Tomdispatch Interview: Bacevich on the Limits of Imperial Power

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[Note to Tomdispatch readers: This is the tenth in an ongoing series of interviews at the site. The last three interviews were with Chalmers Johnson (1 and 2), Katrina vanden Heuvel, and Mike Davis (1 and 2). Tom]

The Delusions of Global Hegemony
A Tomdispatch Interview with Andrew Bacevich (Part 1)

I wait for him on a quiet, tree and wisteria-lined street of red-brick buildings. Students, some in short-sleeves on this still crisp spring morning, stream by. I’m seated on cold, stone steps next to a sign announcing the Boston University Department of International Relations. He turns the corner and advances, wearing a blue blazer, blue shirt and tie, and khaki slacks and carrying a computer in a black bag. He’s white haired, has a nicely weathered face, and the squared shoulders and upright bearing of a man, born in Normal, Illinois, who attended West Point, fought in the Vietnam War, and then had a twenty-year military career that ended in 1992.

Now a professor of history at Boston University, he directs me to a spacious, airy office whose floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the picturesque street. A tasseled cap and gown hang on a hook behind the door — perhaps because another year of graduation is not far off. I’m left briefly to wait while he deals with an anxious student, there to discuss his semester mark. Soon enough though, he seats himself behind a large desk with a cup of coffee and prepares to discuss his subjects of choice, American militarism and the American imperial mission.

Andrew Bacevich is a man on a journey — as he himself is the first to admit. A cultural conservative, a former contributor to such magazines as the Weekly Standard and the National Review, a former Bush Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, he discovered sometime in the 1990s that his potential conservative allies on foreign policy had fallen in love with the idea of the American military and its imagined awesome power to change the world. They had jumped the tracks and left him behind. A professed cold warrior, in those years he took a new look at our American past — and he’s not stopped looking, or reconsidering, since.

What he discovered was the American empire, which became the title of a book he published in 2002. In 2005, his fierce, insightful book on American dreams of global military supremacy, The New American Militarism, How Americans Are Seduced by War, appeared. (It was excerpted in two posts at this site.) It would have been eye-opening no matter who had written it, but given his background it was striking indeed.

Forceful and engaged (as well as engaging), Bacevich throws himself into the topic at hand. He has a barely suppressed dramatic streak and a willingness to laugh heartily at himself. But most striking are the questions that stop him. Just as you imagine a scholar should, he visibly turns over your questions in his mind, thinking about what may be new in them.

He takes a sip of coffee and, in a no-nonsense manner, suggests that we begin.

Tomdispatch: In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, you said the revolt of the retired generals against Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld represented the beginning of a search for a scapegoat for the Iraq War. I wondered whether you also considered it a preemptive strike against the Bush administration’s future Iran policy.

Andrew Bacevich: The answer is yes. It’s both really. Certainly, it’s become incontrovertible that the Iraq War is not going to end happily. Even if we manage to extricate ourselves and some sort of stable Iraq emerges from the present chaos, arguing that the war lived up to the expectations of the Bush administration is going to be very difficult. My own sense is that the officer corps — and this probably reflects my personal experience to a great degree — is fixated on Vietnam and still believes the military was hung out to dry there. The officer corps came out of the Vietnam War determined never to repeat that experience and some officers are now angry to discover that the Army is once again stuck in a quagmire. So we are in the early stages of a long argument about who is to be blamed for the Iraq debacle. I think, to some degree, the revolt of the generals reflects an effort on the part of senior military officers to weigh in, to lay out the military’s case. And the military’s case is: We’re not at fault. They are; and, more specifically, he is — with Rumsfeld being the stand-in for [Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara.

Having said that, with all the speculation about Bush administration interest in expanding the Global War on Terror to include Iran, I suspect the officer corps, already seeing the military badly overstretched, doesn’t want to have any part of such a war. Going public with attacks on Rumsfeld is one way of trying to slow whatever momentum there is toward an Iran war.

I must say, I don’t really think we’re on a track to have a war with Iran any time soon — maybe I’m too optimistic here [he laughs] — but I suspect even the civilian hawks understand that the United States is already overcommitted, that to expand the war on terror to a new theater, the Iranian theater, would in all likelihood have the most dire consequences, globally and in Iraq.

TD: Actually, I was planning to ask about your thoughts on the possibility of an Iranian October surprise.

Bacevich: You mean, attacking Iran before the upcoming fall election? I don’t see Karl Rove — because an October surprise would be a political ploy — signing off on it. I think he’s cunning, calculating, devious, but not stupid. With the President’s popularity rating plummeting due to unhappiness with the ongoing war, it really would be irrational to think that yet another war would turn that around or secure continued Republican control of both houses of Congress.

TD It seems that way to me with gas assumedly soaring to $120 a barrel or something like that

Bacevich: Oh gosh, oh my gosh, yes

TD But let me throw this into the mix, because I’ve seen no one mention it: If you look at the list of retired commanders who came out against Rumsfeld, they’re all from the Army or Marines. We always say the military is overextended, but only part of it is — and I note the absence of admirals or anybody connected to the Air Force.

Bacevich: That’s a good point. One could argue that the revolt of the generals actually has a third source. If the first source is arguing about who’s going to take the fall for Iraq and the second is trying to put a damper on war in Iran, the third has to do with Rumsfeld’s military transformation project. To oversimplify, transformation begins with the conviction that the military since the end of the Cold War has failed to adapt to the opportunities and imperatives of the information age. Well before 9/11, the central part of Rumsfeld’s agenda was to “transform” — that was his word — this old Cold-War-style military, to make it lighter, more agile, to emphasize information technology and precision weapons.

Well, if you’re in the Air Force, or you’re a Navy admiral, particularly one in the aviation community, that recipe sounds pretty good. It sounds like dollars, like programs being funded. But if you’re in the Army or the Marine Corps, becoming lighter and more agile sounds like cutting divisions or like getting rid of tanks and artillery; it sounds like a smaller Marine Corps.

Both the initial stage of the Afghanistan War and the invasion of Iraq were specifically designed by Rumsfeld as projects to demonstrate what a transformed military could do. Hence, his insistence on beginning the Iraq War without a major build-up, on invading with a relatively small force, on having the ground intervention accompany the air campaign rather than having a protracted air campaign first as in the first Gulf War. All the literature about both Afghanistan and Iraq now shows that the war-planning process was filled with great civil/military tension. The generals argued, “Mr. Secretary, here’s the plan; we want to do a Desert Storm Two against Iraq,” and Rumsfeld kept replying, “I want something smaller, think it over again and get back to me” — reflecting his intention to demonstrate his notion of how America will henceforth fight its wars.

Well, now we can see the outcome and it’s at best ambiguous. That is to say, the early stages of Afghanistan and Iraq proved to be smashing successes. The smaller, agile forces performed remarkably well in demolishing both the Taliban and the Baath Party regime; but in both cases, genuine victory has proven enormously elusive. This gets us to the third basis for the generals’ gripe. When they talk about Rumsfeld’s incompetence and micromanagement, they’re arguing against the transformation project and on behalf of those services which have footed most of the bill.

TD: Just to throw one other thing into the mix, if there were a campaign against Iran, it would be a Navy and Air Force one.

Bacevich: It would begin with a Navy and Air Force campaign, but it wouldn’t end that way. If the Army generals could be assured that we know exactly where the Iranian nuclear program is, that we have the targeting data and the munitions to take it out Well, that would be one thing, but we don’t have that assurance. From the Army and Marine Corps perspective, an air attack might begin a war with Iran, but the war would not end there. As is the case in both Afghanistan and Iraq, some sort of ugly aftermath would be sure to follow and the Navy and the Air Force aren’t going to be there, at least not in large numbers.

TD What about the Iraq War at present?

Bacevich There are a couple of important implications that we have yet to confront. The war has exposed the limited depth of American military power. I mean, since the end of the Cold War we Americans have been beating our chests about being the greatest military power the world has ever seen. [His voice rises.] Overshadowing the power of the Third Reich! Overshadowing the Roman Empire!

Wait a sec. This country of 290 million people has a force of about 130,000 soldiers committed in Iraq, fighting something on the order of 10-20,000 insurgents and a) we’re in a war we can’t win, b) we’re in the fourth year of a war we probably can’t sustain much longer. For those who believe in the American imperial project, and who see military supremacy as the foundation of that empire, this ought to be a major concern: What are we going to do to strengthen the sinews of American military power, because it’s turned out that our vaunted military supremacy is not what it was cracked up to be. If you’re like me and you’re quite skeptical about this imperial project, the stresses imposed on the military and the obvious limits of our power simply serve to emphasize the imperative of rethinking our role in the world so we can back away from this unsustainable notion of global hegemony.

Then, there’s the matter of competence. I object to the generals saying that our problems in Iraq are all due to the micromanagement and incompetence of Mr. Rumsfeld — I do think he’s a micromanager and a failure and ought to have been fired long ago — because it distracts attention from the woeful performance of the senior military leaders who have really made a hash of the Iraq insurgency. I remember General Swannack in particular blaming Rumsfeld for Abu Ghraib. I’ll saddle Rumsfeld with about ten percent of the blame for Abu Ghraib, the other ninety percent rests with the senior American military leaders in Baghdad

TD: General Ricardo Sanchez signed off on it

Bacevich: Sanchez being number one. So again, if one is an enthusiast for American military supremacy, we have some serious thinking to do about the quality of our senior leadership. Are we picking the right people to be our two, three, and four-star commanders? Are we training them, educating them properly for the responsibilities that they face? The Iraq War has revealed some major weaknesses in that regard.

TD: Do you think that the neocons and their mentors, Rumsfeld and the Vice President, believed too deeply in the hype of American hyperpower? Ruling groups, even while manipulating others, often seem to almost hypnotically convince themselves as well.

Bacevich: That’s why I myself tend not to buy into the charge that Bush and others blatantly lied us into this war. I think they believed most of what they claimed. You should probably put believe in quotes, because it amounts to talking yourself into it. They believed that American omnipotence, as well as know-how and determination, could imprint democracy on Iraq. They really believed that, once they succeeded in Iraq, a whole host of ancillary benefits were going to ensue, transforming the political landscape of the Middle East. All of those expectations were bizarre delusions and we’re paying the consequences now.

You know, the neoconservatives that mattered were not those in government like Douglas Feith or people on the National Security Council staff, but the writers and intellectuals outside of government who, in the period from the late seventies through the nineties, were constantly weaving this narrative of triumphalism, pretending to insights about power and the direction of history. Intellectuals can put their imprint on public discourse. They can create an environment, an atmosphere. When the events of September 11, 2001 left Americans shocked and frightened and people started casting about for an explanation, a way of framing a response, the neoconservative perspective was front and center and had a particular appeal. So these writers and intellectuals did influence policy, at least for a brief moment.

TD: Here’s something that puzzles me. When I look at administration actions, I see a Middle Eastern catastrophe in the midst of which an Iranian situation is being ratcheted up. Then there’s China, once upon a time the enemy of choice for the neocons and Rumsfeld, and now here we are this summer having the largest naval maneuvers since Vietnam, four carrier task forces, off the Chinese coast. Then — as with Cheney’s recent speech — there’s the attempted rollback of what’s left of the USSR, which has been ongoing. On the side, you’ve got the Pentagon pushing little Latin American bases all the way down to Paraguay. So many fronts, so much overstretch, and no backing down that I can see. What do you make of this?

Bacevich: My own sense is that this administration has largely exhausted its stock of intellectual resources; that, for the most part, they’re preoccupied with trying to manage Iraq. Beyond that, I’m hard-pressed to see a coherent strategy in the Middle East or elsewhere. In that sense, Iraq is like Vietnam. It just sucks up all the oxygen. Having said that, before being eclipsed by 9/11 and its aftermath, China was indeed the enemy-designate of the hawks, and a cadre of them is still active in Washington. I would guess that large naval exercises reflect their handiwork. Still, I don’t think there’s been a resolution within the political elite of exactly how we ought to view China and what the U.S. relationship with China will be.

Why the hell we’re extending bases into Latin America is beyond me. Rumsfeld just announced that he has appointed an admiral as the head of U.S. Southern Command. Now this has almost always been an Army billet, once or twice a Marine billet, never a Navy one. I got an email today from someone who suggested that this was another example of Rumsfeld’s “boldness.” My response was: Well, if he was bold, he’d simply shut down the Southern Command. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful way to communicate that U.S.-Latin American relations had matured to the point where they no longer revolved around security concerns? Wouldn’t it be interesting for Washington to signal that there is one region of the world that does not require U.S. military supervision; that we really don’t need to have some four-star general parading around from country to country in the manner of some proconsul supervising his quarter of the American Empire?

Now, I have friends who think that [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez poses a threat to the United States. I find that notion utterly preposterous, but it does reflect this inclination to see any relationship having any discord or dissonance as requiring a security — i.e. military — response. I find it all crazy and contrary to our own interests.

TD: One thing that’s ratcheted up in recent years is the way the Pentagon’s taken over so many aspects of policy, turning much of diplomacy into military-to-military relations.

Bacevich: If you look at long-term trends, going back to the early Cold War, the Defense Department has accrued ever more influence and authority at the expense of the State Department. But there’s another piece to this — within the Defense Department itself, as the generals and the senior civilians have vied with one another for clout. When Rumsfeld and [Paul] Wolfowitz came into office they were determined to shift the balance of civil/military authority within the Pentagon. They were intent on trimming the sails of the generals. You could see this in all kinds of ways, some symbolic. Regional commanders used to be called CINCs, the acronym for commander-in-chief. Rumsfeld said: Wait a minute, there’s only one commander-in-chief and that’s my boss, so you generals who work for me, you’re not commanders-in-chief any more. Now the guy who runs US Southern Command is just a “combatant commander.”

Also indicative of this effort to shift power back to the civilians is the role played by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which has been nonexistent for all practical purposes. Accounts of the planning and conduct of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars make clear that they had virtually no influence at all. They were barely, barely consulted. Ever since Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs and became a quasi-independent power broker, presidents have chosen weak chairmen. Presidents want top officers to be accommodating rather than forceful personalities who might hold independent views. I’m sure General Myers of the Air Force is a wonderful man and a patriot, but he served four years as chairman after 9/11 and did so without leaving any discernible mark on policy. And that’s not accidental. It reflects Rumsfeld’s efforts to wrest authority back towards the office of the Secretary of Defense.

TD: Isn’t this actually part of a larger pattern in which authority is wrested from everywhere and brought into this commander-in-chief presidency?

Bacevich: That’s exactly right. I’ve just finished a review of Cobra II this new book by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor. A major theme of the book is that people like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz saw 9/11 as a great opportunity. Yes, it was a disaster. Yes, it was terrible. But by God, this was a disaster that could be turned to enormous advantage. Here lay the chance to remove constraints on the exercise of American military power, enabling the Bush administration to shore up, expand, and perpetuate U.S. global hegemony. Toward that end, senior officials concocted this notion of a Global War on Terror, really a cover story for an effort to pacify and transform the broader Middle East, a gargantuan project which is doomed to fail. Committing the United States to that project presumed a radical redistribution of power within Washington. The hawks had to cut off at the knees institutions or people uncomfortable with the unconstrained exercise of American power. And who was that? Well, that was the CIA. That was the State Department, especially the State Department of Secretary Colin Powell. That was the Congress — note this weird notion that the Congress is somehow limiting Presidential prerogatives — and the hawks also had to worry about the uniformed military, whom they considered “averse to risk” and incapable of understanding modern warfare in an information age.

TD: And you might throw in the courts. After all, the two men appointed to the Supreme Court are, above all else, believers in the unitary executive theory of the presidency.

Bacevich Yes, it fits. I would emphasize that it’s not because Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz are diabolical creatures intent on doing evil. They genuinely believe it’s in the interests of the United States, and the world, that unconstrained American power should determine the shape of the international order. I think they vastly overstate our capabilities. For all of their supposed worldliness and sophistication, I don’t think they understand the world. I am persuaded that their efforts will only lead to greater mischief while undermining our democracy. Yet I don’t question that, at some gut level, they think they are acting on your behalf and mine. They are all the more dangerous as a result.

[Note: Part 2 of Andrew Bacevich’s interview, Drifting Down the Path to Perdition, will be posted on Thursday. Those readers who want some background on the issues discussed in this interview are advised to pick up a copy of Bacevich’s remarkable book, The New American Militarism, How Americans Are Seduced by War.]

Copyright 2006 Tomdispatch