An interview on the limits of military might
Through his books — including his latest, “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country” — Bacevich has contributed to a revival of an authentically conservative tradition in American foreign policy: ethical realism. The space he occupies in our contemporary debates over war and peace would be instantly familiar to the American Founders, as well as such 20th Century figures as Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, and George F. Kennan.
Realism begins by acknowledging that the world is a fundamentally ungovernable and often violent place. It views international relations as the arena where states compete for power, preferably peacefully, but by force if necessary. In this competition, such mechanisms as the balance of powers and spheres of influence are vital for preserving peace. But to maintain those mechanisms requires that states act with a certain degree of humility regarding the limits of power and their right to impose a moral vision on competing states. States can and should behave ethically, in the realist view, but will do so only to the extent that behaving ethically provides an advantage in the Great Game.
This is a very different perspective from the foreign policy consensus that prevails in the United States today, a consensus that blends liberal interventionism and idealism with what Senator J. William Fulbright once called “the arrogance of power.” If the sound of Andrew Bacevich’s critique is unfamiliar, it may be because it hasn’t been widely heard in the United States for some time.
President Obama has outlined his four-part strategy to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It includes American airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria and increased equipment and support for friendly forces on the ground. Is this strategy likely to accomplish the stated mission, or do you foresee the reintroduction of American ground troops?
The approach that the administration has cobbled together — American air power plus surrogates on the ground supported by a hastily assembled coalition vaguely promising to assist “as appropriate” — does not qualify as a strategy. It’s another version of whack-a-mole. It’s important to understand that point.
ISIS emerged from a set of nontrivial conditions afflicting many nations across the Greater Middle East. Figuring prominently among those conditions are political dysfunction, economic underdevelopment, and social alienation, along with the pernicious residue of European colonialism still lingering everywhere from arbitrary borders to thieving local elites. Those so inclined can throw into the mix the ongoing plight of the Palestinian people.
Were the United States and its partners miraculously to succeed tomorrow in destroying ISIS and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdad, those conditions would still persist. As a consequence, another “ISIS” under another banner, inspired by a new leader, would almost certainly appear. And we’ll find ourselves right back where we are today. Indeed, ISIS is itself a legacy organization, successor to the now defunct Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Now this is no reason to forego attacking ISIS, a truly vicious and vile enterprise (even if posing a negligible threat to the United States, a flood of overheated rhetoric notwithstanding). But ISIS is a symptom, not the disease. American bombs and missiles might well suppress this particular symptom, but surely will not eliminate its cause or even prevent its recurrence.
Whether or not President Obama will ultimately commit U.S. combat troops is therefore not the issue (although I don’t believe he will do so, if only for reasons of domestic politics). The real failure of U.S. policymakers is that 13 years after 9/11 they have yet to devise anything that actually rises to the level of deserving to be called a strategy.
In one form or another, the United States has now been at war in the Middle East since the Gulf War a quarter century ago. And yet, despite — or perhaps as a result of — our involvement, the region is less stable and more hostile to our interests than ever. How do you account for this failure of American policy and does it signal the end of the "Washington rules?”
There are several explanations, but one is that the United States has fundamentally misconstrued the political utility of armed force. Back in 2001, senior members of the Bush administration believed that U. S. forces were invincible — that they could deliver decisive victory over any opponent. This was, to put it mildly, a misperception. We need look no further than the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars for confirmation. Unfortunately, even at this late date, neither our political nor our military leaders are willing to face up to the implications of that misperception. Instead, they continue to chant about how we have the best military is all of history, a fact that may be true, but is also irrelevant.
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has conducted military operations over a sustained period of time in at least 11 different countries. For both the American people and their leaders, war or the threat of war is now an easy, all-purpose solution to nearly every international crisis. What are the prospects for the survival of our democratic republic under such conditions, which you’ve called “the normalization of war?”
We’ll survive as we have survived most previous catastrophes by blundering through. Countries that are big and rich have a certain staying power not permitted to small and poor countries. We have a larger margin for error. Even so, the consequences of our misuse of military power have been severe. We’ve squandered power recklessly. In the meantime, our democratic republic has become notably less democratic. Endless war is not the sole cause of that trend, but it certainly qualifies as a contributor.