Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War

September 24, 2010

Hosted by Robert G. James, Carnegie Council Friends Committee.


JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like thank you for joining us.

I know I speak for all of us gathered here to say how much we always look forward to having Professor Bacevich address us.

With each one of his publications, Professor Bacevich knows how to engage us to think about the important topics of the day. That being said, when you leave here this afternoon, you too may find that what's on his mind may be on yours, as it will become difficult to ignore his argument and contentions about U.S. foreign policy and U.S. militarism.

In Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War, Professor Bacevich writes that in thinking about his own life and his time as a military officer, he realized that American power, policies, and purpose were bound together in a consistent package, each element drawing strength and reinforcement from each other, but always to a productive end. This was especially true during the Cold War.

Yet, at the end of the Cold War, which just so happened to coincide with the end of his military career, he found that the familiar narrative about our national security was no longer viable. Instead, he discovered perplexing riddles about U.S. military practices. To find the answers to what he viewed as contradictions and misperceptions about the threats posed by American adversaries, our speaker set out on an intellectual journey to critically analyze the past.

No longer a soldier, and with the independence of a scholar, Professor Bacevich began to examine the past 60 years of U.S. military policy. He found a disturbing pattern of U.S. military practice that committed us to a permanent national security crisis.

The evidence is as follows: A policy which reveals an abiding conviction that the minimum essential for international peace and order requires the United States, and us alone, to maintain a global military presence around the world. We design our forces to project global power so that we are ready to intervene anywhere, at any time, according to the way we believe the international order should work.

From the expansionist era of SAC's [Strategic Air Command] General Curtis LeMay and CIA Director Allen Dulles, through successive governments since World War II, Professor Bacevich challenges these basic precepts of power, presence, and intervention to demonstrate that these ideas are neither a Democrat nor a Republican approach to military policy, but a government institutional model that all presidents have bought into. He argues that this practice has benefited the political, military, and business establishment while doing little for the country's security or domestic prosperity.

The world today looks different than it did just a decade ago. Yet, for the past 60 years the basic assumptions of America's military policy have remained unchanged. Professor Bacevich says that while these policies might have made some sense in 1945, today the so-called "Washington rules" have relegated America to a condition of permanent national security crisis approximating perpetual war. Attempting to prolong its existence might serve Washington's interests, but it will not serve the interests of the American people.

If you are interested in our national security and the future of our country, you will not find a more persuasive argument for changing our country's direction.

Please join me in welcoming a man not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom and talk about issues, our guest today, Andrew Bacevich.


ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you very much for this opportunity to speak to you today. I'm very grateful for that.

My plan is to speak fairly briefly, because my experience is that on occasions such as this, you're only pretending to come because you want to hear me. You're actually coming because you have something important to say. [Laughter]

But, quite seriously, it is in the discussion and the exchange that I have more fun, and I suspect that you have fun as well.

I'll also speak briefly because actually the content of the talk is a summary of the book, which you've just heard, incredibly competently and more succinctly than I was going to offer. [Laughter]

The object of the exercise really was to try to tell you what the book is about, hoping that you wouldn't say at the end of the talk, "I got that, now I understand, so there's no need for me to look at the book."

The object of the exercise was to sort of tickle and tease you and to have you say at the end of the talk, "Oh, I must not only buy that, but I have to buy multiple copies for all of my grandchildren and my neighbors, for my book club, the Manhattan Book Club, the Oprah Book Club"—Oprah, are you out there? [Laughter]

There are two questions. The first a question that is on many of our minds, the second a question that still haunts people of my generation, and maybe many of you here. The first question is: Why are we in Afghanistan? The second question is: Why were we in Vietnam?

Two questions, one answer: We are in Afghanistan, we were in Vietnam, because Washington stubbornly adheres to a national security consensus consisting of two points. I'm going to give you those points.

Before I do, it was fun talking to Mr. Sylvan Barnet here during the period before the luncheon. It seems amazing that Mr. Barnet worked during World War II for the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest King, a remarkable figure, and frankly, largely forgotten in our history, which is sad to say.

What occurred to me as I was sitting here having my lunch is although there is a common answer to why we were in Vietnam and why we are in Afghanistan, the same answer does not apply to why we fought World War II.

The point I want to make in saying that is, that this national security consensus, which I will attempt to describe and that I will decry, is certainly something that has existed for a considerable period of time now—since the very beginning of the Cold War. But that doesn't mean it existed forever.

There was a time when Americans chose to go to war, or chose not to go to war, based on a series of considerations, based on an analysis that was not determined by some sort of preset set of assumptions or convictions. It is important for us to remember that. It is not as if a great power is condemned to continue to follow a certain path. Were that to be the case, why be a great power?

There was a time when a core conviction informing our approach to foreign policy and national security policy was that we ought to determine our own fate based on a sober calculation of what serves the interests of the American people.

That was kind of a long parenthetical comment. Let me go back to the text.

Two questions, one answer. The answer is a national security consensus. Let me describe that consensus and its two main elements.

The first I call in the book the American credo. The American credo is an effort to define purpose, the purpose of national security policy.

The second element I call in the book the sacred trinity. The sacred trinity defines practice.

The claim made by the American credo is that we, the United States alone, is summoned to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world.

I teach a course at Boston University, called Ideas in American Foreign Policy. It is my absolute, total, complete favorite course that I teach. We don't use textbooks. What we do is we invite, encourage, even insist, that my students will read a set of documents which I have chosen, which—this is kind of the conceit of the course—either have shaped the way we think about foreign policy or have shaped the critique that has evolved relative to foreign policy.

The very first document that we read in this course is the sermon given by John Winthrop on the decks of the good ship Arbella in 1630 off the coast of a place that is about to become Boston. It describes the purpose of this community that he, as the leader of this small group of people, is about to found in what is about to become New England, what is going to be the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

He begins by insisting that the purpose of this community is determined by a covenant between the community and God himself. What God commands and what God expects is that this community will serve as a city upon a hill. That famous phrase of John Winthrop's, which periodically gets revived in our political discourse, in many respects holds the absolute key to understanding the basis of how we define our relations to the rest of the world. We are called upon, we are chosen. If you are a believer, chosen by God; if you're not a believer, chosen by providence or by history. Our purpose is ultimately a redeeming purpose.

This understanding of purpose, this American credo, is expressed in different words at different times by different leaders. It has to be understood, in some respects, as the absolute foundation of this national security consensus that I describe.

There is that second piece, the sacred trinity. According to the sacred trinity, the minimum essentials of international peace and order require the United States—and we have to emphasize again that it is the United States alone—to maintain a global military presence and to configure our forces not to defend the country.

For the Pentagon, the defense of the United States of America proper, actually serves very much as an afterthought. That's why after 9/11 we had to create a whole other Cabinet department, the Department of Homeland Security, to defend the country. We configure our forces not to defend the country, but to provide instruments for global power projection and global military presence. These two married together to provide the third element of the sacred trinity, namely, support for policies that rely on a pattern of global interventionism.

Together credo and trinity constitute the essence of the way that Washington (our governing classes and institutions) has attempted to govern and to police what Henry Luce dubbed back in 1942 "the American century."

The sacred trinity lends plausibility to the credo's vast claims. The credo justifies the trinity's vast requirements and vast exertions. Together, credo and trinity define the rules to which Washington adheres and they determine the precepts by which Washington has attempted, and still attempts, to rule, which is a problem.

The problem is that the rules don't work. At least they don't work any longer. Blind adherence to the Washington rules is proving to be counterproductive, something that events have made increasingly apparent since 9/11.

Promising Americans safety and security, the Washington rules have produced something akin to permanent war.

We are all aflutter because the latest Bob Woodward blockbuster is about to be conferred upon a grateful public. [Laughter] So all the media is chattering—I guess today the verb would be twittering—with excerpts from this book.

One of the excerpts that I have seen in print—or in electrons—is Woodward quotes General Petraeus. I didn't write the quote down, so I won't get this exactly right, but it's about 95 percent right.

I'm not sure of the context, whether he's referring to Afghanistan specifically or sort of the larger conflict with al Qaeda, but Petraeus is quoted as saying, "We can't win this war"—this is the commanding general of the war—"but this is the kind of fight that we will be engaged in for years to come and that our kids will be engaged in."

Extraordinary statement. Why would one wage a war that you can't win? Why would one wage a war that you fully anticipate is going to last apparently for generations?

The only reason I can imagine that you would do that is if you concluded that there absolutely was no way of avoiding that prospect, that there was no alternative.

Then you have to scratch your head. How could it be that there is no other choice? To what degree has anybody in Washington tried to find an alternative? Or is it too inconvenient, too contrary to existing interests, to actually try to discern whether there is an alternative?

Promising Americans safety and security, the Washington rules have produced something akin to permanent war. When we are told that this enterprise is about preserving the American way of life, the Washington rules have set the United States on a course toward bankruptcy, both fiscal and moral.

It is starting to sink in that trillion-dollar deficits really are not sustainable. Having a national debt that is greater than the national GDP, and that date is not far off—if I'm not mistaken, the national debt now exceeds $13 trillion and I think the total size of the economy is somewhere between $14 and $15 trillion. It's not going to take many more years of trillion-dollar deficits before we look like a North American version of Argentina in its worst days.

Apologies to anybody here from Argentina. Permission granted to censor the tape so that we don't offend any Argentine supporters of the Council.

What should replace the existing Washington rules? It seems to me that we need a new credo and we need a new trinity.

What I would offer as a new credo is that we need to revive the conviction that America's primary purpose and obligation is to be America.

What do I mean by that? That our purpose ought to be to fulfill the aspirations expressed in our founding documents, primarily the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

Not least among those aspirations is found in the concluding words of the Preamble to the Constitution. These are words that we are so familiar with, but we sort of take for granted that the Preamble is somehow simply a throat-clearing exercise before the Framers of the Constitution got down to business. It's not. It is a succinct statement of what we think we are about in this union. The concluding words state that the purpose of this union is "to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

What's the key word in that phrase? The key word is "posterity." The question is not necessarily "do we live in freedom?" We do. The question is whether or not we are conducting our affairs such that our children and our grandchildren will be able to live in freedom.

I'm a historian, I'm not a prophet. But were I a prophet, I'd bet that a couple generations from now people will curse us for having so mismanaged our affairs that we will cause their opportunities to live in freedom to be severely circumscribed.

There is a lot of talk—and there ought to be a lot of talk, especially in places like the Council—about moral obligation in public life and in international affairs. Without trying to be too selfish about it, the primary moral obligation of the people that we elect and send to Washington is to the American people. Again, this is notably not simply to this generation but to posterity.

If in the course of securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and for our posterity, the United States can also serve as an exemplar to others. If we can, in keeping faith with the liberal values that we profess, offer something that others can use, I'd say that's a good thing. But to say that is a good thing is not to say that we should confuse what really is an ancillary benefit for central purpose.

When it comes to thinking about and employing military power we need a new trinity. I would propose that under the terms of this alternative trinity:

(A) That we define the primary duty station of the American soldier as America. This is not sole or exclusive. There certainly will be times in which we are called upon to employ our forces abroad, but we have to view that as a departure from the norm rather than the norm.

It's not astonishing because it's so widely accepted, but it really ought to be astonishing that, 60-plus years after the end of World War II, we still have U.S. forces in Germany and Japan. What exactly are the security threats that the Germans are worried about? How is it that Germany, this robust democracy, can't handle them on their own?

(B) In my alternative trinity we have to design U.S. forces to defend the United States of America and its most vital interests. That phrase "vital interests" is a slippery one and invites debate over what qualifies and what doesn't qualify.

To some degree, the purpose of democratic politics ought to have a candid argument about the limits of our vital interests. I would welcome that debate.

I'd simply insist that the notion that everything is a vital interest is absurd, and for all practical purposes that is the circumstance in which we find ourselves today. It would not surprise me at all if next week we picked up The New York Times and find some member of the Obama Administration insisting that Yemen is now becoming a vital interest of the United States of America. Actually, there's already a plan to provide a significantly expanded program of military assistance to the government of Yemen.

(C) The third element of my alternative trinity would be consistent with the just war tradition, we ought to employ force only as a last resort and only in self-defense. The just war tradition is a set of norms or guidelines devised to help us render judgments about prospective or ongoing conflicts, to ascertain whether or not we should judge those conflicts as morally justifiable or not morally justifiable.

My point here is to argue that the just war tradition is not simply useful as a basis for moral thinking, it's also tremendously useful as a basis for prudential thinking about what makes sense. Even then, in employing force as a last resort and in self-defense, we should always be cognizant of the limited utility of violence as an instrument of statecraft. Its utility is not nonexistent, but its utility is limited. We need to appreciate that.

Further, we ought to also appreciate the fact that when we go to war, it's going to cost more than we possibly imagine. It's going to give rise to a host of consequences that even the smartest people in the room are not going to be able to anticipate in advance. So you really are rolling the dice. There are times when you need to roll the dice, but, boy, you are still rolling the dice.

How likely is it that we will see any departure from the Washington rules? You know the answer. The answer is it's not very likely. Why not? Two reasons.

The first is that Washington itself is deeply invested in maintaining the status quo. It is deeply invested in the existing credo and the existing trinity, which does in fact benefit Washington, even if it does not work to the benefit of the American people.

One of the other revelations in the Woodward book, which really is not a revelation, is that in that long interval in 2009 when President Obama was anguishing over what to do about Afghanistan, the Woodward book tells us what we already know, and that is that in a very fundamental and important way the basic authority to decide was taken away from the president. The authority to decide was taken away from the president by the people who were framing the alternatives that were presented to the president. "What should we do?"

The alternatives that were presented to the president were three as far as we can tell: a surge with 20,000 additional troops, a surge with 30,000 additional troops, and a surge with 40,000 additional troops. "Mr. President, we await your decision." [Laughter]

It's like Goldilocks and the three bears: One's too hot and one's too cold, so I'll pick 30,000.

In a very important way that testifies to the way Washington works in the arena of national security and helps us to understand the extent to which prying Washington loose from this consensus is going to be very difficult.

There is a second reason, and maybe a more troubling reason, why we are unlikely to see any departure from the Washington rules. We the people have been too conditioned to believe that any departure from this status quo, that abandoning the notion that we are called upon to save the world—closing down some portion of the global empire bases, perhaps deciding not to spend as much on our military as the rest of the world spends on their militaries—any backing away from that, we've been conditioned to believe that the results will be a retreat into isolationism and global chaos. In other words, having been conditioned along these lines, we no longer have the ability to ask basic, first-order, critical questions about national security policy.

This tendency to defer to Washington, to people who ostensibly are a lot smarter than any of us, and who certainly have access to classified information which tells them things that we're not allowed to know, may well pose the greatest of all obstacles to restoring good sense to U.S. policy.

With that, I'll stop and thank you very much for your attention.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Bob James. First I want to say something about the book. This is a hell of a good book. You really ought to read it.

ANDREW BACEVICH: What did you say, sir? [Laughter]

I said it's a very good book. [Laughter] Not only that but it's easy to read, considering that it's a very serious book. But I'm suggesting that you look at this book, get it, and work on it. Don’t make it easy. Look at the footnotes.

The footnotes will tell you things that you cannot believe. Allen Dulles said this? Maxwell Taylor said this? The two Kennedy's said this? I cannot believe, in view of what’s happened, what they said.

My question is: We have had a couple of presidents who have pointed out that there is evil in the world. Nobody likes the way they put it. Reagan said "evil empire"; Bush said "axis of evil." I happen to believe that they are correct, that there is evil out there.

If you need military arms sometimes, only the United States can project power. If you don't believe that, you've got to believe that only the United States can sustain power out there.

So what do you do? Somebody's got to maybe, from time to time, take care of some of this. That's my question.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Let me begin by concurring on this issue of evil and its existence in the world, but not simply in the world beyond our borders.

I didn't write about Reinhold Niebuhr in this book. I wrote to some degree about Reinhold Niebuhr in my previous book. One of the things that I value from the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, is he said clearly there is evil in the world and sometimes it must be addressed. But, he continued, never fall for the illusion that you yourself and your motives are pure, because that is a recipe for moral and strategic disaster.

The first point is to concur, but also to say yes, but that doesn't mean that we are necessarily in this different category. I'm not trying to play a moral equivalents game here. I'm not trying to say, "I guess since we overthrew the Mosaddegh regime back in 1953 that that somehow means we are akin to the great totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century." Not at all.

Simply let us always be aware of the fact that our motivations are not simply altruistic. Point number one.

Point number two is where I would radically disagree with George W. Bush, who in the wake of 9/11 not only articulated his recognition of the existence of evil, but basically said, "We are going to go eliminate evil."

My point here is it's not simply that evil exists, but evil is endemic. The existence of evil is a manifestation of the tragedy of history in which we find ourselves.

If you can't eliminate evil, what can you do with regard to evil? You can ignore it, but that's not a wise course. You can do your best to find ways to cope with it, to minimize its effect and the danger that it poses.

In trying to figure out what do we do about evil, rather than beginning with the notion, "Well, I guess we better go excise it; get me a carrier battle group," we ought to step back and try to evaluate where it fits in the pecking order of evil (where Hitler and Stalin are up there at number ten). We should judge the extent to which it demands a response, and then try to be cool-headed in thinking about the range of alternatives which are available.

The first response ought not to be a military response. I am absolutely conceding that there are times, there have been times, and there will be times when you need to opt for war.

This national security consensus has embedded itself in the way Washington thinks, especially since the end of the Cold War. Since the notion that we were the almighty superpower took hold, we have been too quick to reach for the gun and pull the trigger, and we ought not to do that.

QUESTION: Edith Everett. One of the big problems on the horizon these days is Iran . What do you suppose is happening in Washington in terms of the discussion of what to do?

By the way, thank you very much for a wonderful presentation.


I can say anything I want to say because I have no idea what they are actually talking and thinking about in Washington. I don't have any kind of inside information.

My guess would be the following: We already have too much war and too few warriors. We really don't need another war.

I imagine that President Obama is acutely aware of that, not simply because yet another war wouldn't make a lot of sense, but also because we are entering the season in which his sensitivity to domestic political considerations will rise to the fore.

He's going to have a hard enough time winning a second term with a 9-plus-percent unemployment rate and the people who elected him not really all that gung-ho on the fact that we are about to enter the tenth year of the Afghanistan war. I would think that President Obama would not be enthusiastic about pushing the problem with Iran to the point where there is violence.

As they think about the Iranian problem they have to think very seriously about the fact that the government of Israel perceives the problem somewhat differently than we do. I do not believe that Iran poses an existential threat to the United States of America. Were I an Israeli Jew, I might have a different view of that.

The history of the state of Israel, which is one where they have seldom shown great patience in the eyes of a burning security threat, and which has seen Israel developing very sophisticated military capabilities, certainly means that from a U.S. perspective the possibility of an Israeli preemptive strike has to be viewed as a live option.

We have enormous interest in preventing Israel from doing that. I don't mean prevent; we can't prevent them from doing anything. They are going to do what they want to do. I mean trying to dissuade them from doing that.

Frankly, from the Israeli perspective, it's not an easy call. To start a war with Iran could very likely induce an Iranian response that would put U.S. forces at risk in Iraq and Afghanistan. That from an Israeli perspective put the Israeli-U.S. relationship in some jeopardy, which is bad news.

The government of Israel already views itself increasingly as isolated and under siege. Anything that could undercut the relationship with the United States would be disastrous. Even to the extent that they view the Iranian program as representing an existential threat, doesn't mean that it is an easy call for them to deal with it. That's part of the problem.

The truth is we don't know if the Iranians are developing a nuclear weapon. They deny that they are. Were I the Iranian national security advisor, I would favor the development of a nuclear weapon, because from the Iranian perspective they've got real national security problems. National security problem number one is the United States of America.

There is considerable evidence that you can get in big trouble trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Once you succeed in developing a nuclear weapon, then you get to play by different rules. Then you become like North Korea and Pakistan. From the Iranian perspective, there is great risk in having a program but there may be considerable payoff if you can pull this thing off.

Where am I on the bottom line? The bottom line is that the idea of imposing sanctions on them in order to try to get them to reveal their nuclear program, whether it's benign or not, is smart. It may not work. At a minimum, it's a way of trying to persuade the government of Israel that we do take this thing relatively seriously.

If six months or a year from now the Iranians test a weapon, then it seems to me that what makes sense is for us to implement a strategy of deterrence: "Okay, you guys got a nuclear weapon. Use it. It'll be the last thing that happens in Iran."

That's the basic posture that we used vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. It's very difficult at this remove to be able to evaluate entirely the extent to which the strategy of deterrence shaped Soviet behavior or whether Soviet behavior was shaped by other considerations.

The strategy of deterrence is based on the assumption of rationality on the part of your adversary. There are people who would say that Mr. Ahmadinejad, who was here yesterday explaining that we perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, is viewed in some quarters as a total nut job.

There is an argument that says that if there is a nuclear button, it's not his finger that's on it. Basic decisions about national security policy are made by the mullahs. My bet is that the mullahs are likely to be rational, and therefore deterable.

That's a bet by an American when the United States would not be directly threatened. I can understand that other countries might view that prospective threat differently. There's no easy answer here.

Ernest Rubenstein. Is it realistic to assume any change in the Washington rules, in particular the projection of American power overseas, so long as the United States is overwhelmingly dependent on oil from troubled areas around the world?

ANDREW BACEVICH: We are old enough to remember Operation Independence, declared by Richard M. Nixon at the time of the first oil shocks. It was Nixon who said, "This cannot stand. We have to…." Every president since then has said, "Yes, yes." We still haven't done anything serious about it. It's really a remarkable statement about our politics, that here we are, 40 years later, and we're still arguing about whether or not we ought to deal with this problem.

I don't think that's really the cornerstone of the issue. If the question began, "Why can't something be done about the Washington rules?" or, "What could cause something to be done about the Washington rules?" The big question is that most of us are completely insulated from the consequences of misguided policies. We are insulated in two respects.

The first is that we have abandoned the concept of the citizen soldier and opted for our professional army, which the Founders would have called a standing army, and were greatly concerned about. We find ourselves in this condition of essentially permanent war, and the burden of service and sacrifice falls on roughly 0.5 percent of the American people.

It's not amusing, it's actually quite sad, to listen to a politician in Washington—President Obama himself has done this—say something to the effect that "this nation is at war." This nation is not at war. The U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps, supported by the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy are at war.

For the great majority of the American people, contact with those people is actually minimal. We support the troops by cheering for the troops. We do not support the troops by insisting that we will share in the sacrifices that they are making in our name. As long as that continues to be the case, then that helps to sustain the Washington rules.

The second piece is we do not even pay for the wars that are waged in our name. It is all borrowed money. It is astonishing.

If you go back, look at the speeches that Franklin Roosevelt made even before Pearl Harbor, but after the declaration of a national emergency when the country was beginning to gear up for whatever the future held. Franklin Roosevelt was quite candid in saying that sacrifice will be required of all of us. They raised taxes. I read just the other day that the highest tax rate during World War II was I think 93 percent. I don't advocate 93 percent.

The point is—and it is not true that the American people paid for all of the costs of World War II—there was a substantial increase in debt. The American people tried to pay for World War II, the war that was conducted in their name.

What we have is tax cuts, and now one of the political issues of the moment is arguing how to render permanent these tax cuts. The argument that is being made by the Democrats is if you repeal the tax cuts for the people in the highest income bracket—which, by the way, includes university professors—that you can save $700 billion over the course of ten years. That's not exactly chump change. On the other hand, it really doesn't get to the core issue. The core issue is we are living so far beyond our means that it's obscene.

That too we don't feel. We don't have a skin in the game. It is not affecting our daily way of life, today. If you divide it up, the war costs are, in round numbers, about $400 billion a year. If you total up everything, and if you divide that by the number of taxpaying households, single and joint filers, and if we paid for the war costs, for the average taxpaying household—obviously it would depend on income level—our income tax would go up every year by $3,300. Do that and the American people will recognize that there is a problem here with perpetual war.

Of course the Congress won't do that. To tell you the truth, we don't want the Congress to do that. We want to continue to play along with this illusion that somehow there are no financial, fiscal or economic consequences of this level of military activity.

QUESTION: William Verdone. With your revised impressions of the credo and the trinity, I get the feeling that it is maybe for foreign perception of dampening down American arrogance. I wonder if you can comment on that.

It could be that that would be one result. That would not be, in particular, why I would advocate what I'm advocating. I would advocate what I'm advocating because it is in our best interest.

There is a huge, substantial risk. One assumption that underlies my counterproposal, my new national security consensus, is that the world will learn to adjust. The world will learn to find mechanisms, arrangements, that will avoid blowing up the planet without having the United States have a military presence in however many dozen countries.

The assumption is that, invited to do so, Europe can find a way to provide for its own security. To be candid, there are some people who say, "Well, there's plenty of evidence that Europe can't do that." They would say, "Have you forgotten Bosnia?" Remember, that was supposed to be "the hour of Europe," and they screwed it up. And they did. I would not take that failure of Europe at that particular juncture as somehow definitive.

For example, I say that we should pull out of NATO. Let NATO be a European alliance that exists for the purpose of defending Europe, and not be an alliance that exists for the purpose of pacifying Afghanistan. When I say, "Pull out of NATO," I don't mean pull out of NATO next Tuesday. I mean in the year 2010 tell them that in the year 2020 the United States will withdraw its forces from Europe and it will withdraw from the alliance. "So you Brits and you French people and you Belgiques, you've got a decade to figure it out."

Told in advance that that reflects our intention and offer time and opportunity to figure out what approach to European defense they would have to take if it's on their own, they probably could be counted on to figure that out.

Sondra Stein. Thank you so much for a terribly needed voice in the public dialogue.

When you discussed Iran and Israel—I hadn't thought of this before—but if, miraculously, they somehow make a deal between the Palestinians and Israelis, wouldn't that take away any justification for Iran. Not that they have any, but any supposed justification for Iran to be a threat to Israel?


You actually phrased the question in the correct way. The issue here is: What is the larger significance of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and how should we view it?

Obviously, it is a great tragedy for the two peoples that are locked in this perpetual conflict. It costs both sides—in different ways—but costs both sides pretty significantly.

My view is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict matters to us in that for decades now Arabs, more broadly nations and governments in the Muslim world, have cited the grievances of the Palestinians as the basis for anti-Israeli or anti-Western policies and behavior. Certainly since the rise of al Qaeda, the violent jihadists cite the grievances of the Palestinians as providing some amount of moral justification for this campaign that they are engaged in.

I'm not an expert on this. As much as I've read, I'm not believing that these Arab or Muslim governments or al Qaeda genuinely are motivated by concerns for the Palestinians. It is a convenient pretext.

From the U.S. perspective we do have a profound interest in taking away that moral pretext for their actions. Particularly with respect to al Qaeda and similar organizations, what we want to do is to make as clear as possible that there is no conceivable justification for the violence that they wage against the West, with 9/11 of course as the preeminent example of that. To settle the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is to strip that away.

That doesn't mean that as soon as that happens, were it to happen, that then all the Arab countries and Muslim countries would say, "Ah, the Americans are our friends. Let's bury the hatchets. We've been brothers for so long." [Laughter] I don't think that for a second.

There are all kinds of reasons why interests are at odds with one another. The benefit here is a limited but very real benefit, particularly in the context of terrorism, that enables us to differentiate in the moral realm.

That's why it really is exceedingly important for us to try to get that dispute settled, although I'm deeply pessimistic. The amount of leverage we actually have to bring to the problem is far less than the more hopeful commentators seem to believe.

Susan Rudin. The New York City police department has offices in almost every major city of the world. I don't know exactly what they do, but I think they're fact-finding for the protection of New York City. Is that a model for what you would consider Washington, and do other cities have the same kind of outreach to Rome, Amsterdam, and all the other countries?

I honestly don't know. I did not know that the New York City police department had that kind of a presence. I would assume that it's a liaison function with foreign intelligence services to try to exchange information that somehow suggests that there is a pending threat to New York. I didn't know that that happened. I don't know what my opinion would be.

If every major city in the United States had a police liaison to every foreign capital, I'm afraid that the result would be to clog things up rather than to facilitate this exchange of intelligence that I would presume would be the idea.

I was not aware of that. Just coming from Penn Station today, my wife and I are definitely aware of the fact that you have a lot of cops in this city. If you're not from here, you probably get used to it, but the police presence—

It's the UN General Assembly this week.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I know it's the UN thing. But the police presence is just striking.

QUESTION: Sylvan Barnet. I'd like to go back to Eisenhower 101: "Beware the military-industrial complex"—and he got into trouble over it. He also warned about being involved on the mainland of Asia, and we got involved and we screwed up. McNamara finally had to write a mea culpa about how he was wrong about everything.

Would you say interventionism is higher on the east coast here than in other parts of the country? We seem to have a mindset in the east coast here that's totally different from the mindset on the west coast.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I don't know. There's a general perception among historians that back in the time of your youth there was a greater enthusiasm for intervention on the coasts than there was in what we today call the heartland.

That's where my wife and I grew up, in the heartland. When I was a kid, I read the Chicago Tribune. "Colonel" McCormick, a fantastic but forgotten, somewhat weird figure, was the long-term publisher of the Chicago Tribune. He was, quite frankly, an isolationist. To some degree, McCormick's isolationism did reflect a skepticism in the Midwest that was very much part of the time.

QUESTIONER: And anti-British.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Also anti-British, and in certain quarters anti-Semitic.

My own sense is today, whether or not these regional distinctions are not as sharp as they once were, yet there are some elements of that Midwestern anti-interventionist tradition, but not the anti-Semitic piece of it. There was a skepticism about whether or not we had the capacity to remake the world. It was frankly an aversion to big armies, that was part of this then regional tradition that we ought to revisit today. Not on a regional basis.

As Americans we can recognize if the Midwestern tradition lost the argument in the latter half of the 20th century, then we get to the post-World War II period and everybody is an internationalist. So if they lost the argument in the second half of the 20th century, the fact that they lost the argument doesn't mean that every point that they were making was illegitimate. Seemingly, today we might want to revisit that tradition and to discern whether or not there is anything to be salvaged.

I've got a review essay coming out later this month in a journal called Raritan, published at Rutgers, about a group of Midwestern historians, all of them deceased now, who said things that ought to resonate today. What they were saying really reflected a wariness of globalism and of having a determination to save the world actually become a pretext for imperial behavior. Those are sentiments that still have a place.

Mike Sponder. This question would be a philosophical one on the Washington rules: If the Heritage Foundation was smart enough to invite you to one of their meetings, what questions do you think would come to you and what kinds of people would you be addressing, because they are Washington rules under your definition?

I see a problem. I could be wrong. It appears to me that there is a resurgent militant form of Islam, which is dragging in its wake other forms of atavistic tribal belief and behavior. I understand the reservations and the problems with our current courses of action that we're pursuing to deal with this problem, but I wonder if you agree with me at all that this is a real problem and not just a chimera or something that maybe pops up on the radar screen, hopefully, once a decade or so. What do we do about it if we don't do what we are doing now?

ANDREW BACEVICH: On the first point, the Heritage Foundation is not going to invite me to come talk to them. They would find all of this disagreeable and probably not worth serious consideration.

In terms of the threat, I would want to distinguish between two different elements.

The first element is the existence of a terrorist network, with al Qaeda being probably the prime example. Emphatically it is a threat. It is not an existential threat. The notion that al Qaeda or that Osama bin Laden is going to create some new caliph state and take over the entire Islamic world and embark upon some global jihad is preposterous. What he has to offer actually has fairly limited appeal to the 1.4 billion people of the Islamic world.

It is important to recognize that al Qaeda is a threat. It is equally important not to overstate that threat.

The notion created by the George W. Bush Administration that the best way to deal with this threat is to invade and occupy a country, waging open-ended war, is demonstrably not going to produce success. The argument that many people have now made, that we should view it as a police problem, has great merit. It is an international police problem, a mafia that in one way or another draws some of its energy from warping a religious tradition. Piece number one.

Piece number two is this larger culture than the Islamic world. Speaking as somebody who has minimal expertise with regard to Islam, it really does seem to me that within the Islamic world there is a great crisis, the root of which is the challenge of reconciling a particular religious tradition with modernity. "How can I be a faithful Muslim and also live in the modern world?" This posed significant challenges in what used to be called Christendom a couple hundred years ago and led to a considerably amount of violence in the West. It has been mostly resolved, but not entirely resolved in the West, if we look at Reverend Terry Jones, Mr. International Burn-a-Koran Day.

It is going to take a considerable period of time for this crisis to be resolved in the Islamic world, and they are going to have to do it on their own. The extent that we interfere in their affairs and basically assert that we can fix their problems, probably makes things worse. The appearance, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, is that we are simply infidels who are continuing the behavior of Western imperial powers in the Islamic world for a couple of centuries.

There the response is to re-envision a strategy of containment that will insulate us from any effect of this internal crisis as it plays itself out. That is a strategy of containment that doesn't look like the strategy of containment that was put together during the Cold War, but it is based on the same expectation, that the problem will resolve itself over a long period of time because internal contradictions on the other side will play themselves out.

That's also a strategy that says we're going to live with this problem for a very considerable period of time.

Thanks very much. I really appreciate the opportunity to speak to you.

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