Andrew Bacevich blasts Robert Kagan for providing a "falsified, sanitized, and in some respects, illusory account of recent American history”

Historians in the News
tags: Andrew Bacevich, Robert Kagan





BILL MOYERS: They said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could turn the smoking gun into a mushroom cloud, and they were wrong. They said Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda, and they were wrong. They said the war would be a cakewalk, and they were wrong. Over and again they were wrong, yet 11 years, thousands of lives, millions of refugees, and trillions of dollars later, the very same armchair warriors in Washington who from the safety of their Beltway bunkers called for invading Baghdad, are demanding once again that America plunge into the sectarian wars of the Middle East.

A chorus of kindred voices fills the echo chamber: the same old faces, the same old arguments, never acknowledging the phony premises and fraudulent intelligence that led to disaster and chaos in the first place. A headline at the website ThinkProgress sums it up: “The People Who Broke Iraq Have A Lot of Ideas About Fixing It Now.”

Among the most celebrated of these hawks is Robert Kagan, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. A darling of the neocons, he's been a foreign policy adviser to John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Hillary Clinton. In 2002, he and William Kristol wrote that for the war on terrorism to succeed, Saddam Hussein must be removed. When George W. Bush set out to do just that, Kagan cheered him on, and then, in 2006, called for a surge in American troop levels to prevent Iraq's collapse.

Now Robert Kagan is stirring controversy again with this lengthy article in “The New Republic,” “Superpowers Don’t Get To Retire: What our tired country still owes the world.” He calls for America to return to muscular, global activism.

Kagan's much-discussed article brought a sharp riposte from another scholar and historian who sees the world and America's role differently. Andrew Bacevich has seen the horrors of war too closely to advocate more of the same policies that failed in Vietnam and Iraq. A graduate of West Point with 23 years in the military, including time in Vietnam, he teaches history at Boston University, writes best-selling books on foreign policy, and articles and essays in journals both liberal and conservative, like this critique of Kagan in “Commonweal” magazine titled, "The Duplicity of the Ideologues." Welcome back.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: So what do you mean, the duplicity of ideologues?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, Kagan's essay, which does deserve to be read, simply because of Kagan's stature in Washington, gives us a falsified, sanitized, and in some respects, illusory account of recent American history.

BILL MOYERS: How so?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, his notion of American history, particularly since 1945, is one that we might term an extended liberation narrative where the United States devoted itself, in the wake of World War II, to promoting liberal values, democracy everywhere, fighting against evildoers, and he concludes that this success is being squandered by Barack Obama and those who are unwilling to continue this crusade.

Now, that narrative is only sustainable if you leave a lot of important facts out, or if you distort those facts. So we get no mention of overthrowing Mossadegh in Iran in 1953. We get no mention of the CIA overthrowing the president of Guatemala. We get virtually no mention of the Vietnam War, which he dismisses as sort of an unfortunate incident of no particular significance. And perhaps most egregiously, he utterly ignores the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he served as a cheerleader for. And which to a very large extent, account for the problem that we're dealing with today in the greater Middle East.

BILL MOYERS: This week, one of his allies, former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Elizabeth wrote a long essay in “The Wall Street Journal.” They say, "Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many. Too many times to count, Mr. Obama has told us he is ‘ending’ the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—as though wishing made it so.

His rhetoric has now come crashing into reality. Watching the black-clad ISIS jihadists take territory once secured by American blood is final proof, if any were needed, that America's enemies are not ‘decimated.’ They are emboldened and on the march.”

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I'd say rarely has a major American newspaper published an op-ed that was so thoroughly shameless. Again, what is the cause? What was the catalyst of the instability that racks Iraq today? The simple answer is the one that Cheney and his daughter don't want to mention: the unnecessary, misguided, and frankly immoral war launched by the United States in 2003. We destabilized Iraq. In many respects, we destabilized the larger region. And misfortune of Barack Obama is that he inherited this catastrophe, created by the previous administration.

BILL MOYERS: Even Cheney once thought that it would be a serious mistake to occupy Baghdad. This is Dick Cheney in 1994 reflecting on the first Iraq war-- when he was Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush.

BRUCE COLLINS on C-Span,1994: Do you think the US, or UN forces, should have moved into Baghdad?

DICK CHENEY on C-Span,1994: No.

BRUCE COLLINS on C-Span,1994: Why not?

DICK CHENEY on C-Span,1994: Because if we'd gone to Baghdad we would have been all alone. There wouldn't have been anybody else with us. It would have been a US occupation of Iraq. None of the Arab forces that were willing to fight with us in Kuwait were willing to invade Iraq.

Once you got to Iraq and took it over, and took down Saddam Hussein's government, then what are you going to put in its place? That's a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government in Iraq, you can easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off: part of it, the Syrians would like to have to the west, part of eastern Iraq the Iranians would like to claim-- fought over for eight years. In the north you've got the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey. It's a quagmire.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think the contrast between what Cheney said in 1994 and what he says 20 years later is actually very illustrative of this point. And that is that what passes for foreign-policy debate today, is just nakedly partisan. Back in 1994, he was in the business of defending George Herbert Walker Bush. Now he's in the business of defending George W. Bush. But basically attacks Barack Obama, blaming Obama for any difficulties that we're having. And the point about naked partisanship I think really applies in a somewhat larger stage. When you look at the people who get invited on the Sunday talk shows, or whose op-eds appear in “The New York Times” or in “The Washington Post” or other prominent organs of opinion, they are people who are participating in this partisan debate.
There is very little effort to look beyond the Bush versus Obama, Republican versus Democrat, to try to understand the larger forces in play that have brought us to where we are today. And the understanding of which could then make it possible for us to think somewhat more creatively about policy than simply having an argument about whether we should, you know, attack with drones or attack with manned aircraft.

BILL MOYERS: What are those larger forces at work? Because Robert Kagan says, quote, “world order shows signs of cracking, and perhaps even collapsing." And that these changes signal a transition into a different world order, which the United States should attempt to lead.

ANDREW BACEVICH: When Kagan uses phrases like world order, he's describing something that never really existed except in his own imagination. But again, the point is worth reflecting on. Kagan believes, many people in Washington believe, perhaps too many people in the hinterland also believe, that the United States shapes the global order. That there is an order for which we alone are responsible.
Where does this kind of thinking come from? I mean, I think in many respects, what we see here is the contemporary expression of the whole notion of American exceptionalism. That we are chosen. We are called upon, called upon by God, called upon by providence, to somehow transform the world and remake it in our own image. Now, Robert Kagan wouldn't state it as bluntly as I just did. But that is the kind of thinking that I think makes it very difficult for us to have a genuine and serious foreign policy debate….




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