Bacevich on Bill Moyers Journal--Hard Truths About America Gone Astray

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sat Aug 16, 2008 at 11:09

And Some Thoughts About What To Do About It

Last night saw one of the most amazing programs  in the history of Bill Moyers Journal.  Really, one of most amazing programs Moyers has done, period, in all his years on television.  His guest for the hour was Andrew J. Bacevich, a West Point graduate, retired colonel with 23 years in the Army, and author of several books, including The Limits Of Power: The End Of American Exceptionalism, just released this week. Here's a distillation of their conversation:

As I suggested in my diary earlier today, "We're So Lame" , the Democrats would be much better off scrapping their "national security" lineup full of disgraced Iraq War hawks, and replacing the whole lot with Bacevich.  More reasons why on the flip--and a suggestion about how we might change the direction of our country.

Paul Rosenberg :: Bacevich on Bill Moyers Journal--Hard Truths About America Gone Astray
I want to avoid duplicating the excerpts in the clip above, so here's an excerpt from early in the interview, followed by a suggestion about what we might do to move ourselves in the direction of positive action:

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I've been troubled by the course of U.S. foreign policy for a long, long time. And I wrote the book in order to sort out my own thinking about where our basic problems lay. And I really reached the conclusion that our biggest problems are within.

I think there's a tendency on the part of policy makers and probably a tendency on the part of many Americans to think that the problems we face are problems that are out there somewhere, beyond our borders. And that if we can fix those problems, then we'll be able to continue the American way of life as it has long existed. I think it's fundamentally wrong. Our major problems are at home.

BILL MOYERS: So, this is a version of "Physician, heal thyself?"

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, yes, "Physician, heal thyself," and you begin healing yourself by looking at yourself in the mirror and seeing yourself as you really are.

BILL MOYERS: Here is one of those neon sentences [highlighted by Moyers]. Quote, "The pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit. The chief desire of the American people," you write, "is that nothing should disrupt their access to these goods, that oil, and that credit. The chief aim of the U.S. government is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part of through the distribution of largesse here at home, and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad." In other words, you're saying that our foreign policy is the result of a dependence on consumer goods and credit.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Our foreign policy is not something simply concocted by people in Washington D.C. and imposed on us. Our foreign policy is something that is concocted in Washington D.C., but it reflects the perceptions of our political elite about what we want, we the people want. And what we want, by and large - I mean, one could point to many individual exceptions - but, what we want, by and large is, we want this continuing flow of very cheap consumer goods.

We want to be able to pump gas into our cars regardless of how big they may happen to be, in order to be able to drive wherever we want to be able to drive. And we want to be able to do these things without having to think about whether or not the book's balanced at the end of the month, or the end of the fiscal year. And therefore, we want this unending line of credit.

BILL MOYERS: You intrigued me when you wrote that "The fundamental problem facing the country will remain stubbornly in place no matter who is elected in November." What's the fundamental problem you say is not going away no matter whether it's McCain or Obama?

ANDREW BACEVICH: What neither of these candidates will be able to, I think, accomplish is to persuade us to look ourselves in the mirror, to see the direction in which we are headed. And from my point of view, it's a direction towards ever greater debt and dependency.

BILL MOYERS: And you write that "What will not go away, is a yawning disparity between what Americans expect, and what they're willing or able to pay." Explore that a little bit.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think one of the ways we avoid confronting our refusal to balance the books is to rely increasingly on the projection of American military power around the world to try to maintain this dysfunctional system, or set of arrangements that have evolved over the last 30 or 40 years.

But, it's not the American people who are deploying around the world. It is a very specific subset of our people, this professional army. We like to call it an all-volunteer force...


ANDREW BACEVICH: ...but the truth is, it's a professional army, and when we think about where we send that army, it's really an imperial army. I mean, if as Americans, we could simply step back a little bit, and contemplate the significance of the fact that Americans today are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ask ourselves, how did it come to be that organizing places like Iraq and Afghanistan should have come to seem to be critical to the well-being of the United States of America.

There was a time, seventy, eighty, a hundred years ago, that we Americans sat here in the western hemisphere, and puzzled over why British imperialists went to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. We viewed that sort of imperial adventurism with disdain. But, it's really become part of what we do. Unless a President could ask fundamental questions about our posture in the world, it becomes impossible then, for any American President to engage the American people in some sort of a conversation about how and whether or not to change the way we live.

In my opinion, Bacevich is right on the money. And I'd like to think that in his heart of hearts Obama at least half knows it.   Perhaps there is simply no avoiding the militaristic pandering we're seeing at this stage in the campaign.  But does it really have to continue being this bad-or even worse-in an Obama Administration?  I would like to think not.

I would like to think that a non-partisan (not bipartisan) commission of retired military, diplomats, historians and related experts could be convened-with Bacevich prominent among them-to map out a set of recommendations to fundamentally re-orient ourselves for the century ahead.

In all probability, such a set of recommendations would simply be ignored if it was any good, because what is required is simply too profound a change.  But what is required by Bacevich's logic is intimately related to what is required by the challenge of global warming, too, so we might want to think about this one long and hard.

Perhaps the best approach would be for such a commission to come up with a set of scenarios, each based on a different set of assumptions about what we are willing to commit to.  One scenario might simply be "more of the same than you ever dreamed of." (McCain.) One might be "more of the same, now with nuance added." (Obama, so far.)  One might be "replacing the 'War on Terror' with a criminal justice approach-but not changing anything else," and so on.  One would be the sort of wholesale reorientation that Bacevich argues for.

And then let us have a great national debate-not on tv with a few talking heads babbling on semi-coherently-but a real national debate in thousands of forums across the land, not just online, but in real life, in each other's physical presence, in flesh and blood, and let us really and truly pour our hearts out about what kind of future we want for our country, what kind of legacy we want to leave to future generations.

Let us have the courage to take back the responsibility for our destiny as a people.  Let us act like citizens of a democratic republic once again. Let us stop acting like the subjects of an empire.  Let us take back our country.

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Imperial Adventurism (0.00 / 0)
Well, Americans have fought terrorists in the past (who were called "pirates" then), and destroyed their safe havens. That's not necessarily a sign of imperial adventurism. So, while Iraq fits the description, Afghanistan is another case. Of course, it could be said that the real base of Al Quaeda is Pakistan, and rightly so. And I think the Afghanistan mission is bound for desaster if the forces don't start to reach across the border soon. The Bush administration has done nothing to lay the grounds for that, and this will be the real challenge for Obama. Retreating from Afghanistan without having uprooted Al Quaeda in northern Pakistan is not an option. Nobody wants the Taliban to have their own state again, providing a home base for the next 9/11 attack. It would be good if Obama would show more determination in going against the core of the terror. Retreating from Iraq is a good plan, but this won't bring the war on terror to an end.

The Taliban Are Not Nice (4.00 / 3)
But the Taliban did not attack us on 9/11.

See how we're losing focus here?

The Taliban were largely the creation of Pakistan's ISI.  And Pakistan's screwed up politics were largely the result of our Cold War calculations and manipulations that had no concern whatsoever for the well-being of the people of the Southasian subcontinent.

So if we really want to start helping to heal that part of the world, we have a whole lot of backstory to atone for before we can realistically move forward.  Otherwise, we'll be planting two seeds of future conflict--minimum--for every branch of current conflict we cut down.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
A History of Humiliation (4.00 / 6)
I think our short memory and lack of willingness to see the bigger picture makes it almost impossible for us as a nation to understand world politics.  It also makes us susceptible to manipulation.

Russia's invasion of Georgia seems to fit into this category.

We don't remember how badly we humiliated Russia in Afghanistan.  When I first read "Charley Wilson's War" several years ago, I thought the Russia would be waiting until just the right time to pay us back.  

And, damn, I think they've found it.

[ Parent ]
lol (4.00 / 1)
most americans don't even know that the united states army was fighting in russia after the russian revolution :)

[ Parent ]
It's not losing focus, it's that terrorism is a fuzzy object (0.00 / 0)
ISI supported the Taliban, right, and parts of it still do. However, saying the spooks created this fundamentalist group goes too fair, imho. And you're right in warning of creating new conflicts, but, still, allowing a group of diehard idelogical terrorism supporters and enablers, who are also a core recruitment base for Al Quaeda, to gain power again, comes with a much too high risk. I am deeply convinced that 9/11 wouldn't have been possible without Al Quaeda having a safe haven that gave them the means and the necessary privacy to conduct their evil plan. Your mileage may vary, of course.

[ Parent ]
I Didn't Say We Should Let The Taliban Regain Power (4.00 / 1)
But I did question the logic of how BushCo wants to stop them.

Furthermore, al Qaeda certainly benefited from having a securre base in Afghanistan, but it's not at all clear that this made much difference in the planning of 9/11, as it wasn't so much an al Qaeda initiative, so much as it was al Qaeda-sponsored.

All of which leads us back to al Qaeda, which is where our primary focus ought to be, rather than on the Taliban.  And focusing on al Qaeda means focusing on police work, rather than imperial military adventurism.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Police work... (4.00 / 1)
...sure, but we're not talking about some flat footed cops or beer bellied sleuths here, but heavily armed SWAT-like commandos. Military anti-terror units, I'd say. And that's what I meant with "reaching across the border". Would be good if the Pakistanis would be able and willing to do this by themselves, but, sry, I don't see this happen in a long time. It might even be better for the stability of the nation (and the security of the operations) if foreign forces do this dirty work.

[ Parent ]
We're Also Talking TARGETTED Intelligence (0.00 / 0)
Not setting up global dragnets to stop peace and human rights activists from flying on airplanes.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
This goes without saying (4.00 / 2)
Turning western democracies into police states is totally counter productive. The war against terror has to be won in the heart and minds, too. And people won't be motivated to support parodies of democracies that increasingly look like totalitarian dictatorships.  

[ Parent ]
ISI is a good example, btw (0.00 / 0)
Because, come on, anti terrorists action in the de facto indepencdent northern parts of Pakistan is extremely difficult and coming with the danger of destabilizing the nation. Sure. But one of the very first steps to restore law and order there has to be to mercilessly get rid of all fundamentalist ismaists inside ISI. As long as part of that powerful agency works for the enemy, nothing can be accomplished. But if occasional news reports are correct, many of the pakistani spooks still support the extremists. Another colossal failure of Bush, who wasted billions on Pakistan, and still didn't got Musharaf to clean up that pigsty. Let's hope Obama will strike a different tone with the Pakistani leadership.  

[ Parent ]
Well, At Least The Pakistanis Know How To Spell "Impeachment" (4.00 / 2)
Maybe they can help us clean up our mess.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Touched a Chord (4.00 / 3)
I saw that show last night and was knocked out by how much Bacevich defined and names what I had been seeing.  His concise thinking, under Moyers' thoughtful questioning, crystalized the issues.  

I've had three emails about his show already this morning, not usual even with the excellent programs that Bill Moyers gives us.

This is important thinking and well worth us working with.  

I also agree with Paul that Obama is providing some space to go in this direction.  He keeps telling us that this is about us.  With luck, he won't stop that once he wins.  He'll still remind us, that rebuilding our democracy is our job.  With him as President, we have assistance rather than resistance but it is still ours to do.

Let's look at the underlying problem (4.00 / 3)
The underlying problem is the consumer state.  It is interesting that this week James Galbraith, the son of the incomparable John Kenneth Galbraith, was on TPM Cafe discussing his new book The Predator State, and he discussed his father's book The Affluent Society, which warned in the 1950's of the consequences of having a society devoted to consumerism. The whole discussion is very timely.

And of course we don't just have consumerism, as Bacevich noted we have a devotion to cheap (that is, ultimately unsatisfying) consumer goods, and because of the stagnation of the incomes of most of the workforce, we also have a devotion to credit that ends up trapping millions of people.  

The solution to me is to do what Obama sometimes talks about, which is to simultaneously get people to stop revering stuff and instead come together to work for a common purpose, namely combatting global warming and revitalizing our communities.  Have real community again that is based on real fellowship (being/working together, not specifically the religious kind), where people spend time with friends and family, not sitting in front of the TV or computer essentially alone.  If we had more of a sense of community and understood that the best things in life aren't things, AND if we had a basic level of health care, education and opportunity for everyone, with the top 1% relinquishing much of their gains of the past 10 years, we could pull this off.

It is very, very difficult because all of this is intertwined.  But providing people with a floor, weaning ourselves from stuff, and rediscovering community are the keys to changing our use of energy, so it is really substituting a virtuous circle for a vicious one.  At least Obama has a sense of where we ought to go, though at present his campaign seems not to be seizing the bold initiatives.  This hopefully will change with his convention speech.  If not, it will be much harder to get from here to there.

And of course the predators are very, very good at taking what they want, and ruling classes rarely voluntarily step aside and share.  Things may have to get to the point of people with pitchforks at their gated communities for that to happen. Hopefully not.

John McCain--He's not who you think he is.

Yes, The Predator State Discussion Was Very, Very Good (4.00 / 3)
I thought about blogging it, but time, time, time, what's become of me?

He was also on a couple of local Pacifica programs this week.

What Bacevich was getting at--and Galbraiith a little less bluntly--is that there are reallty a whole complex of values that come with being a republic vs. an empire, and that we need to change the whole lot of them.

These values are totally obscured by all obscene blather about rightwing moral values, but they are the ones on which our future as a democratic republic depends.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Yes, and they are intertwined (4.00 / 4)
They are paths that diverge at a very basic level, with immense consequences.  I've always marvelled at the ease with which many right-wing folks reject godless communism and evolution but so readily accept consumerism and social darwinism.  Or have been persuaded to do so.

But this also means small changes can have a big payoff.  

John McCain--He's not who you think he is.

[ Parent ]
working class rightwing folks (4.00 / 1)
a lot of answers are advanced for why working class people might support christian fundamentalism, consumerism, etc.  I think the basic problem is the lack of real ideological diversity in the u.s. and the systematic suppression of alternative views through things like investigations, jailings, mass deportations.  many many necessary conversations simply don't happen in the u.s. because the resulting ideological center is so far to the right compared with other wealthy countries, though i'd grant that there might be structural causes to this too (like militarization, the difficulty of amending the constitutions and most notably that the u.s. has been the richest country int he world for about 90 years now and the wealthier classes could buy off the working and middle classes for a very long time while feeding them bullshit ideology).

makes me mad :(

[ Parent ]
The Buck Never Stops Here (4.00 / 1)
We are a culture skilled at avoiding responsibility.  Airplanes flown by mad men is all that it took to assuage our responsibility for creating madness in the world with a century of abysmal and cruel foreign policy. And Democrats speak of nonpartisan politics and hope in their heart of hearts for a system known to create an escalation of self-serving materialism and a diminution of democracy.  While it is true that we must work within the Democratic Party to create change, we must also recognize the Democratic Party as the beast whose belly we reside in.  Whatever purity Obama may have once represented, it has long since been digested in this very belly.  We will not find political health without political diversity.  The Democratic Party is a part of the American oligarchy restricting any sense of diversity.  As Democrats we must insist on a party platform that calls for expanding latitude of political expression through, among other things, an expansion of access to more political parties, left and right.  Despite the origins of Obama's past idealism, the one hope that he offers now is to reinvigorate minorities who have been continually disenfranchised by the unfulfilled promises of our party.  If progressives in the party do not speak loudly and boldly about substantive changes we will have, once again, repeated this cycle of cynicism.  

I really think things could have been different (4.00 / 3)
The American people aren't so bad, they are just too easily led astray.  So many people had really good, even heroic impulses right after 9/11 that it could have been a really transformative moment.  But the Dems fell back on the traditional rally-'round-the-flag response and Cheney seized the moment to enact his plan for reviving American Imperialism.  He and Rumsfeld & Co moved with astonishing speed, and the Dems were like deer in the headlights--no real conviction, no ability to fight back and stand up for the Constitution until they were in so deep it seemed impossible.  Bush/Cheney/Rove understood just what buttons to push, like Nixon with LBJ.  I don't think it is hopeless, just a question of much better leadership and more active citizens. And more leaders who aren't tainted by the period 2001-2004.  Unfortunatley we probably get one as VP, but I still have soem hope for Obama.  

John McCain--He's not who you think he is.

[ Parent ]
reviving? (4.00 / 1)
the u.s. government has had military operations in iraq since 1991 (or is it 90?).  it, through the imf and its own programmes, has imposed ideologically driven economic policies on countless countries in the global south for 2 decades now.  it has bases all over the world, even in the face of large popular protests, won't submit to international norms on a variety of issues or even the idea that international norms should exist.  it maintains the rights to a huge nuclear arsenal, massive weapons development, and to destroy other countries' ability to do the same, among other things.  most tellingly, it asserts its right to do whatever it wants, wherever it wants, whenever it wants, within its capacity.

call it a reversion to naked (or "stupid") imperialism, not "revived" imperialism.

[ Parent ]
One thing we can try to do (4.00 / 2)
is get Bacevich's latest book on the best sellers lists -- or at least the online variety. I've already put my order in at Amazon. It would be nice if everybody here could do likewise.

Bacevich for VP! (4.00 / 3)
It was only a matter of time.  I might as well be first.

conservative (4.00 / 1)
Bacevich is a "conservative", a point that he sort of glossed over. He belongs to the camp which thinks that the goals are still correct, but the recent implementation has been wrong. This view is still filled with the same fallacies: that smaller government, a balanced budget and the return to "traditional values" are meaningful. Smaller than what? Balanced budgets are a pointless nostrum and show a lack of economic understanding, borrowing (reasonable amounts) to finance investment in the future is a sensible policy and is standard for all growing economies. And what "values" do conservatives support that are different than those of others? Is any one in favor of more misery or less education or poorer health.

"Traditional values" is code for authoritarianism, usually by WASP men.

He also supports the fallacy that international policing can stamp out "terrorism". This shows an unwillingness to explore what these people's aims are. The rightist belief that Islamofascists want to take over the world is just paranoia, and if it were true than no amount of policing will stamp it out. The British learned with the IRA that policing can't stamp out insurgent groups and can't prevent all attacks, preaching otherwise is giving false hope to people and this will lead to calls for more limits on civil liberties when the next attack happens.

He also implied a belief that we could still carry out some sort of "concert of democracies", just not using military adventurism. One cannot force western society on other states whether at the barrel of a gun or via soft power, but people keep hoping.

His key point can be summed up in the old Pogo quote: "We have met the enemy and he is us". The US population is not being asked to sacrifice to ensure for a better future. This is a failure of leadership. He did not offer any remedy to this, but he is right, both parties are pandering to voters in this respect.

Policies not Politics

Well, I Don't Know (4.00 / 1)
He didn't really discuss any of the subjects you bring up and I wasn't previously familiar with him or his work.  But a couple of points:

(1) Liberals in the Keynsian tradition have never been opposed to balanced budgets over the life of the economic cycle.  This is the trick, you see: deficit spending when the cycle is down, to prime the pump and bring things back up, then running budget surpluses once the economy is booming again, to pay down debt and build up surpluses for the future.  We've never been able to do that, because of conservative meddling, pork-barrel spending and the military-industrial complex.  But that's the theory, and it's actually just a scientifically much sounder version of what the conservatives say they want, before they go off their meds.

(2) Conservatives generally confuse "small government" and "limited government" and don't know what the latter even means.  This could easily be a whole diary in itself.  But some small fraction of conservatives actually do understand the whole ball of wax.  None of that matters much, however, since the rank-and-file conservatives support increased or stable social spending at very high levels, regardless of what their "political leadership" says.

(3)  (a) In the end, "traditional values" boils down to "don't get caught."

(b) Again, what most rank-and-file conservatives really want is social stability and continuity.  If their lives are out of control, they'll go looking for someone to blame for it, but if their lives are manageable, they'll vote for FDR or LBJ or whoever.   And the bottom line is that over the past 3-500 years, it's the liberals who've come up with ways to ensure social stability and continuity much more effectively and reliably than anything the conservatives have come up with.

(4) A non-military concert of democracies doesn't sound so bad to me.  Especially if they play some Charles Ives.

In light of all the above, I like our chances if we join forces with the likes of Bacevich.  The fact that he was willing to vote for any Democrat he could find in 2006 in hopes of ending the Iraq War speaks of a basic pragmatism that I can work with and respect.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Galbraith (0.00 / 0)
You might like the book discussion just ended on TPMcafe over Galbraith's latest book "The Predator State". He claims that "conservatives" are all Keynesians now. Look at the rebate and the pointless military spending meant to kept the country moving.

Politicians aren't interested in "cycles", they need to get re-elected now. Telling voters that things will turn out in the future is a non-starter. So pandering never goes out of style.

It gets back to what I keep saying, no pol is willing to suggest sacrifice for the greater good. They learned their lesson from Carter's experience. Apparently putting on a sweater was too much to ask.

As for the "concert of democracies" look at the work of John Ikenberry and Ann-Marie Slaughter. I see it as a new version of "the white man's burden". Who are we to tell people how to run their societies? Do we have such a good record.

Policies not Politics

[ Parent ]
Yes, I Saw the TPM Discussion (0.00 / 0)
I would have blogged about it if I had more time. He was on a couple of local Pacifica shows this week, too.

I'm well aware of the political problems.  That's a long discussion for another place and time.

As for the concert of democracies, I was trying to make a funny with the Ives reference, as he was perhaps the earliest American composer to introduce great dissonance into his works, and yet did it using very conventional melodies.

To tell it straigh: The UN has its problems, but it's the right place to go for solving them as well, IMHO.  Rump white mens clubs, not so much.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Amen to that! (0.00 / 0)
No time today for much of a comment, except to wholeheartedly endorse your call to citizenship:

And then let us have a great national debate-not on tv with a few talking heads babbling on semi-coherently-but a real national debate in thousands of forums across the land, not just online, but in real life, in each other's physical presence, in flesh and blood, and let us really and truly pour our hearts out about what kind of future we want for our country, what kind of legacy we want to leave to future generations.

Let us have the courage to take back the responsibility for our destiny as a people.  Let us act like citizens of a democratic republic once again. Let us stop acting like the subjects of an empire.  Let us take back our country.


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