Andrew J. Bacevich is not someone you’d expect to be a critic of America’s love affair with the military. A Vietnam War veteran and self-described “cultural conservative,” he served for twenty years in the U.S. Army and has been a contributor to the Weekly Standard and the National Review. But Bacevich has long been concerned about U.S. reliance on military might to address international problems. His latest book, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (Oxford University Press), examines the troubling rise of pro-military sentiment since the 1960s and how it’s gotten the country where it is today: stuck in a disastrous war with no end in sight.
Born in 1947 in Normal, Illinois, Bacevich attended West Point, obtained his PhD in history from Princeton University, and retired from the army in 1992 with the rank of colonel. During the nineties, he began to part ways with the conservatives coming to power in Washington, D.C.: “neocons” who saw, in the U.S.’s status as the sole remaining superpower, an opportunity to reshape global politics by force. But Bacevich finds the Democrats at fault as well and decries what he sees as a corrupt political system where “expediency rules and principles are expendable . . . as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have amply demonstrated.” In his view, when it comes to foreign policy, U.S. “professions of concern for freedom, democracy, and human rights serve as little more than window dressing.”
Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His previous book is titled American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (Harvard University Press), and his articles appear regularly in journals and newspapers. In The New American Militarism he writes: “In former times American policymakers treated (or at least pretended to treat) the use of force as evidence that diplomacy had failed. In our own time they have concluded (in the words of Vice President Dick Cheney) that force ‘makes your diplomacy more effective going forward, dealing with other problems.’ Policymakers have increasingly come to see coercion as a sort of all-purpose tool.”
I talked with Bacevich in his office at Boston University on a hot afternoon in August 2006. He spoke without hesitation about the “new American militarism,” and his answers were crisp and precise. Three months later, when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld resigned after the midterm elections, I contacted Bacevich again to get his take on the events. He called Rumsfeld “the worst secretary of defense since Robert McNamara” (Presidents John F. Kennedy’s and Lyndon B. Johnson’s secretary during the Vietnam War). Bacevich hoped that Rumsfeld’s departure would help restore accountability for high-ranking government officials, but it “does not change the facts on the ground in Iraq. The options available today are the same as they were a week ago — and none of these options hold much promise of a happy ending to this misadventure.”
Barsamian: You say in the preface to your latest book that you situate yourself “culturally on the Right” and “view the remedies proffered by mainstream liberalism with skepticism.”
Bacevich: I agree with liberals on some social-justice issues, but I’m skeptical of the Left’s tendency to look to government to bring about positive change. I think that centralized political authority, even when that authority’s intentions are good, gives rise to negative consequences, if only because politicians are concerned primarily about their own interests.
Barsamian: But you’ve also become disenchanted with mainstream conservatism today?
Bacevich: That’s right. My brand of conservatism says you pay as you go. It says you balance the budget. It says that if you want to embark upon a war, then you should pay for the war yourself, rather than passing on the cost to your grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I view the rhetoric about “traditional values” coming from today’s Republican Party as mere posturing. And I view the foreign policy of this administration — which aims, in essence, to remake the entire world in America’s image — as being the antithesis of conservatism. Its goals are wildly unrealistic and are costing us dearly. By almost any measure, the war in Iraq has been disastrously unsuccessful.
Barsamian: Republicans today talk less about “traditional values” and more about “supporting our troops.”
Bacevich: Supporting the troops is a good thing. But support ought to entail something more than gestures like decals stuck on the rear bumper of your car.
Barsamian: What is the “new American militarism” you refer to in your book’s title?
Bacevich: It’s a reversal of the attitudes about military power that came out of the 1960s and the Vietnam War. People on the Left, I think, view the sixties as an opening up of American society and an expansion of our freedoms. And the decade was that in many ways. But people on the Right recall the 1960s as a time when the U.S. lost its way. In many respects the Right has been working for the last forty years to reverse the effects of the 1960s and go back to an earlier time. Restoring American military might became central to the Right’s agenda, because they believed Vietnam had made us appear weak in the face of godless communism. They also believed that Americans who served in the military represented the last bastion of traditional virtue. The rest of us, as a result of the 1960s, had become selfish, hedonistic materialists, obsessed with sex and glitter and superficial matters. Soldiers, on the other hand, still clung to the old values: love of country, self-sacrifice, devotion to a cause larger than oneself. So support for the military became part of the culture of the Right and remains a part of it today.
Then the Cold War ended, and right on its heels came the 1990–91 Gulf War — so close on its heels, in fact, that the two events seemed to merge, giving rise to misleading ideas about military power and the sense of triumphalism that was so prominent in the U.S. during the 1990s.
Admirers of President Ronald Reagan say it was Reagan’s military buildup and staunchness that persuaded the Soviets — in particular, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev — to give up their contest with the U.S. But, in my view, military power was at best a secondary factor in bringing the Cold War to an end. What won the Cold War — if it’s even fair to talk about “winning” the Cold War — were the fundamental contradictions of Marxism-Leninism, which had been accumulating over the decades. By the 1980s those contradictions had become so great that the Soviet system could no longer persist.
We Americans never had a chance to argue which of these two views was correct, because the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990 intervened. The Gulf War ensued, and by most accounts was decisively resolved through the use of American military power. So, in an odd way, the Gulf War settled the argument about how the Cold War had ended: our swift victory seemed to prove the effectiveness of American military power as a means of resolving international disputes. People began to believe — and this was as true on the mainstream Left as it was on the Right — that military power was the answer to whatever conflict we might face.
In retrospect we can see that the Gulf War wasn’t the triumph it seemed to be at the time. In a tactical sense, we succeeded in ejecting Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, and we did it with great speed and remarkably modest casualties on our side. But in the long run all we really did was wade deeper into a political morass that we don’t understand. After the war, the decision was made to maintain U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia. And, because we didn’t remove Saddam Hussein from power, we ended up with a policy of military containment that had us imposing sanctions on Iraq — with horrific results for the Iraqi people — and bombing the country on a weekly, if not daily, basis, beginning in 1998. So we went tripping blindly down the path to September 11, 2001. The Gulf War was a pivotal event leading to this mess we call the “global war on terror.”
Barsamian: How should we deal with the terrorist threat, if not by a “war on terror”?
Bacevich: We should view violent Islamic radicals as an international criminal conspiracy. We should make common cause with other nations in destroying this conspiracy, using methods similar to those used against the Mafia.
Barsamian: Vice President Dick Cheney was the elder George Bush’s defense secretary at the time of the Gulf War. When Cheney was asked why the American army didn’t march on Baghdad after the Iraqi army had been routed, he said it was because we would have been seen as occupiers, and the Iraqi people would have resisted us. A decade or so later he apparently changed his mind.
Bacevich: I think Cheney and others in the elder Bush’s administration genuinely believed in 1991 that Saddam Hussein would not survive defeat. They expected that some of his generals would bump him off. Quite frankly, it wasn’t an unreasonable expectation at that time, but it turned out to be wrong. Saddam outwitted them, creating a problem for which there was — and is — no easy solution.
Why, in 2002, did Cheney change his mind and decide that driving on to Baghdad was not only a good idea but an imperative? I think that, first of all, he had fallen prey to the new American militarism. He’d become convinced our military capacity was so great that we were truly unstoppable. He believed we would not only win, but that the swiftness with which we would achieve victory would overawe the Iraqis and create new conditions in the country, eventually leading to a Western-style democracy.
These and other fantasies haven’t come to pass, because Cheney and the rest of the president’s advisors overestimated our power. They were also guilty of misreading military history, which has taught us time and time again that the enemy always has options; some adversaries are just quicker than others to figure out what their options are. The leaders of the Arab world took several decades to realize they were not suited for Western-style war, with tanks, bombers, heavy artillery, and so on. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, for example, tried to build a great mechanized army that could defeat Israel, but that strategy produced one defeat after another. I think Saddam Hussein was probably the last Arab leader to realize that tanks and fighter-bombers weren’t the way to go.
We now have a generation of Arab leaders — and perhaps Muslim leaders in general — who are choosing military methods and techniques that play to the strengths of their people and their societies. They don’t need fighter-bombers; they don’t want tanks. As the resistance in Iraq continues to demonstrate on a daily basis, they have developed a strategy that we don’t know how to defeat. And any statesman with half a brain should know that if you can’t defeat your enemies militarily, then you need to rethink the war option.
We have imbibed for decades this notion that the U.S. is leading a march toward freedom, that history has a direction and a purpose, and that we have a responsibility to see it through to the end, when all countries will be free.
Barsamian: So why can’t the Democrats voice a coherent critique of the war?
Bacevich: Part of the problem is the extent to which politicians on both sides are wedded to what I call the “narrative of the American century.” It goes like this: Beginning with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. finally broke away from its isolationist roots and recognized its responsibility as a world leader. From that day forward, according to the narrative, the U.S. has been engaged in a great campaign to spread freedom around the world. We did it to great effect in World War II. We did it again, albeit over a longer period and with some missteps, in the Cold War. And since September 11, 2001, we have recommitted ourselves to this campaign. Just as we brought freedom to Europe and East Asia and the old Soviet bloc, we are now engaged in an effort to bring freedom to the Muslim world.
Critics on the Left are quite right to mock President Bush when he expresses these sorts of sentiments, but I would urge them to go back and look at President Bill Clinton’s version of American history. He tells basically the same story. We have imbibed for decades this notion that the U.S. is leading a march toward freedom, that history has a direction and a purpose, and that we have a responsibility to see it through to the end, when all countries will be free.
And so we have this catastrophic war in Iraq, which the president sees as the first step toward spreading freedom across the Muslim world. And the Democrats in Washington have trouble articulating a critique of the war because they are bound to the same narrative. Senator Hillary Clinton [D-New York] cannot stand up and say that the direction of history is God’s business, or that we don’t have the right to define freedom for people around the world, much less act as freedom’s sponsor. She can’t say that, because it would call into question her commitment to this narrative. We saw the same thing during the 2004 presidential campaign, when Democratic candidate John Kerry didn’t oppose the idea of an open-ended “war on terror,” only how it was being fought. Both Left and Right are attached to a concept of history that in some way served our purposes back in the forties and fifties, but today has become utterly irrelevant and counterproductive.
Barsamian: Might not freedom, in this context, be just another word for U.S. hegemony?
Bacevich: I do think that the serious players in Washington understand that Western-style freedom for the entire world perpetuates U.S. global dominance. But they also genuinely believe that U.S. global dominance is good for the world.
Barsamian: Haven’t all empires believed the same thing?
Bacevich: Well, I don’t think Hitler believed that German hegemony was good for the rest of the world; he believed that it was good for Germany and the Nazi Party. But I think our politicians in Washington genuinely believe that U.S. hegemony is good for the rest of the world — which, in a sense, makes them almost more dangerous, because they are convinced of their virtuous intentions.
Barsamian: Do you ever feel as if we’re living in a time echoing Orwell’s novel 1984, in which there is a permanent war, and real and imagined enemies of the state are everywhere, and the people are told to trust Big Brother to protect them?
Bacevich: It does seem Orwellian. I am increasingly concerned about the public’s habit of deferring to elites, particularly on national-security issues. We citizens don’t pay enough attention to such matters, or are kept in the dark on them. Too many of us are willing to persuade ourselves that the generals will do the right thing, or that the civilians in the national-security establishment know better than we do what’s good for the country. It’s undemocratic. Citizens need to be engaged and informed, and they need to have a voice.
What really gets me is the way this president and others have bandied about the word freedom as an all-purpose rationale for American actions. Defense of freedom can justify anything, excuse anything, and rarely is freedom defined, except in terms so broad that anyone would endorse it. I’m in favor of free speech. I’m in favor of freedom of religion. But to talk of “freedom” in the abstract seems to avoid serious engagement with the realities of most people’s lives. Yes, we all want to have freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but we’d also like to have three meals a day, a roof over our head, a decent job, and healthcare. The rhetoric of freedom does not even recognize those basic human needs. And I’m not just talking about starving Africans. I’m talking about citizens in this country who don’t have enough opportunities and don’t live fulfilling lives. What do we owe them?
We have been a belligerent nation, an expansionist nation. Like any other great power, we have wished to increase our influence. But I do believe the practice of maintaining great armies and celebrating military values is a fairly recent characteristic of our culture.
Barsamian: In 1795, James Madison said, “Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies. From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. . . . No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
Bacevich: The Founders had it right. They were not pacifists; they were realists. They understood that it was through force and violence that we had secured our independence. We’d had to wage war in order to shake loose from the British Empire.
But though they viewed military power as necessary, they also viewed it with great wariness. It’s like a poison: it can be useful, but it’s never anything other than a poison, and you need to treat it with great respect.
Americans actually kept alive Madison’s skepticism about militarism long after he had passed from the scene. It was part of our basic package of political convictions well into the twentieth century. I think the people’s skepticism about war served as a brake on what politicians in Washington might otherwise have cooked up. Now that the war in Iraq has turned out to be a disaster, perhaps we the people will begin to rethink our views and return to the sentiments of James Madison.
Barsamian: You speak as if military interventionism were a recent development, but for fully a hundred years after the founding of the republic, the U.S. intervened on a regular basis in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Bacevich: I would say the real interventionism began in 1898, with the Spanish-American War and the intervention in Cuba. After that, it became routine. But only relatively small military forces were engaged at first. In the 1920s, when we sent troops to Nicaragua to try to chase down guerrilla leader Augusto Sandino, I think the total size of the U.S. force was fifteen hundred marines.
I would not argue for a second that our intervention in Latin America over roughly a seventy-year period was well thought out or had positive effects. Most of the effects have been quite negative, not only for Latin Americans, but for us. We have been a belligerent nation, an expansionist nation. Like any other great power, we have wished to increase our influence. But I do believe the practice of maintaining great armies and celebrating military values is a fairly recent characteristic of our culture.
The bitter experience of the Iraq War may yet lead to a change in American thinking about military power. But the truth is — and I say this as somebody who thinks this war was a mistake from the outset and has been mismanaged all along — we don’t know how the conflict in Iraq is going to turn out. My bet is that when Iraq is in our rearview mirror, we’re going to have a great fight about its meaning, just as we had a great fight — and continue to have a great fight — about the meaning of Vietnam. How the fight ends may well determine what we believe about military power in the future. If the majority of the American people — and I hope this is not the case — conclude that Iraq was worth it, then it will be possible for politicians to argue for another such war.
Barsamian: Neocon icon William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, has been on all the talk shows arguing for a military strike on Iran. He warns, “Weakness is provocative. We have been too weak and have allowed ourselves to be perceived as weak.”
Bacevich: A lot of people disagree with me on this, but I think that the neoconservatives’ moment has passed. Yes, Kristol is still on TV, but I really don’t think his notions have the same currency in Washington that they did three or four years ago. Maybe I’m being naive, but I don’t believe we’re going to launch an attack on Iran, in part because we are so overextended in Iraq. Although President Bush is far from a brilliant man, even he must understand that a wider war at this juncture could do nothing to improve the standing of his administration in the eyes of either the public or history.
Barsamian: But the rhetoric coming from the Bush administration is quite bellicose when it comes to Iran. Dick Cheney promises “meaningful consequences” if Iran doesn’t knuckle under.
Bacevich: That’s true, but my guess is that this bellicose rhetoric is an attempt to leverage negotiations with the Iranians about their nuclear ambitions. There’s plenty of bellicose rhetoric on the Iranian side, too.
Barsamian: They’re not threatening a war on the U.S.
Bacevich: I disagree. The president of Iran has made all sorts of threats. There are people who think that he’s Hitler reincarnate. From my point of view, most of his threatening speeches either are intended for domestic consumption or are saber rattling meant to bring the U.S. to the negotiating table.
Barsamian: The U.S. now has hundreds of military bases around the world. The Pentagon budget is at half a trillion dollars and growing. It exceeds the military budgets of the next fifteen nations combined. Virtually every single Congressional district in the country has a Pentagon-related contract.
Bacevich: The issue of bases and budget is a vivid illustration of our militaristic mindset. Americans know that we have bases scattered around the world. I doubt if too many of them could cite the Pentagon’s exact budget, but they know that we spend more on “defense” by an order of magnitude than any other country. But this is not regarded as a matter for debate. For most Americans it’s just the way it is. That’s the extent to which militaristic thinking has woven its way into our subconscious.
Another example is the fact that the U.S. alone, of all the countries in the world, has divvied up the globe into different military “areas of responsibility,” so that the U.S. Southern Command has a four-star general who’s responsible for all of Latin America, and the U.S. Central Command has a four-star general who’s responsible for two or three dozen countries in the Middle East, and so on. Can you imagine if a Chinese general somehow claimed responsibility for Argentina and Chile and Colombia? We would take that as clear evidence of megalomania. But this is something that we do as a matter of course.
Barsamian: Some liberals argue that big-business interests promote war because the instability it breeds is actually profitable, especially if you’re Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman or some other military contractor. And the oil companies are raking in the profits because oil prices are going up.
Bacevich: There is certainly a portion of the economy that is wedded to massive defense budgets, but we have to be careful not to oversimplify. War frequently is not good for big business. By and large, big business profits more from stability than instability. Defense contractors make money from war in the sense that weapons systems get used up and have to be replaced, but they also profit from a peace based on huge military spending. As long as the political establishment is committed to this notion that we continually have to modernize our air force — despite the fact that it’s already stronger than any other air force in the world — the producers of fighter jets will make huge amounts of money.
Military spending as a percentage of our total gross national product is actually quite small. At the height of the Cold War, I believe we spent on average 10 percent of our gross national product on the military. Now it’s around 4 percent. Is 4 percent trivial? Obviously not. Is it significant to contractors like Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin? Absolutely. But I’d be hard-pressed to argue that 4 percent of the American economy is driving U.S. foreign policy.
Americans know that we have bases scattered around the world. . . . they know that we spend more on “defense” by an order of magnitude than any other country. But this is not regarded as a matter for debate. For most Americans it’s just the way it is. That’s the extent to which militaristic thinking has woven its way into our subconscious.
Barsamian: Granted, military spending is a small percentage of the gross national product. But it does eat up a huge portion of the discretionary income that the federal government has available.
Bacevich: I can’t argue with that. The nondiscretionary spending, such as welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, is harder to manipulate than defense spending, because it can’t be moved around to reward certain industries or districts. But the defense budget as a percentage of the federal budget has decreased over the years. In the 1950s, defense spending was roughly half of the federal budget. Now it’s something like 19 percent. Again, far from trivial, but it no longer has as much influence on our behavior as it did perhaps fifty years ago.
Barsamian: A number of retired high-ranking military officers, such as William Odom, Anthony Zinni, and Brent Scowcroft, have spoken out critically about the conduct of the Bush administration in regard to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. How do you feel about this?
Bacevich: In many respects, I agree with their critiques, but I’m exceedingly uncomfortable with the notion of the military putting itself at odds with the civilian leadership.
Barsamian: But they’re no longer serving as officers.
Bacevich: No, they’re not. But a three- or four-star general is always a three- or four-star general. None of them will ever be just a private citizen again. When they give their opinion, they’re basically saying, “I’m a four-star general, and you need to listen to me.” It’s not so much of a problem with someone like Odom, who has been retired for twenty years. More troubling to me are the people who served in Iraq and in Rumsfeld’s Pentagon and then retired and immediately denounced Rumsfeld in public.
Barsamian: Couldn’t this be considered a sign of the vitality of U.S. democracy?
Bacevich: It might also be a sign of a deeply troubled civilian-military relationship. If we’re going to be a great military power — and we are, even if we back away from militarism — then we need to preserve the principle of civilian control. The soldiers advise the president, who then issues the orders for the soldiers to execute. The press, the Congress, and citizens like you and me ought to be the watchdogs and provide the criticism or challenge the policies. But I don’t like the notion of senior military officers — especially those who are recently retired or, worse, who leak information to the press while on active duty — chipping away at this principle of civilian control. That’s dangerous. Regardless of whether we’re on the Left or the Right or in the center, we ought to agree on the principle of civilian control over the military.
Barsamian: President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was a five-star army general, gave his farewell address on January 17, 1961. He warned the country about the development of a “military-industrial complex.” At the time, people didn’t pay much attention to Eisenhower’s statement, but it’s now the subject of a documentary film, Why We Fight.
Bacevich: It’s a prescient speech, an important speech. Elsewhere in it, Eisenhower explicitly warns the American people to be alert and well-informed so that this great machinery of national security can work effectively and yet consistently with our democratic values. He was saying to the American people, “Be wary. Pay attention. All is not what you think it is.”
Some people criticize Eisenhower, I think justifiably, for having waited until he was leaving office to give this speech. Had he spoken of this danger when he was still around to do something about it, it would have had a greater impact.
Barsamian: The final paragraphs of your book are about another president’s farewell address: George Washington’s.
Bacevich: Yes, Washington, too, advised citizens to be wary of “those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”
Washington was a general and did not see military power as an evil. He held soldiers in high esteem and considered the army to be essential to our national safety. He was warning against building a powerful military for its own sake or for the sake of expanding the nation’s influence.
Americans hardly needed such a warning in 1796, having so recently won their freedom from the militaristic British Empire. But today, with our illusions about war and military might as means of forcing our values on the rest of the world, we need to heed Washington’s words. If we don’t, we’ll surely follow in the footsteps of other empires that tried to use military power to fulfill their goals. We’ll go on endangering not only our own security, but the security of other nations and the values we hold dear.