The new crisis in Iraq has brought out of the woodwork (in some cases, gutter) some of top officials and pundits who helped lead us to war, and long occupation, in the country, but it also has brought back to television some of the top critics and thoughtful analysts of our tragic blunder.
Case in point this past weekend: Jonathan Landay of McClatchy on CNN and Andrew Bacevich for the full half-hour with Bill Moyers (video below). I first met Bacevich, then known mainly as a former military officer and West Point instructor, a decade ago when he wrote an op-ed questioning the war for The Washington Post. Then I covered the death of his son in Iraq, and his many columns that followed.
Now for a few highlights from the transcript of the Moyers show, including key discussion of “American exceptionalism”:
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, [Robert Kagan’s] notion of American history, particularly since 1945, is one that we might term an extended liberation narrative where the United States devoted itself, in the wake of World War II, to promoting liberal values, democracy everywhere, fighting against evildoers, and he concludes that this success is being squandered by Barack Obama and those who are unwilling to continue this crusade.
Now, that narrative is only sustainable if you leave a lot of important facts out, or if you distort those facts. So we get no mention of overthrowing Mossadegh in Iran in 1953. We get no mention of the CIA overthrowing the president of Guatemala. We get virtually no mention of the Vietnam War, which he dismisses as sort of an unfortunate incident of no particular significance. And perhaps most egregiously, he utterly ignores the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he served as a cheerleader for. And which to a very large extent, account for the problem that we’re dealing with today in the greater Middle East.
BILL MOYERS: This week, one of his allies, former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Elizabeth wrote a long essay in “The Wall Street Journal.”
AB: Well, I’d say rarely has a major American newspaper published an op-ed that was so thoroughly shameless. Again, what is the cause? What was the catalyst of the instability that racks Iraq today? The simple answer is the one that Cheney and his daughter don’t want to mention: the unnecessary, misguided, and frankly immoral war launched by the United States in 2003. We destabilized Iraq. In many respects, we destabilized the larger region. And misfortune of Barack Obama is that he inherited this catastrophe, created by the previous administration.
Once you got to Iraq and took it over, and took down Saddam Hussein’s government, then what are you going to put in its place? That’s a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government in Iraq, you can easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off: part of it, the Syrians would like to have to the west, part of eastern Iraq the Iranians would like to claim—fought over for eight years. In the north you’ve got the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey. It’s a quagmire….
I think the contrast between what Cheney said in 1994 and what he says 20 years later is actually very illustrative of this point. And that is that what passes for foreign-policy debate today, is just nakedly partisan. Back in 1994, he was in the business of defending George Herbert Walker Bush. Now he’s in the business of defending George W. Bush. But basically attacks Barack Obama, blaming Obama for any difficulties that we’re having. And the point about naked partisanship I think really applies in a somewhat larger stage. When you look at the people who get invited on the Sunday talk shows, or whose op-eds appear in “The New York Times” or in “The Washington Post” or other prominent organs of opinion, they are people who are participating in this partisan debate.
There is very little effort to look beyond the Bush versus Obama, Republican versus Democrat, to try to understand the larger forces in play that have brought us to where we are today. And the understanding of which could then make it possible for us to think somewhat more creatively about policy than simply having an argument about whether we should, you know, attack with drones or attack with manned aircraft.
BM: What are those larger forces at work? Because Robert Kagan says, quote, “world order shows signs of cracking, and perhaps even collapsing.” And that these changes signal a transition into a different world order, which the United States should attempt to lead.
AB: When Kagan uses phrases like world order, he’s describing something that never really existed except in his own imagination. But again, the point is worth reflecting on. Kagan believes, many people in Washington believe, perhaps too many people in the hinterland also believe, that the United States shapes the global order. That there is an order for which we alone are responsible.
Where does this kind of thinking come from? I mean, I think in many respects, what we see here is the contemporary expression of the whole notion of American exceptionalism. That we are chosen. We are called upon, called upon by God, called upon by providence, to somehow transform the world and remake it in our own image. Now, Robert Kagan wouldn’t state it as bluntly as I just did. But that is the kind of thinking that I think makes it very difficult for us to have a genuine and serious foreign policy debate.
BM: So the other side would argue, as they are, that well, look at the beheadings and the murders, the brutality and cruelty that the radical Islamists are inflicting upon their adversaries, and the people of Iraq. Isn’t that an evil to which we are the only ones can respond?
AB: Well, first of all, it is an evil to which we contributed by our folly in invading Iraq back in 2003. There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq under the previous order. That’d be the first point. And the second point I think would be: let’s be practical. Let’s be pragmatic. If indeed we are called upon to act, let us frame our actions in ways that actually will yield some positive outcome.
I’m personally not persuaded that further military action in Iraq is actually going to produce an outcome more favorable than the last one. If what we have here on our hands in Iraq, in Syria, elsewhere in the Middle East is a humanitarian catastrophe, then let us become serious about asking ourselves, what is the appropriate response? What can the richest and most powerful country in the world do to alleviate the suffering of innocent people who are caught up in this violence?
And my answer to that question is not air strikes. My answer to that question is, well, if indeed we have a moral responsibility to come to the aid of suffering Iraqis and Syrians, then we better start opening up our wallets to be far more generous and forthcoming in providing assistance that people need.
You know, we live in a country where if you want to go bomb somebody, there’s remarkably little discussion about how much it might cost, even though the costs almost inevitably end up being orders of magnitude larger than anybody projected at the outcome. But when you have a discussion about whether or not we can assist people who are suffering, then suddenly we come very, you know, cost-conscious.
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BM: So do we conclude from that that you don’t believe there is anything practical we can do on the ground to separate the warring forces or help the government forces in Iraq prevent this violence? Is the only option murderous genocide and optimum paralysis?
AB: We have been engaged in the Islamic world at least since 1980, in a military project based on the assumption that the adroit use of American hard power can somehow pacify or fix this part of the world. We can now examine more than three decades of this effort.
Let’s look at what US military intervention in Iraq has achieved, in Afghanistan has achieved, in Somalia has achieved, in Lebanon has achieved, in Libya has achieved. I mean, ask ourselves the very simple question: is the region becoming more stable? Is it becoming more democratic? Are we alleviating, reducing the prevalence of anti-Americanism? I mean, if the answer is yes, then let’s keep trying. But if the answer to those questions is no, then maybe it’s time for us to recognize that this larger military project is failing and is not going to succeed simply by trying harder.
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, the events that are unfolding in Iraq at this very moment promote a debate within Washington revolving around the question, what should we do about Iraq? But there is a larger and more important question. And the larger and more important question has to do with the region as a whole. And the actual consequences of US military action over the past 30 years.
BM: As you know, Iraq has formally asked the US government to launch air strikes against those Jihadist militants. How do you think that’s going to play out?
AB: Well, I don’t know. My guess would be that this will substantially increase the pressure on the president to do just that. And my question would be if we launch air strikes, and if the air strikes don’t have a decisive effect in turning the tables on the ground, then what? I mean, this is always, I think, a concern when you begin a military operation that you have some reasonable sense of what you’re going to do next if the first gambit doesn’t succeed.
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BM: Many people are saying that Barack Obama is feckless, lacks will, or strength, and that he’s enabling the defeat of our interest in the Middle East by pulling the troops back and by being indifferent to what’s happening there now.
AB: Well, he’s not indifferent. I mean, I’m not here to defend the Obama approach to foreign policy, which I think has been mediocre at best. That said, the president has learned some things. I think the most important thing the president learned from his predecessor is that invading and occupying countries in the Islamic world is a pretty dumb idea. It leads to complications and enormous costs. So we see him reticent about putting so-called boots on the ground. That said, the president certainly has not been reluctant to use force in a variety of ways. Usually on small-scale drone strikes, commando raids, and the like.
Where I would fault the president is that he hasn’t been able to go beyond learning the negative lessons of the Bush era to coming up with a positive approach to the Islamic world. Shortly after he was inaugurated he went to Cairo, gave a famous speech, speech proposed that there was going to be a new beginning, turn the page, a new beginning of US relations with the Islamic world.
Who would not endorse that proposition? I mean, I certainly do. But it has come to nothing. Nobody in the Obama administration, either in the first term or in the present term, as far as I can tell, has been able to figure out how to operationalize this notion of a new relationship between ourselves and the Islamic world. One can give Secretary Kerry credit for trying to restart the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Were we able to broker a peace that created a sovereign, coherent, viable Palestinian state, that actually could be the one thing we could do that would seriously change the tenure of US relations with the people of the Islamic world. But that effort has failed.
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BM: What is it, about how we go to war? We poured blood and treasure into Vietnam and Iraq and wound up with exactly the opposite consequences than we wanted. And we keep repeating, hearing the same arguments and claims that we should do it again.
AB: Well, war itself is evil. But war is an evil that should command our respect. War is something that we should not take lightly, that we should not discuss frivolously. And I think that that’s one of the great failings of our foreign policy establishment. That our foreign policy establishment does not take war seriously. It assumes that the creation of precision guided weapons makes war manageable. Removes from war the element of risk and chance that are always inherent in warfare. So these are people who, quite frankly, most of them don’t know much about war and, therefore, who discuss war in frivolous ways.
BM: And yet, there’s this still almost religious belief in force as the savior.
AB: Well, I think your use of religious terms is very appropriate here. Because there is a quasi-theological dimension to their thinking related, again, to this notion that we are called. We are chosen. We are the instrument of providence. Summoned to transform the world. And therefore empowered to use force in ways not permitted to any others. I mean, the ultimate travesty of the immediate period after 9/11 was the Bush administration’s embrace of preventive war that became then the rationale for invading Iraq in 2003. But it was a general claim. A general claim that the United States was empowered to use force preventively. Before the threat emerges. Not simply—
BM: Pre-emptory strikes.
AB: Not simply in self-defense. And we should note that as far as I can tell, President Obama has not repealed that notion. Indeed, has used it himself in order to employ force in lesser ways in various situations.
BM: So is it duplicity or self-delusion?
AB: It depends I think on who we are talking about here. For somebody like Vice President Cheney berating Barack Obama for somehow surrendering American leadership and in the course of doing that simply ignoring the record of the administration in which he served—that’s duplicity. That’s malicious partisanship.
Greg Mitchell’s book, So Wrong for So Long, which covers ten years of media malfeasance, starting with the run-up to the Iraq war, features a preface by Bruce Springsteen. This is his final week at The Nation. His popular personal blog is Pressing Issues.
Read Next: Robert Scheer on our government’s soft spot for brutal dictators.