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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.

Extended Interview: Andrew Bacevich

After the broadcast interview, Bill continued his conversation with military historian Andrew Bacevich about what America should do in the Middle East.

Bacevich draws parallels between the current Iraqi crisis and the Vietnam War, discusses our evolving relationship with Iran and challenges neoconservatives for their take on US foreign policy.

“My reading [of history] is of course there is evil in the world that needs to be taken into account and some time must be confronted,” Bacevich tells Moyers. “But 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.”

Producer: Gina Kim. Segment Producer: Robert Booth. Editor: Sikay Tang.

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  • Eco Teams

    As usual, Dr. Bacevich is on the mark

  • Star Messenger

    Yes, Dr. Bacevich IS on the mark; but he was stating the obvious.

    Anyone who can separate ideology, and political hysteria, from current, or past news events, will always come to a different conclusion than, say, the Neocons. To the Neocons, every war is a good war – and is worth fighting. Yeah, it’s worth fighting, but ONLY if they, and their loved ones, don’t have to do the fighting.

    People like Dick Cheney would invariably say when interviewed: “Don’t you support the troops”? But, when it was “his turn” to fight (in Vietnam) he somehow, found a way to get five (5) deferments!

    Also, the Military/Industrial Complex is another group that always wants war. Well, why not? They stand to make billions on war materiel – not to mention what companies like Halliburton will make after we destroy a country’s infrastructure.

    And, this latest “crisis” called “ISIS” or, “ISIL”, was created and funded by the U.S., and NATO. (Do some research to see if I’m right) So now, the U.S., and its’ western allies, have started to wring their hands again over, “what to do”.

    I just wonder how much this next war is going to cost the U.S. – to the detriment of its’ people.

  • sikanni

    So refreshing to get a view other than a neocon view on this situation. You’re certainly not going to get it from the MSM here in the United States. Anytime Dr. Bacevich is on Bill Moyers its time to sit up and listen. Thanks Bill, this has made my day!

  • Anonymous

    I’ve read his books and based much of what I understand about foreign policy on his works..smart guy.

  • SufferinSuccotash, Mentat

    There’s another aspect of the World War II narrative which Bacevich didn’t mention, but which supports his view that the popular narrative isn’t so much untrue as radically incomplete. That is the perception that the United States won the war.
    That perception is radically incomplete. The United States, Great Britain, the USSR, China and a large number of resistance movements won the war. Most of the Japanese Army wasn’t fighting the US Army. Most of the German Army wasn’t fighting the US Army. These historical realities–commonplaces to serious students of the war–hardly surface in the most widespread popular perceptions of the war. And it’s these perceptions, enduring over decades, which are deliberately and cynically manipulated by the Kagans and Kristols–people who are obviously well enough educated and informed to know better.

  • Vera Gottlieb

    With the latest Russo-phobia fad, it must not be forgotten that it was Russia who sacrificed the most people – civilian and military, during WW2: 30 million casualties. Ever since WW2, the US has done enough damage all over – perhaps it would be a good idea to turn ‘isolationist’ for a good while and give the planet a chance to recover while cleaning up the US backyard. Live and let live – who appointed the US policeman of anything. Were it not for oil, countries like Iraq, Libya – with more to come, would still live in peace instead of becoming piles of rubble. The US needs to experience a war on its own territory, to see and feel what horrors of war are all about.

  • Anonymous

    It’s interesting to note that the GOP of that period were strong isolationist during the Depression years and fought any attempt by FDR to join those European countries who were fighting against the Nazis. FDR established an under the table relationship with American Manufacturers who were covertly building and shipping various types of material support to our allies in Europe. It took Pearl Harbor in 1941 to break the log jam in Congress and invoke a declaration of war that established American theatres of war in the Atlantic and Pacific regions. This action also had the added benefit of quickly ending the Great Depression that had dragged on for twelve years prior to America’s entrance into the war !

  • Anonymous

    And we should thank Comrade Stalin for running such an efficient meat grinder, followed by the oppressive police state run by his successors, even the survivors didn’t feel like having enough kids, thus ensuring the Russians to their demographic doom, incapable of fighting off the Arabic, Persian, and Chinese hordes that will overwhelm them, and that right soon.

  • Russell Scott Day

    War fatigue is dangerous in a world of constant war with control of nukes at stake. Look at where Pakistan is as far as the bomb parts and who has the codes and keys. I personally see women’s rights trampled so sadly and wouldn’t arm men over that way as a general operating procedure.

  • Anonymous

    Most Americans were isolationist after the horrors of WWi. Charles Lindbergh, one of the most popular of American Heroes spoke often and urged US not get involved. Americans didn’t want to spend money to build military or increase troops. FDR carefully brought the public opinion along and when GOP saw money could be made in supplying Britain and Russia, they started to view it differently.

  • Anonymous

    Hard to be sympathetic to the millions of Russians lost during WWII when the agreement Stalin signed with Hitler Aug 1939 allowed Hitler to then begin his attack on Poland. Horrible losses for the Russians but they have more than a little responsibility there.

  • Vera Gottlieb

    What a breath of fresh air to read something from someone who is aware of history and not hell bent on starting wars all over the globe just because might is right – which it isn’t. The US population only represents about 5% of global population, yet it behaves as if it owns the entire planet. Well, it doesn’t so it might as well fall in line with the rest of us mortals and behave in a civilized manner.

  • transtowns

    Haven’t read all the comments yet but I have one word to say: Psychopaths. That who is running things and until we wise up and start studying and countering this fact, we are at their mercy. They DO NOT HAVE A CONSCIENCE.

  • Vera Gottlieb

    And it still doesn’t change the fact that Russia sacrificed the most lives during WW2 – no wonder they are in no mood to experience another war. America has no idea whatsoever what war feels and looks like right in your own backyard. You don’t know what pain and misery are, although you certainly know how to inflict it on others.

  • Anonymous

    Fact-Russia lost more citizens. Opinion-who deserves to proclaim their costs of war as a greater understanding of war over anyone else. We simply disagree.

  • Vera Gottlieb

    Why is America always preaching to others while setting the worst example all the time. Take a good look at pictures of destroyed Russian and German towns (not to mention Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, Laos, Cambodia, etc.) and put yourself in the place of people trying to stay alive…One day you too will have the ‘pleasure’ of experiencing bombs raining down on you. This should cure your arrogance and blood thirst.

  • Anonymous

    The Iraqi adventure for American is mirror of the American Vietnam Adventure. Lies that justified entry into a war in a far-away country involving an foreign culture. In that war we withdrew ‘with honor’ by ‘vietnamizing’ the military effort and then watching it all collapse. We did not learn out lesson from that war. We have no right to nation build in a part of the world where we have no business to be.

    Mark Stillman, MD

  • Anonymous

    The Neoconservative would talk louder and constantly interrupt and shout down any facts or information that does not support his or her world view. Ludicrous snickering, faces, and pop-culture put downs would win any debate as they have since Karl Rove and the GOP’s emotional echo chamber has made mush of any standards for factual and logical arguments in political debate. They pretty much changed the rules for debate when W was running. Shrewd yes, constructive, not.

  • Anonymous

    From Grahame Russell:

    Why continue with the pretense, the charade, the fabrication
    that this President, or that, Republican or Democrat, is following “bad advice”?

    U.S. actions – economic, military, covert, etc. – across the planet, going back hundreds of years, continuing today, are American policy and culture at work.

    U.S. interventions, direct and indirect, covert and overt, are
    intentional. War (in all of its manifestations) is a major U.S. economic industry, past and present. Within the context of any particular military action (covert, overt, direct, indirect, etc), mistakes might be made, … but let us stop pretending the over-all decisions are misguided policies.

    For the most part, past and present, the policies and then ensuing actions are criminal. For the most part, since before its foundation as a nation state, these criminal war policies and actions are part and parcel of what the U.S.A. have been and continue being, as a nation state.

  • joanne

    Isn’t the bottom-line really about oil production (or other major natural resources) and the distribution of profits? Why do we succumb to the rhetoric of violence and ” national interest” rather than that of human development, public health, community well-being? Everyone, everywhere needs to co-create a livelihood within their cultural/environmental milieu. Destroying that, attempting to replace it with ” western” corporate profiteering, in collusion with local despots, is disaster imperialism (as in Naomi Klein’s Disaster Capitalism). Pundits and generals don’t know how to create healthy eco-social communities. How can we help the UN encourage protection from the 147 interlocking corporate board of energy, finance, weapons manufacture? Where is the ethical leadership to refocus from ”military solutions” to social and ecological solutions world-wide? Are war-mongers/gangsters inevitably in control due to ruthless violence and intimidation, propaganda??

  • Melwoolf

    Wonderful show with Mr Bacevich who speaks such obvious truths. But how tragic for our country that we (on the outside of the Beltway) cannot pierce the untouchables (think tanks etc and politicians) who continue in their certainties. War, war, war. But never think, think, think. I recall Churchill saying “It is better to jaw-jaw than war-war”. Why do we have such mediocre leaders and Washington journalists? Mr Moyers, I love you and am so thankful for your thoughtfulness and incredible programs.