Andrew J. Bacevich Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Military and U.S. Foreign Policy: Conversation with Andrew J. Bacevich, Professor and Director, Center for International Relations Boston University; May 9, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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The War Club

We don't have enough time to cover all the ways these various forces and factors came together, but in your book you have a chapter on the neo-conservatives and the evolution of their ideas, you have a chapter on the Christian evangelicals and the evolution of their ideas, the point being that all of these trajectories came together to empower the president who was "in place," we could say, when 9/11 happened.

There is one other group I want to focus on. You have a chapter called "The War Club," where you talk about the strategists, especially Albert Wohlstetter. The development of [their] thinking put the military together with the technological revolution, and [included the idea that] technology is very important as we go out to try to shape the world, because [success rests on] a combination of our ideas about democracy and the capability of the technologies that we're developing.

One of the most radical aspects of President Bush's national security strategy is the so-called "Bush doctrine" of preventive war. The president argues that we no longer can wait for threats to develop, we have to destroy them before they are even threats. And it's not just talk, because we implemented that doctrine in our invasion of Iraq. The book argues that in many respects, the group that is most responsible for making that notion persuasive, the notion that force is now so certain that we can use it in this preventive way -- the group that's most responsible for doing that is the priesthood of defense intellectuals.

The story I try to tell, to oversimplify, would be that this priesthood began in the immediate aftermath of Hiroshima, with the formation of [think-tanks] like RAND in Santa Monica, with the idea that nuclear weapons had made war obsolete, that just about the only purpose of military forces henceforth was going to be to prevent wars from happening, because if war happened, nuclear weapons would be used and there could be no political rationale that would justify that. That's where the priesthood began its study.

But by the time the priesthood began to think its way through nuclear strategy in the 1950s, members of this group had come to decide that deterrence, making sure the other guy didn't act, was actually an enormously complicated business. President Eisenhower's massive retaliation strategy assumed that a declarative posture on the part of the president, backed up by the bomber forces of strategic air command, would suffice to prevent the Soviets from doing anything rash. The intellectuals said that Eisenhower was naïve, that what Albert Wohlstetter called the "balance of terror" was very delicate and required constant attention.

Indeed, by the time we got to the 1960s, these defense intellectuals were arguing that in order to maintain nuclear deterrence we had to have the capability to actually go fight small wars, brushfire wars, wars of national liberation. That is to say, the defense intellectuals helped to create the climate in which American decision makers like Kennedy and Johnson persuaded themselves that we needed to intervene in Vietnam.

Well, Vietnam turned out to be a disaster, and in many respects Vietnam gave the lie to the project of the defense intellectuals who had argued that we needed to have this flexible response and counterinsurgency capabilities. It gave the lie to them, but they didn't give up. They came out of Vietnam with their own set of lessons, and the most important thing they took from Vietnam was to conclude that the very first glimmerings of precision weapons which were employed in Vietnam actually had the potential to transform the very nature of warfare. At the end of the Vietnam War, the air force was using TV-guided bombs against North Vietnamese bridges, just to take out a bridge. But the defense intellectuals said, "Hey, wait a second. This indicates something enormously significant, and if properly exploited, information technology, precision, improved targeting, then it's possible to create a whole new category of capability that will actually transcend weapons of mass destruction."

And create the ability to have discriminating offense, with little or no "collateral damage" so that the fog of war would be gone.

Precisely. It's that vision, also glimpsed in primitive form in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, seen in somewhat more mature form in 1999 with the Kosovo campaign (remember, Kosovo is broadcast as the first war that we'd won without any Americans being killed), and then also advertised in the run-up to the Iraq invasion where it was said that a demonstration of "shock and awe" would be sufficient to topple the regime and to quickly transition to a political order that would enable the Bush administration to achieve all of its objectives.

Again, it's not that all of those notions come from the defense intellectuals, but I do think that they played a decisive role in creating the rationale that ended up persuading people that "shock and awe" was going to quickly dispose of our Iraq problem.

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