President Trump’s decision to order a drone strike that killed Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, has rekindled debates in Washington about the role of the U.S. in the Middle East. Many Republicans have called for more aggressive action against Iran, while the Democratic Presidential candidates have generally pleaded for restraint and a foreign policy that avoids future wars in the region. But Democrats have tended to get the U.S. embroiled in military conflicts, too, which has led to critiques by Bernie Sanders and others that the Party needs to reorient its foreign-policy views.
To talk about these issues, I spoke by phone on Friday with Andrew J. Bacevich, who served in the U.S. Army for more than two decades before becoming one of the most outspoken voices criticizing American foreign policy, particularly during the Iraq War, in which his son was killed. He is now the president of the Quincy Institute, a Washington think tank that was founded in November, 2019, and advocates for a less militarized approach to foreign policy. He is the author of the new book “The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.” Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, an Army veteran and one of the most extreme hawks in Congress, recently suggested that the Quincy Institute’s isolationism was tied to anti-Semitism; Bacevich called the claim “absurd.” During my conversation with Bacevich, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the historical overlap between isolationism and anti-Semitism, how American foreign policy changed after the Cold War, and how the foreign-policy establishment might react if Bernie Sanders became the Democratic Presidential nominee.
Why did you want to describe this moment in world affairs as being the result of America’s Cold War victory?
Well, as someone who has observed the direction of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War and came to view that as misguided, coupled with my own Catholic, conservative outlook on matters related to political economy and culture, I just came to the conclusion that this period of time, which began on a note of euphoria, ended with a divided nation electing as President somebody who is utterly unfit for the office. It seemed to me that there’s a story there.
What is it, specifically, that you think the Cold War and its victory did to the United States?
I was born in 1947, basically when the Cold War began. Even though I served in Vietnam, it’d be more accurate to say that I was a Cold Warrior. That is to say, I served in the Army at a time when preventing World War Three was the focal point of our purpose. I certainly came to believe, as I think many other Americans did, that the Cold War defined international relations, and, indeed, the Cold War defined contemporary history.
I did not think that the Cold War would never end. The political establishment didn’t think that the Cold War would never end, and when it did end, really abruptly, I think that the political establishment succumbed to a bout of hubris. We need to be mindful of the famous Francis Fukuyama article that came out in 1989, “The End of History?,” and the impact that that article had in Washington circles. People did come to believe that the end of the Cold War marked a transformative moment that left the United States in a position to preside over the history that was going to follow the end of history. It’s led to arrogance, to misjudgments, to the embrace of ideas like globalization, like the notion that we were the indispensable nation, that produced deeply unfortunate consequences.
How would you distinguish between the five Presidents we have had since the end of the Cold War? Do you think they all succumbed to a similar hubris?
I think they were all really creatures of a postwar consensus. I think that, in the way we talk about Presidents, when we talk about the process of electing a President, we assume somehow that the President is the supreme master of the universe, somebody who is directing the fate of humankind. That notion is very much an expression of post–Cold War hubris. But what I tried to argue in the book is that the President really is a creature of his time, and that the President’s ability to bring change is actually limited by circumstances. And so, without for a second denying that there are very important differences between Clinton and George W. Bush and Barack Obama as the post–Cold War Presidents, I do try to make the case that their similarities outweigh their differences. And the similarities come from their efforts to implement the post–Cold War consensus. Bill Clinton was the principal promoter of globalization. He said that we now know an unleashed corporate capitalism has the capacity to create wealth on an unprecedented scale, in which he insisted all would share. And I think that that notion had a very powerful effect.
It was in December, 1989—that’s, like, what, six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall—that the elder Bush ordered the U.S. intervention in Panama, Operation Just Cause. As a military episode, it was very brief. But I think that was the template of how we could put American military power to work. In contrast to the Cold War, when the principal—not sole, but the principal—rationale for American military power was to prevent war, the idea was to contain the Soviet Union, to deter the Warsaw Pact. And every President thereafter did his own experimenting with how to use American military power to do good things abroad from [his] perspective. Even Barack Obama, who, when he ran for the Presidency, promised to get out of Iraq and to win the good war in Afghanistan, became a significant interventionist, whether we’re overthrowing the regime in Libya or embarking on a policy of assassination that, of course, Donald Trump has now himself embraced.
You said that the principal rationale during the Cold War was to “prevent war.” But, from Korea to Vietnam and overthrowing or helping overthrow regimes everywhere from Congo to Iran and sending military advisers to Latin America to support dictatorships, I’m not sure that I understand the purpose of the Cold War.
I’m not going to deny any of that, nor am I trying to suggest that U.S. policy during the Cold War was wise. I mean, I could write another book that would talk about the folly of the U.S. military policy in the Cold War, and, of course, that book would center on Vietnam but would certainly not be limited to Vietnam. Americans have forgotten the folly in Korea. So we made a ton of mistakes.
Nonetheless, never in peacetime in our history had we maintained a large military establishment until the Cold War. Its primary purpose was to avert war. It’s not my story that matters here, but I spent two tours in West Germany. We had a very large army and a very large air force situated in West Germany, for close to forty years, in order to deter the Warsaw Pact. After the Korean War, we maintained substantial forces in South Korea, and we continue to maintain substantial forces in Japan. The purpose of those forces was not to allow us to project power but to prevent the outbreak of hostilities.
My argument is that that all changed after the Cold War ended, and now the principal purpose seems to be power projection. It was motivated by a conviction that we had somehow solved the mysteries of warfare, and that we could guarantee quick and tidy victories, which, of course, turned out to be a vast illusion.
So your feeling is that now it is more about power projection than Wilsonianism, which is your other target of criticism?
Well, it’s Wilsonian when it’s convenient to be Wilsonian. I mean, this is where I think George W. Bush is an enormously fascinating character. You remember that, when he ran for the Presidency in 2000, he was very critical of Clinton. Bush said, “Elect me President, because I am going to have a ‘humble foreign policy.’ ” And I suspect when he said that, as a candidate, he probably meant it. But 9/11 converted him into a Wilsonian—and genuinely converted him. So the initial phases of the global war on terrorism were very much focussed on the notion that we are not only protecting ourselves from a recurrence of 9/11 but we are indeed spreading freedom and democracy.
I don’t think it’s simply propaganda that the Afghanistan war was initially called Operation Enduring Freedom and the Iraq War was called Operation Iraqi Freedom. I think, to some degree, that actually reflected a motive and intention. By the time you get to the famous Iraq surge of 2007, obviously, the exercise is no longer to convert Iraq into a liberal democracy. Now the purpose is much more modest. You can say the same thing about Afghanistan.
Your think tank, the Quincy Institute, says that it promotes responsible statecraft and less militarization. I was talking to a friend about this, and he said to ask you what the group’s foreign-policy vision is besides “we won’t do dumb shit.” Or do you think that not doing dumb shit, to use an obviously informal phrase, is sort of it for now?
I think not doing dumb shit is a point of departure. But our position is that we believe that the United States must be engaged in the world. We believe that emphasizing armed intervention as the principal mode of engagement is a big mistake. So what’s the alternative? Well, the alternative is diplomacy. Invest in diplomacy, pursue creative diplomacy as a method of trying to, if not solve problems, at least to keep problems manageable. I don’t think that we have a grandiose Wilsonian vision of how to bring peace to planet Earth. I think we do have at least the beginnings of a vision of providing an alternative to militarism, which is, I think, a fair characterization of what U.S. policy has been, at least since the end of the Cold War.
What have you made of the reaction to the Suleimani strike? There was more widespread condemnation, especially from Democrats, than I was expecting. Is that a hopeful sign for your vision, or are we still in a dangerous place?
I think we’re still in a dangerous place. It seemed to immediately have people fearing that we were on the brink of World War Three. Why did they feel that way? I think because we’re in a moment in our politics when Trump has everybody on edge. We believe we have somebody in the Oval Office who is utterly impulsive and unpredictable, and he’s the Commander-in-Chief. So I think that sense is probably what prompted the Suleimani assassination to create something pretty close to panic. I don’t see any evidence of any serious rethinking of the importance attributed to amassing and using military power that has been so central to our approach to foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.
Why do I say that? Well, I mean, among other things, look at the size of the Pentagon budget. Apart from the progressive activist community, I see virtually no serious reflection given about the size of the defense budget, about the positioning of U.S. forces around the world and several hundred bases. No serious reflection on the implications of the growing U.S. military presence in sub-Saharan Africa, and whether that makes sense or where it’s going to lead. There hasn’t even actually been a heck of a lot of consideration to the so-called endless wars. I’m struck by the fact that, when the Washington Post published the Afghanistan Papers, there were three or four days of excitement. Boy, these are incredible revelations. These show that the Afghanistan war has been mismanaged for years, and that we’ve been lied to, and that the people in charge knew that they didn’t know what they were doing. Three or four days later, the discussion ended.
Bernie Sanders has basically been saying that the country conducts endless wars that always turn out badly, and that he has opposed them, and that if you want someone who will oppose them you should vote for him. This is the most blatantly noninterventionist appeal I can remember from a candidate who has a chance to win the Democratic nomination. What have you made of him, as a Catholic conservative, no less?
You’re also describing Donald Trump’s position in the 2016 campaign. Not that he knew what he was talking about or necessarily meant it.
Right. I guess my sense is that, if Bernie was elected President, he would probably care more about this stuff than Donald Trump does.
I actually agree with that. What will be interesting to me, if Bernie gets the nomination, is to see how the establishment responds to that critique. The establishment loathes Donald Trump. But the establishment, on matters of national security, as far as I can tell, continues to believe in the imperative of American global leadership and of maintaining and being ready to use large military forces. Now, if Bernie as the candidate positions himself in opposition to those notions, it’ll be very interesting to see if the establishment will come along with him. And my guess is they won’t.
Always lurking behind any sort of conversation about U.S. national security is this notion that either the United States must lead or the United States reverts to isolationism. I, myself, reject that whole paradigm, but it’s always lurking in the background. And so Bernie will end up being called an isolationist. And, politically, that charge always carries enormous weight.
Historically, isolationism has at times gone hand in hand with some other less palatable opinions. Do you think that it’s completely unfair that isolationism has somewhat of a bad rap?
Well, I don’t know if we want to go down this path. [Laughs.]
Let me finish. As a historian, I think that isolationism is a fiction, and I’ll ask your indulgence to let me explain why I think that.
I think, if you look at the arc of U.S. history, beginning with the creation of a Republic consisting of thirteen small states along the Atlantic coastline, and then consider that, by 1945, we had become the richest and most powerful country in the world, isolationism does not offer any kind of an explanation of how we got from point A to point B. I think that the abiding theme of U.S. policy virtually from the founding of the Republic has been expansionism. We buy stuff, we take stuff, we covertly, if you look at the example of Texas, insinuate ourselves into a situation and end up claiming ownership. We have been involved in blatant imperialism. So my argument is that expansionism explains U.S. foreign policy better than any other single term. There was one period of time where you could make the case that a strong isolationist sentiment existed in this country, and that’s basically the period between 1938 and 1941. And the noninterventionists were wrong. They were wrong in their conviction that the European war wasn’t our business. No doubt about that in my mind.
But I think it’s fair to ask: Where did the anti-interventionist sentiment of that time, what we call isolationism, come from? I think where it came from was the experience of twenty years before, when we had sent an army to Europe, supposedly to make the world safe for democracy, and we lost a hundred and sixteen thousand lives. That was the total American death toll in World War One over a period of eighteen months. I think the principal reason why the anti-interventionists didn’t want to enter another European war, twenty years later, was that they had found the results of the previous intervention to be totally unsatisfactory.
They absolutely had reason to think that after the First World War. But let me ask you—in 2017, you wrote, “The America First Movement did not oppose Jews; it opposed wars that its members deemed needless, costly, and counterproductive. That was its purpose, which was an honorable one.” Do you stand by this?
Do I stand by what? Let’s be very careful here, please.
What you wrote there.
You’re going to use this—I can tell. So I need to choose my words very carefully.
Come on now. I think that the anti-interventionist case was understandable given the outcome of the First World War. They had reason to oppose U.S. intervention. And, again, let me emphasize, their calculation was wrong. It’s good that they lost their argument. I do not wish to be put into a position where I’m going to make myself some kind of a defender for the people who didn’t want to intervene against Nazi Germany.
That’s totally fine. The reason that I brought this up and read you that quote was not only because I don’t think it’s accurate about the America First movement and Jews but also because I do think it’s worth thinking about the ways in which anti-interventionism can sometimes shade into things that are more ugly.
Let me also say very clearly, it is absolutely the case that there were anti-Semites in the anti-interventionist movement. It is absolutely the case that Charles Lindbergh was an anti-Semite. I don’t think it is fair, then, to say that the anti-interventionists generally were anti-Semitic.
The television host on the right who’s been the most energetically anti-interventionist is Tucker Carlson. The President who has been rhetorically the most anti-interventionist of any Republican or Democratic President, certainly in decades, is Donald Trump. Both Trump and Carlson are the most racist people we’ve seen in their positions in a very long time. I don’t think that’s entirely a coincidence. Again, I’m not trying to say that means anti-interventionism is inherently racist, but I was curious whether you’d wrestled with that, and how it plays into your thinking.
Even though I appeared on Tucker Carlson last week for, like, two minutes, I certainly don’t watch the show. I do have a general understanding that he’s become a Trump critic, and I think that’s created a certain amount of buzz. But I don’t think I’m able to characterize the turn in his view, if even there’s been a turn. As for the President, he’s a man of no principles whatsoever. As far as I can tell, as a President, he acts on impulse, and the impulse seems to come, in many cases, from whatever advice he got from the last person that he talked to. Is the President a racist? Yeah, I think so. Is he a sexist? Yeah, I think so. Is he a fraud? I mean, here we have a guy who, when he was running for the Presidency, portrayed himself as a God-fearing Christian. Is he? I don’t think so. So he’s a complete phony, as others have said. I don’t know what else I can say on that.
I was interested in the roots of isolationism, and whether you think that’s something worth paying attention to. But, if you don’t, that’s fine.
I dislike the term, but your question is whether so-called isolationism is inherently racist?
No, that’s not my question at all. And I certainly don’t think it’s inherently racist.
Is your question, “Are racists likely to be drawn to an anti-interventionist posture?”
That’s closer to it.
In other words, I happen to be a white guy, but [with] a white male who is resentful with regard to the way the world is turning and who was looking for someone or something to blame, I can see the logical connection of that person saying that these efforts to somehow save the world, all those people out there who are not like me, which costs a lot of money, which costs American lives, all that’s wrongheaded, I can see the logic of that. I just would resist the notion that therefore anybody who is an anti-interventionist somehow is a racist. I would reject that entirely.