Friday, August 15, 2008

Andrew Bacevich on the lessons of the Cheney-Bush travesty of an administration

Historian Andrew Bacevich is scheduled to appear on Bill Moyers' Journal tonight. This one is very likely to be worth watching, either on TV or the Webcast.

Bacevich has adapted a portion of his latest book, The Limits of Power, into an essay (part 2 of 2) at TomDispatch: Is Perpetual War Our Future? Learning the Wrong Lessons from the Bush Era 08/14/08

As Bacevich describes it, the officer corps is tending to draw three lessons from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. One is, the future will contain more "Iraqs" and "Afghanistans". Counterinsurgency warfare (aka, low-intensity warfare in military-speak) will become "frequent, protracted, perhaps perpetual".

Another is the stab-in-the-back. Or, as Bacevich describes it:

According to this alternative view, echoing a similar complaint during the Vietnam era, the shortcomings of U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan have little to do with the actual performance of American forces in the field and everything to do with the meddling of bumbling civilians back in Washington. In its simplest form, fault lies not with the troops themselves, nor with their commanders, but with the likes of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, who prevented the troops from doing their jobs. (my emphasis)
And a third "lesson" is that there are inherent problems with the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) concept because it implies, in the words of Adrian Lewis which Bacevich quotes, "the removal of the American people from the conduct of war."

The first and third "lessons" are closely related. And neither of them can be adequately considered separately in isolation from the larger foreign policy which they serve. On the one hand, it seems to make little practical sense to do again what the Pentagon did after the Vietnam War: shut down its counterinsurgency capabilities and concentrate on preparing to fight the Soviet Red Army pouring through the Fulda Gap into western Europe - even after the Soviet Union collapsed!

On the other, both the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War are dramatic illustrations of the limits of American power. They don't suggest to me that it's a good idea to construct a "full-spectrum" counterinsurgency mission in which the armed forces would be preparing to fight counterinsurgency wars and conduct a full range of nation-building activities all over the world.

And there is also a supply-side effect. It's sometimes said in criticism of the Cheney-Bush administration's militarized foreign policy that if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. It's really the case that if we add a crowbar of counterinsurgency to the military's hammer of conventional war, some people will start seeing more and more problems to which US counterinsurgency is the answer.

But if we are going to be staying in Iraq for 100 years and undertaking such missions as defending the right of Georgia to claim Abkhasia and South Ossetia, we need a draft to staff the thing. If we're serious about making our national rallying cry, "Remember South Ossetia!", then we need a draft to be able to have any chance of actually backing up such commitment.

And once you formulate a stab-in-the-back theory, it's pretty much inevitable that the lesson you will draw from it is that described by Bacevich as "empowering the generals", using this example:

The Petraeus moment of 2007, when all of official Washington from President Bush to the lowest-ranking congressional staffer waited with bated breath for General David Petraeus to formulate basic policy for Iraq, offers a preview of how this lesson might play itself out.
Bacevich clearly comes down on the side of a more realistic and restrictive set of assumptions about what the US can and should do militarily in the world:

America doesn't need a bigger army. It needs a smaller - that is, more modest - foreign policy, one that assigns soldiers missions that are consistent with their capabilities. Modesty implies giving up on the illusions of grandeur to which the end of the Cold War and then 9/11 gave rise. It also means reining in the imperial presidents who expect the army to make good on those illusions. When it comes to supporting the troops, here lies the essence of a citizen's obligation. (my emphasis)
He has several other observations of his own about the lessons that should be drawn from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. This one is critical:

History has repeatedly demonstrated the irrationality of preventive war. If the world needed a further demonstration, President Bush provided it. Iraq shows us why the Bush Doctrine was a bad idea in the first place and why its abrogation has become essential. For principled guidance in determining when the use of force is appropriate, the country should conform to the Just War tradition - not only because that tradition is consistent with our professed moral values, but also because its provisions provide an eminently useful guide for sound statecraft.
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