Mission Creep
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The Empire Strikes Out

Soldier-scholar Andrew Bacevich on his blockbuster book, a less-costly Afghanistan strategy, and why it doesn't really matter who's president.

| Mon Oct. 13, 2008 3:00 AM EDT

MJ: You've written that America is taking the wrong lessons from our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. What are the right lessons?

AB: The lessons we're taking—gosh, we need to get smart in counterinsurgency; we need to give more authority to the generals and keep the politicians like Rumsfeld from screwing things up; we need to consider conscription as a means to close the gap between the military and society and make greater numbers of soldiers available…I think those are the wrong lessons. The preoccupation with counterinsurgency overlooks the fact that these so-called small wars are almost necessarily imperial wars; they are efforts to impose the will of an outside power on a population. Rather than becoming better at waging imperial wars, we need to move to a nonimperial foreign policy. That argument is not a moral argument—although you could make a moral argument—but a pragmatic one, that the prospect of more such wars is gonna bankrupt us.

MJ: You could argue that it already has.

AB: Yeah. [Laughs.] We're starting to talk real money here. So lesson number one: Change your foreign policy so that you only fight wars that you need to fight.

MJ: So now we're talking about putting more troops in Afghanistan. Where might that lead us?

AB: I'm pretty pessimistic based on my modest understanding of Afghan history, and my understanding is that Afghanistan has never been a nation state—maybe with the exception of the Taliban period—in which effective governance has been exercised outside of Kabul. So the notion that we're going to overturn that history is just a mighty tall proposition. I don't think we can afford it, and I don't think it's necessary. So although I did support the invasion, and do believe it was necessary to make the Taliban pay a heavy price, it doesn't follow that we need to stay there forever. I think we need to find a new course, and disengage militarily.

MJ: Are you saying it's acceptable to pull out and let the Taliban take over again?

AB: I don't think that has to be the consequence. One telling lesson from Iraq is that if you set aside moral considerations, people can be bought. It seems clear that we've bought out the Sunni insurgents, not because they liked Americans, but because they saw it as in their interest. And I think we can buy warlords in Afghanistan in ways that will incentivize them to sustain control over whatever territory they claim. We can provide money and wherewithal; they'll police their own country. The result is not going to be a liberal democracy. It's not going to be a place where the rights of women are going to be respected in the way that we would want to see in our country. But I think that's probably about the best that we can do. And I think that would prevent the Taliban from simply taking it over and making Afghanistan once again into a base of Islamic radical activity.

MJ: Just out of curiosity, how would you describe your own politics?

AB: I always describe myself as a conservative and then hastily emphasize that I don't believe that President Bush and his administration are conservative in any principled sense. To me, in the context of foreign policy, to be conservative means to be realistic in your understanding of the way the world works; realistic in appreciating the limits of one's own power; realistic in understanding that the use of force almost always ends up producing unintended consequences.

MJ: But you don't entirely blame the Bush administration for our current predicament. How come?

AB: The premise of the Bush Doctrine is that we can use force to nip problems in the bud before the bud even forms, and that we can do it with a high level of confidence that we'll be successful and that the costs will be relatively minimal. That kind of thinking in many respects really emerged from the post-Cold War decade. Going back to Operation Desert Storm—which was widely interpreted, and I believe misinterpreted, as a victory of historic proportions—it seemed to demonstrate that the United States had evolved this new way of war unlike anything the world had ever seen. Compounding that perception were the actions of President Clinton, who made the use of force a routine thing. His interventions were not large, but they became so frequent that we began to take it for granted that the United States could exercise this prerogative of using force around the world. So I think the conditions that made the Bush Doctrine possible came into existence before Bush ever became president.

MJ: You quote Bush as saying, "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." Clinton, Obama—they all use variations on this. What's the origin of this notion?

AB: Many people trace it to the famous speech by John Winthrop in 1630 speaking to members of his community as they're about to establish Massachusetts Bay Colony, when he said, "We shall be as a city upon a hill." But this theme of American exceptionalism, of America possessing a special mission, is really a thread that runs throughout our history. It has come to be part of our mainstream foreign policy consensus that we are called upon to spread freedom and eliminate tyranny. When Sarah Palin endorsed this idea [during the VP debate], I imagine it was part of the script she has been coached to recite. I imagine that the advisers who prepared that script calculated that this claim of specialness is something that plays well with the Joe Six-Packs and the hockey moms she referred to.

MJ: During past wars, as you note in the book, Americans were asked to sacrifice, to ration food and fuel, pay higher taxes, and cut nonessential items. Why has no US president since Carter asked this of American citizens? Is it political suicide?

AB: It's politically difficult. I think Bush could have done it immediately after 9/11, and of course he chose not to. Not to blame everything on the '60s, but I think fault does lie, in part, on the cultural revolution we've experienced over the past 40 years or so. We have become spectator citizens—patriotism means cheering for the home team, but it doesn't mean actually suiting up and getting out on the field. In World War II, when FDR said we were going to have to curb consumption, for the most part people understood that, accepted that. Even before Pearl Harbor, when Congress enacted the first peacetime draft, people were willing to concede that the federal government should have that authority. Well, after Vietnam that authority has gone away, I think irrevocably.

MJ: You write that protecting our freedom to overconsume is ultimately the basis for our foreign policy. Assuming that's so, can anything be done about it?

AB: To the extent that self gratification has come to be the primary definition of what it means to exercise and enjoy freedom, then there really has to be another cultural revolution to see if freedom is anchored to some conception of truth, something that's more permanent then the acquisition of material goods. I don't have any expectations that such a transformation will occur. And that's really one of the reasons that I'm relatively pessimistic going forward.

Photo from flickr user Army.mil used under a Creative Commons license.

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