Photo of Bill Moyers Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Watch & Listen The Blog Archive Transcripts Buy DVDs
Andrew Bacevich Extended Interview
April 9, 2010

Update Required

Sorry in order to watch this video clip you need the latest version of the free flash plug in. CLICK HERE to download it and then refresh this page.


ANNOUNCER: The conversation with Andrew Bacevich continues online.

BILL MOYERS: And what do we do? President Obama himself has said that our strategy there is not ultimately a military victory per se, but to win the hearts and minds of the Afghani people.

ANDREW BACEVICH: War termination for us has come to be very difficult, because of our inability to understand the war that we undertake. And I think that both Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate the point- Iraq probably better. I mean, the Bush administration expected that a conventional invasion and occupation of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein, that that act would end the war and would produce a host of positive effects. When instead all we did was to expand the war, extend the war, with virtually no political benefits to the United States. Why did that happen? Well, a lot of reasons. But not least among them was that the Bush administration fundamentally misunderstand what its own global war on terror was all about.

BILL MOYERS: So President Obama comes along and says, "Let's get that damn thing behind us. You know, let's just get out of there."


BILL MOYERS: "Get out of Iraq."

ANDREW BACEVICH: We were all saying at that point, "Let's forget Iraq." And he endorsed that notion. I mean, I voted for President Obama. And I think President Obama is probably the smartest guy to come down the pike, in terms of our politics in a long time. But I believe that his decision in December to escalate the war in Afghanistan was a tragic mistake, a squandered opportunity. That was his oppor- that was his chance. The Afghanistan decision was his chance to change course, when it comes to the fundamentals of US national security policy. And instead, he made in December, made the same decision with regard to Afghanistan as John McCain would have made, had we elected John McCain president.

ANDREW BACEVICH: And so, how could this incredibly smart guy have made that incredibly, in my view, stupid decision? I think that one of the explanations, I think, is that even though the president has styled himself as the man who's going to bring change and is going to change the way Washington works, the president surrounded himself with a national security team of very conventional and orthodox thinkers. I mean, we have a retired Marine four-star general as a National Security Advisor. We've got retired four-star as Director of National Intelligence.

We carried over Mr. Gates, the Republican security of defense as the new Secretary Of Defense. Even Secretary Clinton the Secretary of State is frankly a rather hawkish Democrat. So my sense is that as the president engaged with the Afghanistan question, in the inner circle of advisors, there may not have been any influential voices proposing a genuinely radical course change.

BILL MOYERS: But how do you explain that a country is so passive about a war that to so many people who, like you, seems to be at cross-purposes. Why are we so passive about it?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, this is the unintended and, I think, unanticipated consequences of moving to an all-volunteer force, and in essence, driving a stake through the tradition of the citizen-soldier. That we do have a circumstance today in which there is a significant gap, I think, between those who serve in uniform and the rest of us.

You know, life is tough. Unemployment is close to 10 percent. You know, raising kids, putting food on the table, that's a full-time job for most Americans. And since the 1970s, when this implicit contract was negotiated between the American people and the American government that removed from the people any obligation to serve, we've gotten very accustomed to the notion that whatever is going on in Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever else is, in a sense, not our affair. I mean others have made the point. I've made the point.

I think that that condition directly stems from the decision made back in the Nixon era to kill the draft and to opt for a professional military. Not that people in those days anticipated the long-term consequences, but we today deal with those consequences.

BILL MOYERS: Let's come back to the reality on the ground right now. What could be Karzai's motive for pushing back against the west, against the NATO powers, against the United States, against President Obama, as he has been doing?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, tough to say. I think, again, from our vantage point, but my guess would be that that has something to do with his own domestic political situation. That to be- to seem to be the puppet of the Americans is not in his long-term interests.

And so he's pushing back. He's a politician and I think almost all politicians privilege their own personal ambitions. They are determined to maintain their hold on power, and if President Karzai perceives that the kind of pressure he's getting from the United States and other NATO allies is contrary to his own interests, he's not going to go along with it.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I mean, we had to- I keep going back to the Vietnam comparisons, but you will remember that the events leading up to the assassination of President Diem on-


ANDREW BACEVICH: November first, 1963- in which the United States was complicit. That assassination plot stemmed in part from fears that members of Diem's own inner circle were contemplating opening up negotiations with North Vietnamese. And in order to prevent any such event from occurring we decided we needed to collaborate with Vietnamese generals in bringing about his overthrow.


ANDREW BACEVICH: A coup, in which, ultimately culminating in his murder. So this problem of finding a partner who will be sufficiently independent to not look like a puppet, and yet will be sufficiently compliant that he will contribute to our purposes, it's a very difficult problem.

BILL MOYERS: Is he indispensable to our effort there?

ANDREW BACEVICH: I honestly don't know enough about Afghan politics, I think. But I mean, I know of no one waiting in the wings who would be able to take his place. I mean, when we eliminated Diem, we did so anticipating that the generals would be better partners in the waging of the war against the Viet Cong. It turned out that the generals actually were much worse than Diem had been.

BILL MOYERS: And as a matter of fact, Karzai cannot afford to give up on the western effort in Afghanistan. Can he?

ANDREW BACEVICH: I don't know. You know, he's made these noises about cutting deals with the Taliban. I would think that there are enormous risks in doing that from his point of view, but I wouldn't pretend to be able to assess how he evaluates the risks of cutting deals with the Taliban versus the risks of continuing to collaborate with the Americans and the west.

BILL MOYERS: What's your take on this big offensive that is supposed to come this summer in the southern part of the country around Marjah? Where I had thought- we had thought there was a big offensive in February, in March, right?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think the Marjah offensive in February I think was intended to provide kind of a trial run of the new McChrystal approach, in which western forces, with Afghan forces, would clear an area of Taliban. And then establish a continuing presence. And then hard on the heels of that continuing security presence, to introduce a package of government services that would culminate in winning the hearts and minds. General McChrystal, at the time of the Mar- at the time that the Marjah operation began, promised that he was providing government out of a box. That was the phrase that he used.

My own sense is that we probably have succeeded in clearing the enemy in Marjah. We probably can succeed in clearing the enemy in any part of the country. I'm quite skeptical about whether this government out of the box concept is viable. Matter of fact, it strikes me as remarkably naïve.

BILL MOYERS: Why are you skeptical?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, we've tried this before in Marjah. This notion of bringing government or development out of the box. It turns out that back in the 1950s, in the Eisenhower era, the US Agency for International Development had undertaken a massive agricultural reform project in Marjah with the intention of basically converting the nomadic local population into peasant farmers.

It was well-funded. I am sure that the people who designed it had the best intentions in the world. And it was utter, complete and total flop. Why was it a total flop? Because the people who lived in the region simply didn't share the view of the United States about what a better life looked like.

And the point here is, again, granting that people who are in the development business have the best will in the world. There are enormous cultural barriers that interfere with the effective deliverance of the kind of programs that are promised. So, I mean, no, let us see- but I think that the Americans tend to come at these problems with a sense of optimism and expectation that tends not to be justified by what we know from the history of development programs.

BILL MOYERS: You wrote the other day, I think, in "America" magazine, that we—Americans suffer from a deficit of self-awareness. Explain that to me.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, it's this forgetfulness. It's this assumption that what we value, what we believe is the- are the keys to happiness, necessarily are shared by people who come from a different place, whether it's a different place historically or culturally or religiously. I have a wonderful student of mine at Boston University who worked in Afghanistan in their ministry of economic development on an internship a summer ago. And she just finished her master's degree and is heading back to Afghanistan.

And she is smart and she is just a terrific person in every respect. But the other day, we were- she was defending her MA thesis. And we were sort of arguing about this cultural question. And she said to me, "You know, there are some things that we tried to do that aren't cultural." And she-

BILL MOYERS: That we Americans try to do?

ANDREW BACEVICH: That in our programs that we try to introduce in places like Afghanistan. Not everything has a cultural connotation. And she said, "Let me give you an example." And the example she offered was a laptop. She said that, "You know, in order to have a functioning society, in order to advance yourself, in order to grow an economy, you have to have access to the Internet. And therefore, you need to know how to use a laptop."

And my response was, "I understand what you just said. But the laptop carries with it enormous cultural connotations. The Internet carries enormous cultural connotations. And for us simply to assume that because we view those mechanisms as central to our understanding of modernity, it doesn't follow that people in Afghanistan are going to share that view." That's part of our problem, I think, that we work from the assumption that at the end of the day we have the answers. And we're trying to share the answers with those who apparently need them.

BILL MOYERS: And you've written about one specific cultural phenomenon in particular, in which the Afghanis look at life as both religious and political. That is, they don't make the divisions that so many secular Americans make. And that our efforts to try to separate their commitments to religion and their involvement in politics are futile.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I don't want to try to pretend that I'm an expert in Islam, because I'm not. But one of the things I do understand from reading about it is that part of the Islamic view is that politics and belief are intimately and inextricably tied together, that there is no separation between those two dimensions of human existence. Where we in the West, who once believed that those two aspects of life were intimately connected, have, over a period of time, whether for good or for ill, come to believe that they're best kept apart. You know, that what we do on the Sabbath is fine. But that doesn't necessarily inform and shape every other aspect of our life.

And that we're comfortable with that. We believe that makes sense. And I think that implicitly our efforts in places like Afghanistan are informed by an expectation that if we can persuade the Afghans to learn to separate Islam from the rest of life, that they will be better off. And I strongly suspect that they are utterly and completely opposed to that proposition.

BILL MOYERS: I saw a study this week that was done by some researchers at Tufts University.


BILL MOYERS: They had a team of researchers who interviewed a representative sample of Afghani, ordinary Afghani people, who it turns out have a very negative view of our efforts there, of our economic and aid efforts there. Now what explains that? That we would keep trying to do it, when they have such a negative reaction to it?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think that gets to this deficit of self-awareness. There is a confidence that we have accrued. I think particularly since World War II. This is not something that somehow appeared overnight. A confidence that history as we understand history—and in many respects, I think the only history that Americans even have any awareness of really is the history of the 20th century.

And Americans tend to see the history of the 20th century as a triumphal narrative. It was in the 20th century that the United States achieved such enormous preeminence. It was in the 20th century that seemingly, we demonstrated the superiority of our system as competitors- totalitarian competitors in the left and the right either were crushed or fell by the wayside.

And I think as a consequence of that interpretation of the 20th century. It's not an interpretation that I would agree with, but as a consequence of that interpretation of the 20th century, Americans have come to believe quite deeply that the answers to the world's ills are found here. That the keys to life, liberty and happiness that we have embraced are not only applicable to Americans, but they're applicable to Afghans and they're applicable to Pakistanis and so on.

And we're simply not willing to acknowledge either the contradictions in our own way of life or the possibility that if you're an Afghan or a Pakistani, that you may just define happiness or fulfillment in a radically different way. And despite the fact that we confront failures like Vietnam, and I think I would also argue strongly like Iraq, we cling to this notion that we possess history's secrets. And of course, that's we're called upon to share them with others.

But I think the larger question really is the cultural one. I have come to believe that- this refers back to what we were talking about a couple of minutes ago- that the Islamic world is wrestling with this enormous crisis or this enormous challenge of how to reconcile a belief with modernity.

BILL MOYERS: An ancient belief of about who they are-

ANDREW BACEVICH: And who God is and God's role in human life, trying to reconcile that conviction to which believing Muslims, I think, adhere. And reconcile that with the demands of living in the 21st century, in the world of the 21st century. And my belief is that that reconciliation, if it happens, is going to happen according to their schedule and according to their terms.

I mean, put simply, rather than insisting that we can change Islam, that we can force it to change along a certain path. That was the purpose of the global war on terror, to force the greater Middle East to change in ways that were conducive to American interests. Rather than insisting on that, I think we need to let Islam be Islam, to let it change the way it is going to change on its own terms.

BILL MOYERS: What then is the role of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan? And this brings us back to the beginning of our discussion. What, then, is the goal of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, the stated goal is to win their hearts and minds. But strategically, I would argue that makes no sense. And indeed strategically, I think it's actually counterproductive. If the basis of a well-defined and potentially successful strategy is to let Islam be Islam, to let it evolve as it will evolve, then our very presence, our very insistence on trying to determine the fate of this country as we've tried to determine the fate of Iraq is, in my mind, likely to cause Muslims around the world to view us that much more negatively, to see us as a threat. We're trying to tell them how to do their business.

BILL MOYERS: And to sign up at the local recruiting office?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, exactly right. That I- my sense is that the longer the long war goes, and again, we're already approaching the end of its first decade, the more likely it is that we will actually exacerbate the problem that gave rise to the 9/11 attacks in the first place. We have you know we Americans believe that the global war on terror began on 9/11, that the long war began on 9/11.

And again, this is a convenient sort of absence of historical awareness and memory. My own sense of a better start date to understand how we've gotten where we are would be Jimmy Carter's promulgation of the Carter doctrine in January of 1980. That was the policy statement that kicked off the process of militarizing US policy in the Islamic world.

BILL MOYERS: And what did the president say? What did president carter say?

ANDREW BACEVICH: What the president what the president said, and this was in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which was incorrectly perceived to suggest that the Soviets were about to, you know, sweep across the entire Persian Gulf. The president said that the Persian Gulf is a vital national security interest. And the United States will use all means necessary to include military force in order to prevent a hostile power from controlling the Persian Gulf.

What the Carter doctrine became was a rationale for militarizing US policy, not simply in the Persian Gulf, but more broadly across the Middle East. And if we look at the record of US interventionism since 1980, whether we begin with President Reagan's intervention in Lebanon that ended with the catastrophic Beirut bombing. Or up through the various wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and so on.

You know, if we if we look back over 30 years and say, "Okay, given the trillions of dollars invested, given the thousands of American lives lost, is that 30 year project stabilizing the greater Middle East? Is it is it contributing to American security? Is it is it is it enhancing American power in abundance? Or is it possible that the 30 year long effects are just the opposite?" And again, it seems to me you think about it for about three seconds. It becomes crystal clear that this military approach to trying to ensure stability, in fact, is creating ever more instability.

ANDREW BACEVICH: So why continue down that path?

BILL MOYERS: It creating instability, because the Muslims reacted how?

BILL MOYERS: The Arabs and Muslims reacted how?

ANDREW BACEVICH: With resentment and antagonism, and again, regardless of how we would wish to portray our purposes and involvement, I think from their point of view, it is imperialism. It's colonialism. It is the west once again, as has happened in their past before it is the west once again insisting that the west will determine the fate and the future of these peoples. How could they not see that as imperialism?

BILL MOYERS: Let me circle back to something that's been in my mind since you first said it. You say that these examples of you say that these incidents of the slaughter of civilians suggest that General McChrystal is not in control of all of his forces. But if he comes out of the special operations forces, understands their world view, their mentality and their training, why is he not in control of them? He's in charge there.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think this is a very good question. And I don't think I can answer it. I mean we need to understand that a commander, any anybody above about a company commander, a guy who's or a woman who's in charge of about 150 soldiers. Anybody above that level is in command, but is not in the position to personally and directly supervise the activities of all his or her soldiers.

So McChrystal, as the four-star commander of 100 thousand soldiers, is not personally, directly and immediately supervising these sorts of nighttime raids, I expect. What the commander needs to do, what the commander must be held responsible for doing, is to establish a climate such that those soldiers outside of his eyesight will, in fact, act in ways consistent with the purposes that he has designated. Now if those soldiers are not doing that, either he has failed as a commander to establish a climate where there is effective control. And if that's the case, the commander should be held accountable. Or and this gets to your point that McChrystal comes from the special operations community himself, is it possible that coming from the black world, McChrystal himself either implicitly or explicitly is willing to allow special operations forces to operate by a different set of rules?

BILL MOYERS: Why do you call it the black world?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think it's a commonplace term used to describe national security activities that are that we, the people are not allowed to see, to know about. That we're kept in the dark. That the claims of security override our need to know, in the eyes of people within the national security establishment.

BILL MOYERS: If that is the case, then these killings, these this slaughter of civilian, noncombatants, is a natural consequence of that kind of wink and nod.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think again, one would have to know more facts than we have. Of course, it's hard to get the facts, because they're kept from us. But that would be my concern at this point. I mean, were I Secretary Gates—I think Secretary Gates is a pretty admirable guy. He's doing I mean don't like everything he does, but he's probably a pretty good guy.

Were I Gates I would be demanding at this juncture to know much more about exactly what US special operations forces are up to. What are their rules of engagement? And when catastrophic incidents like this occur, I would demand to know where the responsibility was being fixed and what actions were being undertaken to preclude the repeat of these kinds of things.

BILL MOYERS: Do we know if those questions are even being asked right now?

ANDREW BACEVICH: I don't know. And again, this is this is where the secrecy of the special operations world is so pernicious. I mean, when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, horrific set of occurrences in 2004 thanks to the fact that the photographs leaked, there was an enormous public outcry. And there was at least some semblance of an effort by authorities in Washington, both military and civilian, to get to the root of what had occurred. It's impossible for us as citizens to be able to say whether any kind of inquiry is going on inside the special operations world.

BILL MOYERS: Have you seen the videos this week of the episode in 2007?


BILL MOYERS: American-

ANDREW BACEVICH: I saw part of it. Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: What did you think as you saw that, and listened to the soundtrack of what these soldiers were saying?


BILL MOYERS: Quite gripping.

ANDREW BACEVICH: It was very gripping, and you know, what we could see is what we could see. I mean, we were looking through a camera lens, weak saw frame. And the point there is that we could not see the environment in which this incident occurred. And frankly, the environment may have been relatively benign or it may have been awful. We just don't know.

I myself, simply watching it on television, had a difficult time discerning that the people on the ground were armed, as the air crew and the helicopter claim that they were. I'm simply saying I could not see that they were armed. Certainly the group of people on the ground did not appear to be engaging in any kind of activity that posed a threat to US forces. They were sort of milling around. I mean, they were not in fighting positions. Or they were not there was no really organized activity whatsoever. So it becomes difficult, I think, from our vantage point to understand why it was necessary to kill those people.

BILL MOYERS: But what does it say to you that this video, that these pictures in possession of the Pentagon were, in fact, withheld for three years, and then leaked by somebody to this site run by an Australian? And it's the first time we've seen it.

ANDREW BACEVICH: The Pentagon has an interest. And I think has a recognized interest in keeping the American people informed. But the fact of the matter is, they keep the American people informed about things they wish the American people to be informed about. And in that sense there is a universe of information that is kept from us, ostensibly in the interests of national security.

I think when an episode like this occurs it is it gives us a little bit of a hint as to the extent of information in that universe that's kept to from us, that it's kept from us in order to keep us in the dark. It's impossible for us to know what's in that universe. Except every once in a while, we get a sense that the rules of the game are not defined are not are not informed by a desire to ensure that you and I are fully informed about the activities of the United States military. They are informed by a desire to keep us partially informed and partially in the dark.

BILL MOYERS: You've no doubt seen the stories this week that Senator Feingold and Representative McGovern are calling for a flexible timetable, reminiscent of Congressional proposals that eventually won support during the Vietnam War, to get our troops out of Afghanistan. Could this work there?

ANDREW BACEVICH: I don't think so. It's not going to work because the party leadership's not going to support them. I mean, I think it's a very admirable initiative on their part. But I would be surprised if either the majority leader or Speaker Pelosi climbed on board this bandwagon.


ANDREW BACEVICH: Be because I mean, frankly, the answer goes back to the aftermath of the 2006 off-year elections. You'll remember that this was the election in which Democratic leaders in the Congress said, "give us the power and we will shut down the Iraq War." We gave them the power. They reneged on the promise. So the Democratic Party even when there was a Republican president was not willing to confront the president and to act in ways to limit the prerogatives of the commander-in-chief.

BILL MOYERS: But what do we make of that?

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think what we what we make of that is that the militarization of our political class is far more advanced or far deeper I think than most of us appreciate.

BILL MOYERS: Andrew Bacevich, thank you for being with me again on the Journal.

Guest photo by Robin Holland
Also This Week:
Renowned for her mastery of multiple genres — including thirteen novels, poetry, children's literature, and a memoir of early motherhood — Louise Erdrich discusses how her Native American heritage and unique cultural experience has impacted her life, motherhood, and work.

View photos of Louise Erdrich's family, life and times.

More about endangered eanguages and the Ojibwe Vocabulary Project.

Historian and international relations expert and former US Army Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich returns to the JOURNAL to discuss America's long war in Afghanistan.

Explore JOURNAL coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan and the effect of the war at home.

For Educators    About the Series    Bill Moyers on PBS   

© Public Affairs Television 2008    Privacy Policy    DVD/VHS    Terms of Use    FAQ