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Military historian Andrew Bacevich says the incessant U.S. media and political focus on Russiagate is sidelining critical issues, including perpetual war

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AARON MATE: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Mate. The firing of FBI Director James Comey has consumed political and media tension over the past week. Well, my next guess wants us to consider other issues as well. Andrew Bacevich is a retired colonel, military historian, and author, most recently of, “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.” His latest piece for the nation is called “24 Things the Media Missed While They Were Obsessing Over Trump’s Latest Soundbite.” Professor Bacevich, welcome. A BACEVICH: Well, thanks very much. AARON MATE: I want to get to those 24 other things that the media missed, or at least some of them, but before that, I do want to talk about Comey for a second, and specifically, the parallels to Watergate, in that we have the media focused so intensively on this apparent breach of power by the President in firing Comey for possibly political reasons. It reminded me of what Noam Chomsky said about Watergate, which is that while certainly what Nixon committed was a crime, the intense focus on it at the time overshadowed far more serious issues including the bombing of Indochina and also the massive co-intel program where the FBI was used to subvert activists from the women’s movement to black liberation activists. This is Chomsky speaking about Watergate. NOAM CHOMSKY: By the time it got through, I won’t run through the whole story, it was aimed at the entire new left, the women’s movement, at the whole black movement. It was extremely broad. Its actions went as far as political assassination. Now, what’s the difference between the two? Very clear. In Watergate, Richard Nixon went after half of US private power, mainly the Democratic Party. Power can defend itself. Therefore, that’s a scandal. AARON MATE: That’s Noam Chomsky talking about Watergate, but just like Russiagate, the apparent victim here is the Democratic Party, and therefore, Chomsky says, it’s a scandal and worthy of so much hysteria and fear that we’re seeing a crisis of democracy. Professor Bacevich, I’m curious about your thoughts on this issue and this analog. A BACEVICH: Well, the majority of opinion is fixated by this perception that Trump’s election and Trump’s actions since entering the office constitutes some radical break from all previous US history. I understand that argument, but I think it’s vastly overstated. I think to become excessively preoccupied with Trump’s shenanigans, his dissembling, causes us to take our eye off the ball, and to fail to give adequate attention to questions that are actually far more important. Or, to put it in very simple terms, Trump is a symptom of a much larger problem, he’s not problem. Although certainly he will make the problems worse as he continues in office, but he’s the symptom, not the problem itself. AARON MATE: Let’s talk specifically about the focus on Russia and the perception that it creates that somehow the Russian government is having a massive influence over government decisions. I want to play you one clip. This is Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat of New York University, and she studies fascism. She’s a historian of fascism, and she recently appeared on the show Democracy Now, and this is what she said about the recent Russian visit to the Oval Office. Ruth Ben-Ghiat: I felt it was such a tragedy for our democracy to see Trump in the Oval Office with the Russian Foreign Minister the day after this happened. This is a very strong signal to his Russian client and to authoritarians all over the world that he means business and the business is their business. Besides the security concerns which have been raised with having Russians in the Oval Office with a photographer into the most sensitive space of America, it sends a message that Russia has won, and that Trump is indeed willing to do what they say. AARON MATE: Professor, I found this comment very emblematic of the discourse right now about Russia, where here you have that someone arguing that merely having Russians inside the Oval Office with a photographer is a security concern and it’s a signal that Trump is doing Putin’s bidding. What do you make right now of the current talk of Russia’s apparent influence over US politics? A BACEVICH: There’s no question that the administration’s handling of that visit was typically ham handed, oblivious to the so-called optics, but it is the business of government to deal with other governments, and Russia is an important country with which we have relations. Those relations are complicated, they’re competitive, but it’s important that the United States, that US officials, President, Secretary of State, Secretary Defense, to continue to talk to their Russian counterparts. I mean, in World War 2 or during the Cold War, US leaders met frequently with Soviet leaders. Those conversations may well have contributed in significant ways to keeping the Cold War cold. I think that sort of an argument is just vastly overstated. AARON MATE: Okay, so let’s get to the issues that all of this Russia focus is sidelining. As a military historian, someone who’s served in the Armed Forces, what are the key issues in your mind right now that should be getting way more attention than they currently are? A BACEVICH: Well, one of them is the normalization of war. I mean, prior to 9/11, the American people and I think American political leaders, we certainly more than adequately bellicose and didn’t hesitate to use force, but we tended to view war as the exception rather than the rule. Now, war has become normalized. It has become permanent, and although that point gets made from time to time, it gets made and then shrugged off and then accepted. We think we have the world’s greatest military, and in many respects we do. Well, why doesn’t it win? Why doesn’t it get the job done? I think that is an example of a question that deserves far more attention than it deserves, and you can break that question down, you can apply it to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, you can apply it to the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State, but it’s a huge issue. I think a related issue has to do with the American military system. We all profess to love the troops but the reality is that in this country that is permanently at war, roughly 1% of the population bears the burden of service and sacrifice, and the other 99% of us are happy simply to play the role of being spectators. How is that democratic? How is it effective? How is it affordable? Again, people do raise these questions from time to time, but they never really gain any political traction. They pass through the newspapers or they’re mentioned in some TV program and then they’re immediately forgotten. AARON MATE: Why isn’t the US military with all of its power able to achieve its goals in places like Iraq, after over a decade, Afghanistan after nearly 16 years and hundreds of billions of dollars? What is the deficiency with the US military approach? A BACEVICH: Well I mean, that’s a very pertinent question. There’s no simple answer. I think that there are multiple factors involved, but probably the most important one is a political or strategic failure, we have attempted to use the military instrument to solve a problem which doesn’t have a military solution. The problem is that the existence of some amount of deep antagonism directed toward the West which is situated in the Islamic world, but then manifests itself in organizations that commit acts of terror directed against the United States or directed against other entities that are aligned with us. The expectation that invading and occupying countries, or the engagement in sustained bombing campaigns is going to eliminate that threat, if you want to call it a threat, is simply untrue. We’ve tested the proposition for years now, we’re no closer to eliminating the so-called terrorist threat than we were the day we began. AARON MATE: Finally Professor Bacevich, when you look at the Trump administration, I’m presuming that it’s not the firing of James Comey or the contents of President Trump’s Twitter feed that concern you most. When you look at the group of people there, what are the foremost concerns you have about their approach to the world and their plans for it? A BACEVICH: Well I mean, the biggest concern is the President himself. He’s unqualified for the office that he holds. He has shown very little evidence of understanding how the world works or frankly, very little interest in learning how the world works. He operates based on impulse. If indeed he consults and listens to people who know more than he does, it’s not in evidence. I’m troubled by the fact that he’s largely surrounded himself with military figures, either active or recently retired generals, and that has reinforced the militarized cast of US policy that dates back at least to the George W. Bush administration, and frankly, continued during the Obama era. Those would be a couple of examples of concerns that I have. AARON MATE: Andrew Bacevich, a military historian and author. Professor, thank you. A BACEVICH: Thank you. AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Andrew Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is a retired colonel and Vietnam War veteran and the author of many books including American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy (2002), The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War (2005), The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008), and most recently, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.