The Radical Conservative

Vietnam veteran and author Andrew Bacevich on American decadence and the failure of the Iraq War.

David Barsamian

Conservative author Andrew Bacevich says President Bush’s policies have been ‘radical’ and ‘wild-eyed.’

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.

I don't think presidents govern--administrations do. You have to look at the people they bring in.

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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