First Things RSS Feed - Andrew J. Bacevich
en-usCopyright 2016 First Things. All Rights Reserved.firstname.lastname@example.org (The Editors)email@example.com (The Editors)Wed, 26 Oct 2016 17:13:12 -0400https://d25wp47b6tla3u.cloudfront.net/img/favicon-196.pngFirst Things RSS Feed Image
Fri, 01 Feb 2013 00:00:00 -0500A state is not a church. A state exists not to redeem humankind or to do God’s work but to provide for the security and well-being of the people who reside within its boundaries. This defines the primary, indeed the overriding,
obligation of those who govern. This dictum applies to those who govern the United States. The Preamble of the Constitution specifies with admirable succinctness this nation’s purposes. In doing so, it makes no mention of defending the oppressed or punishing the wicked, and Americans have shown little inclination to amend it to incorporate a salvific mission.
That said, Paul Miller is by no means the first writer to cite the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan as a model for American policy. Henry Luce did so in his famous essay “The American Century,” published in
magazine in 1941. Luce, too, was keen to send young Americans to fight for purposes he deemed consistent with Christian teachings. Yet deploying the teachings of Jesus as a rationale for foreign policy is, at the very least, problematic.
States are not disinterested. For a state that is a great power, altruism can never figure as more than an afterthought. Considerations of power will necessarily exercise an overriding priority. Paul Miller may think that the United States is different—that the “leader of the free world” has a “special duty” that it discharges on behalf of others—but the historical record suggests otherwise.
Notably absent from Miller’s impassioned call for perpetuating the war in Afghanistan is any serious discussion of the war in Iraq. In that regard, he is one with his fellow citizens, most of whom have wasted little time in forgetting that unhappy chapter in American history. Yet the experience in Iraq is exceedingly relevant to the matter at hand, far more relevant than Miller’s strained attempt to equate the Taliban with Nazi Germany. Here, after all, was a war undertaken in 2003 by George W. Bush to fulfill America’s “special duty.” The stated purpose of Operation Iraqi Freedom was to overthrow a wicked dictator, to liberate an oppressed and suffering people, and to protect the United States from a putative (if largely imagined) threat.
No doubt President Bush genuinely believed that the United States was invading Iraq for high-minded and beneficent purposes. Yet I am persuaded that Bush’s neo-Wilsonian justification offers an incomplete and utterly inadequate explanation for American actions. For Miller to ignore the other, less idealistic considerations involved—establishing a precedent for preventive war, asserting hegemony over the oil-rich Persian Gulf, ensuring the security of Israel—is simply naive.
Regardless of motive, there is this undeniable fact: The consequences that followed from the American invasion were themselves wicked: murder and mayhem, hundreds of thousands forced to flee, many thousands of lives lost, many thousands more irreparably shattered. To say that the Bush administration neither intended nor foresaw any of this does not relieve the United States of responsibility for what occurred. There’s a lesson here: Even as a means for doing good, war really ought to be a last resort.
Miller wants the United States “to continue the war and to rebuild Afghanistan,” arguing that such a course both serves American interests and constitutes a moral obligation. Yet he wildly overstates the threat posed by the Taliban. To categorize the Taliban as “part of the jihadist attack on the West” qualifies as blatant scaremongering—they do not seek to overthrow the West, but to end the West’s occupation of their country. Worse, Miller is silent on what rebuilding Afghanistan will entail, how long it will take, and what it will ultimately cost. These are hardly trivial details.
In passing, Miller notes that Pakistan,
Afghanistan, serves as al-Qaeda’s headquarters and supports the “densest network of jihadist groups in the world.” Yet if war to pacify and rebuild Afghanistan is essential to American security, logic would dictate a comparable commitment in Pakistan. What would
entail? How long would it take? What would it cost? Eliminating the putative threat from Afghanistan without doing likewise in Pakistan would be like fortifying Arizona’s southern border against illegal immigrants while leaving the Texas–Mexico border wide open.
Ultimately, Miller’s argument for staying the course in Afghanistan emphasizes moral and humanitarian considerations. Wary as I am of taking at face value claims emanating from Washington that it has acted to eliminate wickedness (and not wishing to provide a rationale for others to cite wickedness—including our own—as a basis for armed intervention), I agree that citizens require some sort of criteria for evaluating when military action on explicitly humanitarian grounds is justifiable or required.
In that regard, a Bacevich Doctrine would find armed intervention on moral or humanitarian grounds permissible only in circumstances that yield satisfactory answers to the following four questions:
Why here and not there?
With regard to the matter at hand, why should the United States’ moral obligation to Afghans take precedence over its moral obligation to Iraqis? How about our moral obligation to Vietnam, a nation where the U.S. wreaked havoc on a scale orders of magnitude greater than anything we have done in Afghanistan? Does the mere passage of time negate that obligation? For that matter, what about our moral obligation to Mexico, on the verge of becoming a narco-state as a direct consequence of our insatiable appetite for drugs? Shouldn’t our near neighbors come first?
Why war as opposed to any alternative?
If Afghans should come first, in what sense is the perpetuation of armed intervention the best way to acquit our debt? Rather than prolonging the longest war in our country’s history, why not offer threatened Afghans sanctuary in the United States, where their safety will be assured? We have a big country. Surely, we can accommodate a few million Afghans, as we have accommodated many millions of other immigrants. Would not a program of voluntary resettlement prove both more effective and more economical than continuing to wage a war that we have been waging without evident success for more than a decade?
Who pays how much?
If Afghans should come first and there is no alternative to war, then who should cover the costs? I refer to “costs” in two senses: those exacted through blood sacrifice and those enumerated in dollars. Since the United States slipped into a condition of perpetual war after 9/11, Americans have imposed the burden of service and sacrifice onto the backs of our very small professional military. As for fiscal costs, those have been transferred to future generations. From a moral perspective, both of these practices are dubious, if not unconscionable. If, indeed, the nation has a moral obligation to continue the war in Afghanistan, then the American people collectively should meet that obligation rather than sloughing it off on others. That would entail a bigger army and higher taxes.
Who gets to decide?
Finally, given the expanded war-making prerogatives that the chief executive has claimed in recent decades, there is little doubt that President Obama
, if he wished to, adopt Miller’s course and get away with it. Yet, as a candidate for re-election, Obama promised to end the Afghanistan War by the end of 2014. His opponent concurred with that position. Obama could change his mind, of course. But would that be moral? Let’s vote.
Andrew J. Bacevich
is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.
Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle Easthttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2002/10/six-days-of-war-june-and-the-making-of-the-modern-middle-east
Tue, 01 Oct 2002 00:00:00 -0400 From the perspective of Israel and its (few remaining) friends, the Six Day War was”and remains”both just and necessary. Nothing in Michael Orens book calls this basic judgment into question. Yet thirty-five years after this seemingly decisive victory, Israeli citizens cannot ride a bus, stroll through a market, or stop in a café without placing their lives at risk. The improvisations of June 1967 have yielded not decision but”at least on the West Bank”an intractable conflict immune to resolution by conventional military means.
Arguing for war in 1967 and certain of victory, Ariel Sharon, personification of the audacious, hard-driving Israeli field commander, promised that a generation will pass before Egypt threatens us again. Sharon contributed mightily to the destruction of Nassers legions, but his prediction proved dead wrong. Within a half-dozen years, Egypt was back and another costly war ensued. In the end, the expectations of the much-abused Eshkol came closer to the mark: Nothing will be settled by a military victory. The Arabs will still be here.
In 2002, Sharon himself is also still here, now serving as prime minister. Israel today enjoys a greater-than-ever military advantage over its neighbors. But the question haunting Israel hardly differs from what it was in 1967: how to translate military strength into politically desirable outcomes”a challenge made all the more difficult by the continuing irresponsibility of Arab leaders like the execrable Yassir Arafat.
For Israel today, the legacy of June 1967 appears far more problematic than when after six dramatic days of fighting the IDF stood victorious on all fronts. Whether Ariel Sharon is capable of fashioning out of that legacy a coherent strategy that will at long last provide Israelis with some approximation of peace remains to be seen. But for the rest of us, the publication of this extraordinary book should dispel any lingering expectations that the mere fact of Israels military superiority will persuade those committed to its destruction to give up their cause.
Andrew J. Bacevich teaches international relations at Boston University. His latest book,
will be published by Harvard University Press this fall.
]]>The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Powerhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2002/08/the-savage-wars-of-peace-small-wars-and-the-rise-of-american-power
Thu, 01 Aug 2002 00:00:00 -0400 Less than a year after the attack of September 11, Americans have just about succeeded in absorbing the war on terror into their daily routine. In the home, the classroom, and the workplace, normalcy has returned. For most of us, the day said to have changed everything has changed remarkably little.
Meanwhile, acting on our behalf, a small number of military professionals wage the ongoing campaign against terror, chiefly in Central Asia but also in a growing list of subsidiary theatres now including Yemen, Georgia, Colombia, and the Philippines. Other American soldiers, in greater numbers, occupy themselves with the unfinished business of the 1990s”the legacy of interventions undertaken by the previous two administrations. Some keep the peace in Bosnia and Kosovo. Others patrol the skies over northern and southern Iraq and the waters of the Persian Gulf and prepare for another go at Saddam Hussein.
The institution known as the Department of Defense is today engaged in a project far more ambitious than its name implies. Standing in readiness to fight and win the odd major war only begins to describe its actual role. Every day around the world, U.S forces undertake a panoply of activities to maintain a semblance of international order, advance important national interests, promote (albeit selectively) American values, and, through their very presence, enhance the clout and influence of the United States. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the lot of the American soldier has been”and seems likely to remain”an intensely busy one.
To which Max Boot, editorial features editor of the
Wall Street Journal
, offers the rejoinder: So what else is new?
According to Boot, a proper rendering of U.S. military history shows that American soldiers, sailors, and Marines have always been busy with such work. From the earliest days of the republic, they have waged a seemingly endless list of small wars in places remote from Americas shores. Ranging from brief punitive raids to protracted campaigns, these conflicts pitted conventionally organized and trained U.S. regulars against insurgents, guerrillas, or bandits in the employ of some despot or warlord. Typically characterized by little fights rather than big battles”although bloody enough for all that”such conflicts seldom attracted the interest of the American people, who have (with a few exceptions) been content to avert their gaze from whatever their soldiers might be up to abroad.
For readers accustomed to thinking of U.S. military history in terms of all-out crusades fought for grand causes and high ideals, Boot offers an alternative narrative. Indeed, Boots explicit purpose in writing
The Savage Wars of Peace
was to recover”with an eye toward reviving”the rich imperial tradition that U.S. forces accrued during the course of Americas rise to world power, a tradition that he considers eminently relevant to the present day.
The result is a book as readable as it is timely. In a series of finely honed chapters, Boot recounts the exploits of plucky soldiers and intrepid seamen across two hundred years of American history. He brings back to life figures whose exploits in the Maghreb, the Caribbean, or the Far East once made them household names, but who are now mostly forgotten. Prominent among them are the gallant young Stephen Decatur, hero of the war against the Barbary pirates; Frederick Funston, daring captor of the Filipino nationalist Emiliano Aguinaldo; Calvin P. Titus, the young army private who won a Medal of Honor and an appointment to West Point for volunteering to scale the walls of Peking; and a clutch of colorful Marines, prominent among them Herman Hard Head Hanneken, Dan Daley (two-time winner of the Medal of Honor), Chesty Puller (five times awarded the Navy Cross), and Old Gimlet Eye, the irascible and irrepressible Smedley Butler.
But there is more here than rousing tales told with verve and élan. Boot shows how after a century of butcher and bolt”smiting the neer do well to teach him a lesson, but departing just as quickly”U.S. forces after 1898 began to adopt a more deliberate approach to small wars, one involving longer-term presence and more ambitious objectives. The benevolent assimilation of the Philippines signaled this shift in emphasis, which soon thereafter further found expression in China and throughout the Caribbean and Central America. By the late 1930s, the armed services”most notably the United States Marine Corps”had derived from these sundry experiences a coherent and well-conceived doctrine for the general conduct of small wars and imperial policing.
With the coming of World War II, however, this doctrine was largely lost to institutional memory. As a result, when U.S. forces next faced the challenge of a small war”in Southeast Asia”they misconstrued the problem. General William C. Westmoreland applied the big war methods with which he was familiar with disastrous results. Had the wars architects drawn on the hard-won lessons previously learned in places like the Philippines and Nicaragua, Boot believes, Vietnam might have had a different outcome.
As it was, the officer corps came home from that defeat highly allergic to operational untidiness and political uncertainty. Thus, when the end of the Cold War threw up any number of such situations, military leaders wrung their hands and shook their heads and reacted with a wariness that would have baffled can-do types like Smedley Butler. During a period of unprecedented U.S. military activism, reluctant senior officers had to be coaxed and cajoled every step of the way.
Boot, an advocate of a neo-imperial foreign policy, finds such hesitation to be both counterproductive and misplaced. When it comes to shouldering the burdens of empire, he writes, history suggests we need not worry unduly. U.S. forces enjoyed considerable success handling such missions in the past. They can be counted on to do so in the future”indeed, the times and U.S. global interests demand that they do so. Hence the imperative of restoring and revalidating an imperial heritage that most Americans, soldiers and civilians alike, have forgotten.
Boot argues his case effectively. Yet one can endorse much of that argument while still concluding that his outlook is far too sanguine.
Boots warts-and-all narrative raises political, moral, and strategic questions regarding the costs and consequences of small wars that undermine his concluding call for a global Pax Americana. Thus, in detailing the results of U.S. involvement in the small wars of earlier eras, Boot does not hesitate to recount their brutality. In the now all but forgotten Philippine Insurrection, for example, over four thousand American soldiers died”ten times more than all those killed during the Spanish-American War. Benevolent assimilation also took the lives of 16,000 guerrillas along with an estimated 200,000 Filipino noncombatants, who died of starvation, disease, and the occasional military atrocity. Small wars conducted in distant outposts of empire tend to be dirty wars and seldom bring out the best in mankind.
Furthermore, hardly had U.S. forces prevailed in the Philippines than President Theodore Roosevelt concluded (correctly) that the islands constituted a strategic liability. They proved to be an economic liability as well. Over the next several decades, successive administrations never did figure out how to defend them. Nor did Washington ever figure out how to make this crown jewel in the American imperial crown pay.
Did a half century of American tutelage benefit the people of the Philippines? Although the evidence here is more ambiguous, the fragility of present-day Philippine political institutions, the bizarre character of its political culture, and the notoriously poor performance of its economy make it hard to argue that the legacy of empire has been a positive one.
Yet the Philippines qualify as a smashing success in comparison with other cases. In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Smedley Butler and his compatriots labored for a couple of decades to imprint American-style methods and institutions on the locals. In the end, they accomplished little apart from sullying the reputation of the Marine Corps. The only thing more unsavory than U.S. intervention, Boot observes, was U.S. nonintervention”a muted endorsement, at best.
Boot is probably correct that small wars of the sort that played such a large role in the U.S. militarys past will also define its near-term future. Properly read, his book should temper expectations of what the United States is likely to accomplish today as it extends the benefits of liberal democracy to Afghanistan or Iraq or other precincts of the new American empire.
Andrew J. Bacevich teaches international relations at Boston University. His book
will be published by Harvard University Press this fall.
]]>The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism and The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeriahttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2002/04/the-islamic-roots-of-democratic-pluralism-and-the-monks-of-tibhirine-faith-love-and-terror-in-algeria
Mon, 01 Apr 2002 00:00:00 -0500 Abdulaziz Sachedina is a man with a mission. He is determined to demonstrate that when it comes to the Wests relations with Islam, there need be no clash of civilizations. Properly understood, Islam is compatible with”indeed, is positively conducive to”democratic pluralism, religious tolerance, and respect for human rights.
The author bravely and forthrightly acknowledges that Islam as it actually exists too often exhibits the very inverse of these qualities. But that Islam he dismisses as ossified and false. Authentic Islam has been lost. Professor Sachedina proposes nothing less than to rediscover Islam as it existed in the days of the Prophet. Having done so, he intends to reinterpret it, reconstruct it, and make it relevant to the present.
The basis for this rediscovery and reinterpretation lies in sacred scripture. A meticulous sifting of the Koranic exegetical materials, both classical and contemporary, the author believes, holds the potential of revealing various (and subtle) possibilities of interpretation. Only through such a creative reappropriation”one that revives the original pluralism of the Koran”will it become possible for Islam to abide with otherness in the modern world.
This is, to put it mildly, an ambitious project, requiring considerable erudition but also considerable courage. (For his temerity in even suggesting the need for Islamic reform, Sachedina, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, became the target of a
intended to silence him.) Of particular note, it is a project that the author undertakes as much on behalf of the West as on behalf of Islam itself”for only through Islam can the West resolve the contradictions with which it finds itself beset. Among world religions, he writes,
]]>The Vietnam Warshttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2001/08/the-vietnam-wars
Wed, 01 Aug 2001 00:00:00 -0400 Like Israelis and Palestinians eyeing each other suspiciously from adjacent hilltops in the West Bank, Americans who were on opposing sides of the Vietnam War may share the same space, but there should be no confusing cohabitation with reconciliation. Even in the best of times, what passes for peace amounts to little more than a precarious cease“fire.
News reports in late April implicating Bob Kerrey in the killing of Vietnamese civilians over thirty years ago in the tiny village of Thanh Phong shattered that truce. In the furious skirmishing that ensued, one point above all became evident: the truce had owed its existence to the small point at which two otherwise divergent views about the wars meaning happened to overlap. That Americans had managed to negotiate some semblance of détente regarding Vietnam amounted to little more than an afterthought; on both the right and the left, what really matters are the opposing myths about the war to which each camp remains devoted. The Kerrey scandal (if it can be called that) not only violated the terms of that détente; more importantly, it challenged those myths.
Since at least the time when Congressman Wilbur Mills was found cavorting in an outdoor fountain with the stripper Fannie Foxe, the ritual humiliation of prominent politicians has been a media staple. Although valued chiefly as entertainment, the periodic exposure of some self“important pol”Wayne Hays, Jim Wright, Dan Rostenkowski, Newt Gingrich”has also served a useful purpose: reminding members of the ruling class that they are neither above the law nor at liberty to flout prevailing standards of ethics and propriety. Setting limits on behavior is both satisfying in its own right and can contribute to the nations civic health.
But the collaboration of the
New York Times
60 Minutes II
in laying open Mr. Kerrey, a recently retired U.S. Senator still mentioned as potential presidential aspirant, produced something altogether different. As measured by the angry outcries and anguished commentary it prompted, Kerreys evisceration touched a nerve. What was it about this story that Americans found so disturbing?
In a political culture filled with frauds, phonies, and ideologues, Senator Kerrey enjoyed a reputation for being that rarest of creatures: he was (it was believed) a truth“teller. Unlike other politicos, Kerrey, although by his own lights a loyal Democrat, could be counted on to rise above mere partisanship, to tackle the tough issues from which others flinched, and above all, to speak plainly and forthrightly. Thus when Kerrey famously described Bill Clinton as an unusually good liar, the charge not only stung, it stuck.
Kerreys reputation was inextricably linked to his status as a highly decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War. In that regard, he was one among several U.S. Senators whose identity has become inseparable from that conflict. Among this exclusive clubs other members are John McCain, for over five years a POW; John Kerry, a former naval officer who came home from the war to help found Vietnam Veterans Against the War; Max Cleland, a triple amputee; and Chuck Hagel, twice wounded as a sergeant of infantry. Upon each, wartime service has conferred a distinctive and enhanced moral authority.
The respect enjoyed by this group”Kerrey and McCain in particular”derives from a widely held conviction that the Vietnam War was not just any war. On the contrary, in the nations long history of armed conflict it was sui generis. Indeed, a belief in Vietnams uniqueness is one of the few points on which a consensus about the war has formed.
For those who supported the war (and for the right more generally), Vietnam was uniquely tragic, especially as measured by the futile exertions of those who fought there and who were (many believe) denied a victory that ought rightfully to have been theirs. In a war that produced scapegoats aplenty”LBJ, McNamara, Westmoreland, Nixon, Kissinger”but no heroes of comparable stature, the young men who actually bore the burden of combat came to seem particularly worthy of admiration. That upon returning home, emotionally if not physically scarred, they were frequently reviled, their service mocked, their sacrifices unappreciated, represented a particular affront.
Among conservatives, the eventual rise of a handful of Vietnam veterans to political prominence helped fill this hero deficit. Indirectly at least, their presence at the center of power vindicated all who had served, offering compensation long owed and recognition long overdue.
That several of these men had been credited with performing acts of great valor”Kerrey had been awarded the Medal of Honor”was not incidental. Battlefield bravery served to revalidate ancient connections between physical courage, manliness, and public virtue otherwise in short supply. Implicit in Kerreys questioning of Clintons veracity (and in McCains quixotic effort to wrest the Republican presidential nomination from George W. Bush) was a rebuke directed at all the hip, clever, and well“connected who, whether acting for ostensibly lofty motives or with an eye toward preserving their political viability, had sought ways to sit out the war. For those still harboring grudges about Vietnam, that a Kerrey or McCain would deliver such a rebuke was sublimely delicious.
Meanwhile, for those who had opposed the war (and for the left more generally), the uniqueness of Vietnam lay in its evil. As the
New York Times
commented in an editorial prompted by the Kerrey revelations, it was a conflict that then, as now, seemed to lack any rationale except the wrecking of as many lives as possible on both sides.
If then is the early 1960s, the
actually supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but no matter. More relevant is the fact that this most recent editorial judgment, despite its apparent severity, actually reveals a noticeable departure from what had been liberal orthodoxy. That todays
implicitly absolves the wars participants of responsibility”it was not combatants on one side who wrecked the lives of their adversaries on the other, but the war itself that did so impartially on both sides”marks the distance traveled since My Lai. In those days, when the
assigned culpability, it did not limit itself to blaming the war.
To what can one attribute this shift in the views prevailing in the high church of establishment liberalism? Two explanations exist”one political and one personal.
On the political level, since the end of the Cold War liberals have recovered their appetite for using American power to set right the worlds wrongs. Since it is military might that makes U.S. intervention in places like Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans possible, liberals have found it expedient to remove from the necks of American soldiers the obloquy hung there during Vietnam. In short, those enamored of pursuing an expansive foreign policy today profess an affinity with and affection for the troops that, to put it mildly, did not exist from the mid“1960s through the 1980s. But if the principal beneficiaries of this rediscovered affection for soldiers are members of todays armed services, the G.I.s of the Vietnam era also receive something of a retroactive dispensation. Among opponents of the Vietnam War who have lately shed their aversion to using U.S. military power, Senators Kerrey and McCain”men of palpable decency and integrity”have supplanted William Calley and Ernest Medina as representative Vietnam vets.
On the personal level, at least some members of the chattering classes (including perhaps members of the
editorial board) have developed second thoughts about having avoided military service. For the sons whose fathers had fought World War II, refusing to serve seemed in the 1960s like a brave declaration of political independence and a testament to superior moral acuity. But with the passage of time, it looks increasingly like evidence of a collective loss of nerve, the gauge by which to measure how far the accomplishments of Baby Boomers lag behind those of the so“called Greatest Generation. They surmounted economic depression, vanquished Hitler, and stood up to Stalin. We smoked dope, worshiped rock n roll, and flung epithets at the Establishment.
Nearly forty years on, in a culture awash with narcissism, in a society of poseurs yearning for authenticity, more than a few Boomers vaguely regret that the test of military service is one on which they chose to pass. Even (or especially) in liberal quarters, select members of that generation who did serve have taken on a certain allure. Those who actually experienced serious combat”who exhibited notable courage, bled, endured torture, and returned from a heinous war not embittered or broken but seemingly tougher and wiser”have acquired something akin to glamour. Call it Viet Chic. How else to explain the media frenzy touched off when John McCain set out on his Straight Talk Express? Something other than a public clamor for campaign finance reform gave the McCain story its legs.
In short, by the year 2000, for both the right and the left, Senators Kerrey and McCain (along with a handful of others) had become central figures in efforts to incorporate Vietnam into each camps preferred narrative of recent American history. Although conservatives and liberals continued to advance radically contradictory accounts of that war, both agreed on one point: men such as Kerrey and McCain were bona fide American heroes, admired as men of candor and character.
After Thanh Phong, it is no longer possible fully to accept that formulation. The celebrated hero, it turns out, was complicit in gunning down women, children, and old men”and even accepted a medal for doing so. The widely admired truth“teller harbored dark secrets. Had those secrets been known, the brilliant political career of Senator Bob Kerrey would likely never have occurred.
To the fury of those on the right, the incident at Thanh Phong breathed new life into the old charge that My Lai had been anything but an anomaly. Kerrey, the good soldier, and Calley, the war criminal, apparently did not differ as much as previously advertised. Worse, Kerrey himself was complicit in this blurring of identity, characterizing his involvement in killing civilians as an atrocity for which he felt guilt and shame. Kerrey not only suggested that he himself had not been a hero; he raised doubts about whether heroism in Vietnam had even been possible.
In doing so, Kerrey placed himself directly at odds with those who had made the tragic Vietnam veteran central to their understanding of the war. The effect of Kerreys retreat into a kind of neurotic confessional mode, observed John OSullivan in
was to entrench the lefts view of the Vietnam War as the authorized version as binding on all. To those whose authorized version of the war differed, Kerreys refusal to proclaim his own innocence seemed like an outright admission of wrongdoing. To the right, it amounted to an act of betrayal.
On the left, Thanh Phong likewise came as a rude awakening. Having fallen head over heels for the dashing lothario, liberals discovered that he had all along been concealing a sordid past. Kerrey had taken them in, played them for suckers, until they had finally exposed him for what he was: a phony like the rest.
Kerreys explanation of the firefight portrayed a confusing, complicated war. This, veteran opponents of Vietnam rejected outright. They responded by resurrecting their own canonical interpretation of the wars nature. Thanh Phong, wrote James Carroll in the
, simply confirmed that in Vietnam the United States had been waging a war that was consistently, not exceptionally, against civilians. What Carroll termed Kerreys killings showed that we have barely begun to plumb the depths of the physical abyss into which America dragged Vietnam, the moral abyss into which America jumped. Carroll and others of his ilk are determined never to allow the United States to climb out of that abyss. The image of Vietnam as uniquely evil must remain sacrosanct.
It was excruciating to watch Kerrey attempt to answer the barrage of questions hurled at him by his interrogators. Remarkably, he did not flinch. He offered no excuses. But his account of the awful events that occurred on that night so long ago satisfied almost no one. It failed to satisfy because it required that others recognize a truth in terms other than black and white.
When it comes to Vietnam, Americans prefer the simple to the complex. Few of us are willing to relinquish the myths that have enabled us to come to terms with a war whose moral status remains decidedly ambiguous. Bob Kerreys story has drawn attention to the presence of those myths and forced us to confront, if only for a moment, the complicated reality they conceal. The piercing of illusions can be a painful process. Bob Kerreys public ordeal was the price he was obliged to pay for inflicting that pain on his fellow citizens.
Andrew J. Bacevich is Professor of International Relations at Boston University.
]]>Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policyhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2001/03/present-dangers-crisis-and-opportunity-in-american-foreign-and-defense-policy
Thu, 01 Mar 2001 00:00:00 -0500 In 1996, Robert Kagan and William Kristol published a widely read article in
advancing the case for unabashed American hegemony”benevolent, to be sure”on a globe“straddling scale. In arguing for a neo“Reaganite foreign policy, the authors, two of the brightest stars in the neoconservative constellation, not surprisingly found much to criticize in the Clinton Administrations approach to statecraft. But they also took aim at targets within the conservative camp”the so“called realists who, in the eyes of Kagan and Kristol, flirt with isolationism, are tone deaf to the essential moral foundation of U.S. foreign policy, and question the wisdom of a strategy aimed at maintaining perpetual global preeminence.
This impressive collection of essays is an outgrowth of that article. Its premise is stark: following the squandered decade of the 1990s, America, its interests, and its values are today very much at risk. But the present dangers of the books title do not reduce to a particular competitor such as China or to specific threats such as rogue states or international terrorism. The immediate danger lies here at home, in Americas own flagging will and confusion about its proper role in the world. The chief threat, in short, lies with the nations own parsimony, indifference, and irresponsibility.
To assess the implications of this brewing crisis, Kagan and Kristol have assembled an impressive roster of conservative internationalists. Contributors include some of the rights most prominent foreign policy commentators, including Reagan“era veterans such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and William Bennett, along with noted scholars such as Donald Kagan and Aaron Friedberg.
The essays”more than a dozen in all”are grouped into four sections. The first offers a rousing defense of Pax Americana while chastising those who through absentmindedness or naiveté would throw away the advantages that accrue to the United States as the worlds only superpower. The second surveys the looming challenge posed by actual or potential foreign adversaries, among them Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Russia, and China. The books third section assesses American assets, with particular attention paid to U.S. military power (waning fast) and the state of U.S. relations with key allies (in disarray). In the concluding section, three contributors prescribe the actions necessary to revitalize U.S. policy; the first and essential ingredient, as one might imagine, is bold, visionary leadership at the very top.
Woven through the collection are several recurring themes. First, U.S. interests are inseparable from American values, and so a central focus of U.S. foreign policy must be the active and energetic promotion of those values. Second, although the United States presently spends far more on defense than any other nation, it needs to spend more still. To restore the military to its Cold War“era dimensions and to deploy a national ballistic missile defense system, the U.S. must increase Pentagon spending, perhaps by as much as one“third”a Reagan“like defense build“up undertaken without the spur of an evil empire. Finally, the country needs to get tough. When adversaries read strength and a strong will, writes Donald Kagan in a passage that captures the books overall tone, they tend to retreat and subside. When they read weakness and timidity, they take risks. The pusillanimous policies of recent years”appeasing North Korea, allowing Iraq to wriggle free of sanctions, and giving China a pass on human rights, for example”must be reversed.
As a critique of Clinton era statecraft, there is much here to commend. As a blueprint for an alternative approach to foreign policy, however, the project leaves much to be desired. The principal shortcoming has to do with what Kagan, Kristol, and their collaborators leave out. Based on the evidence here, theirs is an international order stripped of the ambiguities and complexities that inhabit the real world.
For starters, theirs is a world in which sovereign states hold sway, their authority and freedom of action seemingly without limit; no essay in the collection takes the measure of globalization. Nor is there any essay that considers the role, salutary or otherwise, of the United Nations or any other international or multinational entity. Theirs is also a world in which political considerations dominate. Kagan, Kristol, and their collaborators are preoccupied with order and with advancing the cause of freedom, democracy, and human rights. Tellingly, no essay is devoted to international economics. Nor do the authors give more than glancing attention to the way that American commercial and economic interests complicate”and at times compromise”the pursuit of American security interests and support for American political ideals.
Finally, theirs is a world in which the imprint that the United States makes on the world is seemingly confined to making its estimable political values available for universal adoption. The contributors seem to be oblivious to the possibility that the United States is something other than simply a beacon of liberty, that the values that we actually export today go well beyond the principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Nor do they consider the extent to which those other values”the culture of Miramax, Eminem, Micro soft, and McDonalds”have come to define the values of the majority of Americans, or at least of those who presume to speak for that majority. In other venues, contributors to this collection do not hesitate to label that culture for what it is: shallow, frivolous, and philistine, where not simply debauched. Here they flinch from assessing the implications of that culture for how the United States is perceived in the world and for why U.S. foreign policy in the Clinton era evolved as it did. In short, the book ignores that which the editors cite at the outset as the very essence of the problem, namely us”the indifferent and irresponsible people who twice elected Bill Clinton President and would, if given the chance, likely have kept him in office for a third term.
It is far easier simply to pretend that Clinton himself was the problem. Echoing a sentiment expressed by several other contributors, William Bennett, for example, consoles himself with the knowledge that Clinton at long last is passing from the scene. He holds out hope that a President unencumbered with Clintons dubious moral reputation may yet be able to craft the principled foreign policy that the nation deserves. Bennett looks forward to Clinton being superseded by someone who can summon Americans to meet their great destiny as a people, who can appeal to their unique sense of idealistic patriotism and inspire them to engage in present sacrifice, when necessary, to promote future security.
But the conduct and the outcome of the 2000 presidential election”consistent with the outcome of the previous two presidential elections”provides precious little evidence that Americans want such a leader or such a foreign policy. Wishing it were otherwise”waxing nostalgic about traditional ideals, patriotism, and willingness to sacrifice”wont change the facts.
Andrew J. Bacevich is director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University.
]]>Political Will and Personal Belief: The Decline and Fall of Soviet Communismhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2000/03/political-will-and-personal-belief-the-decline-and-fall-of-soviet-communism
Wed, 01 Mar 2000 00:00:00 -0500 Throughout the Cold War, Sovietologists contended fiercely with one another over the nature of Communist regimes. Engrossed in that pursuit, they missed altogether the one development that really mattered. Taking for granted the permanence of the Soviet Empire, virtually none of them perceived its fragility or anticipated its abrupt demise.
]]>What Can We Reasonably Hope For?https://www.firstthings.com/article/2000/01/what-can-we-reasonably-hope-for-47
Sat, 01 Jan 2000 00:00:00 -0500 The dawn of the new millennium finds the United States flirting once again with its old Wilsonian Temptation. When Woodrow Wilson set out to “make the world safe for democracy,” he acted with the certainty that Providence had chosen this nation as its agent of global salvation. This was Americas calling and its duty. If we take seriously the rhetoric issuing from the nations foreign policy establishment, that remains Americas duty today.
Wilson failed, his diplomacy subverted by Clemenceau and Lloyd George and his vision trumped, in the eyes of some, by Lenins own promise of utopia. But ever since, the conviction has persisted that Wilson erred chiefly in being premature. Rippling through the undercurrents of American politics, this conviction periodically resurfaces, shimmering with expectation. The passing of the Cold War has opened the way for the latest such reappearance.
Embarking upon his “war to end all wars,” President Wilson promised that the outcome would “bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.” With far less eloquence and little of his moral fervor, Wilsons successors in the aftermath of the Cold War have embarked upon an analogous quest.
Analogous, but not identical. The melody remains, but the lyrics have changed. For Wilson, politics”above all the creation of a League of Nations”was paramount. His latter-day disciples place economic considerations at the forefront. The new name of the game is globalization. America will export not its political principles”at least not immediately”but its economic precepts and its lifestyle. “Opening” the world to trade, investment, technology, and popular culture will make possible the creation of wealth on a scale hitherto unimaginable. In the wake of abundance will come democracy, peace, and unprecedented opportunities for human fulfillment.
Although paying ritual obeisance to the successor to Wilsons League, U.S. officials know that the real action has long since moved elsewhere. Its not the United Nations that counts, but the World Trade Organization, along with Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood”and Washington.
Indeed, the Wilsonian Temptation is enjoying its latest revival not because present-day American leaders identify with the twenty-eighth President himself”for starters, his no-nonsense Presbyterianism clashes with the frothy religiosity of contemporary politics”but because the statement of American purpose that Wilson first formulated has since become irreplaceable. Wilsons enduring achievement was to reconcile the nations origins as an anti-imperial republic with its aspirations to global preeminence. To justify U.S. entry into a war that he abhorred, Wilson gave voice to the ultimate expression of American exceptionalism. Unlike the empires it was soon to supersede, the United States acted not in pursuit of selfish interests but on behalf of universal principles (indistinguishable, according to Wilson, from American principles) and in pursuit of common international interests (an extension, in Wilsons view, of Americas own interests). So it was in 1917 and so it has once again become today.
A major question of the new millenniums first century is whether the neo-Wilsonian prophets of globalization will come any closer to achieving their goals than did Wilson himself.
In one sense, the conditions appear to be more favorable. In terms of ideological competitors, American-style democratic capitalism has swept the field. And although Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair, and others among the current crop of statesmen are no more given to flights of altruism than were their World War I predecessors, the people they govern have long since lost their stomach for power politics. The nations that once vied with the United States for dominance now receive the honorific title “Great Power” only as a courtesy.
But in another sense, the conditions are less favorable. Woodrow Wilsons America understood that no achievement comes without cost. “Peace without victory” did not imply peace without sacrifice. In the Republic of Good Times that is Bill Clintons America, concepts like self-sacrifice or self-denial appear increasingly antiquated. Indeed, the allure of globalization lies in the expectation that Americans can in the long run do good while in the short term doing very well for themselves. Popular willingness to enlist in this variant of a Wilsonian crusade derives from the promise of gain without pain.
But the paramount lesson of the post-Cold War eras first decade”made manifest in the Persian Gulf, “Kurdistan,” Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Congo, Afghanistan, Russias “near abroad,” Kosovo, and East Timor”is that the process of globalization wont advance on autopilot. The second lesson, displayed in the U.S. response to many of those same crises, is that when it comes to enforcing the ground rules of an “open world,” the American people balk. They are willing to expend little treasure and less blood.
In short, a yawning gap separates the grand designs of the political class from the willingness of citizens to foot the bill. The story of U.S. foreign policy in the 1990s has been the story of searching for ways to paper over that gap, with cruise missiles, high-altitude bombing, and spurious peacekeeping missions as the preferred instruments. How long the United States can conceal this disparity between national aims and popular will looms as one of the larger questions of the century now beginning.
Andrew J. Bacevich directs the Center for International Relations at Boston University.
]]>Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America and The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America–The Stalin Erahttps://www.firstthings.com/article/1999/05/venona-decoding-soviet-espionage-in-america-and-the-haunted-wood-soviet-espionage-in-america-the-stalin-era
Sat, 01 May 1999 00:00:00 -0400 To label the period after 1945 The Cold War is to misconstrue the ideological contours of our times. In the decades following the Second World War, Americans found themselves embroiled in not one but at least two cold wars. The seemingly more dangerous of the two”the political and military struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union”ended abruptly in 1989. With amazingly little fuss, the Soviets simply gave up. They abandoned their empire. When in short order their country began to disintegrate, they could barely rouse themselves to protest. It soon became apparent that this cold war”the contest between democratic capitalism and Marxism“Leninism”had effectively resolved itself years earlier. Somewhere along the line, the long“suffering peoples of the Soviet Union had concluded that their revolution had been a cruel hoax not worth defending.
The second cold war, a conflict within the United States and throughout the West generally, has proven to be more durable. Already by the 1930s, belief that the antidote to capitalist repression and exploitation could be found only on the radical left had become an article of faith for leading members of the intelligentsia. For these self“styled progressives, the Bolshevik experiment in utopia provided both inspiration and model. In the West, revolution acquired an allure that persisted long after it had lost its appeal among those who actually lived under regimes erected on its principles.
Waged in highbrow journals or behind the scenes in labor unions, editorial offices, movie studios, and faculty clubs, this internal cold war has not attracted as much public attention as its external counterpart. There was, however, one exception: from the late 1940s to the early 1950s, a succession of exposés, spectacular trials, and headline“grabbing congressional investigations of domestic communism convulsed the nation and transformed the American political scene. The individuals raised to prominence by these events”Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy, Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, to name only a few”almost immediately assumed iconic status. As individuals, they might be heroes, villains, or simply unlucky bystanders, depending upon ones political point of view. Yet it was as protagonist in a drama of surpassing moral and political significance that each would henceforth be remembered.
According to the left, the essence of that drama went like this: ambitious, unscrupulous politicians (like Nixon and McCarthy) abetted by neurotic and duplicitous informers (like Chambers and Bentley) victimized innocent citizens (like Hiss and the Rosenbergs) whose only crime lay in their commitment to working for a more humane and genuinely democratic order. The result was national hysteria and the de facto suspension of civil liberties for anyone hesitating to enlist in the anti“Communist crusade.
An odd collection of bedfellows”conservatives, Cold War liberals, and a few anti“Stalinist radicals”offered a different and more sinister interpretation. In their eyes, the victims of the anti“Communist crusade were not innocents. They were instead agents of Joseph Stalin, engaged in a conspiracy to subvert the existing constitutional order while promoting, by whatever means, the interests of the Soviet Union, even, and perhaps especially, at the expense of the United States. In this interpretation, the story was one of deception, treason, and betrayal.
These controversies of the forties and fifties remained contested terrain for years afterward. Yet with no small amount of skill, the left succeeded in setting the terms of the ensuing debate. In the literature, this became the period of the Second Red Scare, a label implying paranoia and intolerance. The term McCarthyism, initially a reference to witch hunts and smear tactics, became an all“purpose code word used to place out of bounds questions about the implications of being a Communist Party member or fellow traveler. Despite the efforts by a few historians to show that some Americans actually were complicit in Soviet espionage, the impression prevailed that the controversies of the period had unnecessarily and irreparably harmed the American political system. In sophisticated quarters, at least, the anti“anti“Communists had secured the moral high ground.
By all rights, these two invaluable books should change all that.
, the product of two American historians, and
The Haunted Wood
, a collaboration of an American historian and a Russian KGB operative“turned“journalist, provide crushingly authoritative answers to questions that have lingered since the days when the charges and countercharges hurled by ex“Communists and alleged Communists riveted the nations attention. How prevalent was the treason committed by Americans on behalf of Stalinist totalitarianism? How pervasive was Communist influence in American government? Above all, who told the truth and who lied? In putting these issues to rest, the authors of these two volumes make it possible at long last to move on to new questions more relevant to the age in which we now live.
The two accounts cover much the same ground but in ways that complement rather than duplicate. The Venona project, subject of the study by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, was a highly classified government effort to decrypt messages between the Kremlin and Soviet agents in the U.S. during the Second World War. During the period 1942“1946, as a result of production shortcuts undertaken due to the duress of war, Soviet codes, theoretically unbreakable, contained a fatal flaw. In 1943 American analysts identified this flaw. Through painstaking work, they managed by 1946 to decipher portions of transmissions that American intelligence had intercepted. That endeavor continued into the 1970s, by which time the National Security Agency (NSA) had deciphered in whole or in part nearly three thousand Soviet messages.
The Venona project did not by any means provide a complete picture of Soviet espionage in the United States. Despite the best efforts of the NSA code“breakers, many intercepts from the 1942“1946 period remain unbroken. Even during that period, U.S. military intelligence managed to intercept only a fraction of the encoded message traffic between Moscow and its intelligence operatives in Washington and New York. Above all, Soviet encryption procedures used before 1942 and after 1946 avoided the defect that Venona had exploited. Such caveats notwithstanding, Venona produced an intelligence bonanza, as was immediately evident when the project, long a closely held secret, and its findings were finally declassified in 1995.
The material gathered by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, if acquired by less exotic means, is no less compelling. As a result of a 1993 agreement between Random House, SVR (Russias Foreign Intelligence Service, the successor to the KGB), and a cash“hungry association of retired KGB agents, Weinstein and Vassiliev paid for access to KGB operational files from the 1930s and 1940s. Yevgeny Primakov, now Russias prime minister but then its intelligence chief, instructed the SVR archivists to provide only selected files; despite this limitation,
The Haunted Wood
tells a devastating story.
A too brief summary of the findings offered by the two books would include the following points. Prior to and during World War II, the Soviet Union orchestrated a sustained campaign of espionage and subversion directed against the United States. Several hundred Americans, variously motivated by revolutionary romanticism, ideological fervor, or sheer venality, enlisted in that campaign. Some served the Soviet Union as spies, others as controllers, couriers, mail drops, or talent“spotters. Beginning with the New Deal, members of this Soviet“controlled apparatus infiltrated deep into the agencies of the federal bureaucracy. Entrance of the United States into World War II only increased the opportunities for espionage so that, for example, even the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime predecessor of the CIA, had well over a dozen Soviet agents on its payroll.
Stalins agents rose to positions of prominence in the U.S. government: Alger Hiss, Laurence Duggan, and Noel Field (all State Department), Harry Dexter White (Treasury), Lauchlin Currie (assistant to President Franklin Roosevelt) routinely passed highly sensitive information to the Soviet Union. So too did many other lesser known or still unidentified figures scattered about from the War Department to defense industries. (Indeed, by 1944, a well“placed Soviet agent in the U.S. government had already tipped off his handlers as to the existence of the Venona project.) Internal security for the Manhattan Project was particularly lax. With Julius Rosenberg playing a vital role, American spies provided crucial technical information that accelerated Stalins program to acquire the atomic bomb. For its part, the Communist Party USA routinely aided and abetted these efforts and accepted covert financial subsidies from the Kremlin in return. The partys assertion that it was independent of Soviet control was fraudulent.
As with periodic allegations of presidential infidelities, it might be argued that none of this is really new. In fact, the findings contained in
The Haunted Wood
qualify as genuinely significant on several counts. First, they suggest that Stalin never viewed his wartime partnership with the United States as other than a temporary marriage of convenience. Given the scope and intensity of Soviet covert offensive, it becomes evident that the Cold War began not in postwar disputes over Germany and Eastern Europe but, as Haynes and Klehr write, as a guerrilla action that Stalin had secretly started years before. The belief that more generous or forthcoming American policies, informed by a sympathetic understanding of Stalins security concerns, might have averted the Cold War is an illusion.
Second, these two accounts establish beyond any reasonable doubt that witnesses such as Chambers testified truthfully when sounding the alarm about Communist subversion. Diehards will still contend that Hiss was innocent or that Julius Rosenberg was framed, much as some adamantly insist that Oswald did not act alone or that James Earl Ray did not assassinate Martin Luther King. At some point, the accumulation of evidence permits us to dismiss such people as crackpots. We are now well past that point with regard to the most controversial spy cases of the 1940s and 1950s.
The Haunted Wood
show that espionage at the behest of the Soviet Union was much more extensive than previously recognized. To dismiss it as the handiwork of a few misguided souls is to understate the problem by an order of magnitude. The existence of a network on such a vast scale effectively demolishes the notion of McCarthyism before McCarthy”the thesis advanced by some scholars that internal security reforms instituted by the Truman Administration after World War II were irrational, unnecessary, and motivated by political expediency. The gist of this argument is that Truman ignited the anti“Communist mania that McCarthy himself exploited shortly thereafter. In fact, Truman was responding to a serious threat that his predecessor had allowed to fester. That response was prudent and necessary, just as the larger American effort to contain the Soviet Union was prudent and necessary.
These conclusions do not justify or excuse the demagoguery of Senator McCarthy and his acolytes. They do not constitute a defense for every action taken under the rubric of eliminating subversion. (Ethel Rosenberg offers a case in point. That she was complicit in her husbands spying is beyond dispute; her offenses did not justify execution, however.) Nor should
The Haunted Wood
be read as suggesting that every American who flirted with communism or fell prey to an infatuation with the Soviet Union was guilty of treason. Indeed, these accounts deserve attention not because they offer an opportunity to settle old scores but because they provide a vehicle for moving beyond a debate that has long since outlived its usefulness.
Only by exorcising the ideological ghosts that have haunted national politics for the past half century will Americans rediscover the nexus of the issue that gave the domestic cold war significance in the first place: the threat posed by a radically materialist philosophy that in the name of liberation would snuff out even the possibility of authentic freedom. As was the case when the United States faced off against the Soviet Union, the ultimate question today turns on whether and how man relates to God. At every point, observes Whittaker Chambers in
, religion and politics interlace, and must do so more acutely as the conflict between the two great camps of men, those who reject and those who worship God, becomes irrepressible. By exorcising old ghosts, these two histories permit us to redirect our attention to the new fields on which that conflict continues.
Andrew J. Bacevich is Professor of International Relations at Boston University.