In March 2003, as the Bush administration beat the drum for regime change in Iraq, pundits predicted a cakewalk military campaign, and Iraqi dissidents gave assurances that American soldiers would be greeted “with sweets and flowers.” Andrew Bacevich saw things differently. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, the College of Arts and Sciences professor of international relations offered this warning: “If, as seems probable, the effort encounters greater resistance than its architects imagine, our way of life may find itself tested in ways that will make the Vietnam War look like a mere blip in American history.”
Four years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Bacevich has even less hope for military victory. “Iraq is a train wreck,” he said in January. “There’s no putting the train back on track.” His early skepticism about transforming the Middle East through military might has turned to withering criticism of nearly every aspect of the war’s prosecution, and he’s making his case in opinion pieces, up to three a week, in major newspapers and periodicals, ranging from the conservative National Review to the Washington Post to the wonky World Policy Journal. He’s also quoted regularly on Iraq in major broadcast and print news media.
But Bacevich is no dove. Indeed, he defies easy categorization. A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, he generally votes Republican and espouses conservative values. But he also disdains neoconservative foreign policy. Most of all, he doesn’t believe that America is uniquely enlightened or righteous or that it is capable of transforming more troubled regions of the world with military force.
As a Midwestern boy in the 1950s, a West Point–trained soldier in Vietnam, a graduate student, and a professor and opinion leader, he has never feared self-reflection, no matter what personal failings it reveals or what core beliefs it shakes. Likewise, he states in his direct military style, “With regard to how you behave in the world as a nation state, first know who you are.”
Awash in moral ambiguity
Bacevich’s foreign policy creed crystalized when he read The Irony of American History, written in 1952 by the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The book, which proposes that statecraft be guided by moral realism, changed the way Bacevich looked at America.
“There is a tendency,” he says, “to view realism in foreign policy as simply cynical, calculating, and absent any kind of moral values.” But, he says, Niebuhr exemplifies a realist tradition that is, in fact, guided by conscience and an awareness of one’s own moral flaws. “Niebuhr had a profound awareness that there is evil in the world that must be resisted. But he wrote that to imagine that you yourself are innocent as you exercise power to resist that evil is a formula for disaster.”
Bacevich assigns Niebuhr’s book to his students every year, and “if I could get Americans to read one book today, to help us illuminate the way forward,” he says, “that would be it.”
When he discusses America’s role in history and current world affairs, he speaks of events, policies, and conflicts awash in moral ambiguity. America is no devil, oppressing the world’s poor and downtrodden, in his view, but neither are we a nation of bright-eyed innocents leading freedom’s march around the world.
“If you take the long sweep of American history,” he says, “we didn’t complete that journey without getting a certain amount of blood on our hands.”
To believe otherwise, to subscribe to the idea of American exceptionalism, he says, is both “silly and dangerous” and often steers us into catastrophe. In the 1990s, when Bacevich was a professorial lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, he criticized the idealistic military interventions of President Bill Clinton in places like Somalia and Haiti. But more recently, he has attacked the mind-set of neoconservative pundits and Iraq war architects, who, he wrote in the Montreal Gazette, frame history as a perpetual conflict between freedom and a totalitarianism that appears “in an ever-changing guise,” from Nazism to Communism to “Islamofascism.”
After September 11, 2001, when members of the Bush administration began to push for transforming the Middle East by force of arms, Bacevich recalls, “it seemed to me that efforts on the part of the United States to remake others in our image had more often than not produced all kinds of unexpected consequences.” He cites America’s “liberation” of Cuba and the Philippines in the Spanish American War. “In both cases, the argument was that we were going to bring freedom to these poor, benighted, backward peoples,” he says. “And in both cases, the result was less than promised and in some respects simply ugly.”
His alternative: treat violent Islamic radicalism as a “dangerous, international criminal conspiracy,” one that “all nations should band together to thwart with a concerted, relentless police action.”
To the criticism that such a strategy is inadequate to the task and overly reactive and was the discredited approach of pre-9/11 terrorism fighters, Bacevich responds that previous failures were the result of poor implementation. “We need to work harder, get smarter, and invest more resources,” he says.
He acknowledges that America is not the first country to believe itself blessed with a special providence among nations, but he notes that the idea has particularly deep roots in American identity. The first reading for his Ideas in American Foreign Policy class is the sermon given in 1630 by John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in which he proclaimed, “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us,” an echo of the Sermon on the Mount.
Winthrop’s line has been repeated throughout the centuries by American leaders, including Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. And when it comes to America’s response to September 11, Bacevich suspects that this belief in our innate righteousness as a nation has blinded us to the larger questions raised by the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq.
“Is a global war on terror the correct response to the threat that we identified on 9/11?” Bacevich asks. “Is it possible that the idea of a global war to change the way they live in the Middle East is a bad idea, one that, in fact, lies beyond our capability?”
See tomorrow’s BU Today for part two of “First a Soldier.”