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Andrew Bacevich on Changing Our Military Mindset

Monday, 26 March 2012 09:48 By Bill Moyers, Moyers & Co. | Interview & Video

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032612moyersAndrew Bacevich. (Photo: Moyers & Company)Nine years after Baghdad erupted in "shock and awe," we're once again hearing in America the drumbeat for war in the Middle East. Now, the bull's-eye is on Iran. But what we need more than a simple change of target is a complete change in perspective, says Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran-turned-scholar who's become one of the most perceptive observers of America's changing role in the world.

This week, on an all-new Moyers & Company, Bill Moyers and Bacevich explore the futility of "endless" wars, and provide a reality check on the rhetoric of American exceptionalism.

"Are we so unimaginative, so wedded to the reliance on military means that we cannot conceive of any way to reconcile our differences with groups and nations in the Islamic world, and therefore bring this conflict to an end?" Bacevich tells Moyers.

Bacevich also answers the question of whether Iran is a direct threat to America with a definitive no. "Whatever threat Iran poses is very, very limited," he tells Moyers, "and certainly does not constitute any kind of justification for yet another experiment with preventive war."

Bill Moyers: Welcome. Sometimes seems as if it were only a bad dream vaguely remembered from last night's restless sleep, but it was actually nine years ago this month that Iraq's capital of Baghdad erupted in 'shock and awe' and the American invasion began of a country that had not attacked us. When the last combat troops pulled out this past December, what one neo-conservative advocate of the invasion had predicted would be a "cakewalk," had killed well over a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians, cost nearly 4500 American soldiers their lives, maimed many others, and incurred costs that could reach more than 3 trillion dollars before the last invoice comes due.

And we never did find those weapons of mass destruction.

Yet here we are, nine years later, and once again the drumbeat sounds for war in the Middle East. This time the bull's eye is Iran, and many of the bloodthirsty cries come from the same lusty throats that agitated a decade ago for invading Iraq. Now the neo-con armchair warriors call for hitting Iran before it builds a nuclear bomb to drop on Israel – a scenario that remains in doubt.

Add to this potential nightmare Afghanistan, where the U.S. is still fighting more than ten years later, and where events just go from bad to worse. At times like these I turn to someone whose grounded realism makes him my favorite go-to person for separating fact and reason from fear and fantasy. You've seen Andrew Bacevich at this table before. A West Point Graduate and Vietnam veteran, he retired from the army after 23 years and is now an esteemed professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a frequent contributor to publications both left and right. His book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism became a bestseller. Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War was a tough-minded critique of our bloated and costly national security complex. He's the editor of this new book of essays: The Short American Century: A Postmortem, recently released by Harvard University Press. Andrew Bacevich, welcome back.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Thanks very much for having me.

BILL MOYERS: The headlines from Afghanistan get uglier and uglier every day. The rampage of that soldier, the burning of the Koran, Marines urinating on corpses, NATO helicopters firing into and killing civilians, the corruption, and vast sums of corruption and the money that's passing through Kabul. Do you see these as isolated episodes, or a pattern that is undermining the mission and making success impossible?

Andrew Bacevich: I don't know that there's a pattern in the sense that one incident is related to another in any way. But cumulatively the effect is to make mission success all the more remote. And ought to, I think, cause us to ask whether the game is worth the candle. Where is this thing headed? Now, I think there's a general acknowledgement that in the very best case, the Afghanistan war is not going to end in anything that resembles what we once might have called a victory.

The best case is that we're going to be able to extricate ourselves. Ourselves, we and our NATO allies, without the place immediately falling into chaos.

Bill Moyers: At what point will it be evident that the relations between the United States and the Afghan people are so poisoned that they'll want us out?

Andrew Bacevich: I think it's where we are. I think it's where we were a couple months ago. I'm struck by the comments of Karzai, President Karzai of Afghanistan, who is pretty clear I think, that it's time for us to get out. His estimation of the ability of Afghan forces to assume responsibility for security in the countryside may or may not be correct. But he is the leader of a nation state that we say is sovereign, and it seems to me that we should take seriously his argument that it's time for us to leave.

Bill Moyers: The British had to get out, the Russians had to get out, what can we learn from their experience as they left?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, what we ought to have learned is that it's folly to imagine that you can use a foreign army to determine the fate of Afghanistan. We are replicating their experience in tragic ways.

Bill Moyers: Is a gradual withdrawal still possible? Could it be successful?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, it would have to be gradual in the sense that we have an enormous quantity of forces there, enormous amounts of equipment. And I think that actually that's the-- that should be the business of the commander. I mean--

Bill Moyers: On the ground, the commander on the ground?

Andrew Bacevich: General Allen. Were I the commander in chief I would call General Allen on the phone and say "You know, you know what your job is now? Your job is to expeditiously but responsibly withdraw U.S. Forces from Afghanistan. Please call me back in two weeks and tell me what your plan is to make that happen." And I would respect his plan, a plan of a military professional, as to how long that would take. And it would take some considerable number of months. Not years, months.

Bill Moyers: Suppose you're not the commander in chief here, but you are the commander in chief of the Taliban, and you hear that the President of the United States has called his ground commander and said, "Find a way to get out." What do you then? Do you just sit back and wait until that happens?

Andrew Bacevich: You do. You bide your time. I mean, they have a political agenda. And I have no doubt that they aspire to regain political control of that country. I also think that the future of Afghanistan is something for Afghans to sort out on their own.

Bill Moyers: Then what will have all of our soldiers died for there?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, that is a very difficult question. It's a difficult question, I think about, in the context of Iraq. And I think the answer to the question is that they died for their country. Soldiers don't get to choose the wars that they fight. They are sent to serve. They are sent with an understanding that they may be called upon to sacrifice. And the value of the sacrifice is inherent in the act of sacrifice and is independent, I think, of questions about the merit of the policies that sent the soldier into harm's way in the first place.

Bill Moyers: Is there a Plan B as you look at the strategic situation there, or look at what the administration is doing?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, I think Plan B, and it's not necessarily one that I fully agree with, is already taking shape. Or maybe we should call it Plan C. I mean, Plan A was "shock and awe." Plan A was the George W. Bush administration's belief that the concerted application of American military power could fundamentally transform the Islamic world.

That what really-- that's the real genesis of the Iraq War. Iraq was going to be the place where the Bush administration demonstrated our capacity to fundamentally change countries in the Islamic world. It didn't work. And we ended up by 2004, 2005, with an insurgency that we could not control. That's when Plan B followed. Plan B following the 2006 elections, was the notion that even if we can't liberate the greater Middle East and democratize it, perhaps we can at least control it and we can control it by adopting counterinsurgency tactics.

Bill Moyers: Right.

Andrew Bacevich: Petraeus, period. The surge in Iraq. Which some people think succeeded. It did certainly succeeded to a degree in Iraq by reducing the level of violence. And Plan B by 2009, with President Obama now having succeeded George W. Bush, Plan B then was applied to Afghanistan during the McChrystal era.

The notion that "comprehensive counterinsurgency," that was the phrase that General McChrystal used, that "comprehensive counterinsurgency" could pacify Afghanistan. Could replicate in Afghanistan the achievements supposedly made by Petraeus in Iraq. But that didn't work. Matter of fact, McChrystal himself flamed out. Petraeus came back for a second effort at applying counterinsurgency, and achieved only limited success.

Bill Moyers: Why don't--

Andrew Bacevich: I don't think anybody today thinks that counterinsurgency is going to pacify Afghanistan.

Bill Moyers: Why didn't it work?

Andrew Bacevich: Again, one would refer to Afghan history here, that this is simply not a place that accommodates foreign invaders who think they know how to run the place better than the local population. But what I would want to emphasize, I think, is that by last year, I think Obama himself had given up on the notion that counterinsurgency provided a basis for U.S. strategy and had, indeed, begun to implement Plan C. And Plan C is targeted assassination.

Plan C is relying on drones, unmanned aerial vehicles with missiles, and also commandos, special operation forces, in order to conduct military operations, in essence on a global basis, identifying those who could pose a threat to us. And without regard to congressional authority, without regard to considerations of national sovereignty, to go kill the people we think need to be killed. Plan C is already being implemented.

Bill Moyers: Most people seem to accept it as an alternative to failure in Afghanistan, and as a way of keeping American soldiers out of harm's way.

Andrew Bacevich: Well, and also they accept it because of course, it doesn't cost us anything. We are not, the people are not engaged in any serious way. The people are not asked to sacrifice. The people are asked only to applaud when we are told after the fact that an attack has succeeded. For example, the raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.

And I would applaud, and do applaud, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. But I also have this question to ask. And that is, what is the political objective of a strategy of targeted assassination? How many people do we think we're going to kill? How long are we going to kill people in Yemen or in Somalia or in Pakistan before we get to some point where we can say, "Yes, now our political purposes have been achieved, and therefore the war can end, that Plan C will have run its course?" And my fear is that we'll never, we'll never run out of targets. And that describes where we are.

Bill Moyers: That's Option C, right?

Andrew Bacevich: Option C is where we are. And I think that the reason-- but the reason Option-- we should critically scrutinize Option C is that permanent, open-ended war cannot be good for the country. Permanent, open-ended war, in essence, is an abdication of strategic thought. Are we so unimaginative, are we so wedded to the reliance on military means, that we cannot conceive of any way to reconcile our differences with groups, nations, in the Islamic world, and therefore bring this conflict to an end? And there may be some people who would answer, "No, there is no way." Well, I-- woe betide our nation, if indeed there is no alternative but endless war.

Bill Moyers: But being a realist, as you are, I'm confident that you think as I do that somewhere, even as we speak, there are terrorists plotting how they can inflict harm on the United States.

Andrew Bacevich: Let me emphasize. There is some value, there is some utility in Plan C. That there are people out there who are plotting. Whose minds cannot be changed. And we do need to identify them and do whatever is necessary to ensure that they cannot harm us. But, those groups, those individuals exist within a milieu, a political context, a culture.

And it seems to me that the strategic imperative is to understand that milieu, to understand the grievances that ultimately gave rise to this animosity expressing itself in terrorist activity. And as a realist, and somebody who's not given to optimism, it seems to me that there are indications that we can engage or have some hope in positive change.

And here I'm alluding to the Arab Spring. Now, there are some neoconservatives who believe that somehow we are responsible for the Arab Spring, that the Arab Spring is a natural outgrowth of the Iraq War and the George Bush Freedom Agenda. That's nonsense. The origins of the Arab Spring come from within Arab nations.

They will determine where the Arab Spring leads and where it leads in Egypt is going to be probably different than where it leads in Libya, and where it leads in Tunisia. But, the Arab Spring, it seems to me, does demonstrate a determination on the part of people in the Arab world, and a capacity on the part of people in the Arab world to exercise their right to self-determination.

They are not content to live in the world as they've been condemned to live throughout the period of European imperialism followed by American imperialism. So change is afoot. And there's at least some possibility that that change may make possible some reconciliation between ourselves and them.

I think the harder, deeper problem is the retarded development of nations in the Arab world. Meaning that the people have been denied opportunity. They've been denied opportunities to exercise freedom. But I think that we have to concede that an element of that harder, deeper problem is the West's involvement and presence in the Arab world, or more broadly, the Islamic world.

That presence, those activities, have never been motivated by British concern, French concern, or American concern, about the well-being of the people who live there. That presence has been motivated by imperial ambition, by desire to have access to oil, by geopolitical calculations relative to the Soviet Union back in Cold War days.

We have made it harder. We have made it deeper. And I think the beginning of wisdom, in terms of finding a way out, is to acknowledge that we have contributed to the difficulties we face.

Bill Moyers: Do you think there is a growing awareness and perception of that reality? Because after 9/11, when some people said, "Well, it's blowback, it's a consequence of our policies in that part of the world for so long." They were practically drawn and quartered.

Andrew Bacevich: I think the historical record is actually-- is unambiguous. The problem is that prior to 9/11, we were largely ignorant of the historical record. We have been a prisoner of a particular narrative of the 20th century that has focused on a series of events, World War I, followed by World War II, followed by the Cold War. In that narrative, the Islamic world has never been anywhere except on the periphery.

Let's take the case of the Suez Crisis of 1956. When I was a kid growing up, 1956 was the year of the Hungarian Revolution. Because when I was a kid growing up, my perspective was very much shaped by events of the Cold War.

And Hungarians, freedom fighters, rising up against their Soviet occupiers was a big deal. Well, it was a big deal. Well just about at exactly the same moment in 1956, there was another very important episode that I paid very little attention to, called the Suez Crisis. What was the Suez Crisis all about? Well what the Suez Crisis was all about is Colonel Nasser, the dictator of Egypt nationalizing the Suez Canal.

That is to say, claiming for Egypt control of this crucial asset on Egyptian soil. And in consequence of that, Great Britain, the imperial power that had controlled Egypt for decades, and France, another European imperial power with interest in North Africa, and Israel, conspiring to concoct a cockamamie war intended to reclaim control of the Suez Canal, supposedly on behalf of the international community, but really aimed to overthrow Nasser, thereby restoring British imperial control of Egypt.

Well, that didn't work out too well. But as an episode indicative of the true nature of the interaction between the West and the Arab world, I think that speaks volumes. And I would bet that if we walked outside this studio and asked a hundred of our fellow citizens, "Tell me about the Suez Crisis," probably two out of a hundred would be able to identify it.

If we walked down the street in Cairo and said, asked, a hundred Egyptians, "Tell me about the Suez Crisis," I'll bet you a hundred out of a hundred could identify it. So one of the things that I do believe that is happening at least on college campuses, and this could be a leading indicator of shifting consciousness more broadly-- what's happening on college campuses is greater awareness of sensitivity to, even empathy for, that story in which the Suez Crisis forms one episode.

Bill Moyers: Let me go back to when we were talking about Option C and withdrawal from Afghanistan and the administration's position. Part of what I hear you saying, confirming what the administration has more or less made clear, that part of the strategy of Option C is to reserve the right to attack anyone who it determines poses a direct threat to American national security, anywhere in the world. So my question to you is, is Iran a direct threat to America?

Andrew Bacevich: Oh no. You know, I have a friend who sent me an email, this is six months ago, roughly my age, and he said he never imagined that he would live in a world in which the biggest threat to the United States of America was Iran. I mean, threats used to be powers that somehow more or less were our equivalent. Countries that had big armies. Countries that possessed empires. Countries that had thousands of nuclear weapons. Countries that possessed the ability to destroy us in a heartbeat.

Well, Iran can't do any of those things. Iran doesn't possess any of those things. So whatever threat Iran poses is very, very limited. And certainly does not constitute any kind of a justification for yet another experiment with preventive war.

Bill Moyers: But suppose that Iran develops the capacity and builds an atomic bomb. Does that change their equation if you put a big stick in the hand of a small boy, is he more of a threat than he had been before?

Andrew Bacevich: Don't think so. General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, three or four weeks ago, made a comment, that as far as he was concerned the Iranian government should be viewed as a rational actor. I think that's exactly right. Now, there are representatives of the Iranian government that spout truly vile rhetoric, sometimes directed against us, perhaps even more often directed against Israel.

But rhetoric and behavior are not necessarily the same thing. I see little evidence over the history of the Islamic Republic of irrational behavior, of a regime that courts its own destruction. Now, we once thought that the Soviets were people we couldn't deal with. That the Soviet possession of a nuclear weapon constituted an immediate threat, an intolerable threat.

Back in the early 1950s, there were voices in this country proposing preventive war against the Soviet Union. Cooler heads prevailed. And the United States embraced a strategy of deterrence, directed against the Soviet Union, and it worked. And we've managed to survive these several decades since Hiroshima and Nagasaki without having had any further use of nuclear weapons.

Bill Moyers: It's been like living with a snake under the bed though, you know that.

Andrew Bacevich: It does, it does. I mean, this is-- we don't live in a perfect world. In a better world, we would eliminate nuclear weapons. Well, we're the ones who invented them, we're the ones who used them, we're the ones who once defined power in terms of the size of your nuclear arsenal. So, it seems unlikely to me that we are going to lead the way to the elimination of nuclear weapons. So we're going to have to live with the snake under the bed. And I believe it's better to live with that snake under the bed than to undertake another war.

Bill Moyers: If you were Iran, would you want the bomb, a nuclear weapon, because Pakistan on one side of you has nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and Israel on the other side of you has nuclear weapons. And you live in a neighborhood where there are a dozen or more American military installations. So is it rational that you might want a nuclear weapon?

Andrew Bacevich: Of course it is. I think were I in a position of authority in Iran, I would counsel the secret development of a nuclear weapons program to the point where we possess the ability to create an actual weapon quickly, without in fact having done so. To possess a somewhat shadowy but nonetheless real nuclear capability. But not an actual nuclear arsenal. I think that that would give my enemies pause, but would not give my enemies a pretext to launch a war.

Bill Moyers: If you were developing that capacity and you got to the point where you could take the next step if you needed to, wouldn't you be almost inviting-- Israel or the United States, who have made it clear there's a red line you cannot cross, to come in?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, I mean, what I would want to do is to make it more difficult for the Israelis and the Americans to determine whether or not I had actually crossed that red line. And I would make that calculation based on my reading of the American thinking. My reading would be that President Obama is not eager to have a war. Now, President Obama has, perhaps to his own misfortune and perhaps ultimately to our misfortune, has gone way out on a limb in declaring that an Iranian bomb is indeed unacceptable. I don't want to invite him to contemplate the bomb. I want him to contemplate the problem of me potentially having a bomb. And much the same I think applies to the government of Israel.

But, you know, again, when you look at it from an Iranian perspective, and I have to emphasize, it's always important in these matters to look at things from your adversary's perspective, they do have serious security threats. They have every reason to view the United States of America as hostile.

Bill Moyers: How so?

Andrew Bacevich: Because of the history of U.S./Iranian relations.

Bill Moyers: Yeah, the Eisenhower administration, overthrew the democratically-elected leader of Iran and installed--

Andrew Bacevich: Same--

Bill Moyers: --a monarch.

Andrew Bacevich: Same thing with the Suez Crisis of 1956. Let walk outside the studio and ask a hundred of our fellow citizens, "Tell me about what happened between the United States and Iran in 1953," and none will know. Let's go to Tehran and ask them, and a hundred out of a hundred Iranians will say, "That's when the C.I.A. and British MI-6 collaborated to overthrow a democratically-elected government and to reinstall the shah on his thrown." An action undertaken with absolutely no concern about the well-being of the Iranian people, but in pursuit of near-term strategic interest.

Bill Moyers: Like you, I am confident that President Obama seems to want to avoid war. But he also has said, as you have said, that an Iranian nuclear bomb would be unacceptable. Which suggests he would act to stop them before they build one, or take it out after they do. And I ask you, has he backed himself into a corner with that position?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, I think he has. Now, I think I can understand why the president would be as adamant on that score. Because the president doesn't want Israel attacking Iran.

In order to try to restrain any inclination on the part of the government of Israel to engage in a preventive war against Iran, one which almost inevitably we would be drawn into, the president is trying to provide these very clear-cut assurances that-- assurances to Israel and its supporters, that we won't permit this bomb from coming into existence. But yes, in making that commitment to try to restrain Israel the effect is, I think, to limit his own maneuvering room, should an Iranian nuclear program become more visible and make visible progress.

Bill Moyers: So practically, as a military man, what are his options?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, I think his options-- number one, he should go to church and pray. But I think more seriously, they're putting their chips in the economic sanctions basket.

Bill Moyers: We did that against Iraq as well.

Andrew Bacevich: We did. These sanctions are serious. These sanctions seem to be inflicting real pain on the Iranian economy. Whether or not the result will be to persuade the Iranian government to change its behavior, I think very much remains to be seen. I mean, your comment about Iraq is suggestive of a larger record in which economic sanctions tend not to produce the results anticipated.

Bill Moyers: And they tend to punish ordinary people. Go and see "A Separation," that marvelous movie made by Iranian film-- made in Iran. And you see that they're just like us in going about their daily activity, trying to get their kids to school, trying to get domestic help, and--

Andrew Bacevich: And it's not the people in the palaces or in the government buildings that are going without.

Bill Moyers: Would an attack on Iran be a huge roll of the dice?

Andrew Bacevich: We should now appreciate the extent to which any war is a roll of the dice. That anyone who pretends to predict how a war is going to play out is-- doesn't know what they're talking about. So yes, this would be a big roll of the dice, maybe more than most. Because you and I don't know what intelligence is available about Iranian nuclear sites. I'm not sure the extent to which the intelligence community actually is confident in their intelligence.

Bill Moyers: We weren't in the build up to invading Iraq.

Andrew Bacevich: But identifying the targets, choosing the weapons that can destroy those targets with absolute assurance, I think operationally would be a very difficult thing. And then whether or not the Iranians would simply passively accept this or contrive to find some way to strike back against Israel, against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who knows what they would do.

But it seems to me that passivity would unlikely to be their response. And then beyond that even, I think, proponents of attacking Iran acknowledge that the result wouldn't be to destroy an Iranian nuclear program, it would be to deflect it, to postpone it, to cause it some difficulties. That a year later or two years later, the problem would be back again.

Bill Moyers: You were very clear a moment ago, very unequivocal in saying that you didn't think Iran was a direct threat to us. But what about Israel? Is Iran a direct threat to Israel? Which is only 1,000 miles from those potential nuclear facilities in Iran.

Andrew Bacevich: You know, I think honesty requires us to say that were we Israeli Jews, we might evaluate us this threat somewhat differently. I'm not an Israeli Jew, I'm an American. And I believe that the basis for deciding when and where the United States rolls the dice to go to war needs to be informed above all by a calculation of what serves the interest of the American people.

You know, it's very difficult to read Israeli intentions. Israel has a tradition of risk-taking on matters of security. We-- when we alluded a few minutes ago to the Suez Crisis is a good example of that. Contriving this war in order to overthrow Nasser because they perceived Nasser to be a looming threat to the well-being of Israel.

Bill Moyers: Took a great risk with The Six-Day War.

Andrew Bacevich: Took a risk when they invaded Lebanon in1982.

Bill Moyers: Twice.

Andrew Bacevich: Twice.

Bill Moyers: Bombing the nuclear facility in Iraq in 1981.

Andrew Bacevich: So it would not be out of character for Israel to attack Iran. That said, Israel is in a circumstance right now where I think it perceives itself and perhaps accurately perceives itself as increasingly isolated in the world stage. Isolated, and therefore evermore dependent upon the United States as patron, partner, supporter, source of security assistance, a couple billion dollars per year.

Bill Moyers: Three.

Andrew Bacevich: Israel cannot afford to alienate the United States. And so as Netanyahu and his advisors sit down to evaluate what to do about this perceived Iranian threat, part of their calculation has to be whether or not attacking Iran would put the relationship with the United States in jeopardy.

They cannot afford to rupture that relationship. And quite frankly, were Israel to attack Iran, and were the United States as a consequence to be dragged into another war, and were that war to go badly, then it seems to me the risk to the U.S./Israeli friendship would be very great.

Bill Moyers: What if this is as The New York Times suggested recently, just a big bluff?" Because since Netanyahu and the pro-Israeli forces groups in this country have been making this such a big debate, you and I are not talking about the Palestinians. And the issue of Palestinians, off the table. Issue settlements, off the table.

Andrew Bacevich: Peace process has disappeared. I don't think the Israeli government is inventing a war scare in order to distract attention from the question of the Palestinians. But I think that that's a side benefit. I very much am of the school that says that one, not the only one, but one of those grievances that informs and inflames relations between the United States and the Islamic world, is the fact that the Palestinians still don't have their own state.

I believe that we have a vital national interest in creating that state. Of taking that grievance off the table. And it is absolutely true that amidst all the warmongering about Iran, Israel these days pretty much gets a pass. And there's very little impetus made to advance the peace process. Indeed, the peace process has more or less been lost in the shuffle.

Bill Moyers: How do you think Obama's handling the pressure from the pro-Israel groups in this country that are pressing for a more aggressive posture toward Iran?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, I think that he's trying to provide reassurances that we've got Israel's back.

President Barack Obama: When there are efforts to boycott or divest from Israel, we will stand against them. And whenever an effort is made to delegitimize the state of Israel, my administration has opposed them. So there should not be a shred of doubt by now. When the chips are down, I have Israel's back.

Bill Moyers: And yet look at this. Let me show you some print ads, sponsored by an organization called the Emergency Committee for Israel.

Here's one of them, "Why does the Obama administration treat Israel like a punching bag?" "Enough with the cheap shots. It's time for the Obama administration to stop blaming Israel first." And this organization is headed by Bill Kristol, the ardent propagandist for invading Iraq ten years ago who once said that the war would be over in two months.

And Gary Bauer who's a right-wing Christian who works with the Christian Zionists to make sure the United States supports Israel 1,000 percent. Bauer has said, as this ad suggests, "I'll be brutally honest: I don't trust the president on Israel." And yet the president keeps assuring them that he can be trusted. And his actions seem to back that up, do they not?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, they do to me. But I mean, I think this is-- this is partisan politics. These-- Gary Bauer and William Kristol act, in essence, as agents of the Republican Party. They are committed to President Obama's defeat in November. And I think the question of Israel is useful to them as a vehicle for mobilizing support for the Republican candidate, whoever that's going to be.

Bill Moyers: Driving a wedge between Obama and American Jews and maybe between American Jews and Blacks who have been a strong, long coalition for--

Andrew Bacevich: Well, but also, I mean, garnering the votes of Christian evangelicals. There's many more Christian evangelicals in this country than there are Jews. And so to argue that this Democratic president is weak on Israel is a way, I think, to try to draw votes for the Republican candidate, whoever it's going to be.

I don't mean that Kristol and Bauer aren't themselves committed to the security of Israel, but I think that in a campaign like this, especially when it occurs during an election year, there's something more going and here than simply a concern about Israeli security.

BILL MOYERS: You write in your new essay that President Obama's strategy seems to be to "thicken" America's global presence throughout the world. The horn of Africa, the Arab Peninsula, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, the Pacific.

And that as you said earlier, this strategy militarily involves unmanned missiles, drones, and targeted assassinations. Will the new generation accept that as a necessary instrument of American power without putting us at the risk in order to continue to maintain influence in the world?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, my students won't.

Bill Moyers: I should've known.

Andrew Bacevich: And it's, I guess it's hard to tell the extent to which that kind of critical thinking is going to become pervasive. What I'd say though, is that whatever's bubbling on college campuses in terms of different perspectives on contemporary history, probably won't take unless that different interpretation at least is echoed or endorsed by the broader public media.

That in a larger sense, I think there needs to be a different conversation about what the history of the 20th century has been all about. And frankly, that's, the book of mine that you have sitting there, in a sense, that describes the purpose of that project.

The conceit of the book is that the failure of President Bush's Freedom Agenda and the Great Recession that we're still dealing with, together signify that the post-war period of American dominion has ended. And the question that the contributors to the book are invited to answer is, well, if the American century is over, what was the American century all about? What can we learn from it?

And I want people to begin to grapple with what that new era is all about. It's not going to be about one superpower imposing its will on the entire globe. Well, if the so-called unipolar moment has turned out to be a fiction, then where does that leave us?

I mean, we need to be able to see the world and ourselves and the consequences of our actions in very real terms. Nowhere more so than when it comes to the exercise of military power.

The Iraq War was, from start to finish, maybe not from start to finish, the first two weeks maybe looked brilliant, the remaining 8.9 years were a disaster. An expensive disaster, an unnecessary disaster. And as people, we need to take that on board. We need to acknowledge that in order to avoid replicating those kinds of errors.

Bill Moyers: So what does it mean if the United States is no longer the sun around which everything else orbits?

Andrew Bacevich: It means that history has moved on. It means that the 21st century is in all likelihood, to the extent that we can foresee the future, and we must all acknowledge that our capacity to do so is very limited, but to the extent that we think we can glimpse the future, the 21st century is going to be a multipolar order. There are going to be some number, bigger than one, some number of powers who together will either create order or replicate the catastrophes that occurred in the first half of the 20th century, when the last multipolar order collapsed.

China's going to be one of those powers. Probably India is going be one. In its way, in its peculiar way, Europe is going to be one of those powers that we have to reckon with. To some degree Russia, maybe Brazil. And emphatically, the United States of America. But we are not going to call the shots.

Bill Moyers: You have written that all this debate about American exceptionalism conceals a flight from reality.

Andrew Bacevich: Well, I think it does. We began the 21st century with a balanced budget. For the past few years now, we've had a trillion dollar deficit. We began the 21st century, with a military that we were not only persuaded was the best in the world, but with a military that we were certain could win any fight quickly, achieve victory.

We've been engaged in war for more than a decade now and we have no victories that we can claim. We began the decade with an economy that seemed to be cooking on all cylinders. And that for the past several years now has been in deep recession with large numbers of Americans, we're still what, over 8 percent unemployment without work, millions losing their homes. What does this signify? What do these bits of evidence signify? Well, they signify something. And what they signify is not that the American century continues or that chance about American exceptionalism constitute the basis for sound policy.

Bill Moyers: Let me play for you the press conference that President Obama gave in 2009 during which he was asked a question about American exceptionalism, and here was his answer.

President Barack Obama: I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world [...] Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

Bill Moyers: That qualified response landed him in burning water with the right. It's become a big campaign issue.

Andrew Bacevich: And in many respects, I think he's backed away from that. Politically, I think he regrets that statement, that somehow suggesting some level of equivalence. I wish the president had stuck with his guns. I think he's exactly right.

I believe in American exceptionalism, if American exceptionalism implies that there are certain qualities that make the United States of America a special place, a wonderful place-- a place worthy of a patriot's love.

But it does not follow that other countries, other cultures somehow have to exist in a subordinate position relative to the United States. And it certainly should not imply that we somehow have the answer, the recipe to explain the direction that the world is going to go in.

Bill Moyers: As you know, there are people who believe the world will be a darker and more dangerous place if the United States takes down that umbrella of military power, money, influence, that it has held up all of these years. What happens if the United States retreats?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, I don't know that it's retreat. I don't know that it's -- I'm not sure that the umbrella metaphor works all that well. I mean, I'm not an advocate of disarmament. I don't wish us to have the weakest military in the world. I actually think we ought to have a very strong military.

But I think, you know, the fact of the matter is, the world is changing. The world of the American century, as it was once styled, simply no longer exists. And grown-ups will acknowledge that and will adjust accordingly.

We cannot say what the post-American century is going to look like. What we can do is to devote ourselves to ensuring that it's not going to replicate the catastrophes that occurred in the first half of the 20th century.

BILL MOYERS: What's the message you want to communicate with this book?

Andrew Bacevich: That if there was an American century, it's over. That the combination of the failure of President George W. Bush's Freedom Agenda and the onset of the Great Recession, as we call it, has opened up a new era. And we need both to contemplate on the significance of the era past, and to begin to think about the uncharted territory in which we are headed.

Bill Moyers: Andrew Bacevich. Thank you very much for being with me.

Andrew Bacevich: Thank you. 

This article may not be republished without permission from Truthout.

Bill Moyers

A broadcast journalist for more than four decades, Bill Moyers has been recognized as one of the unique voices of our times, one that resonates with multiple generations. In 2012, at the age of 77, Moyers begins his latest media venture with the launch of "Moyers & Company." With his wife and creative partner, Judith Davidson Moyers, Bill Moyers has produced such groundbreaking public affairs series as "NOW with Bill Moyers" (2002-2005) and "Bill Moyers Journal" (2007-2010). 

For his work, Moyers has received more than 30 Emmys, two prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, nine Peabodys, and three George Polk Awards. Moyers' most recent book, "Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues," was published in May 2011. He currently serves as president of the Schumann Media Center, a nonprofit organization that supports independent journalism.


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Andrew Bacevich on Changing Our Military Mindset

Monday, 26 March 2012 09:48 By Bill Moyers, Moyers & Co. | Interview & Video

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032612moyersAndrew Bacevich. (Photo: Moyers & Company)Nine years after Baghdad erupted in "shock and awe," we're once again hearing in America the drumbeat for war in the Middle East. Now, the bull's-eye is on Iran. But what we need more than a simple change of target is a complete change in perspective, says Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran-turned-scholar who's become one of the most perceptive observers of America's changing role in the world.

This week, on an all-new Moyers & Company, Bill Moyers and Bacevich explore the futility of "endless" wars, and provide a reality check on the rhetoric of American exceptionalism.

"Are we so unimaginative, so wedded to the reliance on military means that we cannot conceive of any way to reconcile our differences with groups and nations in the Islamic world, and therefore bring this conflict to an end?" Bacevich tells Moyers.

Bacevich also answers the question of whether Iran is a direct threat to America with a definitive no. "Whatever threat Iran poses is very, very limited," he tells Moyers, "and certainly does not constitute any kind of justification for yet another experiment with preventive war."

Bill Moyers: Welcome. Sometimes seems as if it were only a bad dream vaguely remembered from last night's restless sleep, but it was actually nine years ago this month that Iraq's capital of Baghdad erupted in 'shock and awe' and the American invasion began of a country that had not attacked us. When the last combat troops pulled out this past December, what one neo-conservative advocate of the invasion had predicted would be a "cakewalk," had killed well over a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians, cost nearly 4500 American soldiers their lives, maimed many others, and incurred costs that could reach more than 3 trillion dollars before the last invoice comes due.

And we never did find those weapons of mass destruction.

Yet here we are, nine years later, and once again the drumbeat sounds for war in the Middle East. This time the bull's eye is Iran, and many of the bloodthirsty cries come from the same lusty throats that agitated a decade ago for invading Iraq. Now the neo-con armchair warriors call for hitting Iran before it builds a nuclear bomb to drop on Israel – a scenario that remains in doubt.

Add to this potential nightmare Afghanistan, where the U.S. is still fighting more than ten years later, and where events just go from bad to worse. At times like these I turn to someone whose grounded realism makes him my favorite go-to person for separating fact and reason from fear and fantasy. You've seen Andrew Bacevich at this table before. A West Point Graduate and Vietnam veteran, he retired from the army after 23 years and is now an esteemed professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a frequent contributor to publications both left and right. His book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism became a bestseller. Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War was a tough-minded critique of our bloated and costly national security complex. He's the editor of this new book of essays: The Short American Century: A Postmortem, recently released by Harvard University Press. Andrew Bacevich, welcome back.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Thanks very much for having me.

BILL MOYERS: The headlines from Afghanistan get uglier and uglier every day. The rampage of that soldier, the burning of the Koran, Marines urinating on corpses, NATO helicopters firing into and killing civilians, the corruption, and vast sums of corruption and the money that's passing through Kabul. Do you see these as isolated episodes, or a pattern that is undermining the mission and making success impossible?

Andrew Bacevich: I don't know that there's a pattern in the sense that one incident is related to another in any way. But cumulatively the effect is to make mission success all the more remote. And ought to, I think, cause us to ask whether the game is worth the candle. Where is this thing headed? Now, I think there's a general acknowledgement that in the very best case, the Afghanistan war is not going to end in anything that resembles what we once might have called a victory.

The best case is that we're going to be able to extricate ourselves. Ourselves, we and our NATO allies, without the place immediately falling into chaos.

Bill Moyers: At what point will it be evident that the relations between the United States and the Afghan people are so poisoned that they'll want us out?

Andrew Bacevich: I think it's where we are. I think it's where we were a couple months ago. I'm struck by the comments of Karzai, President Karzai of Afghanistan, who is pretty clear I think, that it's time for us to get out. His estimation of the ability of Afghan forces to assume responsibility for security in the countryside may or may not be correct. But he is the leader of a nation state that we say is sovereign, and it seems to me that we should take seriously his argument that it's time for us to leave.

Bill Moyers: The British had to get out, the Russians had to get out, what can we learn from their experience as they left?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, what we ought to have learned is that it's folly to imagine that you can use a foreign army to determine the fate of Afghanistan. We are replicating their experience in tragic ways.

Bill Moyers: Is a gradual withdrawal still possible? Could it be successful?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, it would have to be gradual in the sense that we have an enormous quantity of forces there, enormous amounts of equipment. And I think that actually that's the-- that should be the business of the commander. I mean--

Bill Moyers: On the ground, the commander on the ground?

Andrew Bacevich: General Allen. Were I the commander in chief I would call General Allen on the phone and say "You know, you know what your job is now? Your job is to expeditiously but responsibly withdraw U.S. Forces from Afghanistan. Please call me back in two weeks and tell me what your plan is to make that happen." And I would respect his plan, a plan of a military professional, as to how long that would take. And it would take some considerable number of months. Not years, months.

Bill Moyers: Suppose you're not the commander in chief here, but you are the commander in chief of the Taliban, and you hear that the President of the United States has called his ground commander and said, "Find a way to get out." What do you then? Do you just sit back and wait until that happens?

Andrew Bacevich: You do. You bide your time. I mean, they have a political agenda. And I have no doubt that they aspire to regain political control of that country. I also think that the future of Afghanistan is something for Afghans to sort out on their own.

Bill Moyers: Then what will have all of our soldiers died for there?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, that is a very difficult question. It's a difficult question, I think about, in the context of Iraq. And I think the answer to the question is that they died for their country. Soldiers don't get to choose the wars that they fight. They are sent to serve. They are sent with an understanding that they may be called upon to sacrifice. And the value of the sacrifice is inherent in the act of sacrifice and is independent, I think, of questions about the merit of the policies that sent the soldier into harm's way in the first place.

Bill Moyers: Is there a Plan B as you look at the strategic situation there, or look at what the administration is doing?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, I think Plan B, and it's not necessarily one that I fully agree with, is already taking shape. Or maybe we should call it Plan C. I mean, Plan A was "shock and awe." Plan A was the George W. Bush administration's belief that the concerted application of American military power could fundamentally transform the Islamic world.

That what really-- that's the real genesis of the Iraq War. Iraq was going to be the place where the Bush administration demonstrated our capacity to fundamentally change countries in the Islamic world. It didn't work. And we ended up by 2004, 2005, with an insurgency that we could not control. That's when Plan B followed. Plan B following the 2006 elections, was the notion that even if we can't liberate the greater Middle East and democratize it, perhaps we can at least control it and we can control it by adopting counterinsurgency tactics.

Bill Moyers: Right.

Andrew Bacevich: Petraeus, period. The surge in Iraq. Which some people think succeeded. It did certainly succeeded to a degree in Iraq by reducing the level of violence. And Plan B by 2009, with President Obama now having succeeded George W. Bush, Plan B then was applied to Afghanistan during the McChrystal era.

The notion that "comprehensive counterinsurgency," that was the phrase that General McChrystal used, that "comprehensive counterinsurgency" could pacify Afghanistan. Could replicate in Afghanistan the achievements supposedly made by Petraeus in Iraq. But that didn't work. Matter of fact, McChrystal himself flamed out. Petraeus came back for a second effort at applying counterinsurgency, and achieved only limited success.

Bill Moyers: Why don't--

Andrew Bacevich: I don't think anybody today thinks that counterinsurgency is going to pacify Afghanistan.

Bill Moyers: Why didn't it work?

Andrew Bacevich: Again, one would refer to Afghan history here, that this is simply not a place that accommodates foreign invaders who think they know how to run the place better than the local population. But what I would want to emphasize, I think, is that by last year, I think Obama himself had given up on the notion that counterinsurgency provided a basis for U.S. strategy and had, indeed, begun to implement Plan C. And Plan C is targeted assassination.

Plan C is relying on drones, unmanned aerial vehicles with missiles, and also commandos, special operation forces, in order to conduct military operations, in essence on a global basis, identifying those who could pose a threat to us. And without regard to congressional authority, without regard to considerations of national sovereignty, to go kill the people we think need to be killed. Plan C is already being implemented.

Bill Moyers: Most people seem to accept it as an alternative to failure in Afghanistan, and as a way of keeping American soldiers out of harm's way.

Andrew Bacevich: Well, and also they accept it because of course, it doesn't cost us anything. We are not, the people are not engaged in any serious way. The people are not asked to sacrifice. The people are asked only to applaud when we are told after the fact that an attack has succeeded. For example, the raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.

And I would applaud, and do applaud, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. But I also have this question to ask. And that is, what is the political objective of a strategy of targeted assassination? How many people do we think we're going to kill? How long are we going to kill people in Yemen or in Somalia or in Pakistan before we get to some point where we can say, "Yes, now our political purposes have been achieved, and therefore the war can end, that Plan C will have run its course?" And my fear is that we'll never, we'll never run out of targets. And that describes where we are.

Bill Moyers: That's Option C, right?

Andrew Bacevich: Option C is where we are. And I think that the reason-- but the reason Option-- we should critically scrutinize Option C is that permanent, open-ended war cannot be good for the country. Permanent, open-ended war, in essence, is an abdication of strategic thought. Are we so unimaginative, are we so wedded to the reliance on military means, that we cannot conceive of any way to reconcile our differences with groups, nations, in the Islamic world, and therefore bring this conflict to an end? And there may be some people who would answer, "No, there is no way." Well, I-- woe betide our nation, if indeed there is no alternative but endless war.

Bill Moyers: But being a realist, as you are, I'm confident that you think as I do that somewhere, even as we speak, there are terrorists plotting how they can inflict harm on the United States.

Andrew Bacevich: Let me emphasize. There is some value, there is some utility in Plan C. That there are people out there who are plotting. Whose minds cannot be changed. And we do need to identify them and do whatever is necessary to ensure that they cannot harm us. But, those groups, those individuals exist within a milieu, a political context, a culture.

And it seems to me that the strategic imperative is to understand that milieu, to understand the grievances that ultimately gave rise to this animosity expressing itself in terrorist activity. And as a realist, and somebody who's not given to optimism, it seems to me that there are indications that we can engage or have some hope in positive change.

And here I'm alluding to the Arab Spring. Now, there are some neoconservatives who believe that somehow we are responsible for the Arab Spring, that the Arab Spring is a natural outgrowth of the Iraq War and the George Bush Freedom Agenda. That's nonsense. The origins of the Arab Spring come from within Arab nations.

They will determine where the Arab Spring leads and where it leads in Egypt is going to be probably different than where it leads in Libya, and where it leads in Tunisia. But, the Arab Spring, it seems to me, does demonstrate a determination on the part of people in the Arab world, and a capacity on the part of people in the Arab world to exercise their right to self-determination.

They are not content to live in the world as they've been condemned to live throughout the period of European imperialism followed by American imperialism. So change is afoot. And there's at least some possibility that that change may make possible some reconciliation between ourselves and them.

I think the harder, deeper problem is the retarded development of nations in the Arab world. Meaning that the people have been denied opportunity. They've been denied opportunities to exercise freedom. But I think that we have to concede that an element of that harder, deeper problem is the West's involvement and presence in the Arab world, or more broadly, the Islamic world.

That presence, those activities, have never been motivated by British concern, French concern, or American concern, about the well-being of the people who live there. That presence has been motivated by imperial ambition, by desire to have access to oil, by geopolitical calculations relative to the Soviet Union back in Cold War days.

We have made it harder. We have made it deeper. And I think the beginning of wisdom, in terms of finding a way out, is to acknowledge that we have contributed to the difficulties we face.

Bill Moyers: Do you think there is a growing awareness and perception of that reality? Because after 9/11, when some people said, "Well, it's blowback, it's a consequence of our policies in that part of the world for so long." They were practically drawn and quartered.

Andrew Bacevich: I think the historical record is actually-- is unambiguous. The problem is that prior to 9/11, we were largely ignorant of the historical record. We have been a prisoner of a particular narrative of the 20th century that has focused on a series of events, World War I, followed by World War II, followed by the Cold War. In that narrative, the Islamic world has never been anywhere except on the periphery.

Let's take the case of the Suez Crisis of 1956. When I was a kid growing up, 1956 was the year of the Hungarian Revolution. Because when I was a kid growing up, my perspective was very much shaped by events of the Cold War.

And Hungarians, freedom fighters, rising up against their Soviet occupiers was a big deal. Well, it was a big deal. Well just about at exactly the same moment in 1956, there was another very important episode that I paid very little attention to, called the Suez Crisis. What was the Suez Crisis all about? Well what the Suez Crisis was all about is Colonel Nasser, the dictator of Egypt nationalizing the Suez Canal.

That is to say, claiming for Egypt control of this crucial asset on Egyptian soil. And in consequence of that, Great Britain, the imperial power that had controlled Egypt for decades, and France, another European imperial power with interest in North Africa, and Israel, conspiring to concoct a cockamamie war intended to reclaim control of the Suez Canal, supposedly on behalf of the international community, but really aimed to overthrow Nasser, thereby restoring British imperial control of Egypt.

Well, that didn't work out too well. But as an episode indicative of the true nature of the interaction between the West and the Arab world, I think that speaks volumes. And I would bet that if we walked outside this studio and asked a hundred of our fellow citizens, "Tell me about the Suez Crisis," probably two out of a hundred would be able to identify it.

If we walked down the street in Cairo and said, asked, a hundred Egyptians, "Tell me about the Suez Crisis," I'll bet you a hundred out of a hundred could identify it. So one of the things that I do believe that is happening at least on college campuses, and this could be a leading indicator of shifting consciousness more broadly-- what's happening on college campuses is greater awareness of sensitivity to, even empathy for, that story in which the Suez Crisis forms one episode.

Bill Moyers: Let me go back to when we were talking about Option C and withdrawal from Afghanistan and the administration's position. Part of what I hear you saying, confirming what the administration has more or less made clear, that part of the strategy of Option C is to reserve the right to attack anyone who it determines poses a direct threat to American national security, anywhere in the world. So my question to you is, is Iran a direct threat to America?

Andrew Bacevich: Oh no. You know, I have a friend who sent me an email, this is six months ago, roughly my age, and he said he never imagined that he would live in a world in which the biggest threat to the United States of America was Iran. I mean, threats used to be powers that somehow more or less were our equivalent. Countries that had big armies. Countries that possessed empires. Countries that had thousands of nuclear weapons. Countries that possessed the ability to destroy us in a heartbeat.

Well, Iran can't do any of those things. Iran doesn't possess any of those things. So whatever threat Iran poses is very, very limited. And certainly does not constitute any kind of a justification for yet another experiment with preventive war.

Bill Moyers: But suppose that Iran develops the capacity and builds an atomic bomb. Does that change their equation if you put a big stick in the hand of a small boy, is he more of a threat than he had been before?

Andrew Bacevich: Don't think so. General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, three or four weeks ago, made a comment, that as far as he was concerned the Iranian government should be viewed as a rational actor. I think that's exactly right. Now, there are representatives of the Iranian government that spout truly vile rhetoric, sometimes directed against us, perhaps even more often directed against Israel.

But rhetoric and behavior are not necessarily the same thing. I see little evidence over the history of the Islamic Republic of irrational behavior, of a regime that courts its own destruction. Now, we once thought that the Soviets were people we couldn't deal with. That the Soviet possession of a nuclear weapon constituted an immediate threat, an intolerable threat.

Back in the early 1950s, there were voices in this country proposing preventive war against the Soviet Union. Cooler heads prevailed. And the United States embraced a strategy of deterrence, directed against the Soviet Union, and it worked. And we've managed to survive these several decades since Hiroshima and Nagasaki without having had any further use of nuclear weapons.

Bill Moyers: It's been like living with a snake under the bed though, you know that.

Andrew Bacevich: It does, it does. I mean, this is-- we don't live in a perfect world. In a better world, we would eliminate nuclear weapons. Well, we're the ones who invented them, we're the ones who used them, we're the ones who once defined power in terms of the size of your nuclear arsenal. So, it seems unlikely to me that we are going to lead the way to the elimination of nuclear weapons. So we're going to have to live with the snake under the bed. And I believe it's better to live with that snake under the bed than to undertake another war.

Bill Moyers: If you were Iran, would you want the bomb, a nuclear weapon, because Pakistan on one side of you has nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and Israel on the other side of you has nuclear weapons. And you live in a neighborhood where there are a dozen or more American military installations. So is it rational that you might want a nuclear weapon?

Andrew Bacevich: Of course it is. I think were I in a position of authority in Iran, I would counsel the secret development of a nuclear weapons program to the point where we possess the ability to create an actual weapon quickly, without in fact having done so. To possess a somewhat shadowy but nonetheless real nuclear capability. But not an actual nuclear arsenal. I think that that would give my enemies pause, but would not give my enemies a pretext to launch a war.

Bill Moyers: If you were developing that capacity and you got to the point where you could take the next step if you needed to, wouldn't you be almost inviting-- Israel or the United States, who have made it clear there's a red line you cannot cross, to come in?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, I mean, what I would want to do is to make it more difficult for the Israelis and the Americans to determine whether or not I had actually crossed that red line. And I would make that calculation based on my reading of the American thinking. My reading would be that President Obama is not eager to have a war. Now, President Obama has, perhaps to his own misfortune and perhaps ultimately to our misfortune, has gone way out on a limb in declaring that an Iranian bomb is indeed unacceptable. I don't want to invite him to contemplate the bomb. I want him to contemplate the problem of me potentially having a bomb. And much the same I think applies to the government of Israel.

But, you know, again, when you look at it from an Iranian perspective, and I have to emphasize, it's always important in these matters to look at things from your adversary's perspective, they do have serious security threats. They have every reason to view the United States of America as hostile.

Bill Moyers: How so?

Andrew Bacevich: Because of the history of U.S./Iranian relations.

Bill Moyers: Yeah, the Eisenhower administration, overthrew the democratically-elected leader of Iran and installed--

Andrew Bacevich: Same--

Bill Moyers: --a monarch.

Andrew Bacevich: Same thing with the Suez Crisis of 1956. Let walk outside the studio and ask a hundred of our fellow citizens, "Tell me about what happened between the United States and Iran in 1953," and none will know. Let's go to Tehran and ask them, and a hundred out of a hundred Iranians will say, "That's when the C.I.A. and British MI-6 collaborated to overthrow a democratically-elected government and to reinstall the shah on his thrown." An action undertaken with absolutely no concern about the well-being of the Iranian people, but in pursuit of near-term strategic interest.

Bill Moyers: Like you, I am confident that President Obama seems to want to avoid war. But he also has said, as you have said, that an Iranian nuclear bomb would be unacceptable. Which suggests he would act to stop them before they build one, or take it out after they do. And I ask you, has he backed himself into a corner with that position?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, I think he has. Now, I think I can understand why the president would be as adamant on that score. Because the president doesn't want Israel attacking Iran.

In order to try to restrain any inclination on the part of the government of Israel to engage in a preventive war against Iran, one which almost inevitably we would be drawn into, the president is trying to provide these very clear-cut assurances that-- assurances to Israel and its supporters, that we won't permit this bomb from coming into existence. But yes, in making that commitment to try to restrain Israel the effect is, I think, to limit his own maneuvering room, should an Iranian nuclear program become more visible and make visible progress.

Bill Moyers: So practically, as a military man, what are his options?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, I think his options-- number one, he should go to church and pray. But I think more seriously, they're putting their chips in the economic sanctions basket.

Bill Moyers: We did that against Iraq as well.

Andrew Bacevich: We did. These sanctions are serious. These sanctions seem to be inflicting real pain on the Iranian economy. Whether or not the result will be to persuade the Iranian government to change its behavior, I think very much remains to be seen. I mean, your comment about Iraq is suggestive of a larger record in which economic sanctions tend not to produce the results anticipated.

Bill Moyers: And they tend to punish ordinary people. Go and see "A Separation," that marvelous movie made by Iranian film-- made in Iran. And you see that they're just like us in going about their daily activity, trying to get their kids to school, trying to get domestic help, and--

Andrew Bacevich: And it's not the people in the palaces or in the government buildings that are going without.

Bill Moyers: Would an attack on Iran be a huge roll of the dice?

Andrew Bacevich: We should now appreciate the extent to which any war is a roll of the dice. That anyone who pretends to predict how a war is going to play out is-- doesn't know what they're talking about. So yes, this would be a big roll of the dice, maybe more than most. Because you and I don't know what intelligence is available about Iranian nuclear sites. I'm not sure the extent to which the intelligence community actually is confident in their intelligence.

Bill Moyers: We weren't in the build up to invading Iraq.

Andrew Bacevich: But identifying the targets, choosing the weapons that can destroy those targets with absolute assurance, I think operationally would be a very difficult thing. And then whether or not the Iranians would simply passively accept this or contrive to find some way to strike back against Israel, against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who knows what they would do.

But it seems to me that passivity would unlikely to be their response. And then beyond that even, I think, proponents of attacking Iran acknowledge that the result wouldn't be to destroy an Iranian nuclear program, it would be to deflect it, to postpone it, to cause it some difficulties. That a year later or two years later, the problem would be back again.

Bill Moyers: You were very clear a moment ago, very unequivocal in saying that you didn't think Iran was a direct threat to us. But what about Israel? Is Iran a direct threat to Israel? Which is only 1,000 miles from those potential nuclear facilities in Iran.

Andrew Bacevich: You know, I think honesty requires us to say that were we Israeli Jews, we might evaluate us this threat somewhat differently. I'm not an Israeli Jew, I'm an American. And I believe that the basis for deciding when and where the United States rolls the dice to go to war needs to be informed above all by a calculation of what serves the interest of the American people.

You know, it's very difficult to read Israeli intentions. Israel has a tradition of risk-taking on matters of security. We-- when we alluded a few minutes ago to the Suez Crisis is a good example of that. Contriving this war in order to overthrow Nasser because they perceived Nasser to be a looming threat to the well-being of Israel.

Bill Moyers: Took a great risk with The Six-Day War.

Andrew Bacevich: Took a risk when they invaded Lebanon in1982.

Bill Moyers: Twice.

Andrew Bacevich: Twice.

Bill Moyers: Bombing the nuclear facility in Iraq in 1981.

Andrew Bacevich: So it would not be out of character for Israel to attack Iran. That said, Israel is in a circumstance right now where I think it perceives itself and perhaps accurately perceives itself as increasingly isolated in the world stage. Isolated, and therefore evermore dependent upon the United States as patron, partner, supporter, source of security assistance, a couple billion dollars per year.

Bill Moyers: Three.

Andrew Bacevich: Israel cannot afford to alienate the United States. And so as Netanyahu and his advisors sit down to evaluate what to do about this perceived Iranian threat, part of their calculation has to be whether or not attacking Iran would put the relationship with the United States in jeopardy.

They cannot afford to rupture that relationship. And quite frankly, were Israel to attack Iran, and were the United States as a consequence to be dragged into another war, and were that war to go badly, then it seems to me the risk to the U.S./Israeli friendship would be very great.

Bill Moyers: What if this is as The New York Times suggested recently, just a big bluff?" Because since Netanyahu and the pro-Israeli forces groups in this country have been making this such a big debate, you and I are not talking about the Palestinians. And the issue of Palestinians, off the table. Issue settlements, off the table.

Andrew Bacevich: Peace process has disappeared. I don't think the Israeli government is inventing a war scare in order to distract attention from the question of the Palestinians. But I think that that's a side benefit. I very much am of the school that says that one, not the only one, but one of those grievances that informs and inflames relations between the United States and the Islamic world, is the fact that the Palestinians still don't have their own state.

I believe that we have a vital national interest in creating that state. Of taking that grievance off the table. And it is absolutely true that amidst all the warmongering about Iran, Israel these days pretty much gets a pass. And there's very little impetus made to advance the peace process. Indeed, the peace process has more or less been lost in the shuffle.

Bill Moyers: How do you think Obama's handling the pressure from the pro-Israel groups in this country that are pressing for a more aggressive posture toward Iran?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, I think that he's trying to provide reassurances that we've got Israel's back.

President Barack Obama: When there are efforts to boycott or divest from Israel, we will stand against them. And whenever an effort is made to delegitimize the state of Israel, my administration has opposed them. So there should not be a shred of doubt by now. When the chips are down, I have Israel's back.

Bill Moyers: And yet look at this. Let me show you some print ads, sponsored by an organization called the Emergency Committee for Israel.

Here's one of them, "Why does the Obama administration treat Israel like a punching bag?" "Enough with the cheap shots. It's time for the Obama administration to stop blaming Israel first." And this organization is headed by Bill Kristol, the ardent propagandist for invading Iraq ten years ago who once said that the war would be over in two months.

And Gary Bauer who's a right-wing Christian who works with the Christian Zionists to make sure the United States supports Israel 1,000 percent. Bauer has said, as this ad suggests, "I'll be brutally honest: I don't trust the president on Israel." And yet the president keeps assuring them that he can be trusted. And his actions seem to back that up, do they not?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, they do to me. But I mean, I think this is-- this is partisan politics. These-- Gary Bauer and William Kristol act, in essence, as agents of the Republican Party. They are committed to President Obama's defeat in November. And I think the question of Israel is useful to them as a vehicle for mobilizing support for the Republican candidate, whoever that's going to be.

Bill Moyers: Driving a wedge between Obama and American Jews and maybe between American Jews and Blacks who have been a strong, long coalition for--

Andrew Bacevich: Well, but also, I mean, garnering the votes of Christian evangelicals. There's many more Christian evangelicals in this country than there are Jews. And so to argue that this Democratic president is weak on Israel is a way, I think, to try to draw votes for the Republican candidate, whoever it's going to be.

I don't mean that Kristol and Bauer aren't themselves committed to the security of Israel, but I think that in a campaign like this, especially when it occurs during an election year, there's something more going and here than simply a concern about Israeli security.

BILL MOYERS: You write in your new essay that President Obama's strategy seems to be to "thicken" America's global presence throughout the world. The horn of Africa, the Arab Peninsula, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, the Pacific.

And that as you said earlier, this strategy militarily involves unmanned missiles, drones, and targeted assassinations. Will the new generation accept that as a necessary instrument of American power without putting us at the risk in order to continue to maintain influence in the world?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, my students won't.

Bill Moyers: I should've known.

Andrew Bacevich: And it's, I guess it's hard to tell the extent to which that kind of critical thinking is going to become pervasive. What I'd say though, is that whatever's bubbling on college campuses in terms of different perspectives on contemporary history, probably won't take unless that different interpretation at least is echoed or endorsed by the broader public media.

That in a larger sense, I think there needs to be a different conversation about what the history of the 20th century has been all about. And frankly, that's, the book of mine that you have sitting there, in a sense, that describes the purpose of that project.

The conceit of the book is that the failure of President Bush's Freedom Agenda and the Great Recession that we're still dealing with, together signify that the post-war period of American dominion has ended. And the question that the contributors to the book are invited to answer is, well, if the American century is over, what was the American century all about? What can we learn from it?

And I want people to begin to grapple with what that new era is all about. It's not going to be about one superpower imposing its will on the entire globe. Well, if the so-called unipolar moment has turned out to be a fiction, then where does that leave us?

I mean, we need to be able to see the world and ourselves and the consequences of our actions in very real terms. Nowhere more so than when it comes to the exercise of military power.

The Iraq War was, from start to finish, maybe not from start to finish, the first two weeks maybe looked brilliant, the remaining 8.9 years were a disaster. An expensive disaster, an unnecessary disaster. And as people, we need to take that on board. We need to acknowledge that in order to avoid replicating those kinds of errors.

Bill Moyers: So what does it mean if the United States is no longer the sun around which everything else orbits?

Andrew Bacevich: It means that history has moved on. It means that the 21st century is in all likelihood, to the extent that we can foresee the future, and we must all acknowledge that our capacity to do so is very limited, but to the extent that we think we can glimpse the future, the 21st century is going to be a multipolar order. There are going to be some number, bigger than one, some number of powers who together will either create order or replicate the catastrophes that occurred in the first half of the 20th century, when the last multipolar order collapsed.

China's going to be one of those powers. Probably India is going be one. In its way, in its peculiar way, Europe is going to be one of those powers that we have to reckon with. To some degree Russia, maybe Brazil. And emphatically, the United States of America. But we are not going to call the shots.

Bill Moyers: You have written that all this debate about American exceptionalism conceals a flight from reality.

Andrew Bacevich: Well, I think it does. We began the 21st century with a balanced budget. For the past few years now, we've had a trillion dollar deficit. We began the 21st century, with a military that we were not only persuaded was the best in the world, but with a military that we were certain could win any fight quickly, achieve victory.

We've been engaged in war for more than a decade now and we have no victories that we can claim. We began the decade with an economy that seemed to be cooking on all cylinders. And that for the past several years now has been in deep recession with large numbers of Americans, we're still what, over 8 percent unemployment without work, millions losing their homes. What does this signify? What do these bits of evidence signify? Well, they signify something. And what they signify is not that the American century continues or that chance about American exceptionalism constitute the basis for sound policy.

Bill Moyers: Let me play for you the press conference that President Obama gave in 2009 during which he was asked a question about American exceptionalism, and here was his answer.

President Barack Obama: I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world [...] Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

Bill Moyers: That qualified response landed him in burning water with the right. It's become a big campaign issue.

Andrew Bacevich: And in many respects, I think he's backed away from that. Politically, I think he regrets that statement, that somehow suggesting some level of equivalence. I wish the president had stuck with his guns. I think he's exactly right.

I believe in American exceptionalism, if American exceptionalism implies that there are certain qualities that make the United States of America a special place, a wonderful place-- a place worthy of a patriot's love.

But it does not follow that other countries, other cultures somehow have to exist in a subordinate position relative to the United States. And it certainly should not imply that we somehow have the answer, the recipe to explain the direction that the world is going to go in.

Bill Moyers: As you know, there are people who believe the world will be a darker and more dangerous place if the United States takes down that umbrella of military power, money, influence, that it has held up all of these years. What happens if the United States retreats?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, I don't know that it's retreat. I don't know that it's -- I'm not sure that the umbrella metaphor works all that well. I mean, I'm not an advocate of disarmament. I don't wish us to have the weakest military in the world. I actually think we ought to have a very strong military.

But I think, you know, the fact of the matter is, the world is changing. The world of the American century, as it was once styled, simply no longer exists. And grown-ups will acknowledge that and will adjust accordingly.

We cannot say what the post-American century is going to look like. What we can do is to devote ourselves to ensuring that it's not going to replicate the catastrophes that occurred in the first half of the 20th century.

BILL MOYERS: What's the message you want to communicate with this book?

Andrew Bacevich: That if there was an American century, it's over. That the combination of the failure of President George W. Bush's Freedom Agenda and the onset of the Great Recession, as we call it, has opened up a new era. And we need both to contemplate on the significance of the era past, and to begin to think about the uncharted territory in which we are headed.

Bill Moyers: Andrew Bacevich. Thank you very much for being with me.

Andrew Bacevich: Thank you. 

This article may not be republished without permission from Truthout.

Bill Moyers

A broadcast journalist for more than four decades, Bill Moyers has been recognized as one of the unique voices of our times, one that resonates with multiple generations. In 2012, at the age of 77, Moyers begins his latest media venture with the launch of "Moyers & Company." With his wife and creative partner, Judith Davidson Moyers, Bill Moyers has produced such groundbreaking public affairs series as "NOW with Bill Moyers" (2002-2005) and "Bill Moyers Journal" (2007-2010). 

For his work, Moyers has received more than 30 Emmys, two prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, nine Peabodys, and three George Polk Awards. Moyers' most recent book, "Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues," was published in May 2011. He currently serves as president of the Schumann Media Center, a nonprofit organization that supports independent journalism.


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