Andrew J. Bacevich knows a thing or two about war. A graduate of the U. S. Military Academy, he spent twenty-three years in the Army, serving in Vietnam, and retired with the rank of colonel. In 2007, his only son -- First Lt. Andrew Bacevich Jr. -- was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) while serving in Iraq.
A critic of the U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, Bacevich has spoken out against continued military action in favor of a policy of containment. In his latest book, “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism” (Metropolitan Books, 2008), Bacevich asserts that America’s militaristic and expansionist approach to foreign policy has left the country in disarray. He is currently a professor of International Relations and History at Boston University.
In an interview conducted on March 4, days before the sixth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Bacevich reflects on the mishandling of Iraq, the War on Terror, and the failure of American foreign policy in the Middle East.
Christopher Moraff: In your book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism you conclude that the decision to invade Iraq was based on some fundamental illusions –none of which came to pass. Based on this is it fair to say this endeavor was doomed before it began.
Andrew Bacevich: The plan was riddled with false assumptions – one is that the speed, ferocity and the precision of the attack would in essence render the Iraqi military defenseless and that that in an of itself would produce decision – this false assumption was captured in the slogan that General [Tommy] Franks – the CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] commander at the time -- would recite, namely “speed kills.”
The second false assumption was that once we got to Baghdad and either dispersed or destroyed the Iraqi Army that in essence the task would be all but complete and that everything else would kind of take care of itself. There was no appreciation of how toppling the regime would set in motion a whole variety of other actions that would make for a very complicated and problematic occupation.
A third false assumption was that the Iraqi exiles would be credible and competent and would be able to sort of quickly have authority handed over to them and that they would then install some new pro-American stable order. That certainly was an expectation that was not met by events.
But I think my assessment of the Bush Administration, and there’s a certain amount of evidence to support this, is that they anticipated that Iraq was going to produce a quick and decisive victory and in a sense they were eager then to move beyond Iraq, to pursue the larger purposes of the war.
Operationally, I subscribe to what is the basic critique [of the war] and that is that there was no phase-four plan. They had a plan for getting ready to invade, they had a plan to invade, they had plan to topple Saddam Hussein, but they didn’t have a plan for what was going to happen next. And the absence of a plan I think contributed to the fact that there was a vacuum, which ended up being filled by this insurgency.
So that’s not to say it was doomed from the outset. Better planning could have alleviated, at least to some degree, the problems that they ran into. I’m not saying better planning would have made the problems go away but would have perhaps made things less difficult.
CM: In your opinion, what did “mission success” in Iraq look like to the Bush Administration?
AB: The larger purpose of the war, the strategic purpose of the war, was to serve as a catalyst for widespread change that would transform the greater Middle East. It seems preposterous but they genuinely expected, I think, that a demonstration of American will and American power would put the United States in a position where others in the region would thereafter defer to our requirements. It’s not that we were going to then go invade Syria or we were going to invade Iran or Egypt or whatever, but that the United States would be in a position to say to the leaders of these countries, “You need to change your ways. You need to begin to conform to a set of norms that we think are correct and that serve our interest.” So they expected to be in a position to exert leverage that would bring about the great political and even cultural change that was the ultimate goal, I think, of the global War on Terror as they conceived it.
CM: And what would that have gained?
AB: They were going to pacify the region; once the region was pacified then it would no longer serve as a source of violent Islamic radicals who were intent on killing us. This probably didn’t deserve the name strategy; rather it was kind of a “dreamy hope” that somehow this would be the result of great success in Iraq. Of course we didn’t achieve that success in Iraq and we never acquired this leverage that would somehow be used to influence the way Syria and Iran and so on manage their affairs but the big game was to change the Middle East. I’m convinced of that.
CM: How did this “dreamy hope” change as the war progressed?
AB: If the expectations of Bush’s first term were informed by this hope that we would be able to transform the Middle East, by the time we get into Bush’s second term it’s pretty obvious that’s not going to happen; at least it’s not going to happen very quickly and not without great cost. So what happens in Bush’s second term is that Bush himself begins to ratchet down the expectations of what the global War on Terror is going to achieve and we get the “spread democracy” language that was so evident in the national security language of 2002, well the spread democracy language begins to disappear, and pressure being put on Egypt and Saudi Arabia to liberalize eases.
I think by the time we get to the end of Bush’s [second] term all he’s trying to do in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan is to achieve some semblance of stability. And indeed if you are an advocate of the Bush Administration you believe that they actually achieved that in Iraq; that as a result of the surge Iraq was pulled back from the brink of complete disintegration and at the time of the handover to Obama, relative stability had been established; not democracy, certainly not a success that anybody thought was going to translate into further success in Iran or Syria or anywhere else. But at least the place seemed to be stabilized.
CM: On March 1 in The Washington Post, you equated President Obama’s withdrawal plan with a realignment of “an open-ended military endeavor that nonetheless still lacks a strategic rationale.” Would you expand on that?
AB: My sense of what Obama has done is that he is reacting to the evidence of instability in Afghanistan - and there is great instability in Afghanistan – and he is reordering our operation priorities. Whereas Iraq used to be the most important theater in the War on Terror, Obama is making Afghanistan the most important theater. His purpose, the best I can tell at this point, is to stabilize Afghanistan, to pull it back from the point of disintegration. But that begs the question, what is the larger purpose of the global War on Terror? Are we just going to go around finding countries that are on the brink of disintegration and pull them back from the abyss, and if so, how does that somehow connect to the larger goal of preventing another 9/11?
So I think that the disappointed hope in Iraq, the Bush Administration’s response to those disappointed hopes – namely the surge – the old strategic purpose of transformation, which was wildly unrealistic, has basically been swept aside, and nothing has replaced it. There is no overarching strategic purpose for the enterprise that began in the wake of 9/11 in my judgment, [there’s] no idea that ties the whole thing together.
What is the larger purpose that is being served? Is there any other purpose that is being served other than preventing Afghanistan from descending into chaos? I don’t want Afghanistan to descend into chaos but I have to ask how much money should we be willing to spend, how many lives should we be willing to invest in order to prevent Afghanistan from descending into chaos. It’s not as if we’ve got lots of soldiers and lots of money sitting around that we’re trying to find something to do with – We’re in the midst of a severe economic crisis and unless there is a strong argument for expending American power at this stage of the game we should be husbanding it not expending it.
CM: How do you think the Iraq War will be seen in decades to come? Do you think a stable democratic Iraq, say five years from now, would somehow vindicate the mistakes of the war in the eyes of history?
AB: I think with regard to Iraq, that we’re going to have a great big and lively and I think important historical debate over whether this war was necessary, whether it was justified, and whether the gains that were achieved were worth the costs that we paid. It’s certainly true that we’re not at end game in Iraq, and all kinds of things are going to happen there most of which are beyond our control, and the course of events in Iraq from now going forward will have a great influence on that debate.
If ten years from now [Iraq is] a brand spanking shiny democracy in which we have a stable legitimate government and the rule of law prevails and the rights of women are respected and they’ve made peace with Israel and so on and so forth, there will be those who argue the war was justified. But if conditions are different then I think that’s going to reinforce what is currently the prevailing impression and that is it was a horrendous mistake deeply to be regretted.