Andrew Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University, discusses his open letter to Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz; the long overdue accounting of the Bush administration’s real reasons for waging an unnecessary war in Iraq; the dumb ideas floating around in the brains of very smart guys; and Obama’s continuation of Bush’s preventive war doctrine.

Transcript (page all the way down for the audio)

Scott Horton:  All right, y’all.  Welcome back to the show.  I’m Scott Horton.  This is the Scott Horton Show.  You can find my full interview archive at scotthorton.org, more than 2700 interviews now going back to 2003.  And our last guest on the show today is Andrew Bacevich.  He is professor of international relations and history at Boston University and he’s the author of many important books including Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, The New American Militarism, and American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy.  Welcome back to the show.  How are you doing, Andrew?

Andrew Bacevich:  Very fine.

Horton:  Good, good.  I’m very happy to have you here.

Bacevich:  Thank you.

Horton:  And so I want to talk with you about this open letter that you wrote to Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense and some would say architect of America’s so-called preemptive attack on Iraq 10 years ago.  And basically the thrust of the letter I think is, “I know you, and we’ve talked about these ideas in person, and here you had a chance to play out your grand scheme and it didn’t work out so well, and what do you have to say for yourself?”  Is that basically a fair assessment of what you’ve written here in Harper’s, at harpers.org?

Bacevich:  Well, it’s a succinct assessment.  I mean, I’ve been distressed by the fact that we have not had – the country has not had anything like a thoroughgoing accounting for a war that in my judgment at least was unnecessary and produced catastrophic consequences.  The country, much to my distress, I think has sort of moved on and is inclined to forget the war.  Most of the senior people in the George W. Bush administration who had a hand in the war have written their memoirs, but none of the memoirs really are worth reading because they’re mostly efforts at making excuses or pointing the finger at somebody else.  I personally think that Dr. Wolfowitz is probably the smartest of the bunch and were we to get an honest accounting it would have to come from him, and my letter really was an effort to invite him and in some senses to prod him to give us that accounting.  I don’t have any expectations that he’ll take me up on it, but I think he could help us understand quite a bit about why this debacle occurred and what we might learn from it, if he chose to do so.

Horton:  Well, whether or not he answers you, I think the way that you’ve written this thing, it’s surely enlightening for the rest of us.  Because this has been a standing question all along, really, is why did we even attack Iraq?  Because everybody knows that there’s 10 reasons for it, but none of them are good enough for an attack, right?  Outdoing Daddy, or keep the oil off the market, or because that’s what Ariel Sharon wants, or this or that – you say you know there’s some really powerful and bad ideas behind what happened in Iraq.

Bacevich:  Yeah.  I mean I don’t subscribe to the notion that there is any one explanation.  My own sense is that regardless of the issue, that any administration undertakes a large-scale policy initiative because a consensus has developed in the very senior leadership, among the 10 or 12 or 15 people that really have a vote with the president.  It’s when that group of people reaches a common position that the result is a policy.  So I think different people in the Bush administration wanted that war for somewhat different reasons.

That said, I also subscribe to the notion that an overarching reason to which Wolfowitz himself probably subscribed was the expectation that a major military undertaking, a preventive war launched by the United States, if it ended successfully, would basically have rewritten the rules of international politics in ways favorable to us, and that that in some senses was the ultimate prize.  Alas, the war didn’t go as expected, didn’t produce the victory that people like Wolfowitz counted on, and we ended up with the mess that was the actual Iraq war.

I think that to compare the vast ambitions with the actual consequences of preventive war is to arrive at important truths that we need to learn, and in some senses I think must learn, given all the lives and the treasure that were wasted as a consequence of our decision to invade.

Horton:  Mmhmm.  Well now, in this open letter that you’ve written at Harper’s, in Harper’s Magazine and now at harpers.org, and in a previous piece that you did for the New Left Review called “Tailors to the Emperor” – (laughs) which is a great title, by the way – about Albert Wohlstetter and all these ideas – Paul Wolfowitz’s mentor, and the way that they think and categorize events and set themselves up for these kinds of policy decisions, you focus a lot on intelligence and how, wow, these guys really are the smartest guys at the University of Chicago and that kind of thing, and it occurs to me that in 2002 I was just some regular guy and I knew a lot of regular guys that knew better.  Not just were skeptical of Bush’s motives or something like that, but said things like, “You do not want to get bogged down in urban warfare in Mesopotamia of all places.  You’ve got to be insane.  And what about the regional players, and what’s going to happen to the majority Shiite south, and this and that?”  Regular folks were saying these kinds of things in 2002, and it seems to me like you would have to be a genius to think that you’re so smart that you can actually make decisions like this and be able to determine your outcome.  Any regular person would know better.

Bacevich:  Well, you’re making a very important point.  I’d probably express it somewhat differently, but there does seem to be a tendency in our politics for some big idea, some novel idea, to appear on the horizon and suddenly it becomes the flavor of the week, and all of these supposedly smart people subscribe to this idea and are intent on applying it because they think that this is the idea that is going to solve everybody’s problems.  And it turns out that the idea is defective or produces unintended consequences, and after a while the idea is discredited and we go on to the next idea.

And this happens again and again in our politics.  You know, I think I would cite, let’s say, from the Kennedy era when the United States first fell in love with the idea of counterinsurgency and nation building, applied in Vietnam, leading to a catastrophic failure there.  In the 1990s we had Bill Clinton telling us that globalization was the new international order and everybody was going to get rich and the world was going to become peaceful.  That turned out to be not the case.

So I think the thing you’re pointing to, and it’s a puzzle, why do ostensibly smart people have this penchant for falling for big ideas that turn out to be defective?  Why don’t they have that skepticism that you just attributed to ordinary people relying on their common sense?  It’s a puzzle, and it’s a very interesting puzzle.

Horton:  Well, you know, I think you’ve kind of explained part of it – I forget which article it was now, maybe it was “The Emperor’s Tailors” piece there – about, well I think as Robert Gates called it, looking at war through a soda straw, you describe Albert Wohlstetter, Wolfowitz’s mentor’s wife’s book about Pearl Harbor, how everything was just about how come they weren’t paying attention to the right cracked codes and that kind of thing, and not asking the question of how could they not have been looking out for an attack that they had might as well have been deliberately provoking?  They leave out the entire context.

And it reminded me, in fact, last night while I was reading up on some of this, I had the Military History Channel on and it was about the battle of Falllujah, and they get bogged down talking about the kind of rifles that the Americans and the insurgents in Fallujah are firing and the size of the rounds and the mortar projectiles, and nobody’s pointing out, as Pat Buchanan pointed out in 2004, Fallujah was the high tide of the American empire.  They fought us off with AKs and we couldn’t flatten them completely, and so that was it.  It’s been downhill ever since.

Bacevich:  I think that’s a good point, that there does seem to be a tendency to examine history in search of interesting but trivial details and therefore to overlook any larger truths that may be conveyed by these events.

Horton:  Yeah.  Well, and (laughs), and with great consequences – you know, I remember Bill Kristol debating with Daniel Ellsberg on Washington Journal on C-Span in the morning before the Iraq war, and Daniel Ellsberg just – and he’s a very, very polite old gentleman, as you well know, and he just very politely mopped the floor with Bill Kristol, who turned out to actually not know anything about the Middle East or the history of American intervention over there.  He didn’t know anything about the revolution that led to the Shah’s reign in Iran, and I forget which other examples, but he really had no idea what he was talking about – Bill Kristol, one of the ring leaders of this Neocon group.

Bacevich:  Yeah, well, and I mean he is a good example I think of the kind of guy who peddles big ideas that he promises are going to be unfailingly successful, and then when that turns out to be wrong he moves onto the next big idea.

Horton:  Yeah.  Well now, so, because there hasn’t really been that accounting that you say we need so badly, do you think that – well, has Obama completely backed down from Bush’s national security strategy of preemptive war?

Bacevich:  Not at all.  He’s just employing different methods.  Instead of invading and occupying countries, President Obama is persuaded that missile-firing drones and special operations forces provide a more suitable instrument really to do much of what Bush thought he was going to do.  So I think that – I think actually President Obama provides a very good example of somebody who has shied away from confronting what the Iraq war ought to be teaching us.

Horton:  Well, now, you talk about how the Wolfstetter-Wolfowitz view is that we have to always be overprepared for a surprise attack from our implacable enemies and that kind of thing, and I wonder if maybe that isn’t right?  I mean, if you’re actually a defense intellectual and these are the kinds of questions you have to tackle – jeez, our implacable enemies could wipe us off the face of the earth if we weren’t overprepared in trying to anticipate everything all the time, right?

Bacevich:  Well, they’re invested in the proposition that the United States needs to maintain this enormous military establishment.  That’s how they derive their power and their influence, and so, yes, they have a propensity I think to overstate threats.  I mean that’s going on right now as we speak with North Korea, in my judgment.  This rather pathetic repressive, backward nation, in the eyes of some people, poses something like an existential threat to the United States, and that’s simply false.  But it’s an idea that’s very useful if you’re trying to promote an aggressive foreign policy or promote a higher level of defense spending.

Horton:  Right. (laughs)  Yeah.  That’s the same old song we keep hearing, that part is true for sure.  All right, well, thank you very much for your time.  I really appreciate it.  And I do hope that Dr. Wolfowitz answers you back.  I don’t know, maybe he’ll have to write it in the Weekly Standard or something, but sure would like to see –

Bacevich:  Right.  Thanks very much for having me on the program.

Horton:  Okay.  Appreciate it.

Bacevich:  Bye.

Horton:  That is Andrew Bacevich.  He teaches international relations at Boston University, and he’s the author of Washington Rules, The Limits of Power, The New American Militarism, and, oh, The Long War – and I’m leaving off one that I’ve read.  Anyway, you can find this piece, “A Letter to Paul Wolfowitz,” at Harpers.org.

Play
Donate by Mail:

Scott Horton
612 W. 34th St.
Austin, TX 78705

Crafted by Expand Designs.  ©2018, ScottHorton.Org