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Col. Andrew Bacevich says both parties are committed to maintaining U.S. global hegemony through military power

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PAUL JAY, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. As terrorist attacks increase in intensity and rapidity, the national elections of the United States increasingly focus on what to do about it. National defense is one of the main themes of the elections. But just how committed are either candidate to national defense? Or is it, perhaps, what they’re really committed to is America being the only superpower, and is that the primary mission? Well, that is the case, according to our next guest, who wrote in Harper’s magazine that there is a bipartisan commitment to maintaining American supremacy. It’s become the political signature of our times. So this November, voters will choose between rival species of hawks. Each of the finalists will insist that freedom’s survival hinges on having in the Oval Office a president willing to employ force, even as each dodge and substantive assessment of what acting on that impulse has produced of late. In this sense, the outcome of the general election has already been decided. Now joining me to the studio is Andrew Bacevich. Andrew is a historian, retired colonel, and Vietnam War veteran. He’s a Professor Emeritus at Boston University. He’s also the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. Thanks for joining us, Andrew. ANDREW BACEVICH: Glad to be with you. JAY: So, if I understand the piece you wrote in Harper’s last spring called America Imperium, if I have it right, essentially the thesis is defending the nation is not really the mission. The mission is American supremacy. And that certainly applies to the Middle East. So what does that mean, then, these two candidates, in terms of defending the homeland, seem to be promoting a foreign policy that actually puts the homeland in jeopardy? BACEVICH: Well, I think that’s true. I mean, for the moment, we should take anything that Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton has to say with a grain of salt. They will say whatever they think will improve their chances of being elected in the fall. That said, I would not expect either of them, if elected, to bring about any serious rethinking of U.S. national security policy. As I suggested in that Harper’s piece, they are different versions of hawks. JAY: So if you go back, in terms of the U.S. history in the Middle East, the–I guess it begins, more or less, with Roosevelt’s meeting with King Ibn Saud in 1945, where they have a face-to-face meeting and decide that they will be cordial relations and even more. Some people suggest that’s where the real plan is hatched, where the Americans will support the Sauds as the head of the, not just Saudi Arabia, but even more influential throughout the Arab world. That gets articulated more during the Eisenhower doctrine. Can you talk a bit about that? Is that Eisenhower doctrine really the beginning of this assertion of American dominance in the Middle East? BACEVICH: Well, I think, I think that the meeting between FDR and the Saudi King that you cite is a very important waystation. That committed the United States to securing the monarchy, in return for expectations that we would have privileged access to oil in the Persian Gulf. However, I think the real turning point happens in 1980. Prior to 1980, there certainly was a U.S. policy in the greater Middle East, but it was not a U.S. policy that found expression in any serious military commitment. That changes in 1980, when Jimmy Carter promulgates the Carter doctrine. If you recall, that’s a statement that designates the Persian Gulf a vital U.S. national security interest, and explicitly a place that we’re now willing to fight for. So prior to 1980, no major U.S. military involvement in the region. Beginning in 1980, a pattern of armed interventionism in the greater Middle East that continues down to the present day, and at least in my judgment has been unsuccessful, and indeed, counterproductive. So the military narrative really begins in 1980. JAY: Yeah, it’s interesting with a Democratic president, from the Democratic Party, certainly under the sway of Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was more or less the architect, I think, of the Carter doctrine, and leads to the war in Afghanistan. I guess–I hope most people know the basic story there, that the Americans funded jihadists in Afghanistan to suck the Russians in, and then successfully so, into a quagmire. And even though that led to the forming of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden. And I think you can probably draw a straight line from that Carter doctrine right to 9/11, in terms of–it’s a good example, I think, of what you’re talking about, how this foreign policy–. BACEVICH: I don’t, I don’t know that I’d call it a straight line, but there’s a line. I mean, there certainly are a whole bunch of dots that can be connected. And I think that the Afghanistan experience, we’re supporting the jihadists, is a good example of the unexpected consequences of U.S. interventionism. At our present moment, as you and I are speaking, the concern is about ISIS. Certainly it’s a, it’s reasonable to view ISIS as a threat. It’s also true that ISIS would not exist had not the United States invaded Iraq back in 2003. We shattered Iraq, and out of the chaos of Iraq has emerged this new terrorist entity. So both of these, Afghanistan in the ’80s, Iraq beginning in 2003, illustrate the larger point that U.S. military interventionism in this region simply has not produced the positive outcomes that policymakers have, have expected. JAY: Just on Wednesday, President Obama announced that troops are going to be maintained at a higher level than expected till the end of the year. We can run a little clip of President Obama announcing the troop levels staying at the levels they are. Do we have that clip ready? BARACK OBAMA: I’m announcing an additional adjustment to our posture. Instead of going down to 5,500 troops by the end of this year, the United States will maintain approximately 8,400 troops in Afghanistan into next year, through the end of my administration. The narrow missions assigned to our forces will not change. They will remain focused on supporting Afghan forces, and going after terrorists. JAY: So the United States remains embroiled in Afghanistan as the extension of a policy, as you said, created under the Carter doctrine and beginning in 1980. Iraq is in as big a chaos mess as ever. Massive car bombing, recently, suicide bombing, and the emergence of ISIS. If the basic thesis that you’re proposing is that this idea that’s creating so much terrorism, and the underpinning of the idea, is that there must be American supremacy, not the defense of America, then what does the alternative look like when you look at the Middle East? What would American foreign policy look like if it was actually based on defending simply the safety and interest of the majority of the American people? BACEVICH: Well, then that policy would look like one in which there was minimal active U.S. military presence in the region. I mean, U.S. military presence instigates resistance. There’s simply no question about that. So we defend ourselves by defending ourselves. That is to say, erecting barriers that will prevent the terrorists from getting at us. I mean, when you think about why 9/11 happened, it happened because the responsible agencies of the federal government failed to put in place minimally adequate security measures in American airports. So the key, I think, to minimalizing–not eliminating–to minimizing the threat of terrorism is to ensure that our domestic security agencies, FBI, TSA, border security, that these agencies are effectively led and resourced. The answer is not to send more U.S. troops or drop more U.S. bombs in places like Iraq or in Syria. Now, there are real problems in that part of the world, and ultimately the answer to restabilizing the Persian Gulf is to ensure that the nations in the region assume responsibility for that task. And they are capable of doing that, were they to collaborate. I’m talking about Iran and Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. I understand those countries differ from one another in a variety of ways, but it should be incumbent upon them to recognize the transcendent threat posed by ISIS, and therefore to make common cause simply to deal with that current threat. JAY: This idea of supremacy leads to the conclusion that whatever happens, to some extent, needs to be orchestrated by the United States, which is why there’s so–an enormous American military base in Qatar, there’s obviously American troops still in Afghanistan and Iraq. Does the United States, in your opinion, should the correct foreign policy be to announce to the region that, I don’t know whether it’s over a reasonable time frame, but all the American troops are getting out of the Middle East. BACEVICH: Well, yeah, and it is, I think. The time frame is something that one could argue about. And let’s be clear, it’s not that supremacy is either bad or good. The issue here is what works. And if somebody could make a case for me that would show that U.S. military interventionism over the past several decades is making things better, it is indeed bringing about stability, it’s promoting democracy, it’s advancing the cause of human rights, if our efforts militarily were doing those things, then I’d say, let’s keep doing it. [Crosstalk]. JAY: But maybe that’s not the objective. Maybe those are not the objectives, and it is working for the real objectives. And if I put on the hat of Lockheed Martin, or Boeing, or some of these companies, I would say what’s going on in the Middle East is going fairly well. Almost war, war, the arms sales to Saudi Arabia alone, I believe, in the last what is it, 4-5 years, has been something in the range of $90 billion. I mean, these rivalries and tension and volatility in the Middle East is very, is very good if you happen to be in certain sectors of the economy. BACEVICH: Your cynicism is not misplaced. It’s certainly the case that open-ended war works to the beneficiary, to the benefit of some. Specifically, to the components of the military-industrial complex. I guess I’m not quite that cynical, in the sense that the day I don’t believe that President Obama gets up in the morning and says to himself, I wonder what I can do for the military-industrial complex today? So I, I cling to the belief that policymakers do at some level try to do things that they think advance the interests of the United States and the well-being of the American people. But stubbornly, they refuse to take stock of what our efforts in the greater Middle East have accomplished. So there is rather this sort of dogged persistence that if we try a little bit harder, if we keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan just a little bit longer, if we intensify the bombing against ISIS just a bit more, that somehow things are going to come out all right in the end, alas, there is no evidence to support that expectation. JAY: Right. But I would suggest that if you take your opening of your article, that the objective is American supremacy, and you apply that to the Middle East, then there’s sort of, like, three or four threats to that supremacy. One is some external power. And that’s, you know, are the Russians really a threat there? Certainly not anymore, if in fact they really ever were. Chinese, you know, in an economic way, but not in terms of any military supremacy, certainly. You have the possibilities of uprisings of the people, which can also threaten that supremacy. If the Egyptian Revolution had been successful, and the people of Egypt had demanded real independence, and if that had started to spread throughout the region, that would also be a threat. But the other–and of course, part of that supremacy are these pillars of power of empire. You know, whether it’s Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or Israel. These are part of the ways American power gets exercised in the region. But it seems to me there’s another piece of this that doesn’t get enough discussion, which is it’s that these rivalries are important. I mean, the rivalry between the Sauds and the Iranians and the Turks playing a rivalry with all of the other powers, to some extent. Even the fight between the Sauds and the Qataris. I mean, this naturally will come up as powers, you know, mid-level powers compete with each other. But isn’t it an American interest to make sure that remains that way? Because if they really started cooperating, and you started having a broad Arab bloc in that region that were really collaborative, isn’t that a real threat to American supremacy? It’d be the emergence of another major power. BACEVICH: Well, I don’t think it’s plausible that there’s going to be another major power emerge in this region. Not a power anywhere comparable to what we wield, or even, for example, to what the Chinese wield, and will continue to wield. But there is an angle, I think, that connects to the point you’re making. And that is that supremacy, this notion of we need to be number one, there’s a psychic element, here. Our insistence, expressed particularly strongly in the wake of the Cold War, that we are the sole superpower, that somehow we represent the trajectory of history, that ultimately everyone on the planet is destined to embrace freedom as we define freedom. Those expectations have been challenged by events in the Islamic world, broadly; in the Middle East more narrowly. The foundation of our expectations of being the indispensable nation lie in the belief that we possess military might such as the world has never seen. And yet what we have found time and again in the greater Middle East is our military might is inadequate to the challenge. And we’re not willing to admit that. Foreign policy establishment is not willing to admit that. And frankly, I think the majority of the American people are not willing to admit that. Not willing to admit that we are not history’s agent. JAY: If you go back to what should be done now, and you take the idea that the powers of the region should collaborate and fight ISIS, it kind of doesn’t, it doesn’t deal with the point that many of the powers of the region, and particularly Saudi Arabia, to a large extent have been behind all of this, and still are. Certainly in Syria, the Saudis are still financing, if not ISIS–and we’re not sure, exactly. I don’t think anyone’s really sure what that ISIS-Saudi connection is right now. But for the sake of argument let’s say the Saudis and ISIS are no longer in cooperation. But certainly the Saudis are funding in Syria other forces not so different than ISIS. Al-Qaeda-type forces. This underlying policy of the alliance with the Saudis is so much fueling this, isn’t it? And so the answer of asking the Saudis to be part of the solution, I don’t see how that, how we get to that. BACEVICH: Well, and it would not be easy to get to that. I don’t mean to imply somehow we would just sort of snap our fingers and this sort of anti-ISIS coalition would come into existence. But I do think that there’s a diplomatic challenge here, and the diplomatic challenge is persuading the Saudi monarchy to appreciate in a realistic way where the interests of the monarchy lie. You are correct, at least as I understand it. For decades now Saudi Arabia has been promoting the sort of radical Islamism that in many respects finds expression in organizations like ISIS. Why they’ve been doing that–as I understand it, they’ve been doing that largely for their own domestic political purposes, to demonstrate their fealty to a very severe version of Islam. We need to persuade them it’s not in their interest to do that. And again, I want to emphasize, I don’t think that’s easy. But I think it’s more doable than continuing down the militarized path that we’ve been on for the past several decades. JAY: But then you get into, back to the interests of the industrial-military complex. Because, you know, billions and billions of dollars of arms sales–because the only real leverage is that. You have to say to the Saudis, fine, no more arms until you stop doing this stuff. And there’s way too much Saudi money pouring into the pockets of people that have tremendous power in Washington. BACEVICH: Well, you know, if I said anything that somehow said, oh, I think this is easy–. JAY: No, you didn’t. BACEVICH: Then I’m going to track that. I think it’s real, real, real hard–and it could well be that there are people smarter than I am who can conceive of a better alternative to the militarized approach that we have been taking. And my ears are open to consider those alternative views. But my, my bottom line position, the one I insist upon, is simply trying harder, keeping doing what we’ve been doing, is not going to work. So the imperative is to, to devise a realistic alternative to the militarization of U.S. policy. Again, I’ve given you one possibility. There may be many others. But simply continuing down the path we’re on right now is, it ain’t going to work. JAY: What would you, what would you say to the suggestion, no more arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and no more arms sales to Israel? BACEVICH: Well, I mean, I would say for domestic political reasons it’s never going to happen. But there is no doubt in my mind that as the arms merchant of the world, we may be doing things that do benefit Lockheed Martin and the like, but we’re simply pouring gas on this, on this fire. Mostly, particularly in the case of the Saudis, we’re selling them weapons that they don’t even know how to, how to use effectively. So it doesn’t make any sense. JAY: All right. Thanks very much for joining us, Andrew. BACEVICH: Glad to be with you. JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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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.