BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers and my conversation with Andrew Bacevich continues here at BillMoyers.com.
Bacevich is a veteran of 23 years in the US Army, including service in Vietnam. He graduated from West Point and teaches history and international relations at Boston University. His articles and essays have appeared in journals of both the left and right. Welcome back.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you very much.
BILL MOYERS: How can one hold to the notion of exceptionalism when America performs so miserably in Vietnam and Iraq? Failed in those two wars fought within 30--
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, the, I mean, the belief in American exceptionalism is accompanied by a very specific, historical narrative. I mean, a story of contemporary history to which we swear fealty or give our allegiance. And that's the story which is centered on World War II. And centered on a very specific interpretation of World War II as a fight of good against evil, in which the United States liberated Western Europe and overthrew Nazi Germany. Now, that story's not wrong. It's just radically incomplete.
And the preoccupation with World War II, particularly the European war, then makes it possible to gloss over much of what followed World War II, during the Cold War, those episodes like overthrowing governments that we didn't like, befriending autocrats and corrupt dictators around the world making monumental mistakes such as the Vietnam War.
BILL MOYERS: What's the conclusion you draw from that reading of history?
ANDREW BACEVICH: My reading is that there are no simple, moral lessons to be drawn. My reading is one in which yes, of course, there is evil in the world that needs to be taken into account. And some time must be confronted. But my reading would be, let's not kid ourselves in somehow imagining that the United States represents all that is good and virtuous, we, ourselves, have committed many sins. And we ought to be cognizant of those sins before we go pronouncing about how the world ought to be run.
BILL MOYERS: Right now the Iraqis confront the fate that befell the South Vietnamese. Do we just walk away from what's happening there?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I don't think they face the fate of the South Vietnamese--
BILL MOYERS: You don’t?
ANDREW BACEVICH: --in this sense, we must exercise care in predicting what's going to happen operationally next week and the week after. But my sense is that this ISIS force, obviously fierce. It's also relatively small. It doesn't possess tank divisions. It doesn't have an air force. It has enjoyed great success in penetrating into the predominately Sunni parts of Iraq. And it professes to wish to overthrow the predominately Shiite government.
My expectation would be that as the Shiites themselves face this prospect that they'll rally. Not rally in a sense that they're going to defeat ISIS and eject them from Iraqi territory. But rally in a sense that they'll be able to deny Baghdad to ISIS, which doesn't really point to a happy outcome.
It points to the outcome of what could well be a protracted and bloody civil war with the Shiites controlling one part of the country, Sunnis controlling another part of the country and Kurds a third party of the country. That's not a happy prospect. But I think that's actually more likely than the scenario we saw in Vietnam back in 1975 where the north simply swept across all of South Vietnam and seized Saigon.
BILL MOYERS: You have recently in “The Los Angeles Times” last week call for rethinking our relationship with Iran. Just as Nixon after Vietnam rethought and reshaped our relationship with our once mortal enemy, China. But that's the very thing right now, today, the neo-conservatives are opposing. They do not want to change our hostile relationship with Iran.
ANDREW BACEVICH: The fathers of today's neo-cons were among the people who, back in the 1960s and 1970s, were insisting that unless we fought on to final victory in Vietnam, that the consequences would be catastrophic. That the dominos would fall. That the communists would enjoy a great victory. That victory was not in the offing. And to his considerable credit, the cynical and in many respects amoral Richard Nixon realized that there was one way to salvage at least some positive aspects from this catastrophe in Vietnam.
And that was opening to China. Bringing China, beginning the process of bringing China back into the international community. Making China something other than an enemy of the United States. And that's what he did. And the notion now it seems to me is that if we had sufficiently bold and creative people guiding U.S. foreign policy today, they might consider a comparable turn with regard to Iran.
ANDREW BACEVICH: I think that it's manifestly the case that excluding Iran from the international order with the expectation that somehow peace and democracy are going to bloom in Iran, that that's failed. Iran is an important country. And in many respects, Iranian interests do coincide with American interests. And I think Iraq actually is an example of that.
BILL MOYERS: But the neo-cons are defiantly against collaborating with Iran for any reason because they see that as a potential threat to the survival of Israel.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, they do. And, I mean, the first point would be why should we listen to them at this stage of the game? But the second thing, I think, is to assess pragmatically this Iranian regime. Now it is possible to build the case, particularly back when Mr. Ahmadinejad was the President of Iran that this a country governed by madmen who wanted nothing more than to wipe Israel off the map and would be willing to sacrifice Iran itself in order to achieve that. It's possible to build that case.
But I think the case is a false one. I think that, first of all, Ahmadinejad is passed from the stage. We've got a new president. A new president's language is considerably different. But more broadly, if you look at the behavior of the Iranian regime, since the revolution back in the late 1970s, they've actually performed pretty rationally. They're not irrational. They're not madmen. They're people, frankly, who you can deal with if you can find those points of interest that coincide.
And my preference, as opposed to, confrontation with Iran, war with Iran, as indeed some neoconservatives would propose, my proposition would be that we should explore carefully whether or not that rational regime can be brought to a point where we can strike a deal with them.
BILL MOYERS: You asked, and I don't think it was rhetorically a moment ago, why should we be listening to them? And that raises the old question, how do they get the audience and the forum that they have despite a record of failure, deception, and as you say, duplicity?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I puzzle over that. And the only answer I've been able to come up with has to do with the mindset of Washington journalists. You know, the people who book you to come on the Sunday talk shows, the people who decide whether or not your op-ed submission's going to be accepted by the Washington Post are people who live within this bubble, this Washington milieu in which everything, it seems to me, gets viewed through the lens of partisanship.
Everything is assumed to be an issue of Republicans versus Democrats, left versus right. You know, the people who like Obama and the people who loathe Obama. And so when the booker for some network news show says, well, gosh, Iraq's falling apart. Who should we get to come on the show on Sunday? Their little rolodex turns up the pro-Iraq war, anti-Obama typical cast of characters.
Rather than thinking about, gosh, isn't this a historical development of very considerable magnitude. Who are the voices, who are the people who might have something to reflect on? Who are the people who have might have something to say that's simply not regurgitating the same sort of talking points that we heard last week and the week before?
I mean, I'm struck by how thin the intellectual discourse is when it comes to foreign policy. There was a time in this country when we had very serious thinkers who were taken seriously and who illuminated the fundamental difficulties that we faced in the world.
They weren't necessarily-- they didn't get everything right. But what they did was to challenge the conventional wisdom and invite people to look beyond simply the partisan debate of the day. I'm not sure who on our national stage today fills that sort of role. And frankly, the absence of these people is a great misfortune.
BILL MOYERS: What price do we pay for the absence of this critical thinking and inquiry?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, the debate that goes nowhere. I mean, it's the same talking points are endlessly repeated. That, you know, the warnings against isolationism. The demands for American global leadership, the comparisons with Adolf Hitler.
Whoever the bad guy of the day happens to be, he's cited as the next Hitler. The recollection of Munich and the warning against appeasement over and over and over again these points are repeated. And they don't illuminate.
BILL MOYERS: You wrote that a handful of randomly selected citizens of Muncie, Indiana would probably be more reliable on what to do than these oracles in Washington.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I was only half kidding. And what I mean by that is it seems to me that there-- that every day citizens would be more likely to view things realistically, pragmatically and would not be swayed by theological or ideological considerations.
BILL MOYERS: We saw that in their outspoken response and felt response when Obama was considering going into Syria. Public opinion really turned that course.
ANDREW BACEVICH: That was the striking moment. Of course from the point of view of people like Kagan, the president was guilty of great folly and not following through on his threat to go to war with Syria. But I think you're exactly right. The American people would seem to have learned some important lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan and are not eager to embroil themselves in yet another major war. And I think to his credit, Barack Obama has now acknowledged that.
BILL MOYERS: Kagan, however, laments the fact that Americans show these signs of being world weary. You can hardly blame them.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, he calls it world weariness. One could also call it world wisdom. I mean, that it shows the capacity of the American people to learn.
BILL MOYERS: But Kagan and his crowd claim that, in your words, that, feckless, silly Americans with weak-willed Barack Obama, their enabler, are abdicating their obligation to lead the planet.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, it's not true. Again, here Kagan is playing to this mythic interpretation of U.S. history which contends that the American people are instinctively isolationist. That all we want to do is to turn away from the world. And that's simply a false narrative.
The American people even before there was an America that is to say before there was a United States, have been engaged in the world commercially, culturally. Once this republic was created the founders and their successors set out to expand this nation to acquire power, to build wealth. That was a project that began in early in the 19th century. And in many respects reached its culmination with World War II. So the notion that there's this instinct towards isolationism, although it certainly, you know, that's a piece of propaganda that has been, rather successfully sold, it is simply propaganda. It's not true.
BILL MOYERS: What does it say to you that at a time when our country can't stop the killing of children in Chicago or prevent homegrown terrorists from attacking schools with their own private arsenals or cope with the chaos on the border with Mexico or rebuild our broken bridges and highways that there is still this cadre, this body, this community of people who believe we can police the Middle East?
ANDREW BACEVICH: They're deluded. And I think the point implicit in your question is a very good one. Our power is limited. What are the priorities? And there are domestic priorities that are achingly ignored. And yet are arguably far more amenable to solutions than anything in the greater Middle East. So where you want to spend your money? I think we'd be better off spending some of that money in Muncie, Indiana than in Baghdad.
BILL MOYERS: Back when you published "The Limits of Power" you had hope that the lessons we would learn from Iraq, the financial crash, the great recession that followed would lead to a wakeup call. That we would turn around, turn in a better direction. Things would take off in the right direction. What happened to that hope?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, it was not fulfilled. There certainly were signs of political change on the left and on the right. The Occupy movement on the left, the Tea Party on the right. But both of those were marginalized I think by the political center, Republican and Democrat which is deeply invested in maintaining the status quo.
Because the Republican party and the Democratic party are supported by, integrated with, a set of structures - whether we're talking about the National Security bureaucracy or Wall Street - that views change as a threat to their own well-being. And thus far, those proponents of the status quo have succeeded. They've gotten their way.
BILL MOYERS: Andrew Bacevich, thank you for being with me.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you.