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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Conclusion

I have a question for you which hearkens back to the earlier part of the interview in which you were describing yourself. You were saying that on values issues you were, and may still remain, a conservative, but not on the foreign policy issues, and then you explicated how your change in thinking came on the latter.

If one were to reverse the course of what you're describing, you have to create a new political coalition, because what's very clear that emerges from your book [is that] there's a lot of consensus, or at least all these trajectories are going forward. So, the question is, can you envision a values-based conservative domestic agenda that combines with a re-appraisal of U.S. foreign policy along the directions you're suggesting to build some sort of a new coalition? Otherwise it strikes me as fairly hopeless.

I wouldn't say that it's hopeless, but it's quixotic anyway. I'm sorry to say that the only way I can envision a meaningful political change along the lines that I would like to see would be in reaction to an awful disaster.

Economic or military or ... ?

Well, probably both. Something that would affect our well-being in a material sense but also our sense of security, because it would have to be that kind of a jolt to get us to be willing to undertake the examination of our domestic arrangements that leads to the policies we pursue. Believe me, I don't hope for that, because it would be awful.

I think the best we can do, the best someone like myself can do, is to poke people and challenge them to examine the country and its international posture, but also its domestic arrangements, with a critical eye. That's what the book tries to do. It tries to poke people to get them to think critically.

Looking toward the future, how would you advise students to prepare for the future? You're clearly somebody who comes from a military career who began thinking in a broader context through historical studies, but is still very much concerned about national security. What is the complex mix of education or job training that would prepare students for this kind of future?

I don't know. The one thing -- and I actually do try to nudge my own students at Boston University to do this -- I think we need to re-examine some of the basic premises of our military policies that we've become comfortable with.

The creation of the all-volunteer force after Vietnam or at the end of Vietnam was embraced widely across American society because this seemed to be one of the ways to draw a line under the decade of the sixties and say, okay, we're moving beyond that now, we're going on. I would certainly argue that in the eighties and the nineties that arrangement seemed pretty good, worked well, was satisfactory. Now I think we need to re-examine that, because what we did when we ended the draft was not simply end the draft, what we really did was to render obsolete an old principle that could be traced to the earliest days of even the American colonial period, and that was the notion that exercising the privileges of citizenship was bound up, was tied to, a set of obligations, and the obligations included defending your community.

That all went away, and what we did after Vietnam was to contract out national defense to a professional elite, to what the founders would have called a standing army. Maybe that made sense back in the early 1970s, but I don't think it makes sense anymore today. Among other things, it's probably not sustainable today because the global war on terror to which the president has committed us is rapidly grinding away at that all volunteer force, and as we sit here the army and the marine corps both missed their recruiting goals for the last three months. If they can't turn that around, then there's a serious crisis on the horizon.

I'm not trying to imply that the answer is the draft. I think for all kinds of reasons the answer is not the draft, but I think we need, as a society, to find a way to share the responsibility for national defense more equitably, so it's not just people of color and working class people that go off and do our dirty work, but it is people drawn from all sectors of American society. How to make that happen is a complex and difficult question, but to avert our eyes from that and simply assume that this dependence on the elite arrangement is sustainable, I think, is foolhardy.

What about this fusion of military capability with American idealism? That seems to become problematic in a world in which we think that means that we should go out and use force to change societies that have very different histories and very different cultures.

Right. This is where 9/11 really does enter the picture. If you go back and look at the rhetoric of the Clinton administration in the nineties, almost all the rhetoric was there of the "indispensable nation" that was on the right side of history. These are phrases that Clinton and Albright used. There was also, as I mentioned earlier, this increased propensity to use force. But there still was a certain amount of restraint as well. It's after 9/11 that President Bush becomes a born-again Wilsonian, Wilson on steroids almost, and now Wilson on steroids married to this great confidence that we have mastered the art of warfare and that our high-tech professional forces are invincible. That's what comes out of 9/11 and, of course, that's what leads us down the path to Baghdad and to our current predicament.

I'm not in favor of disarmament, I'm not in favor of pacifism. We need military strength, given the way the world is. I'm in favor of thinking about military power in ways that would reflect a bit more realism and balance, and would keep faith with what the founders thought, which was to be very wary of excessive military power.

I'm also in favor of a more realistic way of looking at the world. We need to back away from the Wilsonian vision as propounded in the Bush national security strategy of 2002, where we declare categorically that there's only one sustainable system for prosperity that every nation has to adhere to, and it's ours. Yes, we need to support democracy, but the place to begin doing that is by trying to address some of the flaws in our own country and to exercise more restraint in the way we try to impose ourselves on others.

Andrew, on that note and hope for the future, I want to thank you very much for writing your book, The New American Militarism. Thank you for coming to Berkeley and being on our program.

I thank you very much.

Thank you, and thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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