Interview: Andrew Bacevich on American militarism

Military historian and former colonel weighs in on Trump, foreign policy, and the shadow of permanent war

Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Robert J. Fluegel

The November election of Donald Trump raised serious questions about the direction of US foreign policy. Would the president seek better diplomatic relations with Russia? Would he step up, or deescalate, conflict in the Middle East? How would he handle NATO, the military alliance he claimed was “obsolete” and unfair to the United States?

After two months, there is little indication this Republican administration will change course from that of its predecessor. So far, Trump has continued most of Obama’s defence policies, with a few highlights. He has reaffirmed US support for Israel, promised an “historic increase” in defence spending, and proposed to boost the production of nuclear weapons by more than $1 billion while slashing spending on federal programs related to diplomacy and foreign aid. On March 15, the Trump administration ousted United Nations official Rima Khalef who had authored a report accusing Israel of apartheid.

Trump convinced millions of Americans to vote for him based on a promise of putting American interests first. Yet for all his bluster, the new president has so far failed to present an alternative to militarized US foreign policy. The national security apparatus continues to accept war as a normal condition.

Andrew Bacevich is an historian, best-selling author, essayist and former US army colonel who fought in Vietnam, and then had a twenty-year military career. In 2014 he retired from Boston University where he taught international relations and history for 16 years. Before joining the faculty of BU in 1998, he taught at West Point and at Johns Hopkins. His op-eds have appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post, among others. He is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Bacevich has written extensively on the military history of the United States, and explored the continuity of foreign policy among American presidents throughout the twentieth century and beyond. There was once a time, he writes in his latest column for the Times, when the avoidance of war figured as a national priority. That doctrine no longer applies:

With war transformed into a perpetual endeavor, expectations have changed. In Washington, war has become tolerable, an enterprise to be managed rather than terminated as quickly as possible. Like other large-scale government projects, war now serves as a medium through which favours are bestowed, largess distributed and ambitions satisfied.


Bacevich spoke with CD about the character of American militarism, its relationship to the rest of the world, and its role in the current climate of heightened regional tensions in Europe and Asia.

His most recent book is America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (Random House, 2016). Other works include The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (Oxford University Press, 2013), Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (Metropolitan Books, 2011) and The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (Holt Paperbacks, 2009).

***

Harrison Samphir: In your words, the Afghan war has earned the distinction of having been forgotten while it is still underway. Little if anything has been accomplished there, and violence is on the rise. It’s the longest lost war in American history. Has the conflict done anything to undermine militarism in the United States, or has it emboldened it? Why do aggressive military policies continue to be tried despite their repeated failure?

Andrew Bacevich: Well I think there are multiple factors involved here. One of them is that we’ve got a national security apparatus that is very large and very powerful, and we have a large, powerful and unimaginative military. This is a group of people who are committed to maintaining and using military power on a large scale and not particularly inclined to critically evaluate the consequences of doing so. I think that’s one very important explanation. The second explanation is the extent to which the American people have become insulated from our wars. We’re not really effected, very few of us at least are effected in any meaningful way. So the American people have tuned out the wars, content themselves with rhetorical expressions of support for the troops, and have come to accept war as a normal condition - just one those things that happens. I think those are two of the most important factors.

HS: How does that sentimentality for the military shape the American political establishment’s relationship with the public and the media?

AB: Up through and including the Vietnam War, the principle military system of the United States relied on citizen soldiers rather that professional soldiers. That system helped to ensure that the American people and elected officials were attentive to and engage with how soldiers were used. Toward the end of the Vietnam War [1971], President Richard Nixon abolished the draft, created a so-called all-volunteer force — which really is a professional military — and with few people anticipating this at the time, it was an event that allowed the American people to disengage from the military, and think that the proper, collective role of citizens is to simply engage in rhetorical expressions of supporting the troops, but not to have any real, direct involvement.

There are today an increasing number of Americans, by no means a majority but an increasing number, who are uncomfortable with the military system we have had now for the past 50 years. But that discomfort has not resulted in any political action. Neither the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, nor any recent candidate for the presidency has questioned the existing military system, and it’s only when the politicians become engaged with the defects of our military system, only then is it likely that there will be any particular change. Right now, nobody thinks there’s a problem. Nobody thinks there’s a problem with us being at war in Afghanistan for 15 and a half years.

HS: That was evident during the last election campaign.

AB: The only serious comments about our ongoing wars, to my recollection, came from Trump who said that it was unsatisfactory to have these long, drawn-out conflicts. Of course, he was elected, and at the present moment it doesn’t seem like his policies really differ in any significant way from those of the Obama administration. He’s escalating, in a small way, the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria. It appears likely, but not certain yet, that Trump will approve a small escalation of the war in Afghanistan, but nothing that he has done or said since he became President suggests that he actually has a plan to “win” these wars.

HS: Trump has pledged to raise defence spending by 10 per cent and increase nuclear weapons capacity while continuing with Obama’s $1 trillion modernization project. Does this mark a shift in US grand strategy, or is it simply an intensification of policies favouring military solutions and accepting permanent war as a normal condition?

AB: It’s more of the same. Even Trump is not able to provide a coherent explanation for why we need to increase US defence spending by 10 per cent. To my mind, nobody has provided a persuasive rationale for why we have to engage in this $1 trillion dollar modernization of our nuclear weapons, but given the climate in Washington, given the lack of any critical thinking about what our reliance on military power has actually yielded, these are positions that command assent. Oh good, more money for the Pentagon! I would wager that if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, she would have increased US military spending. She would not have proposed some of the cuts in domestic programs that Trump has, but she too was part of the national security consensus that assumes that possessing and using great military power is crucial to having our way in the world. The existence of that consensus is actually far more important than anything one candidate or another, or one politician or another, has to say.

HS: Trump signalled a major foreign policy shift with the appointment of far-right bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman as US ambassador to Israel. Explain how the president’s “Israel first” policy has the potential to create more violence and destabilization in the region. How will it affect the Palestinian question?

AB: I’m not sure that’s true. It appeared that signalled a shift. When he was running, I think he said that on the first day of his presidency, he was going to announce that the US embassy was going to move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and that hasn’t happened. One begins to get a sense that it’s not going to happen. And to tell you the truth, that promise, “Elect me president and I will move the embassy to Jerusalem” has been made by others. It’s a good applause line, speaking to certain audiences, but I’m not persuaded that Trump will move the embassy. Quite frankly, as far as I’ve been told, the Israeli government doesn’t want the embassy moving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

HS: I want to shift now to Europe. Since the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, tensions between the West and Russia have intensified. NATO’s military buildup in eastern Europe has seen the largest amassing of troops in the region since the end of the Cold War. These actions can be interpreted as deterrence or provocation. How do you see it?

Andrew Bacevich

AB: Well I think that the expansion of NATO eastward, to the point where Western leaders were talking about the incorporation of Ukraine into NATO, that was a provocation. And we got away with it for two decades. When Ukraine became the object of discussion, that’s when Putin decided he’d had enough, and he signalled very clearly that any further eastward expansion of NATO was unacceptable, at least as far as Russia was concerned. The provocation was the expectation that we could keep pushing this alliance eastward without any consequences. Of course, we think that NATO exists to spread freedom and keep the peace, but that’s not the Russian view, and there’s good reason for the Russians to have their view that NATO is an anti-Russian enterprise. That’s what it was throughout the entire Cold War. So that’s the provocation. I think NATO’s response recently, and the US participation in that response of stationing modest forces in places like Poland, has been a defensive move meant to signal that NATO is still a serious alliance and the US is still committed to its obligations under the NATO Treaty. And indeed, here too, we can see that the changes that the election of Trump seemed to bring about, aren’t that great. As a candidate, he denounced NATO as obsolete, and we’ve now had statements by [Secretary of Defense James] Mattis, [Vice President Mike] Pence and [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson, affirming that the United States values NATO and will remain a part of NATO. The Trump administration has complained loudly that the European members of NATO are underspending — not meeting their benchmark of 2 per cent of GDP — and they’re putting pressure on them. But that’s not anything different. Under Obama, and even under George W. Bush, US officials complained that Europeans were free-riders and we were getting stuck with the bill. That’s been a perennial American complaint.

I don’t believe NATO is obsolete, but US participation in NATO is actually unnecessary. Europe is capable of defending itself against Russia, but the United States is in the position where it will have to continue to shoulder some of the burden of defending the continent. To a considerable degree, Europe will continue to be free riders.

HS: The Kremlin recently announced the deepest defence budget cuts since the end of the Cold War, yet Western paranoia is as high as ever. Why is Russia consistently portrayed, by media organizations and politicians, as a belligerent threat to world peace? How can diplomatic relations be renewed?

AB: I don’t know that I would describe official US actions as paranoid. Russia has engaged and continues to engage in provocative behaviour. Of course, that behaviour responds in considerable measure to provocations by the West such as NATO expansion. Part of the problem is that neither the US nor its allies will acknowledge the fact that Western behaviour has, in fact been part of the problem. By and large, the West refuses to accept that Russia has real security concerns of its own. That’s not paranoia; it’s stupidity.

HS: North Korea: real or imagined threat?

AB: I think North Korea is engaged in a huge game of blackmail. They are, notwithstanding military power, and exceedingly weak and arguably very fragile regime, and my guess is their principle objective is to remain in power. So they are engaged in a complicated process of both trying to blackmail the West, and blackmail South Korea and most importantly trying to blackmail China, keep adversaries at bay and continue to be able to attract the kind of support they need to continue to exist. The problem is they engage in provocative behaviour which invites misunderstanding and miscalculation, and could easily go off the rails. The Secretary of State is now in Asia, and he’s making noises — stupid statements like “all options are on the table” — which suggest that things could become more dangerous than they already are.

Of course North Korea isn’t the only factor that’s involved here. There is legitimate concern for how muscle flexing by China could intentionally or inadvertently produce instability. It’s not unreasonable for the United States to try to find ways that instability does not result. There’s a great potential for miscalculation on both sides. If actions undertaken for defensive purposes are read as provocations, for example, but I don’t think it’s wrong for the United States to be looking very carefully at what China is doing.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.