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 Evolution of Mideast Policy

Another trajectory that's very important is that we have, beginning with President Carter, the evolution of a policy toward the Middle East that, step by step, beginning with the Carter Doctrine and then followed up by all the presidents through Bush 43, commits us to the primacy of the region, involves committing forces and then finally ends up where we are now.

Yes, I have one chapter that talks about the evolution of our military activities and presence in the Persian Gulf or the Islamic world. Maybe in my next book I'll try to expand on that to much greater detail. But in a nutshell, here's the story the way I tell it: We Americans basically think of the Cold War as the dominant and, in a sense, controlling event from the late 1940s all the way up until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. And we are deceived when we think that. It's not that the Cold War is not happening and is important. It is, but there's something else that's going on that's being obscured by all the attention given to the Cold War, and the something else that's going on is the beginning of the struggle to control the Persian Gulf.

It's President Carter, who is widely and I think terribly unfairly derided as being somehow a weak president, who in many respects begins that project. He begins that project in his State of the Union address of January 1980 when he articulates what ends up being called the Carter Doctrine. The Carter Doctrine simply says the Persian Gulf is of vital interest to the United States and we'll fight to prevent a hostile power from controlling it. Now when he says that, the principle hostile power he's worried about is the Soviet Union, but by saying that, he begins the process of militarizing U.S. policy in the region. Prior to Carter, our military profile in the region is very low and we rely on proxies, we rely on the CIA, we rely on diplomacy to try to maintain stability in the region and access to oil. Beginning with Carter, we start to march down a path in which we rely on military power.

He starts it with his intervention to try to rescue the hostages. Reagan continues it [with the] bombing of Libya, the Beirut peacekeeping mission that ends in disaster, [and] the tanker war in which we re-flag Kuwaiti tankers. Of course, the elder Bush reinforces it even more with Operation Desert Storm, which doesn't end when Kuwait is liberated but rather gives rise to this large U.S. military presence that continues to conduct active operations against Iraq throughout the 1990s, meaning during the Clinton era. And then, of course, the present President Bush ratchets it up a further notch with the invasion of Iraq.

I'm not arguing that this succession of presidents had a clear vision of how the use of military power was going to lead to a common end. I'm actually arguing that recklessly, without thinking the matter through, they tripped down this path which led to the ever-greater militarization of our policy. Again, it's not just the current guy who did that. He was, in many respects, building on a legacy that he had been handed by several predecessors, Democrats and Republicans alike.

You're suggesting that over the time then that all of this was happening, what you get is a foreign policy consensus about our need to master that region. You're also suggesting that our definition of our own freedom depends on mastery of that region and access to the oil.

Right. Part of the reason that I try to argue against the notion of identifying a scapegoat like President Bush, or even the neo-conservatives, is because I do believe that we're all kind of complicit here. I have no doubt that we as a people are devoted to freedom, but it's chiefly our own freedom and it's a freedom as we design it for ourselves. You have your notion of freedom and I have my notion of freedom, but in many respects, what pays for this freedom is the material abundance of the United States. It's the political economy as it plays itself out, which allows us to, as individuals, pursue our own definitions of freedom.

There are a lot of explanations for where that affluence comes from, but one very important one in the post-war era is the availability of cheap energy. So, when these pesidents are tripping down this path of militarizing U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf, they are in a sense doing what we want them to do, because we want cheap gas. We've not really been willing to face up to what the total cost might end up being. We just want cheap gas.

Next page: Conclusion

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