The Arrogance of American Power

Part II: Drifting down the path to perdition

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[Note to readers: In The Delusions of Global Hegemony, Part 1 of this interview, Andrew Bacevich took up military scapegoating over the Iraq War, the strains between the military and civilian sides of the Pentagon, the possibility of an air assault on Iran, and especially the way the Iraq War revealed both the limits of American military power and the dreamy, fantastical, triumphalist thinking that, these last years, accompanied the Bush administration’s attempt to expand American global hegemony. Now, Bacevich turns to cheap oil and energy wars, life in uniform, the evolution of his own thinking, and the American way of life.]


TE: I’d like to turn to the issue of oil wars, energy wars. That seems to be what holds all this incoherent stuff together — minds focused on a world of energy flows. Recently, I reread [President Jimmy] Carter’s 1979 energy speech. Isn’t it ironic that he got laughed out of the room for his sweater and for urging a future of alternative fuels on us, while we latched onto his Rapid Deployment Force for the Persian Gulf? As you argue in your book, The New American Militarism, this essentially starts us on what you call “World War IV.”

AB: I remember the Carter speech. I was a relatively young man at the time. In general, I have voted for Republicans, although not this Republican in 2004. But I did vote for Carter because I was utterly disenchanted with [President Richard] Nixon and [his National Security Advisor Henry] Kissinger. [President Gerald] Ford seemed weak, incompetent. And I remember being dismayed by the Carter speech because it seemed so out of sync with the American spirit. It wasn’t optimistic; it did not promise that we would have more tomorrow than we have today, that the future would be bigger and better. Carter essentially said: If we are serious about freedom, we must really think about what freedom means — and it ought to mean something more than acquisition and conspicuous consumption. And if we’re going to preserve our freedom, we have to start living within our means.

It did not set well with me at the time. Only when I was writing my militarism book did I take another look at the speech and then it knocked me over. I said to myself: This guy got it. I don’t know how, but he really got it in two respects. First, he grasped the essence of our national predicament, of being seduced by a false and even demeaning definition of freedom. Second, he understood that cheap oil was the drug that was leading us willy-nilly down this path. The two were directly and intimately linked: a growing dependence on seemingly cheap foreign oil and our inability to recognize what we might call the ongoing cultural crisis of our time.

Carter gives the so-called malaise speech, I think, in July ’79. The Russians invade Afghanistan in December ’79. Then comes Carter’s State of the Union Address in January 1980 in which he, in a sense, recants, abandoning the argument of July and saying, by God, the Persian Gulf is of vital interest to the United States and we’ll use any means necessary in order to prevent somebody else from controlling it. To put some teeth in this threat he creates the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, which sets in motion the militarization of U.S. policy that has continued ever since. So, July 1979 to January 1980, that’s the pivotal moment that played such an important role in bringing us to where we are today. But of course we didn’t understand that then — certainly I didn’t. In July 1979, Carter issued a prescient warning. We didn’t want to listen. So we blew it.

Fast forward to 2006, and President Bush is telling us, thank you very much, that we’re addicted to oil. I heard [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi on the radio over the weekend saying that the Democrats now have a plan to make us energy independent by 2020. She’s lying through her teeth. There’s no way anybody can make us energy independent by then. We needed to start back in 1979, if not before. Even to achieve independence from Persian Gulf oil will be an enormously costly, painful process that none of the politicians in either party are willing to undertake. Gas is now roughly $3 a gallon. I heard some guy on a talk show the other day say: “Whaddya think we should do? I think we should all park our cars on the Interstate and stop traffic until the government does something.” What does he actually want the government to do, I wondered? Conquer another country?

We Americans are in deep denial, unwilling to accept that we’re going to have to change the way we live for our own good. Empire does not offer the recipe for preserving our freedom. Learning to live within our means just might. Jimmy Carter was the one guy, back in July of ’79, who really had the guts to say that. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the guts to stick with it.

TE: I always wonder what would have happened if we had dumped a bunch of money into R&D for alternative fuels back then.

AB: The funding for the Iraq War is now in the hundreds of billions of dollars. [Economist] Joseph Stiglitz projects that total costs could go to $2 trillion. What would a trillion dollars have done for research into alternative fuels? I don’t know, but something? something! What do you get for a trillion dollars in Iraq? Nothin’. It’s just nuts!

TE: I was amused, by the way, that you were born in Normal, Illinois?

AB: ?because the Normal School of the State of Illinois, the teacher’s college, was there.

TE: I was also thinking about stereotypes of military men. You know, rigidity of mind and the like. What strikes me in your writings is that you seem more open to rethinking your worldview than almost any scholar around. So I was curious about the evolution of your thought.

AB: Two key moments for me were the end of the Cold War and the Iraq War. The simple story would be that, for the first twenty-some years of my adult life, which coincided with the latter stages of the Cold War, I was a serving officer. I was a cold warrior in uniform. I therefore accepted the orthodox narrative of the Cold War and of the postwar era more generally. I was not oblivious to policy errors we had made and some of the sins we had committed, but as long as I was in uniform I was willing to accept that these were peripheral to the larger narrative. I did retain this notion that the Cold War was an emergency, a very long, serious one in which we as a nation had been called upon to depart from the norm. This was not the way things were supposed to be, particularly in regard to a globally deployed military establishment.

TE: Let me back you up for a moment to Vietnam. You fought there?

AB: 1970-71.

TE: …and how did you come out of Vietnam?

AB: For a variety of personal reasons, my wife and I decided to stay in the Army after my obligation was up? [He hesitates.] For those who are not familiar with military service, it may be difficult to appreciate the extent to which that life is all embracing. It’s like being a monk. It’s a calling. Soldiers work real hard. And much of that work is peculiarly satisfying. For most of my time in the service, women were few in number and on the margins. So it was a very masculine environment. This might seem retro, but men living among men and doing manly things [he laughs], there is a peculiar savor to that. At any rate, I bought into the institutional view of Vietnam — that we had been screwed. The politicians had screwed us; the media had screwed us; the American people had screwed us. They had let us down, and so my commitment was to an institution that, after Vietnam, was engaged in a comprehensive effort to reconstitute and restore itself — and its standing in American society.

In that context, the questions I was willing to ask about Vietnam or about U.S. foreign policy more generally were fairly narrow. Since getting out of the Army, since trying to make sense of the Cold War and U.S. foreign policy from a different perspective, I’ve come to see the Vietnam War differently as well. I can accept to some degree the argument that the meaning of Vietnam is to be found in the-military-gets-hung-out-to-dry, but that’s not sufficient. And I’ve come to see the war as just utterly unnecessary, misguided, and mistaken. A monumental miscalculation that never should have happened, but that did happen due to some deep-seated defects in the way we see ourselves and see the world.

In any case, the Cold War essentially ends in 1989 when the [Berlin] Wall goes down; in ’91, the Soviet Union collapses. I get out of the Army in 1992 and I’m waiting with bated breath to see what impact the end of the Cold War is going to have on U.S. policy, particularly military policy. The answer is, essentially, none. We come out even more firmly committed to the notion of U.S. military global supremacy. Not because there was an enemy — in 1992, ?93, ?94, there’s no enemy — but because we’ve come to see military supremacy and global hegemony as good in and of themselves.

The end of the Cold War sees us using military power more frequently, while our ambitions, our sense of what we’re supposed to do in the world, become more grandiose. There’s all this bloated talk about “the end of history,” and the “right side of history,” and the “indispensable nation,” politicians and pundits pretending to know the destiny of humankind. So I began to question my understanding of what had determined U.S. behavior during the Cold War. The orthodox narrative said that the U.S. behaved as it did because of them, because of external threats. I came to believe that explanation was not entirely wrong but limited. You get closer to the truth by recognizing that what makes us behave the way we behave comes from inside. I came to buy into the views of historians like Charles Beard and William Appleton Williams who emphasize that foreign policy is an outgrowth of domestic policy, in particular of the structure of the American political economy.

So I became a critic of U.S. foreign policy in the 1990s, a pretty outspoken one.

TE: You wrote a book then with the word “empire” in the title…

AB: Yes, because I became convinced that what we saw in the 90s from both Democrats and Republicans was an effort to expand an informal American empire. Fast forward to 9/11 and its aftermath, and the Bush doctrine of preventive war as implemented in Iraq, and the full dimensions of our imperial ambitions become evident for all to see.

I have to say, I certainly supported the Afghanistan War. I emphatically believed that we had no choice but to take down the Taliban regime in order to demonstrate clearly the consequences of any nation tolerating, housing, supporting terrorists who attack us. But the Iraq War just struck me as so unnecessary, unjustifiable, and reckless that… I don’t know how to articulate its impact except that it put me unalterably in the camp of those who had come to see American power as the problem, not the solution. And it brought me close to despair that the response of the internal opposition and of the American people generally proved to be so tepid, so ineffective. It led me to conclude that we are in deep, deep trouble.

An important manifestation of that trouble is this shortsighted infatuation with military power that goes beyond even what I wrote about in my most recent book. Again, it revolves around this question of energy and oil. There’s such an unwillingness to confront the dilemmas we face as a people that I find deeply troubling. I know we’re a democracy. We have elections. But it’s become a procedural democracy. Our politics are not really meaningful. In a meaningful politics, you and I could argue about important differences, and out of that argument might come not resolution or reconciliation, but at least an awareness of the consequences of going your way as opposed to mine. We don’t even have that argument. That’s what’s so dismaying.

TE: You’ve used the word “crusade” and spoken of this administration as “intoxicated with the mission of salvation.” I was wondering what kind of “ism” you think we’ve been living with in these years?

AB: That’s a great question, and it’s not enough to say that it’s democratic capitalism. Certainly, our “ism” incorporates a religious dimension — in the sense of believing that God created this nation for a purpose that has to do with universal values.

We have not as a people come to terms with our relationship to military power and to the wars we’ve engaged in and the ways we’ve engaged in them. Now, James Carroll in his new book, House of War, is very much preoccupied with strategic bombing in World War II and since, and especially with our use of, and attitude toward, nuclear weapons. His preoccupation is understandable because those are the things we can’t digest and we can’t cough up. You know, at the end of the day, we, the missionary nation, the crusader state, certain of our righteousness, remain the only people to have used nuclear weapons in anger — indeed, to have used them as a weapon of terror.

TE: Air power, even though hardly covered in our media in Iraq, has been the American way of war since World War II, hasn’t it?

AB: Certainly that “ism” that defines us has a large technological component, doesn’t it? I mean, we are the people of technology. We see the future as a technological one and can’t imagine a problem that doesn’t have technological solutions…

TE: …except when it comes to oil.

AB: Quite true. In many respects, the technological artifact that defines the last century is the airplane. With the airplane came a distinctive style of warfare. The Italians dropped the first bomb in North Africa; the Japanese killed their share of civilians from the air as did the Germans, but we and our British cousins outdid them all. I’ve been thinking more and more that our record of strategic bombing is not simply an issue of historical interest.

We are not who we believe we are and, in some sense, others perceive us more accurately than we do ourselves. The President has described a version of history — as did Clinton, by the way — beginning with World War II in which the United States is the liberator, Americans are the bringers of freedom. There is truth to that narrative, but it’s not the whole truth; and, quite frankly, it’s not the truth that matters a lick, let’s say, to the Islamic world today. Muslims don’t give a darn that we brought Hitler or the Third Reich to its knees. What they’re aware of is all kinds of other behavior, particularly in their neck of the woods, that had nothing to do with spreading democracy and freedom, that had everything to do with power, with trying to establish relations that maximized the benefit to the United States and American society. We don’t have to let our hearts bleed about that. That’s the way politics works, but let’s not delude ourselves either. When President George W. Bush says, “America stands for freedom and liberty, and we’re coming to liberate you,” it’s absurd to expect people in that part of the world to take us seriously. That’s not what they’ve seen and known and experienced in dealing with the United States.

TE: And, of course, within the councils of this administration, they threw out anyone who knew anything about the record of U.S. policy in the Islamic world.

AB: Because those experts would have challenged the ideologically soaked version of history that this administration has attempted to carry over into the 21st century. Only if we begin to see ourselves more clearly, will we be able to understand how others see us. We need to revise the narrative of the American Century and recognize that it has been about a host of other things that are far more problematic than liberation. There can be no understanding the true nature of the American century without acknowledging the reality of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, Hanoi, and Haiphong.

TE: Do you, by the way, think that the reality-based community is catching up with the Bush administration?

AB: It’s catching up, but is it in a way that has political consequences? If we just toss Bush out and bring in… Who? Senator Clinton or John McCain? Will things be different? Somehow, I don’t think so. Of course, there is something to be said for competence even in implementing a bad policy. Right now, we have incompetents implementing a bad policy, but the essence of the problem is the policy — not just the Iraq War but this paradigm of a Global War on Terror, this notion of unconstraining American power. That’s what we have to rethink.

TE: Your thoughts on three military matters: what might be called the religionizing of the military; the Bush administration’s setting up of a Northern Command in 2002 for the so-called homeland, which I find disturbing; and finally, what do you make of the now-normalized practice of presenting the costs of war-fighting as a non-Defense Department budget supplementary item?

AB: I think the last thing in your list is outlandish and irresponsible. It’s as if we’re keeping two sets of books. But again, the administration abetted by the Congress plays these games and nobody seems to care. Still, it doesn’t change the facts — that we’re spending more on defense than the rest of the world put together. That has no precedent. And are we becoming safer and more secure and more prosperous? If we’re not yet secure, does that mean we should be spending twice again as much? I have friends who think we should, or who at least believe that the defense budget is inadequate. I myself think that the flinging of money at the Defense Department ought to prompt Americans to reconsider the notion that the solution to our problems is to be found in the realm of military power.

I think the evangelizing issue reflects at least three things. Number one, the elite disengagement from the military after Vietnam. The Episcopalians don’t sign up any more, or the Presbyterians. Number two, the heightened political engagement of Christian evangelicals who, by the 1960s, had embarked on a crusade to save America from itself. Evangelicals have long seen the U.S. military as allies in that cause. American society may be going to hell in a hand basket with its promiscuity, its pornography, its divorce rates, its abortion, its women’s rights, all these things evangelicals lament, but the military’s a bastion of traditional virtue. Now, they misperceive soldiers in that regard, but I think that’s one reason military service has a special appeal for evangelical Christians.

Third comes the politicization of the military. When I first became an officer, the tradition of being apolitical was still deeply rooted. As one consequence of Vietnam, that went away. The officer corps came to see its interests as lying with the political right. Evangelical Christianity is just part of a larger mix.

TE: So, you have an all-embracing world that has become more politicized, that’s moved south, and that has few new streams of blood heading into it, unlike in the era of the draft or of the World War. What are the results of the military becoming less and less like American society?

AB: I think it’s bad news. The only good news — this is pure speculation as there’s no evidence for it — might be that since the Iraq War is the handiwork of a conservative, evangelical, Republican President, perhaps members of the officer corps will begin to rethink where their loyalties should lie and will come to the realization that hitching their flag to the Republican Party is not necessarily good for their institutional interests. The officer corps loved [President Ronald] Reagan. He saved the military. And here we have, according to some people, the most Reaganite president since Reagan who seems to be doing his darnedest to destroy the military. That might have some impact.

TE: About a year ago you said, “The only way I can envision a meaningful political change along the lines that I would like to see would be in reaction to an awful disaster.” Would you like to comment?

AB: A disaster like that could go either way. One hates to speculate on this, but were there another 9/11, the likely result could be that Americans would rise up in their righteous anger and say, let’s go kill them all. But it’s at least possible to hope that such a disaster might offer an opportunity for people who are advancing alternative views to be heard.

One of the strange things about the Iraq War and other post-9/11 policies is that, except for gas being at $3 a gallon, who the hell cares? Part of the cunning genius of the Bush administration has been the way it’s insulated Americans from the effects of their policies. You know, 9/11 happens and they seize upon it to declare their Global War on Terror. The President says from the outset that this is a long war, that it may take decades, that it’s comparable to the world wars. On the other hand, he chooses not to mobilize the nation. There are no changes in our domestic priorities; no significant expansion of the armed forces.

Well, why was that? In their confidence about how great our military power was, they calculated that what we had would suffice. That was a major miscalculation. But I think they also calculated that by telling Americans, as President Bush famously did, to go down to Disney World and enjoy this great country of ours, they would be able to buy themselves political protection. Even though opinion polls show that public support for the President has dropped tremendously, in a sense events have proven them right. They have not been held accountable for their egregious mistakes because average citizens like you and me don’t really feel the pain in any direct way.

Now, if the President had said: We’re going to cut back on our domestic programs; we’re going to raise taxes because this is an important war and, by God, we need to pay for it; we need a bigger Army and so we’re going to impose a draft. Then I think Americans might have been more attentive to what’s been happening over the past four years. But alas, they’ve not been. Instead we’ve drifted down the path toward perdition.

[Note: 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.]

Copyright 2006 Tomdispatch

This article appeared first at


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And we won't beat around the bush: Our fundraising drive to finish our current budget on June 30 and start our new fiscal year on July 1 is lagging behind where we need it to be.

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If you're new to Mother Jones or aren't yet sold on supporting our nonprofit reporting, please take a moment to read Monika Bauerlein's post about our priorities after these chaotic several years, and why this relatively quiet moment is also an urgent one for our democracy and Mother Jones’ bottom line—and if you find it compelling, please join us.

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