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September 08, 2008

Andrew Bacevich, Reluctant Obamacon

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Catholic conservative, West Point guy, and Vietnam vet Andrew Bacevich says that he will vote, if reluctantly, for Obama. "We ought not be in the business of invading and occupying other countries," Bacevich says. "That's not going to address the threat. It is, on the other hand, going to bankrupt the country and break the military."

More from Bacevich here, here and here. Nice passage:

There was a time, seventy, eighty, a hundred years ago, that we Americans sat here in the western hemisphere, and puzzled over why British imperialists went to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. We viewed that sort of imperial adventurism with disdain. But, it's really become part of what we do.

Amy Goodman asks Bacevich "Who benefits?"

Bacevich: "From the war? There are obviously corporations, contractors who benefit, and I would not—never want to dismiss that, but I don’t really think that that provides us an adequate explanation of how we got into this fix. I think who really benefits or what benefits is the political status quo."



posted by Michael at September 8, 2008


Yeah, we Americans just sat in the Western hemisphere, and Cuba, and Puerto Rico, and Haiti, and Nicaragua, and Panama, and the Philipines, and Shanghai, and Japan.

Then again, I guess we held off on those places till after Texas, California, Utah, New Mexico, Oregon, the bottom of British Columbia, and the top of Mexico had their claims settled.

Posted by: gecko on September 9, 2008 12:32 AM

If Bacevich and Goodman don't like the American Empire, just wait until they get a load of the next one.

Posted by: vanderleun on September 9, 2008 2:21 AM

Bacevich lost his only son in Iraq. How he even manages to write about Iraq without losing his mind escapes me.

Posted by: PatrickH on September 9, 2008 5:24 AM

There's also the possibility that Bush, et al, did what they thought was right out of a sense of duty to their country.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on September 9, 2008 5:39 AM

Bacevich is one of my heroes. I'd vote for him for President in a second. Maybe I'll write him in.

Posted by: MQ on September 9, 2008 9:34 AM

Bacevich lost a son in Iraq. With all due respect, I believe that this may color his judgement a bit, and understandably so. Where Bacevich goes wrong is his belief that Obama would be a non-interventionist president. Clinton, with his interventions in Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo, and Haiti, was hardly isolationist, and there is every reason to believe that Obama would be even more "activist". Bacevich should have backed Ron Paul...

In passing, great comment, Vanderleun! Do you think the next one will be the Caliphate or the Celestial Empire (Red version)?

Posted by: Tschafer on September 9, 2008 10:08 AM

There was a time, seventy, eighty, a hundred years ago, that we Americans sat here in the western hemisphere, and puzzled over why British imperialists went to places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yeah, as gecko points out, this is hilariously wrong. A hundred years ago, the Philippines were a colony of the United States. 110 years ago, we fought a war against the Philippines because, ah, they wanted their independence from us. After we took them from Spain.

You'd have to go back to, I don't know, 150 years ago before Americans might not understand why you sometimes end up fighting battles thousands and thousands of miles away from their homeland. But only, of course, if they'd forgotten why they were sitting in America rather than England.

Posted by: Taeyoung on September 9, 2008 10:48 AM

Obama will be just the same as Bush or McCain. He's beholden to the same interests. Being a "democrat" who says he is against war is meaningless. He wasn't even in the Senate in 2003 when the Iraq War started, so what does his "I voted against the war" nonsense really mean? Nothing.

I'll believe its the "political status quo" when said nebulous "political staus quo" is responsible for funding their own jobs and political campaigns. Until then, whoever pays the piper calls the tune.

And what's the deal with inventing nonsense terms like "political status quo" to hide the influence of corporations and their dough on domestic and foreign policy? What a bunch of liars these chatter-hats are.

Posted by: BIOH on September 9, 2008 11:03 AM

I'm a conservative planning to vote for Obama. Who was the last Republican who cared as much about the Constitution as he did about the flag? I'd say Eisenhower, but I'm open to arguments. McCain cares about it more than Bush, but that's not saying much, and Palin doesn't seem to be aware that it exists.

Posted by: Michael P on September 9, 2008 11:35 AM

* Bacevich was outspoken about how wrong-headed he thought the Iraq War was long before his son died.

* Yeah, his math is obviously wrong here. But his point is simply that we used to be very wary of foreign entanglements. In his books he says the Spanish-American War was the moment when we crossed the line.

* Bacevich is far more willing to think that the Bush crowd sincerely -- or semi-sincerely -- believed they were doing what was best. He isn't a Bush=Hitler guy by any stretch. He's conservative, proud of the military, etc. He thinks it was misconceived, not evil.

* He thinks there isn't much diff between Obama and McCain -- part of his general argument is that we're living under what's essentially a one-party state. And he sees Obama (and Clinton before him) as being just as interventionist as Bush/McCain. But he says that Obama is more focused on Afghanistan while McCain is more focused on Iraq, and if he had to choose he thinks Afghanistan is the better place to focus. It's a lesser-of-two-evils thing he's talking about.

I urge you to read the links if you have the time and interest. He has a genuine vision: what the national security state consists of, how it developed, what kind of "defense" philosophy it represents, where it comes from, its relationship to the cold war, the place of the actual military in the midst of it all. "Are we using the military properly?" is one of his main questions, and it turns out to be an interesting one. Anyway: a refreshing alternative the usual.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 9, 2008 11:47 AM

"very wary of foreign entanglements. In his books he says the Spanish-American War was the moment when we crossed the line": yup; or the War of 1812.

Posted by: dearieme on September 9, 2008 12:33 PM

The Spanish-American War?

Michael, have you ever noticed how the Baceviches of the world remain entirely mum about the three most significant instances of American military projection: WWII, WWI and the Civil War? Talk about the freakin' elephant in the freakin' living room. This is more a mammoth in the hall closet.

The American empire is a product of two agencies: State and Defense. Except in the above three conflicts, State is the Globetrotters; Defense is the Generals. DoD's role is to take the fall. When I hear people talking about the "empire" as though DoD was the Globetrotters, I hear the voice of State. Which is also the voice of the New England establishment.

The reason you never hear the Baceviches of the world talk about the three big wars is that in those wars, the military and the establishment - DoD and State - were on the same side. The establishment actually wanted to win.

As a result: (a) the military won decisively; (b) there was no lingering guerrilla resistance; (c) there was no concern for civilian casualties and collateral damage; (d) diplomacy was completely abandoned; (e) unilateral surrender was demanded and achieved. These wars, in other words, demonstrated the reality of warfare: the strong defeat the weak.

Conquering and governing a country - as opposed to "liberating" it and creating "democracy" is not a difficult problem. A hundred years ago, Britain occupied Egypt, an Arab country of 20 million people, for 20 years. With five thousand soldiers. Paid for by the Egyptian taxpayer. And the resulting country was such a nice place to live that international bohos like Lawrence Durrell moved there and hung out, as if it was Prague.

The apparent impossibility of conquest in the post-WWII era is an artificial incompetence. It is a theater performance produced for your benefit. It is propaganda for the real American empire.

The US military fails in places like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan because it is operating under a doctrine designed to fail. It was not soldiers who produced the Puritan millennial vision of the "international community." They are not to blame for the fact that they can't create it out of dust and camels. In fact they should be praised for their extraordinary, if misguided, efforts, to realize this impossible dream.

If the US was a unified, effective actor which intended to conquer and civilize Iraq and Afghanistan, it would abolish the native puppet governments of Maliki and Karzai, place all lawless areas under martial law, create military formations with US officers and native troops, create civilian governments with US executives and native employees, and in general do what the British did in India, Egypt, Burma, etc, etc. The "surge" is about 1% of a Raj - at least it has Iraqi gun-carriers on the American payroll - and its partial success says a lot.

Of course empire works. Conquest works. It has worked for the entire course of human history. It is not only effective, it is profitable. When I see something work for the entire course of human history and then stop working in the last fifty years, I smell a very, very large rat. When Kobe misses a dunk, that's life. When he misses ten dunks in a row, either he is throwing the game or someone has shrunk the hoop.

Note that Bacevich's examples are all cases in which the US was fighting its own civil wars overseas. The Filipino-American, Korean, Vietnam, and Iraq wars were all ones in which American political factions supported opposing sides. Only in the first did the "militaristic" side prevail unambiguously, largely because its domestic enemies hadn't really gotten it together yet.

There was no "antiwar" movement in the US in the '60s, for example. There was a pro-Saigon faction and a pro-Hanoi faction. The latter won. Its proxy soldiers were considerably more brutal and ruthless than its opponent's. But the final battle was still fought on Capitol Hill.

I am all for honest isolationism - or, the proper term, neutralism. Bacevich is not an honest isolationist. He is a State Department shill. He believes in "soft power" and the "international community" and "engagement" and all the rest of it. In other words, he believes in a world ruled by mafiosi with American subsidies, whose so-called leaders are appointed and removed by gentle nudges from Foggy Bottom. He has seen the future, and it looks like Pakistan.

Yes, the US military should leave Iraq and Afghanistan. But it should leave not because it is impossible for a modern military to defeat a bunch of tribal warriors. It should leave because it is fighting an American civil war by proxy. One, this is just sick. And two, the right place to fight a civil war is always at home.

Posted by: Mencius on September 9, 2008 4:07 PM

Mencius, I agree with everything you say here. What it points out is the American people's unwillingness, for better or worse, to support a full-blown military action except in the most dire situations (or more accurately, the situations that are perceived as dire).

I applaud this. Now, if we could only make our military actions either/or propositions. Full-blown or not at all.

Even over here on the pinko left, there was no question as to whether the full force of the US military could topple Saddam and further. Of course we could. It was whether we should.

Posted by: JV on September 9, 2008 6:05 PM

As MB points out, Bacevich is constantly saying that both the Democrats and the Republicans have been interventionist (although he feels the current Bush crowd is worst). He does, however, respect Jimmy Carter a great deal. Check out the Bill Moyers interview with him linked above, it's fascinating.

Mencius, Western colonialism was simultaneously abandoned by almost every country post-WWII, and there are good economic and political reasons for that. Once the natives got nationalism and modern weapons, the game was up -- not that they couldn't be subdued, but that you'd need genocidal levels of violence and massive resource committments to do it. It simply wasn't worth it.

Sure, if we proved our willingness to use nukes against anybody who ever shot at us and drafted half our male population to occupy various foreign hellholes we could really conquer big chunks of Africa, Asia, and the ME, perhaps rule a billion subjects for a while. But why would we want to? It's both cheaper and more civilized to just make stuff and trade it for what we need from them, and take a tour when we want to visit. It's not only the "state department traitors" who might think that.

Iraq and Afghanistan, two pissant little countries, have tapped out *the entire U.S. military*. In Vietnam, we killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and deployed a half a million young men, and it still wasn't enough. Contrary to right-wing myth, not a single one of our troops was shot by a hippie, they all fought the gooks.

Posted by: MQ on September 9, 2008 8:29 PM

JV: if that is the either/or America should live by, then it won't ever get involved in military actions. That may be desirable, but my guess is that pacifism/total war is not a set of alternatives a deeply implicated superpower can accept as constraining. America's gotten dirty over the decades, it's had to learn "how not to be good" in John Lewis Gaddis' phrase (quoting someone from the State Dep't I believe!). I don't see how you're going to re-innocentize America, even assuming it was ever innocent in the first place.

Posted by: PatrickH on September 9, 2008 9:51 PM

MQ, you're mistaking the reality show for reality.

What "nationalism" meant in practice was that the nationalist movements had support from a significant political faction in (a) the colonial home country, (b) the US, or generally (c) both. Thus the civil war by proxy.

Did you ever wonder why nationalism seemed so similar, right down to the names of the parties, in - say - Algeria, Indonesia, and Vietnam? What did Algeria, Indonesia, and Vietnam have in common? Certainly nothing that could be described as Algerian, Indonesian, or Vietnamese. Oh, no. What they had in common was that they all had friends - or, more precisely, sponsors - at Harvard.

This is why you see so many cases - Kenya, Malaysia, Algeria, even Vietnam itself - in which the colonial military wins the war, and then its government promptly surrenders. Not exactly how the reality show is supposed to play out. Still, if you don't look too closely, you see basically the right story: the nationalists win.

Again: in the absence of the civil-war-by-proxy effect, suppressing rebellions is not at all militarily difficult. For example, why was it so easy for the Soviets to suppress rebellions in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary? Did they commit genocide? Did they use nukes?

Only the Hungarian Revolution was at all bloody, and that's because the Hungarians had been led to expect American support. For the others, a demonstration of force was pretty much sufficient.

Men fight because they expect to win. Period. When they know they'll lose, they surrender.

Why do you think there was no German or Japanese guerrilla resistance after WWII? These were two of the most highly fanaticized populations in history, perhaps second only to the Palestinians. They surrendered abjectly and utterly, and have been reeducated into complete, emasculated docility. Why is there no German or Japanese resistance to the "international community?" Because neo-Nazis have no friends at Harvard.

The nationalist revolutionaries of 1950-1980 fought because they had been educated to believe, typically in the finest American, British and French schools, what you believe: that if they fought, they would win. They fought, and they won. Sure enough!

But what this doesn't tell us is that they won because they fought. No. They won because they had friends at Harvard. Or, again, sponsors - and I hold the sponsor responsible for the (often quite horrifying) crimes of his clients.

The entire tragic reality show, which at the expense of tens of millions of lives destroyed the basically functional colonial world and created the basically dysfunctional Third World, was put on in order to convince the voting audience of America and Europe of the inexorable nature of this bogus causality. And is it so surprising that it succeeded?

Moreover, this trick is not even an American invention. Consider, for example, the British relationship to the "independence" of Greece. Britain wished to acquire Greece from the Ottoman Empire. In the old days, they simply would have invaded and declared it conquered. Some guy named Canning had a better idea: he could find a bunch of Greek bandits, declare them patriotic, nationalist revolutionaries, use the British Navy to help them achieve "independence," and treat the resulting free and independent Greece as a de facto client state.

Just like the "liberation" of the Third World - with the British and French Empires in the place of the Ottoman, and the likes of Owen Lattimore in the place of Canning. Just like the "liberation" of Vietnam - with Nixon as the Sultan, and Bill Ayers as George Canning. And the show will continue, for as long as the audience cares to watch.

Posted by: Mencius on September 9, 2008 11:14 PM

JV, my general problem with the "pinko left" version is that while it may have reached the right results in this case, it's hard to describe as exactly consistent.

It's a little difficult to say that America has no national interests in Iraq when your side has spent basically the last century arguing that, as Woodrow Wilson put it, "the American flag is the flag of humanity." And not at all infrequently acting on it - sometimes just by bribes and/or intrigue, occasionally with terrifying and implacable military gusto.

The invasion of Iraq was a response to at least forty-seven offenses that would have been considered perfectly good casae belli under the old, pre-20th-century Westphalian system of classical international law. Under the Westphalian system countries responded to infringements of their international rights with a hair trigger, because they believed, for some silly reason, that peace and stability are synonyms, and the latter is produced only by deterrence. Merely defaulting on a debt, for example, was a sufficient excuse for military intervention - let alone harboring and training teams of spies and assassins.

I find it unfortunate that the international law of Grotius, Vattel and Lieber is no longer operational, doubly unfortunate that it was replaced by self-righteous, crypto-Christian Wilsonian nonsense, and triply unfortunate that a modern instance of the ultima ratio regum has to be hypocritically disguised by the likes of the neocons as Wilsonian missionary work.

The mere fact that the "pinko left," ie the progressives who are the legitimate heirs of Wilson, opposed the invasion of Iraq is prima facie evidence of the hypocrisy of this claim. But the fact that your opponents are hypocrites neither obliges nor authorizes you to emulate them. Perhaps the ugliest thing about the politics of the Iraq war is that both (American) sides perceive it in terms of grotesque Orwellian mendacities. While this is hardly new and in fact historically typical of democracies - you can see exactly the same thing in Thucydides - I do wish I didn't have to read about it in the newspaper.

Posted by: Mencius on September 10, 2008 12:05 AM

I don't want to "re-innocentize" America, I'd just like to see a little less interventionist escapades. btw, is re-innocentize like reclaiming your foreskin or something?

Posted by: JV on September 10, 2008 12:34 AM

The comments on the U.S. colonization of the Philippines caught my eye.

I know a lot of Filipinos. None of them are complaining about their status in relation to the U.S. Most of them, in fact, seem quite happy that the Philippines is so closely related to the U.S.

If the best example of U.S. perfidy is the colonization of the Philippines, I think the commenters have failed to prove that U.S. intervention in foreign countries is always a failure. To the extent that they can, Filipinos are trying to make their country into the U.S. For most Filipinos, the hope of immigrating into the U.S. is a lifelong dream.

From the viewpoint of every Filipino I know, the U.S. occupation, and the continued close relationship of the two countries, have been remarkablly successful. That success provides great dividends for the U.S., too. Many U.S. hospitals would have to close their doors if not for Filipino nurses and technicians.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on September 10, 2008 7:13 AM

Bacevich for President. Good idea!

Posted by: Lester Hunt on September 10, 2008 10:06 AM

JV, an America that only intervenes in "dire situations", by which I assume you mean some kind of imminent catastrophe, is an America innocent of its post Spanish/Cold War involvements, is it not? You may bristle at the word "re-innocentize" (hence your juvenile snit about foreskin...oh grow up teen-boy, see how it feels!), but it is involvement with ugly client states and proxies that would not occur under your scheme of all or nothing war. All or nothing is not what I would call a nuanced way of looking at threats and calibrating responses, and strikes me as having nothing to do with M Moldbug's view that an internal civil conflict in First World powers has driven the wars of colonialism and intervention whose conduct he decries. Yours is simply an attempt to render America incapable of intervening anywhere at all, "until the emergency is upon us, till self-preservation strikes its jarring gong".

Your teenage tone indicates the adolescent nature of your view of American military and foreign policy. You can't hide behind Mencius, JV. He's all grown up, while you're snarking and teening and popping zits at people. You and he aren't in the same league; hell, you're not even playing the same sport.

Posted by: PatrickH on September 10, 2008 10:06 AM

Mencius, I'm sure you'll agree that it's not just the left who has been inconsistent in successfully predicting the outcome of events. When we're talking about Iraq, though, it's hard to argue that the left has been anything other than correct in predicting events every step of the way, with maybe "The Surge" as an exception, although only a political one, as again, very few people believe that the full-force of the US military will be anything other than successful in terms of destroying an opponent. Of course, it's arguable whether The Surge is a good example of a full-on use of the military.

I'm with Wilson in believing that the American flag represents the best of humanity, but I'm not so certain the left has advocated interventionist policies in order to gift this to the world. I am certain that I don't advocate such policies.

Patrick, my either/or policy regarding the use of our military pertains to things like, for instance, invading a country. If we're going to do THAT, then perhaps it's best if we go in full-force. Other, smaller and even covert operations would not require this binary thinking. I admit I wasn't clear on this in my previous comment. And come on, that foreskin crack was funny. I could have gone with "reclaiming your virginity," but "foreskin" is a much funnier word.

And now I am fully prepared for the full-force of Mencius' name-dropping/Latin usage assault to crush my meager repsonse.

Posted by: JV on September 10, 2008 1:34 PM

Okay, foreskin was funny. Grant you that. I'll never use the word "innocentize" again. Sigh. Not that I should have in the first place.

Posted by: PatrickH on September 10, 2008 6:15 PM

Mencius wins by technical KO.

As he usually does.

Posted by: KevinV on September 10, 2008 10:44 PM

Mencius is an elitist! Just like Obama!

Posted by: JV on September 11, 2008 1:34 AM

I'm sad about the end of innocentize.

Posted by: Sister Wolf on September 11, 2008 11:30 PM

Well said Mencius.

Posted by: Xennady on September 12, 2008 11:04 AM

Those who are offended by the older American Empire might be interested in William Graham Sumners "The Conquest of the United States by Spain (1898)"

Posted by: Alex J. on September 12, 2008 1:53 PM

This is reality: Pakistan has more than 100 nukes. Iran soon will have about the same.

America now faces tribes with flags ... and nukes.

So we are not going to be sitting at home, waiting to be nuked, any time soon.

Nuclear proliferation is a reality that will not go away, and it will demand further interventions, not less. Just as Russia's response to Beslan was "deals" with Iran and AQ, and crushing the Chechens, later Georgians, to make examples, so too will the US and CHina and everyone else follow the same policies.

Because even poor nations (riven by factions) can kill wealthy cities.

Bacevich's loss is sad, but losing NYC immeasurably WORSE for the US. We could easily be looking at 5-6 million dead. So we're not going back home in 90's isolation (the 1890's that is). Unless we want to nuke Iran/Pakistan to make our points and go home.

Iraq made our point like Grozny and Georgia made Putin's.

Posted by: whiskey on September 12, 2008 9:53 PM

Mencius wins by technical KO.

Ummm, hardly. Mencius's comment above is ahistorical and deeply provincial -- in the sense that he can't see anything but the fellow Americans who have hurt his feelings (Harvard has betrayed America...presumably he didn't get into Harvard) rather than the clear historical realities. The "stab-in-the-back" theory (a la the German right in WWI), which is all he is retailing here, is from time immemorial the excuse of the petulant and embittered who don't want to clearly face the world they live in.

The record of colonial wars since WWII is quite clear, all the way up to Israel in Lebanon in 2006. Colonial powers decided, correctly in my view, that the level of cost and butchery involved in maintaining control over hostile colonies was no longer worthwhile. Mencius resorts to one of the most transparently silly neocon claims in raising the Japan/Germany example -- two countries who each lost millions of casualties in the most expensive war in human history are hardly a counterexample against the claim that massive cost and bloodshed is necessary to pacify hostile nations. Equally important, the example of two countries who wished our protection against a common enemy, and were given substantial respect in restoring their pre-war sovereignty and traditions of government, are not a counterexample against the claim that it is difficult to reduce hostile local nationalisms to cooperation.

He does raise the interesting example of the Warsaw pact, which was enforced by the total military occupation of smaller neighboring countries historically within the Russian cultural sphere. But the other examples are quite risible. I guess De Gaulle, who decided (at great personal risk) that it was necessary for France to leave Algeria, was a weak-kneed pinko taking orders from Harvard?

Brute force strategies are expensive, immoral, *and* foolish -- they bring less benefit than they cost. America is the largest, wealthiest country in the world, we have the resources to live in peace. You'll notice that Mencius addressed not a single word to the question of the actual benefit we have gained from all the bloodshed and expense in Iraq (although I realize they do allow keyboard warriors like Mencius to feel more manly). Besides spending half a trillion dollars, we have destabilized Pakistan, given Iran, who could have been a strategic ally in many ways, every reason to pursue nuclear weapons, alienated traditional allies in Turkey, and shattered any remaining credibility in the ME for years to come.

The argument against this is the raw bloodlust and paranoia espoused by Whiskey -- that killing lots of people, justified or not, is the best way to respect and peace, and not killing lots of people makes you look weak and therefore brings conflict. (Under this view, it hardly matters who you kill). I suggest the more common sense argument that the opposite is the case -- killing lots of people makes you bitter enemies, and insistence on total domination of other nations makes them conclude they can't live with you peacefully. This may take many years or decades to play out -- seeing the massive violence of the first Iraq war didn't bring us respect and peace, but a terrorist backlash ten years later. The next terrorist backlash will be many times larger. This is a classic cycle of violence.

The exception here is genocide, where your enemies are completely wiped out (essentially what Russia has done in Chechnya). That can bring a Carthaginian peace. With our nuclear arsenal, genocidal-scale violence is always an option and does not require military conquest. But it's, you know, evil, so it should be a last and not a first resort. Not to mention the fact that we're picking a fight with over a billion people, rather than the few hundred thousand in Chechnya.

Posted by: MQ on September 14, 2008 6:50 PM

You know, MQ, you haven't been absent from 2Bs completely, but you have been somewhat less involved in the last while than when I first encountered you.

All I can say is...welcome back! That was a tour-de-force. Keep 'em coming!

Posted by: PatrickH on September 14, 2008 9:29 PM

Hey, thanks Patrick. As you know, blog commenters toil in obscurity, so it's nice to get a pat on the back. I enjoy your comments as well, both here and at Roissy's.

Posted by: MQ on September 16, 2008 12:00 AM

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