Bill Moyers
September 6, 2013
Andrew Bacevich on Taking Action in Syria

PHIL DONAHUE: Welcome. I’m Phil Donahue.

Bill Moyers is away this week and I am pleased to be sitting in for him. Our subject is Syria.

What began there two and a half years ago as part of the Arab Spring has turned into an all-out civil war. Now has come the shocking evidence of poison gas attacks. A fatal escalation that has led President Obama to ask Congress to authorize the limited use of military force. And if we take action, where and when does it stop?

Historian and analyst Andrew Bacevich is here asking those questions. A graduate of West Point and Vietnam veteran, he served in the military for 23 years before becoming a professor at Boston University. His books include The Limits of Power and Washington Rules. His latest, Breach of Trust.

Andrew Bacevich, welcome…

ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you very much.

PHIL DONAHUE: Well, I'm pleased to have this chance to chat with you for a lot of reasons. One, I don’t know who else has more cred than you.

What would a 23-year graduate of West Point offer us now regarding the dilemma in which Obama finds himself, regarding Syria?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, if I could have five minutes of the president's time, I'd say, "Mr. President, the issue really is not Syria. I mean, you're being told that it's Syria. You're being told you have to do something about Syria, that you have to make a decision about Syria. That somehow your credibility is on the line."

But I'd say, "Mr. President, that's not true. The issue really here is whether or not an effort over the course of several decades, dating back to the promulgation of the Carter Doctrine in 1980, an effort that extends over several decades to employ American power, military power, overt, covert military power exercise through proxies, an effort to use military power to somehow stabilize or fix or liberate or transform the greater Middle East hasn't worked.

“And if you think back to 1980, and just sort of tick off the number of military enterprises that we have been engaged in that part of the world, large and small, you know, Beirut, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and on and on, and ask yourself, 'What have we got done? What have we achieved? Is the region becoming more stable? Is it becoming more Democratic? Are we enhancing America's standing in the eyes of the people of the Islamic world?'

"The answers are, 'No, no, and no.' So why, Mr. President, do you think that initiating yet another war, 'cause if we bomb Syria, it's a war, why do you think that initiating yet another war in this protracted enterprise is going to produce a different outcome? Wouldn't it be perhaps wise to ask ourselves if this militarized approach to the region maybe is a fool’s errand.

"Maybe it's fundamentally misguided. Maybe the questions are not tactical and operational, but strategic and political." You know, I have to say, I'm just struck by the fact that Secretary of State Kerry has become the leading proponent for war. It's our secretary of state's job apparently--

PHIL DONAHUE: He threw his medal-- he threw his medals back.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, that's why it's doubly ironic. 'Cause the Secretary of State is the war promoter. And that our secretary of state happens to be a guy who came into politics basically advertising himself as the guy who because of his--

PHIL DONAHUE: Understands war?

ANDREW BACEVICH: --Vietnam experiences, understands war, understands the lessons of Vietnam, and is therefore going to prevent us from doing dumb things. On the contrary, he's the lead cheerleader to go through another dumb thing.

PHIL DONAHUE: President Obama would say to you, "These are children being grossly and painfully killed."

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yeah.

PHIL DONAHUE: "How can you watch these videos with the foam coming out of the nostrils. And we've got to do something."

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, the attack is a heinous act. Now does the fact that they were killed with chemicals make it more heinous than if they were killed with conventional ammunitions? I'm not persuaded.

I mean, I think the issue, one of the issues here, to the extent that moral considerations drive US policy, and I would say as a practical matter they don't, but let's pretend that they do to the extent that moral considerations drive US policy, there's a couple of questions to ask. One would be, "Why here and not someplace else?"

I mean, just weeks earlier, the Egyptian Army killed many hundreds of innocent Egyptians. And we sort of shook our finger at Egypt a little bit, but didn't do anything. So why act in Syria? Why not act in Egypt? I think that that needs to be sort of, that needs to be clarified.

And the other question will be, "Well, if our concerns are humanitarian, why is waging war the best means to advance a humanitarian agenda?" If indeed US policy is informed by concern for the people of Syria, let's just pretend that's the case even though I don't think it is. If it's informed by concern for the people of Syria, why is peppering Damascus with cruise missiles the best way to demonstrate that concern?

I mean, a little bit of creative statesmanship it seems to me might say that there are other things we could do that would actually benefit the people of Syria, who are suffering greatly, who are fleeing their country in the hundreds of thousands. Who are living in wretched refugee camps. Why don't we do something about that? Why wouldn't that be a better thing to do from a moral perspective than bombing Damascus?

PHIL DONAHUE: How do we explain media's submission to these warlike -- let me just give you one -- Nicholas Kristof, of the Times: "Since President Obama established a 'red line' about chemical weapons use, his credibility has been at stake: he can't just whimper and back down." Whimper. I mean, who wants a whimperer for president? And there's an awful lot of macho in this. And by the way, why can't the president just say, "Hey, I really shouldn't have said 'red line.' That was a mistake, it was a moment, I'm a human, sue me, I'm rectifying that now and I'm going to take a more--"

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think, one point there is that in many respects, this crisis is being driven by domestic politics. I think the president did make a mistake in drawing that red line. I suspect the president actually understands he made a mistake.

And then when Assad called its bluff, as it were, the president finds him in a … the president finds himself in the position where yes, he's got to do something to restore his credibility. Well, when you think about it's not going to restore any credibility. I mean, when you think about it, is credibility worth going to war for?

When you think about it, if indeed American credibility in that part of the world is kind of low right now, is it because the president drew a red line and didn't act? Or could it be because of the folly of American wars in places like Iraq? I mean, will bombing Syria make the memory of Iraq go away?

Well, the memory of Iraq has already gone away in the eye-- in-- for most Americans. But is it going to cause people in the Arab world or the broader Islamic world to forget Iraq and all the chaos that we created? I mean, I'm struck by the fact that we're having this sort of national hoop-dee-doo about Syria on the front page of the paper. If you turn back to page five or page seven, you'll get the latest dispatch out of Baghdad. "Bombs going off in Baghdad, killing 65." Is there any relevance to that continuing story coming out of Iraq to the prospect of Syria? Seems to me there ought to be. I mean, the last time we persuaded ourselves that we needed to act in Iraq, we produced a disaster.

Now some number of Americans paid for that disaster in terms of soldiers killed, lives shattered. Far, far greater numbers of Iraqis paid for that disaster and are still paying for that disaster. So the conversation about Syria is far too narrow. It needs to be expanded to include some of these other military misadventures that we have undertaken.

And I think it needs to be expanded to include fraudulent relationship between the American military and American society. Which allows our political leaders to go off on these wild goose chases while the American people basically stand by mute.

PHIL DONAHUE: One of the conservative talking heads in the shout shows on cable said that going to, "If Obama goes to Congress, he will show weakness. I mean, it's only in the Constitution. He will show weakness if he obeys the Constitution. Everything is turned upside-down here now.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think if there's one iota of good news here, I think it is that he's gone to the Congress. Now the president didn't go to the Congress because he realized that he's a constitutional lawyer and suddenly was becoming a strict constructionist.

He went to the Congress because he was sitting out there on this limb all by himself, even without the Brits, and decided that it was a lonely place to be, that he wanted to see if he could induce the Congress to come out and join him. But that said, whether he intends it or not, he is setting a precedent, a precedent that says that maybe when we do attack some country, the Congress ought to be consulted.

And what, and the significant of that I think is three, four, five years from now, when Obama's successor has some great idea that he wants to go bomb somebody or invade somebody, I hope there will be some questions asked that will say, "Hey, wait a second, Mr. President. Back in 2013, before Obama acted, he thought he needed to ask the Congress. Why doesn't that apply to you?" So I think that's the one little bit of good news out of this—

PHIL DONAHUE: Yeah, except Obama made the point emphatically that I don't need your approval. I can go alone anyway--

ANDREW BACEVICH: He did. He did.

PHIL DONAHUE: We are the only country with the capacity to do what we're about to do in Syria. Do you believe that?

ANDREW BACEVICH: There's no question that in terms of the capability to project power, to put ordnance on targets, to mask military power in every dimension, at land, sea, air, cyberspace, our capabilities are beyond anybody's capability to match. Unfortunately, that doesn't necessarily yield wise policy. It doesn't even yield military victory.

Again, when you think back on the actual history, the military history of the United States in the Middle East over the past several decades, victory has been exceedingly hard to come by. We're always stronger by many measures than the adversary. But somehow or other, being strong doesn't translate into political objectives being achieved quickly or economically.

What actually happens is that the projection of American power leads to unexpected complications. And gets us more deeply imbedded in a set of circumstances that we can't handle. There are enormously deep and powerful forces of change that are, have come to the surface and are transforming that part of the world.

We have claimed, presidents have claimed, George Herbert Walker Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now this president, have claimed that we possess the capacity to somehow direct or control these processes of change. Even though the truth is, we don't have that capacity. The truth is, we are largely irrelevant to what's going on in that part of the world. But if we reach out and, you know, use our military powers to drop some missiles here and there, we can sustain the illusion that we have some kind of relevance. But we don't. PHIL DONAHUE: In your book, your commentary about a loss of the citizen's army is especially germane to what's happening now with Syria. It's easier now to go to war is one of the points you make. And as now we think about Syria, how do those two come together?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I’d back up from Syria a little bit. And I think I'd want to tell a story that begins really back at the end of the Vietnam War. A war that divided the country, a war that in many respects shattered the United States military. And part of the response to that war was that the American people decided to jettison the longstanding tradition of the citizen soldier.

Richard Nixon endorsed that when he ended the draft and declared the creation of an all-volunteer force. And for some considerable period of time, this seemed like a smart move, a good thing for the country. It let citizens off the hook, also gave us highly capable and well-trained and well-disciplined soldiers. What only became evident after the Cold War ended, however was that this new professional army really was no longer America's army. It was Washington's army. And Washington began to--

PHIL DONAHUE: As in Washington DC?

ANDREW BACEVICH: As in Washington DC. And Washington began to do with that army whatever they wanted, regardless of whether the people had signed up to the enterprise. And this greater penchant for war I think really reached its zenith after 9/11 with President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq, as so many people have said, a country totally uninvolved in 9/11.

And this was the ultimately testing time for this great, professional army of ours. And I'm sorry to say it failed the test. We were supposed to win quickly, economically, easily. We didn't win. And instead, we ended up with a protracted war. Part of a series of post 9/11 wars where -- bringing us to where we are today where Syria may well be yet another one of these wars waged by Washington with its army while the people are left sitting on the sidelines.

PHIL DONAHUE: And making no real sacrifice – was it one percent of our citizens?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yeah, it's interesting. You know, sort of the inverse of the complaint of the Occupy Movement. You know, the Occupy Movement said there's the one percent of the rich people who are screwing the 99 percent. And when it comes to basic military policy, we have the 99 percent screwing the one percent. It's the one percent who gets sent off to fight these endless wars.

PHIL DONAHUE: So it's going to be easier then to have another one and another one. We haven't even, it seems to me, we haven't even looked at ourselves regarding the wars that we've had.

ANDREW BACEVICH: That's--

PHIL DONAHUE: Nobody--

ANDREW BACEVICH: That's one of the most troubling aspects of this whole thing. It staggers me that the American people have so quickly put the Iraq War in the rearview mirror. Indeed, won't even look in the rearview mirror.

Because if they did, they could see in the rearview mirror the smoking ruin that we left behind. Instead, there is this preoccupation to deal with the next crisis, which as we speak, is Syria. Six months from now, it'll probably be something else.

PHIL DONAHUE: I imagine that so few people sacrifice, for example, in the Iraq War. In your book, in one line, you take the breath away by revealing that you lost your son. And I know you certainly have no responsibility to get into this, and I do not mean to belabor it. But is it possible for you to share your own, with us, your own thoughts?

ANDREW BACEVICH: It’s probably not. I have tried to make it a rule that that's a private matter and I try to keep it private. But I was watching your film, your wonderful documentary. One of the things that makes it so powerful is the way the young soldier and his family opened them up, opened themselves up to you. That's what made the film. On the other hand, because of my personal experience as I watched that, I said to myself, "I could never bear to do that." Just couldn't bear to do it. It’s got to stay private.

PHIL DONAHUE: If I lost somebody in a war, I guess -- I felt it was the most sanitized war of my lifetime. I think if you're going to send your young men and women, as we say quaintly, "in harm's way," show the pain. Don't sanitize the war.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I agree. And you know, in one, in the sense, one way we may sanitize the war by putting restrictions on you know, what can be filmed and all that. Be we also sanitize the war in the way the waging of war is consigned to certain sectors of society. If Harvard, Princeton, and Yale--

PHIL DONAHUE: Sent their guys to war.

ANDREW BACEVICH: ---were there, this inclination to turn away from the ugliness would be unsustainable. That's why, you know, one of the things I tried to emphasize in the book is to contrast the post-9/11 wars with World War II. The so-called "good war." The last war that we actually won, outright. A war that was fought by citizen soldiers.

Not by accident, a war in which our leaders, from President Roosevelt on down said that this will be a people's war, there will be sacrifice across the board, it will be fought with the people's army, even citizens who are not in the army will participate in their own way, their taxes will go up, not down, like after 9/11.

Their penchant for consumption will be curbed for the duration, not indulged, as was the case after 9/11. So part of the argument is that a war waged by citizen soldiers that engages the energies and the attention of the American people is, in fact, more likely to result in success, victory, political objections achieved, than has been our experience with a professional army, which in many respects is qualitatively superior. But it doesn't win.

PHIL DONAHUE: In my own encounters with dissenters, and they're out there, they're out there in great numbers, and we all wonder why there aren't more -- I've seen a lot of empty seats. And I've seen a lot of blowback, a lot of criticism, you know the story, unpatriotic, you don't understand, geopolitical. I'm curious to know how you've dealt with this and how much personally.

I'm thinking of you as that young, good-looking cadet, and when you entered West Point, how proud your parents must have been, how proud you were, and I'm sure proud today what over the years-- how did your brain evolve here? Where you've become one of the leading voices in dissent and honest analysis of America's foreign policy.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I mean, life's a journey. You know, we are born in a set of circumstances that shape us initially. I was born in the Midwest, grew up in the Midwest.

PHIL DONAHUE: You're Catholic too.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I was born in a Catholic family, a seriously Catholic family. I continue to be a Catholic. It was in the '50s and '60s prior to Vietnam when I was a kid, the overhang of World War II was still very prominent. Both of my parents were World War II veterans. So it was a patriotic environment in which patriotism was clearly connected to military service. And at a time when patriotism didn't necessarily encourage questions.

And when I graduated from West Point, became a serving officer for a period of time, in a sense, I continued to be in that environment. When I got out of the army, at the end of the Cold War, never having expected that the Cold War was going to end.

I mean, I viewed it from my youth as, it's just a permanent fact of international relations. I expected that now that this protracted emergency has ended, that we would become different. The emergency's over. We're going to become a normal nation now. And therefore, we're going to stop doing some of the things that we said we had to do during the Cold War.

I think the eye-opening thing for me was that rather than becoming a normal nation, we continued the pattern of behavior that we had engaged in during the Cold War only more so. We became more committed to military power. We became more persuaded that through the use of military power, we could achieve our purposes in the world and could advance the well-being of the American people at home.

And I found that shocking. And since then, I have becoming absolutely convinced that that was a fundamental error. We are the strongest military power in the world. And in some measures, we may be the strongest military power that the world has ever seen. But that's not been good for the country. Now I'm not a pacifist. I don't want to have a weak military. I want to have a strong military.

But I want to have a military that is, in fact, is configured and used to advance the well-being of us, with no pretentions that we can somehow shape the world to do our bidding. Rather, a military that is configured with an acute awareness of the things we need here at home, of our shortcomings. It's fascinating to me to hear President Obama say that over and over again.

And then to see President Obama not act on that inclination. He seems to understand at some level that this militarization of US policy, and this militarization of the American mentality, that there's something wrong there. And yet as ostensibly the most powerful man in the world, he's done next to nothing to reverse it. And my guess is that, you know, 50 years from now, if people are -- when historians are evaluating his presidency, that'll be one of the things that he's really going to get marked down on.

PHIL DONAHUE: I don't understand that either. We were so, the liberals were so thrilled, when he was elected. And he's, he hasn't closed Guantanamo, habeas is gone, we have people in cages, for over, almost 15 years now, no letters home, nothing.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Some of them no charges.

PHIL DONAHUE: No, not even charged. We're peeking in windows, listening in on mail, listening in on phone calls, reading mail. I mean, the Bill of Rights has just collapsed. And the American people are standing mute.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I'm a conservative, not a liberal. And I think that part of the problem was -- although I voted for President Obama -- I think part of the problem is that you weren't listening. He said: "The Iraq War is a stupid war. Elect me. I will end the Iraq War. Oh, by the way, elect me, and I will expand the Afghanistan War."

And those are actually two promises that he fulfilled. My guess is that the people who were most enthusiastic about Obama, when he was running for president the first time, they weren't listening to that second half of the equation. He was never a dove. I mean, he, the Democratic Party, the mainstream of the Democratic Party is as militarized as the mainstream of the Republican Party.

I’m not blaming Obama for that. That was Bill Clinton's doing.

If you go back and look at the way Clinton portrayed himself back in 1992, before he won, he made it very clear that hawkish Democrats had regained control of their party. And indeed, if you look at Bill Clinton's performance in office, I mean, I think we've forgotten about this. Here's a guy who intervened in more places, more times, under more different circumstances than any of his predecessors.

So we've got two parties that despite their differences, in some respects, we've got two parties equally committed to the proposition that it is imperative to maintain global military supremacy, not simply strength, and who believed that somehow or other the adroit use of this military power is going to be able to bring peace. I don't know. And both parties are equally wrong.

PHIL DONAHUE: I know you're a New Englander. And you in your book "Breach of Trust" you make an observation that I don't I no one else would make, certainly not in the Boston area. You saw the United States military establishment use the Red Sox to promote pride, pride in the military, all good, all the time.

And they actually recreated a homecoming of a woman, Navy, who at first appeared on the big Jumbotron waving at her family. And of course the place erupted in cheers and the next thing you know from behind, a flag, she appeared real. And they were witness to well something that had to make you cry. She ran to embrace her family, and then the jets flew over. What's wrong with that?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, it's the Red Sox exploiting the military and the military exploiting the Red Sox. But both of them together in a sense are manipulating the American people. And they're encouraging the American people to think that to go to the ballgame on the 4th of July and sing the national anthem and clap for their troops that are on the field.

And then to react emotionally to this contrived reunion all of that is intended to persuade the American people that they have acquitted their responsibility to the troops. That when we say, "We support the troops," and we all say, "We support the troops," that that suffices. I go to the ballgame, I clap, I get teary-eyed, and then when they say, "Play ball," I buy a beer and basically forget about the episode.

And my argument in the book is that that's not good enough. My argument in the book is that in many respects, that's, well, it's an exercise in what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace." Grace you award yourself without having earned. Grace that enables you to feel that you are virtuous when in fact you are complicit in wrongdoing. And I think that actually describes the relationship between the American people and the American military.

Now some people will be offended to hear me say that. But my argument would be that our first obligation to those we love, to those we care about, is to protect them, to preserve them, to keep them out of harm. And therefore, if indeed we love the troops, if indeed we regarded them as the ultimate manifestation of what is good about our country, then we would all want to make sure that they were only sent in harm's way when absolutely necessary.

We would insist that they should not be abused. Now since 9/11, they have been abused. Particularly the American Army and the United States Marine Corps have been abused. And I think that that's wrong. I think that it's undemocratic, I think that it's immoral and I think that the American people need to be called on it.

PHIL DONAHUE: Andrew Bacevich, Professor of History, Boston University, graduate of West Point, Army veteran, thank you very much for this very informative hour.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you.

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