was amused, by the way, that you were born in Normal, Illinois ...
Bacevich: ... Because the Normal School of the State of Illinois, the teachers' college, was there.
TD: I was also thinking about stereotypes of military men. You know, rigidity of mind and the like. What strikes me in your writings is that you seem more open to rethinking your world view than almost any scholar around. So I was curious about the evolution of your thought.
Bacevich: Two key moments for me were the end of the Cold War and the Iraq war. The simple story would be that, for the first 20-some years of my adult life, which coincided with the latter stages of the Cold War, I was a serving officer. I was a Cold Warrior in uniform. I therefore accepted the orthodox narrative of the Cold War and of the postwar era more generally. I was not oblivious to policy errors we had made and some of the sins we had committed, but as long as I was in uniform I was willing to accept that these were peripheral to the larger narrative. I did retain this notion that the Cold War was an emergency, a very long, serious one in which we as a nation had been called upon to depart from the norm. This was not the way things were supposed to be, particularly in regard to a globally deployed military establishment.
TD: Let me back you up for a moment to Vietnam. You fought there ...
Bacevich: Nineteen seventy to '71.
TD: ... And how did you come out of Vietnam?
Bacevich: For a variety of personal reasons, my wife and I decided to stay in the army after my obligation was up ... [He hesitates.] For those who are not familiar with military service, it may be difficult to appreciate the extent to which that life is all-embracing. It's like being a monk. It's a calling. Soldiers work real hard. And much of that work is peculiarly satisfying. For most of my time in the service, women were few in number and on the margins. So it was a very masculine environment. This might seem retro, but men living among men and doing manly things [he laughs], there is a peculiar savor to that. At any rate, I bought into the institutional view of Vietnam - that we had been screwed. The politicians had screwed us; the media had screwed us; the American people had screwed us. They had let us down, and so my commitment was to an institution that, after Vietnam, was engaged in a comprehensive effort to reconstitute and restore itself - and its standing in American society.
In that context, the questions I was willing to ask about Vietnam or about US foreign policy more generally were fairly narrow. Since getting out of the army, since trying to make sense of the Cold War and US foreign policy from a different perspective, I've come to see the Vietnam War differently as well. I can accept to some degree the argument that the meaning of Vietnam is to be found in "the military gets hung out to dry", but that's not sufficient. And I've come to see the war as just utterly unnecessary, misguided and mistaken. A monumental miscalculation that never should have happened, but that did happen due to some deep-seated defects in the way we see ourselves and see the world.
In any case, the Cold War essentially ends in 1989 when the [Berlin] Wall goes down; in '91, the Soviet Union collapses. I get out of the army in 1992 and I'm waiting with bated breath to see what impact the end of the Cold War is going to have on US policy, particularly military policy. The answer is, essentially, none. We come out even more firmly committed to the notion of US military global supremacy. Not because there was an enemy - in 1992, '93, '94, there's no enemy - but because we've come to see military supremacy and global hegemony as good in and of themselves.
The end of the Cold War sees us using military power more frequently, while our ambitions, our sense of what we're supposed to do in the world, become more grandiose. There's all this bloated talk about "the end of history", and the "right side of history", and the "indispensable nation", politicians and pundits pretending to know the destiny of humankind. So I began to question my understanding of what had determined US behavior during the Cold War. The orthodox narrative said that the US behaved as it did because of them, because of external threats. I came to believe that explanation was not entirely wrong but limited. You get closer to the truth by recognizing that what makes us behave the way we behave comes from inside. I came to buy into the views of historians like Charles Beard and William Appleton Williams who emphasize that foreign policy is an outgrowth of domestic policy, in particular of the structure of the American political economy.
So I became a critic of US foreign policy in the 1990s, a pretty outspoken one.
TD: You wrote a book then with the word "empire" in the title ...
Bacevich: Yes, because I became convinced that what we saw in the '90s from both Democrats and Republicans was an effort to expand an informal American empire. Fast-forward to September 11  and its aftermath, and the Bush doctrine of preventive war as implemented in Iraq, and the full dimensions of our imperial ambitions become evident for all to see.
I have to say, I certainly supported the Afghanistan war. I emphatically believed that we had no choice but to take down the Taliban regime in order to demonstrate clearly the consequences of any nation tolerating, housing, supporting terrorists who attack us. But the Iraq war just struck me as so unnecessary, unjustifiable, and reckless that ... I don't know how to articulate its impact except that it put me unalterably in the camp of those who had come to see American power as the problem, not the solution. And it brought me close to despair that the response of the internal opposition and of the American people generally proved to be so tepid, so ineffective. It led me to conclude that we are in deep, deep trouble.
An important manifestation of that trouble is this shortsighted infatuation with military power that goes beyond even what I wrote about in my most recent book. Again, it revolves around this question of energy and oil. There's such an unwillingness to confront the dilemmas we face as a people that I find deeply troubling. I know we're a democracy. We have elections. But it's become a procedural democracy. Our politics are not really meaningful. In a meaningful politics, you and I could argue about important differences, and out of that argument might come not resolution or reconciliation, but at least an awareness of the consequences of going your way as opposed to mine. We don't even have that argument. That's what's so dismaying.
TD: You've used the word "crusade" and spoken of this administration as "intoxicated with the mission of salvation". I was wondering what kind of "ism" you think we've been living with in these years.
Bacevich: That's a great question, and it's not enough to say that it's democratic capitalism. Certainly, our "ism" incorporates a religious dimension - in the sense of believing that God created this nation for a purpose that has to do with universal values.
We have not as a people come to terms with our relationship to military power and to the wars we've engaged in and the ways we've engaged in them. Now, James Carroll in his new book, House of War is very much preoccupied with strategic bombing in World War II and since, and especially with our use of, and attitude toward, nuclear weapons. His preoccupation is understandable because those are the things we can't digest and we can't cough up. You know, at the end of the day, we, the missionary nation, the crusader state, certain of our righteousness, remain the only people to have used nuclear weapons in anger - indeed, to have used them as a weapon of terror.
TD: Air power, even though hardly covered in our media in Iraq, has been the American way of war since World War II, hasn't it?
Bacevich: Certainly that "ism" that defines us has a large technological component, doesn't it? I mean, we are the people of technology. We see the future as a technological one and can't imagine a problem that doesn't have technological solutions ...
TD: ... Except when it comes to oil.
Bacevich: Quite true. In many respects, the technological artifact that defines the last century is the airplane. With the airplane came a distinctive style of warfare. The Italians dropped the first bomb in North Africa; the Japanese killed their share of civilians from the air as did the Germans, but we and our British cousins outdid them all. I've been thinking more and more that our record of strategic bombing is not simply an issue of historical interest.
We are not who we believe we are and, in some sense, others perceive us more accurately than we do ourselves. The president has described a version of history - as did [president Bill] Clinton, by the way - beginning with World War II in which the United States is the liberator, Americans are the bringers of freedom. There is truth to that narrative, but it's not the whole truth; and, quite frankly, it's not the truth that matters a lick, let's say, to the Islamic world today. Muslims don't give a darn that we brought [Adolf] Hitler or the Third Reich to its knees. What they're aware of is all kinds of other behavior, particularly in their neck of the woods, that had nothing to do with spreading democracy and freedom, that had everything to do with power, with trying to establish relations that maximized the benefit to the United States and American society. We don't have to let our hearts bleed about that. That's the way politics works, but let's not delude ourselves either. When President George W Bush says, "America stands for freedom and liberty, and we're coming to liberate you," it's absurd to expect people in that part of the world to take us seriously. That's not what they've seen and known and experienced in dealing with the United States.
TD: And, of course, within the councils of this administration, they threw out anyone who knew anything about the record of US policy in the Islamic world.
Bacevich: Because those experts would have challenged the ideologically soaked version of history that this administration has attempted to carry over into the 21st century. Only if we begin to see ourselves more clearly will we be able to understand how others see us. We need to revise the narrative of the American century and recognize that it has been about a host of other things that are far more problematic than liberation. There can be no understanding the true nature of the American century without acknowledging the reality of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, Hanoi, and Haiphong.
TD: Do you, by the way, think that the reality-based community is catching up with the Bush administration?
Bacevich: It's catching up, but is it in a way that has political consequences? If we just toss Bush out and bring in ... Who? Senator [Hillary] Clinton or John McCain? Will things be different? Somehow, I don't think so. Of course, there is something to be said for competence even in implementing a bad policy. Right now, we have incompetents implementing a bad policy, but the essence of the problem is the policy - not just the Iraq war but this paradigm of a "global war on terror", this notion of unconstraining American power. That's what we have to rethink.
TD: Your thoughts on three military matters: what might be called the "religionizing" of the military; the Bush administration's setting up of a Northern Command in 2002 for the so-called homeland, which I find disturbing; and finally, what do you make of the now-normalized practice of presenting the costs of war-fighting as a non-Defense Department budget supplementary item?
Bacevich: I think the last thing in your list is outlandish and irresponsible. It's as if we're keeping two sets of books. But again, the administration abetted by the Congress plays these games and nobody seems to care. Still, it doesn't change the facts - that we're spending more on defense than the rest of the world put together. That has no precedent. And are we becoming safer and more secure and more prosperous? If we're not yet secure, does that mean we should be spending twice again as much? I have friends who think we should, or who at least believe that the defense budget is inadequate. I myself think that the flinging of money at the Defense Department ought to prompt Americans to reconsider the notion that the solution to our problems is to be found in the realm of military power.
I think the evangelizing issue reflects at least three things. No 1, the elite disengagement from the military after Vietnam. The Episcopalians don't sign up anymore, or the Presbyterians. No 2, the heightened political engagement of Christian evangelicals who, by the 1960s, had embarked on a crusade to save America from itself. Evangelicals have long seen the US military as allies in that cause. American society may be going to hell in a hand basket with its promiscuity, its pornography, its divorce rates, its abortion, its women's rights, all these things evangelicals lament, but the military's a bastion of traditional virtue. Now, they misperceive soldiers in that regard, but I think that's one reason military service has a special appeal for evangelical Christians.
Third comes the politicization of the military. When I first became an officer, the tradition of being apolitical was still deeply rooted. As one consequence of Vietnam, that went away. The officer corps came to see its interests as lying with the political right. Evangelical Christianity is just part of a larger mix.
TD: So, you have an all-embracing world that has become more politicized, that's moved south, and that has few new streams of blood heading into it, unlike in the era of the draft or of the World War. What are the results of the military becoming less and less like American society?
Bacevich: I think it's bad news. The only good news - this is pure speculation, as there's no evidence for it - might be that since the Iraq war is the handiwork of a conservative, evangelical, Republican president, perhaps members of the officer corps will begin to rethink where their loyalties should lie and will come to the realization that hitching their flag to the Republican Party is not necessarily good for their institutional interests. The officer corps loved [president Ronald] Reagan. He saved the military. And here we have, according to some people, the most Reaganite president since Reagan who seems to be doing his damnedest to destroy the military. That might have some impact.
TD: About a year ago you said, "The only way I can envision a meaningful political change along the lines that I would like to see would be in reaction to an awful disaster." Would you like to comment?
Bacevich: A disaster like that could go either way. One hates to speculate on this, but were there another September 11, the likely result could be that Americans would rise up in their righteous anger and say, let's go kill them all. But it's at least possible to hope that such a disaster might offer an opportunity for people who are advancing alternative views to be heard.
One of the strange things about the Iraq war and other post-September 11 policies is that, except for gas being at $3 a gallon, who the hell cares? Part of the cunning genius of the Bush administration has been the way it's insulated Americans from the effects of their policies. You know, September 11 happens and they seize upon it to declare their "global war on terror". The president says from the outset that this is a long war, that it may take decades, that it's comparable to the world wars. On the other hand, he chooses not to mobilize the nation. There are no changes in our domestic priorities; no significant expansion of the armed forces.
Well, why was that? In their confidence about how great our military power was, they calculated that what we had would suffice. That was a major miscalculation. But I think they also calculated that by telling Americans, as President Bush famously did, to go down to Disney World and enjoy this great country of ours, they would be able to buy themselves political protection. Even though opinion polls show that public support for the president has dropped tremendously, in a sense events have proved them right. They have not been held accountable for their egregious mistakes because average citizens like you and me don't really feel the pain in any direct way.
Now, if the president had said: We're going to cut back on our domestic programs; we're going to raise taxes because this is an important war and, by God, we need to pay for it; we need a bigger army and so we're going to impose a draft - then I think Americans might have been more attentive to what's been happening over the past four years. But alas, they've not been. Instead, we've drifted down the path toward perdition.
Tom Engelhardt is editor of Tomdispatch and the author of The End of Victory Culture.
(Copyright 2006 Tomdispatch. Used with permission)
We are now in an America where it's a commonplace for our President, wearing a "jacket with ARMY printed over his heart and 'Commander in Chief' printed on his right front," to address vast assemblages of American troops on the virtues of bringing democracy to foreign lands at the point of a missile. As Jim VandeHei of the Washington Post puts it: "Increasingly, the president uses speeches to troops to praise American ideals and send a signal to other nations the administration is targeting for democratic change."
As it happens, the Bush administration has other, no less militarized ways of signaling "change" that are even blunter. We already have, for instance, hundreds and hundreds of military bases, large and small, spread around the world, but never enough, never deeply enough embedded in the former borderlands of the Soviet Union and the energy heartlands of our planet. The military budget soars; planning for high-tech weaponry for the near (and distant) future -- like the Common Aero Vehicle, a suborbital space capsule capable of delivering "conventional" munitions anywhere on the planet within 2 hours and due to come on line by 2010 -- is the normal order of business in Pentagonized Washington. War, in fact, is increasingly the American way of life and, to a certain extent, it's almost as if no one notices.
Well, not quite no one. Andrew J. Bacevich has written a book on militarism, American-style, of surpassing interest. Just published, The New American Militarism, How Americans Are Seduced by War would be critical reading no matter who wrote it. But coming from Bacevich, a West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran, former contributor to such magazines as the Weekly Standard and the National Review, and former Bush Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, it has special resonance.
Bacevich, a self-professed conservative, has clearly been a man on a journey. He writes that he still situates himself "culturally on the right. And I continue to view the remedies proferred by mainstream liberalism with skepticism. But my disenchantment with what passes for mainstream conservatism, embodied in the present Bush administration and its groupies, is just about absolute. Fiscal irresponsibility, a buccaneering foreign policy, a disregard for the Constitution, the barest lip service as a response to profound moral controversies: these do not qualify as authentically conservative values. On this score my views have come to coincide with the critique long offered by the radical left: it is the mainstream itself, the professional liberals as well as the professional conservatives who define the problem."
I've long recommended Chalmers Johnson's book on American militarism and military-basing policy, The Sorrows of Empire. Bacevich's The New American Militarism, which focuses on the ways Americans have become enthralled by -- and found themselves in thrall to -- military power and the idea of global military supremacy, should be placed right beside it in any library. Below, you'll find the first of two long excerpts (slightly adapated) from the book, and posted with the kind permission of the author and of his publisher, Oxford University Press. This one offers Bacevitch's thoughts on the ways in which, since the Vietnam War, our country has been militarized, a process to which, as he writes, the events of September 11 only added momentum. On Friday, I'll post an excerpt on the second-generation neoconservatives and what they contributed to our new militarism.
Bacevich's book carefully lays out and analyzes the various influences that have fed into the creation and sustenance of the new American militarism over the last decades. It would have been easy enough to create a 4-part or 6-part Tomdispatch series from the book. Bacevich is, for instance, fascinating on evangelical Christianity (and its less than war-like earlier history) as well as on the ways in which the military, after the Vietnam debacle, rebuilt itself as a genuine imperial force, separated from the American people and with an ethos "more akin to that of the French Foreign Legion" -- a force prepared for war without end. But for that, and much else, you'll have to turn to the book itself. Tom
By Andrew J. Bacevich
At the end of the Cold War, Americans said yes to military power. The skepticism about arms and armies that pervaded the American experiment from its founding, vanished. Political leaders, liberals and conservatives alike, became enamored with military might.
The ensuing affair had and continues to have a heedless, Gatsby-like aspect, a passion pursued in utter disregard of any consequences that might ensue. Few in power have openly considered whether valuing military power for its own sake or cultivating permanent global military superiority might be at odds with American principles. Indeed, one striking aspect of America's drift toward militarism has been the absence of dissent offered by any political figure of genuine stature.
For example, when Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, ran for the presidency in 2004, he framed his differences with George W. Bush's national security policies in terms of tactics rather than first principles. Kerry did not question the wisdom of styling the U.S. response to the events of 9/11 as a generations-long "global war on terror." It was not the prospect of open-ended war that drew Kerry's ire. It was rather the fact that the war had been "extraordinarily mismanaged and ineptly prosecuted." Kerry faulted Bush because, in his view, U.S. troops in Iraq lacked "the preparation and hardware they needed to fight as effectively as they could." Bush was expecting too few soldiers to do too much with too little. Declaring that "keeping our military strong and keeping our troops as safe as they can be should be our highest priority," Kerry promised if elected to fix these deficiencies. Americans could count on a President Kerry to expand the armed forces and to improve their ability to fight.
Yet on this score Kerry's circumspection was entirely predictable. It was the candidate's way of signaling that he was sound on defense and had no intention of departing from the prevailing national security consensus.
Under the terms of that consensus, mainstream politicians today take as a given that American military supremacy is an unqualified good, evidence of a larger American superiority. They see this armed might as the key to creating an international order that accommodates American values. One result of that consensus over the past quarter century has been to militarize U.S. policy and to encourage tendencies suggesting that American society itself is increasingly enamored with its self-image as the military power nonpareil
How Much Is Enough?
This new American militarism manifests itself in several different ways. It does so, first of all, in the scope, cost, and configuration of America's present-day military establishment.
Through the first two centuries of U.S. history, political leaders in Washington gauged the size and capabilities of America's armed services according to the security tasks immediately at hand. A grave and proximate threat to the nation's well-being might require a large and powerful military establishment. In the absence of such a threat, policymakers scaled down that establishment accordingly. With the passing of crisis, the army raised up for the crisis went immediately out of existence. This had been the case in 1865, in 1918, and in 1945.
Since the end of the Cold War, having come to value military power for its own sake, the United States has abandoned this principle and is committed as a matter of policy to maintaining military capabilities far in excess of those of any would-be adversary or combination of adversaries. This commitment finds both a qualitative and quantitative expression, with the U.S. military establishment dwarfing that of even America's closest ally. Thus, whereas the U.S. Navy maintains and operates a total of twelve large attack aircraft carriers, the once-vaunted [British] Royal Navy has none -- indeed, in all the battle fleets of the world there is no ship even remotely comparable to a Nimitz-class carrier, weighing in at some ninety-seven thousand tons fully loaded, longer than three football fields, cruising at a speed above thirty knots, and powered by nuclear reactors that give it an essentially infinite radius of action. Today, the U.S. Marine Corps possesses more attack aircraft than does the entire Royal Air Force -- and the United States has two other even larger "air forces," one an integral part of the Navy and the other officially designated as the U.S. Air Force. Indeed, in terms of numbers of men and women in uniform, the U.S. Marine Corps is half again as large as the entire British Army--and the Pentagon has a second, even larger "army" actually called the U.S. Army -- which in turn also operates its own "air force" of some five thousand aircraft.
All of these massive and redundant capabilities cost money. Notably, the present-day Pentagon budget, adjusted for inflation, is 12 percent larger than the average defense budget of the Cold War era. In 2002, American defense spending exceeded by a factor of twenty-five the combined defense budgets of the seven "rogue states" then comprising the roster of U.S. enemies.16 Indeed, by some calculations, the United States spends more on defense than all other nations in the world together. This is a circumstance without historical precedent.
Furthermore, in all likelihood, the gap in military spending between the United States and all other nations will expand further still in the years to come. Projected increases in the defense budget will boost Pentagon spending in real terms to a level higher than it was during the Reagan era. According to the Pentagon's announced long-range plans, by 2009 its budget will exceed the Cold War average by 23 percent -- despite the absence of anything remotely resembling a so-called peer competitor. However astonishing this fact might seem, it elicits little comment, either from political leaders or the press. It is simply taken for granted. The truth is that there no longer exists any meaningful context within which Americans might consider the question "How much is enough?"
On a day-to-day basis, what do these expensive forces exist to do? Simply put, for the Department of Defense and all of its constituent parts, defense per se figures as little more than an afterthought. The primary mission of America's far-flung military establishment is global power projection, a reality tacitly understood in all quarters of American society. To suggest that the U.S. military has become the world's police force may slightly overstate the case, but only slightly.
That well over a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union the United States continues to maintain bases and military forces in several dozens of countries -- by some counts well over a hundred in all -- rouses minimal controversy, despite the fact that many of these countries are perfectly capable of providing for their own security needs. That even apart from fighting wars and pursuing terrorists, U.S. forces are constantly prowling around the globe -- training, exercising, planning, and posturing -- elicits no more notice (and in some cases less) from the average American than the presence of a cop on a city street corner. Even before the Pentagon officially assigned itself the mission of "shaping" the international environment, members of the political elite, liberals and conservatives alike, had reached a common understanding that scattering U.S. troops around the globe to restrain, inspire, influence, persuade, or cajole paid dividends. Whether any correlation exists between this vast panoply of forward-deployed forces on the one hand and antipathy to the United States abroad on the other has remained for the most part a taboo subject.
The Quest for Military Dominion
The indisputable fact of global U.S. military preeminence also affects the collective mindset of the officer corps. For the armed services, dominance constitutes a baseline or a point of departure from which to scale the heights of ever greater military capabilities. Indeed, the services have come to view outright supremacy as merely adequate and any hesitation in efforts to increase the margin of supremacy as evidence of falling behind.
Thus, according to one typical study of the U.S. Navy's future, "sea supremacy beginning at our shore lines and extending outward to distant theaters is a necessary condition for the defense of the U.S." Of course, the U.S. Navy already possesses unquestioned global preeminence; the real point of the study is to argue for the urgency of radical enhancements to that preeminence. The officer-authors of this study express confidence that given sufficient money the Navy can achieve ever greater supremacy, enabling the Navy of the future to enjoy "overwhelming precision firepower," "pervasive surveillance," and "dominant control of a maneuvering area, whether sea, undersea, land, air, space or cyberspace." In this study and in virtually all others, political and strategic questions implicit in the proposition that supremacy in distant theaters forms a prerequisite of "defense" are left begging -- indeed, are probably unrecognized. At times, this quest for military dominion takes on galactic proportions. Acknowledging that the United States enjoys "superiority in many aspects of space capability," a senior defense official nonetheless complains that "we don't have space dominance and we don't have space supremacy." Since outer space is "the ultimate high ground," which the United States must control, he urges immediate action to correct this deficiency. When it comes to military power, mere superiority will not suffice.
The new American militarism also manifests itself through an increased propensity to use force, leading, in effect, to the normalization of war. There was a time in recent memory, most notably while the so-called Vietnam Syndrome infected the American body politic, when Republican and Democratic administrations alike viewed with real trepidation the prospect of sending U.S. troops into action abroad. Since the advent of the new Wilsonianism, however, self-restraint regarding the use of force has all but disappeared. During the entire Cold War era, from 1945 through 1988, large-scale U.S. military actions abroad totaled a scant six. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, they have become almost annual events. The brief period extending from 1989's Operation Just Cause (the overthrow of Manuel Noriega) to 2003's Operation Iraqi Freedom (the overthrow of Saddam Hussein) featured nine major military interventions. And that count does not include innumerable lesser actions such as Bill Clinton's signature cruise missile attacks against obscure targets in obscure places, the almost daily bombing of Iraq throughout the late 1990s, or the quasi-combat missions that have seen GIs dispatched to Rwanda, Colombia, East Timor, and the Philippines. Altogether, the tempo of U.S. military interventionism has become nothing short of frenetic.
As this roster of incidents lengthened, Americans grew accustomed to -- perhaps even comfortable with -- reading in their morning newspapers the latest reports of U.S. soldiers responding to some crisis somewhere on the other side of the globe. As crisis became a seemingly permanent condition so too did war. The Bush administration has tacitly acknowledged as much in describing the global campaign against terror as a conflict likely to last decades and in promulgating -- and in Iraq implementing -- a doctrine of preventive war.
In former times American policymakers treated (or at least pretended to treat) the use of force as evidence that diplomacy had failed. In our own time they have concluded (in the words of Vice President Dick Cheney) that force "makes your diplomacy more effective going forward, dealing with other problems." Policymakers have increasingly come to see coercion as a sort of all-purpose tool. Among American war planners, the assumption has now taken root that whenever and wherever U.S. forces next engage in hostilities, it will be the result of the United States consciously choosing to launch a war. As President Bush has remarked, the big lesson of 9/11 was that "this country must go on the offense and stay on the offense." The American public's ready acceptance of the prospect of war without foreseeable end and of a policy that abandons even the pretense of the United States fighting defensively or viewing war as a last resort shows clearly how far the process of militarization has advanced.
The New Aesthetic of War
Reinforcing this heightened predilection for arms has been the appearance in recent years of a new aesthetic of war. This is the third indication of advancing militarism.
The old twentieth-century aesthetic of armed conflict as barbarism, brutality, ugliness, and sheer waste grew out of World War I, as depicted by writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Erich Maria Remarque, and Robert Graves. World War II, Korea, and Vietnam reaffirmed that aesthetic, in the latter case with films like Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket.
The intersection of art and war gave birth to two large truths. The first was that the modern battlefield was a slaughterhouse, and modern war an orgy of destruction that devoured guilty and innocent alike. The second, stemming from the first, was that military service was an inherently degrading experience and military institutions by their very nature repressive and inhumane. After 1914, only fascists dared to challenge these truths. Only fascists celebrated war and depicted armies as forward-looking -- expressions of national unity and collective purpose that paved the way for utopia. To be a genuine progressive, liberal in instinct, enlightened in sensibility, was to reject such notions as preposterous.
But by the turn of the twenty-first century, a new image of war had emerged, if not fully displacing the old one at least serving as a counterweight. To many observers, events of the 1990s suggested that war's very nature was undergoing a profound change. The era of mass armies, going back to the time of Napoleon, and of mechanized warfare, an offshoot of industrialization, was coming to an end. A new era of high-tech warfare, waged by highly skilled professionals equipped with "smart" weapons, had commenced. Describing the result inspired the creation of a new lexicon of military terms: war was becoming surgical, frictionless, postmodern, even abstract or virtual. It was "coercive diplomacy" -- the object of the exercise no longer to kill but to persuade. By the end of the twentieth century, Michael Ignatieff of Harvard University concluded, war had become "a spectacle." It had transformed itself into a kind of "spectator sport," one offering "the added thrill that it is real for someone, but not, happily, for the spectator." Even for the participants, fighting no longer implied the prospect of dying for some abstract cause, since the very notion of "sacrifice in battle had become implausible or ironic."
Combat in the information age promised to overturn all of "the hoary dictums about the fog and friction" that had traditionally made warfare such a chancy proposition. American commanders, affirmed General Tommy Franks, could expect to enjoy "the kind of Olympian perspective that Homer had given his gods."
In short, by the dawn of the twenty-first century the reigning postulates of technology-as-panacea had knocked away much of the accumulated blood-rust sullying war's reputation. Thus reimagined -- and amidst widespread assurances that the United States could be expected to retain a monopoly on this new way of war -- armed conflict regained an aesthetic respectability, even palatability, that the literary and artistic interpreters of twentieth-century military cataclysms were thought to have demolished once and for all. In the right circumstances, for the right cause, it now turned out, war could actually offer an attractive option--cost-effective, humane, even thrilling. Indeed, as the Anglo-American race to Baghdad conclusively demonstrated in the spring of 2003, in the eyes of many, war has once again become a grand pageant, performance art, or a perhaps temporary diversion from the ennui and boring routine of everyday life. As one observer noted with approval, "public enthusiasm for the whiz-bang technology of the U.S. military" had become "almost boyish." Reinforcing this enthusiasm was the expectation that the great majority of Americans could count on being able to enjoy this new type of war from a safe distance.
The Moral Superiority of the Soldier
This new aesthetic has contributed, in turn, to an appreciable boost in the status of military institutions and soldiers themselves, a fourth manifestation of the new American militarism.
Since the end of the Cold War, opinion polls surveying public attitudes toward national institutions have regularly ranked the armed services first. While confidence in the executive branch, the Congress, the media, and even organized religion is diminishing, confidence in the military continues to climb. Otherwise acutely wary of having their pockets picked, Americans count on men and women in uniform to do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons. Americans fearful that the rest of society may be teetering on the brink of moral collapse console themselves with the thought that the armed services remain a repository of traditional values and old fashioned virtue.
Confidence in the military has found further expression in a tendency to elevate the soldier to the status of national icon, the apotheosis of all that is great and good about contemporary America. The men and women of the armed services, gushed Newsweek in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, "looked like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. They were young, confident, and hardworking, and they went about their business with poise and élan." A writer for Rolling Stone reported after a more recent and extended immersion in military life that "the Army was not the awful thing that my [anti-military] father had imagined"; it was instead "the sort of America he always pictured when he explained… his best hopes for the country."
According to the old post-Vietnam-era political correctness, the armed services had been a refuge for louts and mediocrities who probably couldn't make it in the real world. By the turn of the twenty-first century a different view had taken hold. Now the United States military was "a place where everyone tried their hardest. A place where everybody… looked out for each other. A place where people -- intelligent, talented people -- said honestly that money wasn't what drove them. A place where people spoke openly about their feelings." Soldiers, it turned out, were not only more virtuous than the rest of us, but also more sensitive and even happier. Contemplating the GIs advancing on Baghdad in March 2003, the classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson saw something more than soldiers in battle. He ascertained "transcendence at work." According to Hanson, the armed services had "somehow distilled from the rest of us an elite cohort" in which virtues cherished by earlier generations of Americans continued to flourish.
Soldiers have tended to concur with this evaluation of their own moral superiority. In a 2003 survey of military personnel, "two-thirds [of those polled] said they think military members have higher moral standards than the nation they serve… Once in the military, many said, members are wrapped in a culture that values honor and morality." Such attitudes leave even some senior officers more than a little uncomfortable. Noting with regret that "the armed forces are no longer representative of the people they serve," retired admiral Stanley Arthur has expressed concern that "more and more, enlisted as well as officers are beginning to feel that they are special, better than the society they serve." Such tendencies, concluded Arthur, are "not healthy in an armed force serving a democracy."
In public life today, paying homage to those in uniform has become obligatory and the one unforgivable sin is to be found guilty of failing to "support the troops." In the realm of partisan politics, the political Right has shown considerable skill in exploiting this dynamic, shamelessly pandering to the military itself and by extension to those members of the public laboring under the misconception, a residue from Vietnam, that the armed services are under siege from a rabidly anti-military Left.
In fact, the Democratic mainstream -- if only to save itself from extinction -- has long since purged itself of any dovish inclinations. "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about," Madeleine Albright demanded of General Colin Powell, "if we can't use it?" As Albright's Question famously attests, when it comes to advocating the use of force, Democrats can be positively gung ho. Moreover, in comparison to their Republican counterparts, they are at least as deferential to military leaders and probably more reluctant to question claims of military expertise.
Even among Left-liberal activists, the reflexive anti-militarism of the 1960s has given way to a more nuanced view. Although hard-pressed to match self-aggrandizing conservative claims of being one with the troops, progressives have come to appreciate the potential for using the armed services to advance their own agenda. Do-gooders want to harness military power to their efforts to do good. Thus, the most persistent calls for U.S. intervention abroad to relieve the plight of the abused and persecuted come from the militant Left. In the present moment, writes Michael Ignatieff, "empire has become a precondition for democracy." Ignatieff, a prominent human rights advocate, summons the United States to "use imperial power to strengthen respect for self-determination [and] to give states back to abused, oppressed people who deserve to rule them for themselves."
The President as Warlord
Occasionally, albeit infrequently, the prospect of an upcoming military adventure still elicits opposition, even from a public grown accustomed to war. For example, during the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, large-scale demonstrations against President Bush's planned intervention filled the streets of many American cities. The prospect of the United States launching a preventive war without the sanction of the U.N. Security Council produced the largest outpouring of public protest that the country had seen since the Vietnam War. Yet the response of the political classes to this phenomenon was essentially to ignore it. No politician of national stature offered himself or herself as the movement's champion. No would-be statesman nursing even the slightest prospects of winning high national office was willing to risk being tagged with not supporting those whom President Bush was ordering into harm's way. When the Congress took up the matter, Democrats who denounced George W. Bush's policies in every other respect dutifully authorized him to invade Iraq. For up-and-coming politicians, opposition to war had become something of a third rail: only the very brave or the very foolhardy dared to venture anywhere near it.
More recently still, this has culminated in George W. Bush styling himself as the nation's first full-fledged warrior-president. The staging of Bush's victory lap shortly after the conquest of Baghdad in the spring of 2003 -- the dramatic landing on the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, with the president decked out in the full regalia of a naval aviator emerging from the cockpit to bask in the adulation of the crew -- was lifted directly from the triumphant final scenes of the movie Top Gun, with the boyish George Bush standing in for the boyish Tom Cruise. For this nationally televised moment, Bush was not simply mingling with the troops; he had merged his identity with their own and made himself one of them -- the president as warlord. In short order, the marketplace ratified this effort; a toy manufacturer offered for $39.99 a Bush look-alike military action figure advertised as "Elite Force Aviator: George W. Bush -- U.S. President and Naval Aviator."
Thus has the condition that worried C. Wright Mills in 1956 come to pass in our own day. "For the first time in the nation's history," Mills wrote, "men in authority are talking about an ‘emergency' without a foreseeable end." While in earlier times Americans had viewed history as "a peaceful continuum interrupted by war," today planning, preparing, and waging war has become "the normal state and seemingly permanent condition of the United States." And "the only accepted ‘plan' for peace is the loaded pistol."
Andrew J. Bacevich is Professor of International Relations and Director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University. A graduate of West Point and a Vietnam veteran, he has a doctorate in history from Princeton and was a Bush Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. He is the author of several books, including the just published The New American Militarism, How Americans Are Seduced by War.
Copyright 2005 Andrew J. Bacevich
The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War, copyright © 2005 by Andrew J. Bacevich. Used by permission of the author and Oxford University Press, Inc.
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