Live Blogging Andrew Bacevich at MIT’s Starr Forum, 9/14/2010

To begin in a couple of minutes, a live blog of BU Professor (and former career US Army office) Andrew Bacevich, speaking at MIT on his new book, Washington Rules.

Actual blogging to come as the events unfold….

4:30 MIT Poly Sci Professor Barry Posen kicks off the proceedings, usual props for the speaker, acknowledging Bacevich’s formidable productivity, and a quick sideswipe at Princeton. (“Neither of us were too badly damaged by the experience [of teaching/studying there]

4:35 Bacevich [B henceforward] begins.

2 questions:  Why are we in Afghanistan? Why were we in Vietnam.

B says:  Both questions have common answer.  Washington stubbornly adheres to a security consensus

first — we adhere to what he calls the American credo, and second, we accept the strategic trinity.

The credo holds that the US and the US alone should lead, save, liberate, transform the world.  Not, he says, arbitrary choices of words — this is what our leaders say, the same vocabulary.

Trinity — about power, and power projection to support global interventionism.

Together credo and trinity drive American attempts to police the “American century.” Trinity gives credo teeth; credo gives trinity legitimacy

Problem is that hte rules of this interaction don’t work — in fact these “Washington Rules” are counterproductive.

By promising safety, permanent war reduces it; by promising to defend the American way of life, adherance to the credo/trinity pair bankrupts it.

What should replace it, asks AB?

Turns to the preface of the Constitution — pointing to the need to secure “the blessings of liberty” for ouselves, much less our posterity.

IE — he says America should be America; if that makes us an exemplar, great, but should not make such side benefits the primary goal.

He argues for new trinity:  what is the primary duty station for American soldier:  America.

He concedes (his word) that we may need to send US soldiers abroad and keep them there at times.  But the assumptino should not be that primary duty station should nto be chain of bases around the world.

Second:  We should reserve the use of American power for the defense of American vital interests.  Admits that the term “vital interests” is a tricky one — but insists that whatever the final list should be limited one. Shouldn’t do what we are doing now, to define every damn thing (my word) as such an interest.

Third thing:  need to emphasis the just war tradition to justify the use of American force…In that tradition, we should employ force as a last resort, in self defense.  Crucial thought:  keep in mind the “limited utiltity of the us of force” and must keep in mind the “unintended conseqquences” and keep in mind that the costs will be much greater than initially anticipated in each entry to war.

Next question:  how likely is it that we will switch from current “Wash Rules” to BAcevich’s formulation?

Not likely:  status quo benefits Washington establishment, MSM, the whole usual suspects, even if it does not do so for the country.

But second, perhaps more troubling reason:  that has to do with us, the American people.  We have been too long conditioned to the idea that departure from these rules will lead to disaster, isolationism.  We don’t, thus, have the capacity to ask crucial first order questions about whther or not the status quo works.

4:45 — question time.  (Boy, does AB know how to deliver a brief.  Once you learn how to get on that bicycle, I guess you never forget how to ride.)

First question:  Have matters changed, e.g. in such historcal examples as the Spanish American War — there was not a great deal of debate about intervening to liberate Cuba, but there was plenty of debate about the annexation of the Philippines that followed.  This not just about strategic implications, but was informed by a deep seated sense that this form of expansion was somehow different.  Questioner follows up by saying that debate did not stop the decision to annex from going forward.

AB replies that yes, policy is made in Washington, but the only way that DC can truly be challenged, given the benefits that accrue w./in the village, then that opposition will have to come from outside.  See, for example, the debatees about interventions in both WW I and WW II. The issue is not whether when hte people speak they are right or wrong, but that there were times when the hinterland’s deference to Washingoton did not hold as strongly as now.

Q: What do your critics say against what seems to this questioner is a strong case. AB :  they say that the world needs policing, and only the US can play that role.

Posner steps in and says, that yes, this is one of the stock answers. People do say that when we aren’t involved, the world does go to hell, and we ahve to intervene anyway, and its more efficient to pre-emptively get involved.

AB picks up:  people try to cite history to support such arguments. They say that the successes posl 1945 should be creditied to US willingness to use military power.  There is evidence that there is some truth, that US projection of power did work post ’45 in many instances. But the argument is that post early Cold War, these Washington Rules are not subjected to scrutiny, and if they don’t hold (my extension of the argument) we wouldn’t/couldn’t know it.

Goes on to say that 2 party system is failing, because instead of getting a real in-Washington debate, because Dems and Repubs both have, for different reasons committed themselves to internationalist intervention.  Plenty of empirical support for that view in your humble bloggers view.

Q: Why don’t the Democrats do bette r– and could you critique the Obama adminstration on this regard.  Also, what about the CIA memo released via Wikileaks that said biggest help to US policy in Afghanistan was US and European apathy:

AB:  Why do Democrats subscribe to the national security consensus. Cynically, because Democrats have come to believe that they cannot afford to look like national security wimps.  We have the lesson of McGovern, and Carter, sort of (though aB thinks the charges against Carter are specious) …and then on the ohter side Bill Clinton, the draft dodger (said archly) who said again and again in speeches said he could use military as needed, maintaining the strongest military.  Democrats are unprincipled and cowardly. Repubs, unprincipled and lunatics. Not a happy situation.

What about Afghanistan — apathy as al Quaeda’s friend?  The problem is that there is this bizarre notion that staying or “winning ” in AFghanistan is the key to preventing the next 9/11.  Think for three seconds and you realize that this is bogus.  Not true that radical jihadism is concentrated in AFghanistan.  If magician David Petraeus could wave a wand and make Afghanistan a liberal democracy tomorrow — would that end threat of radical jihad?  There is a threat , AB says, but don’t think it’s existential, nor does he think that occupying this or that country is the solution to that limited threat.

But ever since George Bush declared GWOT, we’ve somehow lost hte ability to think coherently here.

How to reduce apathy?  Got to have skin in the game. Could shut war down in heartbeat if people in DC told rest of us how much the war would cost each of us to keep running the war.

The disgraceful, irresponsible, immoral policy we follow is to put the cost of this war on to future basis. If we actually paid for wars as we go, we’d get very different outcome.

Christopher Lydon stands up to ask about the Philippines example again, pointing out how anti-Imperialism then included folks like Mark Twain, William James (who anticipated Jeremiah Wright by saying “God Damn America for what it is doing in the Philippines”)? What would it take to get that kind of anti interventionist movement now.

AB:  Don’t know what it would take.  Look in the last election 2 candidates, Paul on the right and Kucincich on left and the MSM dismissed them.  MSM is at least largely at fault — e.g. when NY Times asks Wolfowitz what he thinks about the end of combat mission in Iraq. Why? What can Wolfowitz say — why not some thoughtful reflection at that time.

Reinforces AB’s concern/disdain for media that does not or cannot accept or recognize the degree to which tehy are captive to conventional thinking.

Q:  Should US get out of Afghanistan entirely? What is US responsibility given US prior record of training of mujahaddin against the Soviet Union, those who have now mutated, (some of them) into Taliban.

AB:  Don’t think leaders of a great power sit around a coffee table and ask “what is the right thing to do here” — self admitted cynic.  Shouldn’t kid ourselves that our leaders see moral issues as more than peripheral.  But what are those obligations in the case of Afghanistan? Given all the places we’ve been involved and have done harm, and presumambly have obligations to make harm good — why should Afghanistan come first. In my view, Mexico should come at the top of the list.  We’ve been involved there for longer, more intimately there than in Afghanistan.  Took TExas ec. from Mexico, and they are now under seige because of our drug appetite and our lax gun laws arms the Mexican drug bosses.  Why not Mexico?

And even if you think that Afghanistan should come first — why do you think war is the right way to discharge that obligation.  Should we continue to wreak violence in that country.  Why not a policy that said any Afghan woman (e.g. reference to the woman on Time magazine who had her nose slashed) turn themselves in to a US authority and get flown to SF to be safe.  You know that’s not going to happen…

But if perpetuating the war is the right way to go?  Will you go? Will you pay for it?  Or is the argument about k eeping war going really about “my conscience is bothering me and it will make me feel a bit better to send someone else’s kid over for his of her fourth or fifth tour.”  Let’s have a serious conversation, not one that is about maybe sleeping a little bit better if we just keep war going…

5:15:  Veteran for peace speaks…talks about US as pooerly informed about history; engages in state sponsored terrorism; and folks never get the true cost of war, the deaths and disasters that attend on modern war.  How do we get folks to deal with cost of war.

Answer:  Asking the same question as Chris Lydon did.  Deeply troubling one.  Why don’t we do so? Part of the answer is that life is tough.  We have 9.6 % unemployment; people struggle to put 3 squares on teh table and raise kids; want to find a job, or keep it. I can empathize with the idea that Americans have lots on their minds other than worrying about the latest UAV attack on Afghanistan.  That’s not a satisfying answer….(he says).

In defense of history, though — history as it is being written now is not cheerleading.  Vast amount of literature that is critical and informative about how we have blundered into the conflict w. Islamic world.

But historians do not have much influence.  Even that which does get read does not do much to dislodge mythic history that we imbibe w. mother’s milk and that politicians repeat endlessly.

I (AB) was just reading Hilary Clinton’s speech to Council on Foreign Relations – awful, full of cliches.  You say to yourself that without question H. Clinton is very intelligent, how can she say such things?  And the answer is I don’t know.

Q:  What about the new phenomenon of the rise of the right — Tea Partiers and folks like Glenn Beck — what are the consequences of such a rise?

AB:  I hesitate to answer …but what the hell:   My bet is that the Tea Party is an epiphenomenon. Despite all the hooptedoo (sic) and the expectations that the TP will have an impact on the elections this November — don’t think that they will be around much longer .  The substance is so thin, and is so based on anger that it isn’t enough to sustain a lasting organization.

you may have heard Trent Lott the other day — “We need to co-opt these people.”  And I think that reflects the cynicism of the Repub party –but the GOP is not going to become the Tea Party [TL here  — pretty sure this is too optimistic]

Also can’t divorce subject of race from all of this — and is the most troubling part of our current politics.  Seems to me that too many of our fellow citizens refuse to accept the legitimacy of this presidency because it is unacceptable to have a black man as President.  Republicans woudl deny this, but I think they are lying through their teeth.  Race has not been left in our rear view mirror.

Q: What about grand strategy implications for a reduction of US military power to where AB thinks it ought to be — in reference to Europe etc.  Wouldn’t it be a waste to give away our military power.

AB:  true that we spend less now as a % of gdp on money at height of cold war.  Spending much more in constant dollars.  Also, then we had balanced budgets now trillion dollar defictis.  (Now spending 5% of GDP vs. 10% of 50s GDP)  This statistic is often trotted out — is BS.

To the larger grand strategy question — do so gradually, not in one fell swoop.  Survey the world and see where security threats are at a low ebb and where the existing capactiy of nations to manage their own security is high…and the answer is Europe.  Not nothing, but not much threatens Europe. They have an aversion to paying for their own security; we need to wean them of that.  If we gave them 10 years to figure out how to defend themselves, and then we withdraw form NATO and NATO devolves into a regional security alliance.

Asia —  not so clear.  The Chinese, Japanese, Koreans all want us there. If we were to rapidly withdraw, could trigger an arms race and other bad things — and I wouldn’t so quickly pull out there.

I’m not as concerned about Chinese rise to pwoer.  They are not historically expansionist.  They are not the one establishing 4 star commands in Latin America and Africa. We are.

5:30:  Question about what AB thinks about the surge as an unearned propaganda bonus to the right.

AB:  Advocates of Iraq war want to talk about surge rather than missing WMDs  — “let’s not adjudicate the war”.  Surge itself was successful in some limited sense — some violence reduction occured in its context, but not clear if more troops or more bribes to Iraqi leaders did the job.

But purpose of surge not simply to reduce violence, but ot bring about political reconciliation — and that’s where the jury is still out.  Everyone knows that the insurgency is still there; may be growing in strength. But question is whether the Iraqi security forces can handle it,a nd can political classes govern themselves.  Not yet a victory…could be but can’t know now.

What about Cuba policy?  AB:  Cuba policy has long been stupid becuase it has been a domestic political football.  Long been known that Castro revolution is a failure.  Our job is to do whatever we can, which may not be much, to make sure that the chaos of the passing of that revolution is minimized.  (Returns to quesiton of moral obligations….what do we owe the Cuban people.  Tough question.)

Q:  Are we playing Bin Laden’s game? A: yes.

I don’t know that I would credit everything that has happened since 9/11 to Bin Laden’s strategic genius.  Our bad judgment has something to do with it.  But yes :  we are spending ourselves into the poor house. We are losing a lot of American lives and ruining more — and it is difficult to understand the sense of it all.

Q:  Do you think it possible that the consensus lasts because the American people approve of this belief.

AB:  yes, beacuse there is a tendency to defer to Washington and a tendency that national security experts have real expertise, adn that they have access to info we don’t, and therefore we should trust Washington’s consensus…and that there is no alternative to playing this forward role, for fear of isolationism and an increasingly chaotic world.

AB argues that this belief is not supported by evidence, but we can’t see that evidence in front of faces.

Q: What are Washington Rules (AB — “did you come in late?”) and if you say we should keep troops in Asia when we shouldn’t in Europe, why not stay in AFghanistan, which is so obviously volatile?

Wash rules:  1 US exclusively called upon to lead shape liberate transform orld.  @2 trinity must maintinat global mil presnece, configured for power projection and should do so.

Re AFghanistan:  yes, it’s volatile, but US interests are fairly small there. Doesn’t make sense to spend lives and money when we have more important interests elsewhere.  Have a limited number of chips, and have to choose where to spend them.  Some do say that Afghanistan is a vital interest — but AB does not have much regard for that view.

Q: given that Tea Partiers are elements of Christian nationalism, what is the role of Christianity in this debate.

AB says that he is a practiciing Catholic, (a church, he says, that is so thoroughly discredited by pedophilia scandal that it has nothing to say to thworld, which depresses him greatly).  But Christians should just be Christians, he says — Do justice and love neighbor. (Props to Unitarians and Quakers).

Q:  Why did we invade Iraq:

AB — Wolfowitz told truth in VF  that bureaucratic consensus  was made up of many parts, of which WMDs were just the one they all agreed to foreground.

That said, there was an overarching strategic ambition:  the GWB admin was committed to preventing another 9/11, without withdrawing from ambitions to exert hegemony over greater middle east.  In order to both, given their high level of confidence of US military power, they calculated they could employ that power to transform middle east.  Afghanistan is not the place to begin such a transformation, but Iraq was perfect:  Saddam was a bad guy, with a weak military, and that there was (remarkably erroneously believed) that Iraq was largely secularized with a nascent middle class that could serve as the basis for a new Iraq.  That all this was grossly misunderstood doesn’t change, AB says, the fact that the GWB administration pursued the war in the context of these beliefs.

And with that, we end.

Explore posts in the same categories: Afghanistan, Talks, Uncategorized, War

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4 Comments on “Live Blogging Andrew Bacevich at MIT’s Starr Forum, 9/14/2010”

  1. […] The Inverse Square Blog science and the public square — by thomas levenson « Live Blogging Andrew Bacevich at MIT’s Starr Forum, 9/14/2010 […]

  2. […] introduction to Andrew Bacevich’s important new book Washington Rules (about which I’ve been blogging a bit this […]

  3. […] I attended a fascinating, depressing talk by Andrew Bacevich (live blogged!) in which he discussed the way the Washington consensus on national security is (a) disastrous and […]

  4. inittarkell Says:


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