Features » January 23, 2009
The Radical Conservative
Vietnam veteran and author Andrew Bacevich on American decadence and the failure of the Iraq War.
I don't think presidents govern--administrations do. You have to look at the people they bring in.
At least at first glance, Andrew Bacevich might seem an unlikely candidate to have become one of the Iraq War’s fiercest critics. A graduate of West Point and a Vietnam War veteran, Bacevich spent 23 years in the military before retiring as a colonel. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he contributed to the conservative Weekly Standard and National Review. These days, however, his writing is much more likely to appear in The Nation.
But it’s difficult to say whether this marks a change in Bacevich’s principles or those of the American conservative movement. As he wrote in his 2005 book, The New American Militarism, “My disenchantment with what passes for mainstream conservatism, embodied in the present Bush administration and its groupies, is just about absolute. … [M]y 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 professional conservative who define the problem.”
A professor of history and international relations at Boston University, Bacevich’s latest book is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, which draws on the philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr’s warnings against “our dreams of managing history.”
He recently spoke with In These Times about conservatives’ response to his book, Iraq and why we shouldn’t expect too much change from an Obama administration.
In The Limits Of Power, you look at the consumption patterns of the average American citizen today. Given the urgency of a wartime situation, you’re very critical.
It’s not simply that I’m troubled by consumption in the context of a global war. I’m troubled by the patterns of consumption even apart from the war–in that we have come to expect that it is our due to live beyond our means, both as individuals and as a nation.
I’m not some kind of ascetic monk. I don’t live in a cave. I probably enjoy a pretty good standard of living relative to many other people. Nonetheless, one senses a kind of a compulsion to acquire in our society. There is a mindlessness about it that I find troubling. Maybe that’s just me admitting that I’m kind of an old-fashioned cultural conservative, but it’s a concern especially because we can’t pay for all the stuff that we’re buying.
Add the war on top of that, and it does become more troubling. On the one hand, we have leaders like President Bush, proclaiming that this is a struggle that we should see as the equivalent of World War II, that the evil that we face is the equivalent of Nazi Germany or of Soviet totalitarianism. And yet, in an odd sense the country sort of says, “Yes, I got it, thank you very much,” and then we just go back to doing what we were doing as if there were no war.
One consequence of that, of course, is that the burden of the war falls on our military. I think that the military has been abused over the last seven years. It’s tremendously admirable that the Army and the Marine Corps, in particular, have hung together the way they’ve hung together. But that doesn’t make it right, doesn’t make it fair, and it certainly doesn’t make it indefinitely sustainable.
What’s been the conservative response to your book?
The conservatives have really been split by the war. I dare say, the majority of conservatives are loyal to the Republican Party, loyal to President Bush, support the war in general terms, may acknowledge that it was badly handled but would still argue that it was an appropriate enterprise.
There is a minority of conservatives–I’m in that minority–that sees the policies of President Bush as anything but conservative, really seeing them as radical, as wild-eyed. The people who are in my camp–again, I emphasize, it’s the minority–would argue that a principled conservative foreign policy needs to be a realistic foreign policy.
It’s not a world in which good is pitted against evil. It’s really a world in which gray is pitted against gray.
Even though we are a powerful nation, there are very real limits to our power, very real limits to our capacity to anticipate the consequences of our actions, and therefore we really ought to be a lot more modest in the way we approach the world.
What are your views on Iraq?
There is no question that security conditions have improved significantly over the past year and a half. Regardless of whether you think the war is a good idea or a bad idea, it’s a good thing that the security conditions have improved. Those who have claimed that this is the result of a genius strategy called “the surge” probably are oversimplifying. The explanation for why security conditions have improved is complex, and it reflects as much internal decisions made–internal to Iraq–as much as it does anything that we’ve done.
Does that mean that victory is at hand? I don’t think so. Iraq still is in many respects a dependency, can’t manage its own affairs. So we are stuck there, absent a sort of a decision by President-elect Obama to just draw a line and say, “This was a mistake and we’re getting out.”
It’s important to ask, “What does it mean, what have we gained?” Among the numerous justifications for the war, one very important one was weapons of mass destruction. There were none. One was that somehow Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with al Qaeda. He was not.
The real justification, the real strategic plan, the real reason that the Bush administration went in is that they thought that by toppling Saddam, we could bring about rapid and efficient transformation of Iraqi society and make it into a somewhat liberal, modern, cohesive, functioning nation state, and that somehow that success in Iraq would be a precedent for achieving a similar transformation in other Muslim societies.
Does that strike you as chutzpah?
It strikes me as bizarre.
Even if tomorrow we declared victory in Iraq, the war has not provided a template for the, quote, unquote, transformation of the rest of the Middle East. Even if it ended tomorrow, we would have expended–what, $800 billion or $1 trillion?–and lost well more than 4,000 American lives.
Does anybody think we’re going to similarly transform Iran or Syria or, God forbid, Pakistan? As a step in a longer-term strategic process, the Iraq War has failed.
You’re a professor. Across the board Americans are not very well versed in history, their own history or the history of other countries.
When you’re flying along at 35,000 feet and you’re looking down, you say, “My God, this is a big country.” We live in our own world–we are our own world. There are vast, wide-open spaces. There is something about the environment in which we Americans live that encourages a certain provincialism.
The notion that we’ve ever pursued an isolationist foreign policy is totally wrong and unsustainable by our history. It’s one of the great enduring myths. But the notion that we are an inward-looking people is not mythic. There is that inclination to look within and to not be especially interested in what is going on out there.
I myself am guilty. To the extent that I was interested in the world, say, 25 or 30 years ago, I was interested in the world that was defined by the Cold War. The world that mattered to me was the world of divided Germany and divided South Korea and the Soviet empire and places like that. I wasn’t interested in Afghanistan or the history of Afghanistan. So, yes, I’ve discovered the history of Afghanistan, I’ve discovered something of the history of Iraq.
But we tend to be provincial, and that becomes a problem when we get up in the morning and decide we’re going to go remake one of these distant places.
In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in late August, you weren’t very sanguine about real change coming to Washington on Jan. 20, 2009. You write, “The very structure of American politics imposes its own constraints.” What are some of those constraints?
I don’t think presidents govern–administrations do. You have to look at the people they bring in. In many respects the people that I see surrounding Obama, at least with regard to foreign policy, aren’t radically different from the people who surrounded McCain.
They’re not identical, but it’s not as if we’ve got a bunch of isolationists or peaceniks or whatever. You actually have a bunch of people around Obama who believe in the notion of American global leadership, believe that America should be the supreme military power, who, yes, believe that we screwed up Iraq. But Obama himself says quite frequently, I’m not going to hesitate to pull the trigger when I think I need to pull the trigger.
Also, we have to acknowledge the extent to which any administration is also hemmed in by interests. The president can get up in the morning and say, “I’ve got a great idea.” But presidents operate within confines defined by sundry interests that don’t want change to occur beyond certain limits. So the president is not going to save the day.
David Barsamian is the award-winning founder and director of Alternative Radio, the independent weekly series based in Boulder, Colo. His interviews and articles appear in The Progressive, The Nation, Z and other journals and magazines.
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