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Where We Fall Down

Andrew Bacevich on American Policy in Iraq


Andrew Bacevich was an early and prominent critic of the war in Iraq. A graduate of West Point, a Vietnam veteran, and a conservative Catholic, Bacevich has argued in a number of widely read essays and op-eds that the invasion of Iraq was illicit and imprudent, and is deflecting attention from the larger fight against terrorism. Bacevich is a professor of international relations at Boston University. He has written several books; his last, The New American Militarism, is an account of the role of the military in American culture. Last May Bacevich’s son, also named Andrew Bacevich, was killed in action in Iraq. The younger Bacevich, a First Lieutenant in the army, was 27. I spoke with Andrew Bacevich by telephone.

You did not support the invasion of Iraq. Why?

For a couple of reasons. One, I found the whole idea of preventive war to be both morally questionable and pragmatically reckless. The second thing is that if the purpose of the invasion of Iraq was supposedly one piece of the strategy intended to respond the threat posed by violent Islamic radicalism, it seemed to me that the entire strategy was defective. I don’t see global war as the correct way prevent a recurrence of 9/11.

Your lecture at UCSB is entitled “Iraq-Managing the Consequences of Failure,” and you recently wrote in the Washington Post that at best the “surge” has created a stalemate. Why isn’t the surge the success it has been touted as by members of the Bush administration, and very prominently at the moment, by John McCain?

The purpose of the surge, as it was explained by its architects, was to create the opportunity for Iraqis to negotiate some kind of political reconciliation that would bring the conflict to an end. It is certainly true that the surge reduced the occurrence of violence in Iraq. But it has not brought about that political reconciliation. Iraq has become a dependency of the United States, rather than a sovereign nation able to manage its own affairs.

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An element of the surge has been to pay large sums of cash to former Sunni insurgents. Is that a sound strategy in the long-term?

There’s no question that one element of the [General David] Petraeus strategy has been just what you said: to buy off Sunni insurgents. And the Sunni insurgents who are being bought have not genuinely converted to the cause of a united Iraqi government under the control of a Shiite majority. It’s a tactical maneuver on their part, and there’s a great danger that sometime in the future they will renew the armed struggle [to] restore Sunni political control over Iraq.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been talking about a “pause” in the surge. What do you think we should do in Iraq?

My view is that the war is militarily un-winnable, and to continue to pay something in the order of about $2 to $3 billion a week to continue to lose thirty to forty American lives a month is a bad investment. It’s a misuse of our resources, resources that ought to be used elsewhere-for example, Afghanistan. I think we think ought to end U.S. combat involvement in Iraq [and] we ought to get serious about putting together a coalition of nations who share a common interest in ensuring that the fate of Iraq doesn’t pull the rest of the region down behind it. It seems to me that almost everybody in the region, including the Iranians, have a common interest in stability.

At what rate do you envision a withdrawal taking place?

That’s up to the military commander. It’s not appropriate for the politicians to call the generals and say I want you to be out in three months or sixth months.

What should the diplomatic presentation that would accompany a withdrawal look like? If we withdraw and a full-scale civil war ensues-or even just an escalation in violence-it’s going to be difficult for Americans and for the rest of the world to see it occur, however much support there is for a withdrawal.

We need to understand that it is not simply a rhetorical stance that the Iraqi people will determine the future of Iraq. It could be that the Iraqi people and their leaders, in the event of a U.S. withdrawal, will find a way to cut a deal so that there will be some semblance of peace and stability. It is also possible that the Iraqi people will engage in what will end up being a brutal civil war. They will determine their future; we cannot do so.

What is the American military presence in Iraq entailing for the war on terror, and what would a withdrawal entail?

What it’s entailing now is its sapping military and intelligence resources that could be better used elsewhere. It’s an abomination that this long after 9/11 Osama bin Laden is still at large. And one of the reasons I believe he’s still at large is that the war in Iraq has taken so much [of our] attention.

How do you respond to the argument, again made very prominently by John McCain, that Iraq is a training ground for terrorists and will become the epicenter of violent Islamic radicalism in the event of a U.S. withdrawal?

First of all, I don’t know how he knows that. Again, it seems to me that Iraqis are going to determine their future, so I don’t see why it follows that the day Americans leave Iraqis will welcome Al Qaeda to set up shop. Secondly, we don’t have to tolerate that. To say that we’re going to withdraw combat troops from Iraq does not necessarily mean that we’re going to do to Iraq what we did to Afghanistan after the Soviets pulled out. We don’t have to ignore it.

You didn’t support the invasion of Iraq in part because you found the idea of preventive war morally questionable and pragmatically reckless. What do you think Iraq has taught us about preventive war?

Remarkably little. So much of the debate about Iraq has focused specifically on Iraq, rather than trying to put this experience in a larger context. I’m struck by the relative absence of debate about whether or not the Bush doctrine of preventive war is a good idea and should be continued in the next administration, or whether it’s a bad idea and should be abrogated.

You have argued that Iraq is deflecting attention away from Afghanistan. Why is Afghanistan more important, in a strategic sense, than Iraq?

Afghanistan and Pakistan together provide probably the richest opportunity for Al Qaeda to take root, to recruit, and to reconstitute itself. And I’m emphatically including Pakistan alongside Afghanistan. Pakistan is probably the most dangerous place in the world as far as our own security is concerned.

Are the recent elections in Pakistan a good thing for American interests in the region, or a bad thing?

I think it’s too soon to tell. We bet on the wrong horse when we put so much emphasis on [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf. But whether or not those who defeated Musharaff in the election will be useful allies-it’s just too soon to tell.

I’m of draft age. Irrespective of my own political beliefs, I’m very aware that young Americans my age are fighting and dying in a war that has little appreciable impact on my daily life. I’m wondering how young Americans should be engaged with the war. Are we engaged enough? I know you’ve had a very personal experience of this issue.

I would say you’re not. Let me rephrase that. It’s not simply a problem of young people; it’s a problem of citizens not being engaged, no matter their age. This call to support the troops, or the insistence that we all support the troops, is very hollow. It has no meaning. It doesn’t entail any obligations. I believe we should support the troop, but it ought to be a support in which we are attentive to the burdens that are imposed upon them when they are sent on these cockamamie missions.

We don’t need to have a ten million man army, so the sense of obligation is not one that should have you or people of your generation feeling guilty if they’re not running down to the local recruiter to sign up. But it’s a sense of obligation in which we should demand of our political leaders that our army not be subjected to the kinds of abuses it’s being subjected to. It’s a political engagement that is required here, and that seems to be where we all fall down.

411: Andrew J. Bacevich will deliver a free public lecture, “Iraq-Managing the Consequences of Failure,” at 8pm on Monday, March 10th at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. For more information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.

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