Our finest warriors are often our most reluctant warmongers. They have seen firsthand the toll war exacts. They know better than anyone that force can be like a lobster trap that closes with each stage of descent, making escape impossible. So it was when the liberal consensus lured America into Vietnam during the ’60s, and again after 9/11, when neoconservatives clamored for the invasion of Iraq. With the notorious ferocity of the noncombatant, the neocons banged their tin drums and brayed for blood, as long as it was not their own that would be spilled.
One old warrior looked on sadly, his understanding of combat’s reality tempered by twenty-three years in uniform, including service in Vietnam. A graduate of West Point, Andrew Bacevich retired from the military to become a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, a public thinker who has been able to find an audience across the political spectrum, from The Nation to The American Conservative magazines. In several acclaimed books, including The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, and his bestselling The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Bacevich speaks truth to power, no matter who’s in power, which may be why he reaches both the left and the right.
We spoke in the middle of the 2008 presidential campaign, just as The Limits of Power was published. Bacevich supported Barack Obama’s candidacy but believes that Obama’s commitment of more troops to Afghanistan was a deadly mistake. —Bill Moyers
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You began The Limits of Power with a quote from the Bible, the book of Second Kings, chapter 20, verse 1: “Set thine house in order.” Why that admonition?
I’ve been troubled by the course of U.S. foreign policy for a long, long time. I wrote the book in order to sort out my own thinking about where our basic problems lay. And I 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 that’s fundamentally wrong. Our major problems are at home. You begin healing yourself by looking at yourself in the mirror and seeing yourself as you really are.
You write: “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 through the distribution of largesse here at home (with Congress taking a leading role) 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.
Our foreign policy is not something simply concocted by people in Washington, D.C., and then imposed on us. Our foreign policy may be concocted in Washington, D.C., but it reflects the perceptions of our political elite about what we the people want. And what we want, by and large, is to sustain the flow of very cheap consumer goods. We want to be able to pump gas into our cars regardless of how big they 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 books balance at the end of the month or the end of the fiscal year. And therefore, we want an unending line of credit.
You write that what will not go away is “a yawning disparity between what Americans expect and what they are willing or able to pay.”
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 maintain this dysfunctional system, or set of arrangements, that have evolved over the last thirty or forty 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, but the truth is, it’s a professional army, and when we think about the tasks we assign that army, it’s really an imperial army. We need to step back a little bit and ask ourselves, how did it come to be that places like Iraq and Afghanistan should have come to seem critical to the well-being of the United States of America?
There was a time, seventy, eighty, a hundred years ago, when we Americans sat here in the Western Hemisphere and puzzled over why British imperialists sent their troops to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. We viewed that sort of adventurism with disdain. Today this has become part of what we do.
How is Iraq a clear manifestation, as you say, of this “yawning disparity between what Americans expect and what they are willing or able to pay”?
Let’s think about World War II, a war that President Roosevelt told us was essential to U.S. national security, and was. President Roosevelt said, because this is an important enterprise, the American people would be called upon to make sacrifices. And indeed, the people of the United States went off to fight that war in large numbers. On the home front, people learned to get by with less. 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 II, 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. Just two weeks or so after 9/11 the president said, “Go to Disney World. Go shopping.” There’s something out of whack here. The global war on terror, and Iraq as a subset of the global war on terror, is said to be critically important, on the one hand. Yet on the other hand, the country basically goes about its business, as if, really, there were no war on terror, and no war in Iraq ongoing at all.
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.”
We’re having a very difficult time managing two wars that, in a twentieth-century context, are actually relatively small.
You also say: “U.S. troops in battle dress and body armor, whom Americans profess to admire and support, pay the price for the nation’s collective refusal to confront our domestic dysfunction.” What are we not confronting?
The most obvious, blindingly obvious, 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, compromised our freedom of action, and then did next to nothing about it. Every president from Richard Nixon down to the present has declared, “We’re going to fix this problem.” And none of them did. 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, President Carter promulgated the Carter Doctrine. He said the Persian Gulf had enormous strategic significance to the United States. We were not going to permit any other country to control that region of the world. That set in motion a set of actions that militarized U.S. policy and led to ever deeper U.S. military involvement in the region. The result has been to postpone the day of reckoning. Americans are dodging the imperative of having a serious energy policy.
And this is connected to what you call “the crisis of profligacy.”
Well, we don’t live within our means. The individual savings rate in this country is below zero. As a nation, we assume the availability of an endless line of credit. But 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.
You call us an empire of consumption.
I didn’t create that phrase. It’s a phrase drawn from a book by a wonderful historian at Harvard University, Charles Maier. The point he makes in his very important book is that when American power was at its apex after World War II, 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.”
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 functioning primarily as consumers rather than producers.
And you say this has produced a condition of profound dependency, to the extent that, and I’m quoting you, “Americans are no longer masters of their own fate.”
Well, they’re not. I mean, the current debt to the Chinese government grows day by day. Why? Because of the negative trade balance. Our negative trade balance with the world is something on 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 more than the stuff that we sell to them. That’s a big number, even relative to the size of our economy.
You use a metaphor that is intriguing. American policy makers “ 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?
This continuing tendency to borrow and to assume that the bills are never going to come due. I testified before a House committee 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 going to pay the bills? How are we going to pay for the entitlements that are 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?” I took this as a 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.
You say 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 M. Nixon finally ended direct U.S. involvement in that war.” Why do you see that period as so crucial?
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. As a matter of fact, the trade imbalance essentially becomes larger year by year.
So I think that it is the ’60s generally—the Vietnam period—that was the moment when we began to lose control of our economic fate. And most disturbingly, we’re still really in denial.
You describe another fateful period between July 1979 and March 1983. You describe it, in fact, as a pivot of contemporary American history. That includes Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, right?
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.
Talk about his speech on July 15, 1979. Why does that speech resonate so strongly?
This is the so-called Malaise Speech, even though he never used the word malaise in the text. It’s a very powerful speech, because President Carter acknowledges that our dependence on oil poses a looming threat to the country. If we act now, he says, we may be able to fix this problem. If we don’t act now, we’re headed down a path along 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. The president was urging us to think about what we mean by freedom. We need to choose a definition of freedom that is anchored in truth, he argued, and the way to manifest that choice was by addressing our energy problem. Carter had a profound understanding of the dilemma facing the country in the post-Vietnam period. And, of course, he was completely derided and disregarded.
And he lost the election.
This speech killed any chance he had of winning reelection. Why? Because the American people didn’t want to settle for less?
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, “Doomsayers, gloomsayers, don’t listen to them. The country’s best days are ahead of us.”
“Morning in America.”
It’s “Morning in America.” You don’t have to sacrifice; you can have more of everything. All we need to do is get government out of the way and drill more holes for oil. The president led us to believe the supply of oil right here in North America was infinite.
You describe Ronald Reagan as the “modern prophet of profligacy, the politician who gave moral sanction to the empire of consumption.”
To understand the truth about President Reagan is to appreciate the extent to which our politics are misleading and false. Remember, he was the guy who came in and said we need to shrink the size of government. But 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. The budget deficits for his time were the greatest we’d experienced since World War II.
And wasn’t it his successor, his vice president, the first President Bush, who said in 1992 that the American way of life is not negotiable?
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 likewise concur. They insist that the American way of life should not be not up for negotiation.
What I would invite them to consider is this: if you want to preserve the American way of life, then you need to ask yourself, what exactly is it you value most? I believe that if we want to preserve that which we value most in the American way of life, then we will need to change the American way of life. We need to modify or discard things that are peripheral in order to preserve those things that possess real importance.
What do you value most?
I say we should look to the Preamble to the Constitution. There is nothing in the Preamble to the Constitution that 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 to the Constitution that provides a basis for embarking upon an effort, as President Bush has defined it, to transform the greater Middle East, a region of the world that incorporates something on the order of a billion people.
I believe that the framers of the Constitution were primarily concerned with the way we live here, the way we order our affairs. They wanted Americans as individuals to have an opportunity to pursue freedom, however defined. They wanted Americans collectively to create a national community so that we could live together in some kind of harmony. And they wanted future generations to 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 change our ways, the likelihood that our children and our grandchildren are going to enjoy the opportunities that we’ve had is very slight. Why? Because we’re squandering our power. We are squandering our wealth. To the extent that we persist in our imperial delusions, we’re also going to squander freedom itself, because imperial policies end up enhancing the authority of the imperial president, thereby providing imperial presidents with an opportunity to compromise freedom even here at home. We’ve seen that since 9/11.
The disturbing thing that you say again and again 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?
That’s exactly right. And again, 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—an utterly unnecessary war—will go down in our history as a record of recklessness unmatched by any other administration.
But that 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. They all have seen military power as our strong suit. They all have assumed that by projecting power, by threatening to employ power, we can fix the world. Fix the world in order to sustain this dysfunctional way of life that we cling to at home.
This brings us to what you call the political crisis of America, and you say, “The actual system of governance conceived by the framers . . . no longer pertains.”
I am expressing in the book what many of us sense, even if few of us are ready to confront the implications. 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. Congress no longer is able to articulate a vision of what is the common good. Congress exists primarily to ensure the reelection of its members.
Supporting the imperial presidency are the various institutions that comprise the national security state. I refer here to the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the other intelligence agencies. These have grown since the end of World War II into a mammoth enterprise. But the national security state doesn’t work. Despite all the money it spends and the people it employs, the national security state was not able to identify the 9/11 conspiracy. It was not able to deflect the attackers on 9/11. The national security state was not able to plan intelligently for the Iraq War.
The national security state has not been able to effectively prosecute 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.
You write that no one in Washington knows what they’re doing, including the president.
What I mean specifically is this: The end of the Cold War coincided almost precisely with the first Persian Gulf War. Americans saw Operation Desert Storm as a great, historic, never-before-seen victory. It really wasn’t.
Politically and strategically, the outcome of that war was far more ambiguous than people appreciated at the time. Nonetheless, the war itself was advertised as this great success, demonstrating that the Pentagon had developed a dazzling new American way of war. This new American way of war ostensibly promised to enable the United States to exercise military dominion on a global basis in ways that the world had never seen.
The people in the Pentagon developed a phrase to describe this. They called it “full-spectrum dominance,” meaning that the United States was going to demonstrate outright supremacy, not just capability, across the full spectrum of warfare. This became the center of the way that the military advertised its capabilities in the 1990s.
The whole thing was fraudulent. To claim that the United States military could enjoy such dominance flew in the face of all of history. Yet in many respects, this sort of thinking set us up for how the Bush administration was going to respond to 9/11. If you believe that the United States military is utterly unstoppable, then a global war to transform the greater Middle East might seem plausible. Had the generals been more cognizant 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 wary. Don’t plunge in too deeply.” Recognize that force has utility, but that utility is actually quite limited. Recognize that when we go to war, almost inevitably unanticipated consequences will follow, and they’re not going to be happy ones.
Above all, recognize that when you go to war, it’s unlikely there will be 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 General Shinseki . . .
Who said we are going to need more than half a million men if we go into Iraq. He was shown the door for telling the truth.
By and large, the generals did not speak truth to power.
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 on American forces in Iraq, to get at a very powerful truth.
Wars are competitions. Your enemy develops capabilities. And you try to develop your own capabilities to check him and gain an advantage. One of the striking things about the Iraq War, in which we had been fighting against a relatively backward or primitive adversary, is that the insurgents have innovated far more adeptly and quickly than we have.
The IED provides an example. It 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. Those enhancements in insurgent IED capability continually kept ahead of our ability to adapt and catch up.
And I think you say in your book that it costs the price of a pizza to make a roadside bomb. This is what our men and women are up against in Afghanistan.
The point is that war is always a heck of a lot more complicated than you might imagine the day before the war begins. And rather than imagining that technology will define the future of warfare, we really ought to look at military history.
And what do we learn when we look to the past?
Preventive war doesn’t work. The Iraq War didn’t work. Therefore, we should abandon the Bush Doctrine of preventive war. We should return to the just-war tradition, which permits force only as a last resort, which sees war as something that is justifiable only when waged in self-defense.
How, then, do we fight what you acknowledge to be the real threat posed by violent Islamic extremism?
I think we need to see the threat for what it is. Sure, the threat is real. But it’s not an existential threat. The nineteen hijackers that killed three thousand Americans on 9/11 didn’t succeed because they had fancy weapons, because they were particularly smart, or because they were ten feet tall. They succeeded because we let our guard down.
We need to recognize that the threat posed by violent Islamic radicalism, by terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda, really is akin to a criminal conspiracy. It’s violent and dangerous, but it’s a criminal enterprise. Rooting out and destroying the conspiracy is primarily the responsibility of organizations like the FBI, and of our intelligence community, backed up at times by Special Operations Forces. That doesn’t require invading and occupying countries. 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 dismantle that criminal conspiracy.
In fact, you 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—“ implies 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.”
People run for the presidency in order to become imperial presidents. The people who are advising these candidates, those who aspire to be the next national security advisor, the next secretary of defense, yearn to share in exercising this great authority. They’re not running to see if they can make the Pentagon smaller.
I was in the White House back in the early ’60s, and I’ve been a White House watcher ever since. I have never come across a more distilled essence of the evolution of the presidency than in just one paragraph in your book.
You write, “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 setter, moral philosopher, interpreter of the nation’s charisma, object of veneration, and the butt of jokes . . . all these rolled into one.” I would say you nailed the modern presidency.
I think the troubling part is that the president has become what we have instead of genuine politics, instead of genuine democracy. The cult of the presidency 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 really has worn very thin.
Would the imperial presidency exist were it not for the Congress?
No, because the Congress, since World War II, has thrust power and authority onto the presidency.
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 Incumbents’ Party.” And you write that every president “ has exploited his role as commander in chief to expand on the imperial prerogatives of his office.”
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. But when you look back over the past thirty or so years, said to have been a conservative era in American politics, did we get small government? Do we get balanced budgets? Do we give serious, as opposed to simply rhetorical, attention to traditional social values? The answer’s no. The truth is that conservative principles have been eyewash, part of a package of tactics that Republicans employ to get elected and to then stay in office.
And yet you say that the prime example of political dysfunction today is the Democratic Party in relation to Iraq.
Well, I may be a conservative, but I can assure you that in November of 2006 I voted for every Democrat I could find on the ballot. And I did so because the Democratic Party, speaking with one voice at that time, said, “Elect us. Give us power in the Congress, and we will end the Iraq War.”
The American people, at that point adamantly tired of this war, did empower the Democrats. And Democrats absolutely, totally, completely failed to follow through on their promise.
You argue that the promises of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi proved 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.
Could anybody disagree with that?
This is another one of my highlighted sentences: “To 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 seem an acceptable arrangement. It is unfair, unjust, and morally corrosive.” And yet that’s what we’re doing.
Absolutely. And I think—I don’t want to talk about my son here.
You dedicate the book to your son.
My son was killed in Iraq. That’s a personal matter. But it has long stuck in my craw, this posturing of supporting the troops. There are many people who say they support the troops, and they really mean it. But what exactly does it mean to support the troops? It ought to mean more than putting a bumper sticker on the back of your car. I don’t think we actually do support the troops. 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 who are on active duty. And then we really turn away. We don’t want to look when our soldiers 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 there’s something fundamentally immoral about that.
Again, I think the global war on terror, as a framework of thinking about policy, is deeply defective. But if the global war on terror is a national priority, then why isn’t the country actually supporting it in a meaningful, substantive sense?
Are you calling for a reinstatement of the draft?
I’m not, because I understand that, politically, the draft is an impossibility. And to tell you the truth, we don’t need to have an army of six or eight or ten million people. What we need is to have the country engaged in what its soldiers are doing. That simply doesn’t exist today.
Despite 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.” Help me to understand that.
We Americans are going to have a long argument about the Iraq War, not unlike the way we had a very long argument about the Vietnam War. And that argument is going to cause us, I hope, to ask serious questions about where this war came from and what it has meant. How did we come to be a nation that fancied our army capable of transforming the greater Middle East?
What have been the costs that have been imposed on this country? Hundreds of billions of dollars. Some project $2 to $3 trillion. 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? There will be plenty of people who are going to say, “Absolutely, it was worth it. We overthrew a dictator.” But I hope and pray that there will be many others who will make the argument that it wasn’t worth it.
My hope is that Americans will come to see the Iraq War as a fundamental mistake. That it never should have been undertaken. And that we’re never going to do this kind of thing again. That might be the moment when we will look at ourselves in the mirror. And we will see what we have become. And perhaps undertake an effort to make those changes that will enable us to preserve for future generations that which we value most about the American way of life.
This excerpt originally appeared in Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues, © 2011, Bill Moyers. Published by The New Press, Inc.. Reprinted here with permission.