Stephen Van Evera, professor of Political Science at MIT, and Andrew Bacevich professor of History and International Relations at Boston University -- in a discussion with Tom Ashbrook of WBUR’s On Point -- “critique” the “war on terror.”
Intro: “In defining his War on Terror, President Bush has not been shy about World War II analogies. Today's enemies, he has said, are ‘successors to Fascists, to Nazis.’ But there is at least one big difference. In World War II, Franklin Roosevelt led the country to complete victory over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in just three years and nine months. With Afghanistan and Iraq, George W. Bush is six years in, still fighting, and by no means clearly winning. Big national security thinkers are asking why. One reason may be America's World War II formula for success has been ignored.”
Tom Ashbrook: America’s World War II was over in 3 years and 9 months. This time we’re nearly six years in and counting. National security thinkers are asking, why? … Later in this hour we will hear from historian and military thinker, Andrew Bacevich, politically conservative West Point grad, retired Army colonel, and long-time critic of the Iraq war. His son died last month serving in Iraq. But first, joining me in the studio is Stephen Van Evera, professor of Political Science at MIT and a big student of international relations and US national security. He’s author of “Causes of War: Power and the Roots of Conflict.” His latest essay in the journal, Middle East Policy, is titled “The War on Terror: Forgotten Lessons from World War II.” … So, that was a great big war – 3 years and 9 months. The American piece of it decisively won. You’re looking at what we learned then and how we did it then and what we’ve forgotten. …We all look back on the World War II victory as inevitable. Was it?
Stephen Van Evera: No, it wasn’t! There were many ways we could have goofed the war up and either won at a much great cost or lost the war or lost the peace. We would have had a much worse war if we hadn’t set priorities correctly. The Roosevelt strategy was to go after Germany first because it was the biggest threat even though Japan was the first to attack.
TA: Right. …It’s a very interesting way to get some perspective on what we’re doing now. We’ve got half a dozen, eight, nine different areas where we may have diverged from World War II strategy and this is the first one. Setting priorities: describe what happened then and what you’re seeing now.
SVE: Then, we were attacked by Japan but the Roosevelt administration judged Germany to be far the greatest threat and it pursued a strategy that was called, then “Germany First,” which was to check Japan and Asia but focus US resources on Asia. The American thinking was that if Germany attended to first, it might defeat Britain and could dominate the Atlantic.
TA: So don’t go all out at Japan first, keep it back but pour US resources and attention on one primary target.
SVE: Correct. And if the US hadn’t done that, Germany might have been able to consolidate its hold on the continent, conceivably even defeat the Soviet Union, and would have posed a much tougher problem down the road for a US invasion of Europe. Possibly, even, Germany might have gotten atomic weapons.
TA: So choices were made. Targets were prioritized. And that lesson worked out pretty well! But is it being followed this time?
SVE: No! Today our most dangerous enemy is Al Qaeda and we aren’t focusing on Al Qaeda. The Bush administration focused on Al Qaeda for the first few months after 9/11 by attacking Al Qaeda’s redoubt in Afghanistan, but then it lost focus and directed its attention to other projects. It went after Iraq. And it did that before it had firmly defeated Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. It took resources away from the war in Afghanistan. As a result, the Al Qaeda leadership escaped into Pakistan. They’re still there. They’re reasserting control over their global network. And once again they post a very serious threat to the US.
TA: So the cost of ignoring this lesson from World War II – by your lights?
SVE: That we still face this Al Qaeda threat. Al Qaeda is out there, they’re looking for weapons of mass destruction, they’re trying to bring them to our cities, they’re still able to hurt Europe as we’ve seen them do repeatedly. And we have been unable to knock them out.
TA: Next strategy lesson from World War II? Mobilizing resources.
SVE: During World War II Roosevelt was unashamed of asking the American people to sacrifice heavily for the war. He moved defense spending up from 2% of GNP to 54%…
SVE: 54%. Yes. Most of what Americans were then producing was going to the war effort. He instituted the draft in 1940 against a lot of opposition. He instituted rationing. He asked for sacrifice from everybody. Today the Bush administration has not asked anyone to sacrifice except our armed forces, especially our reserves.
TA: With repeated tours of duty with 29,000 dead and injured at this point…
SVE: Correct. And they are sacrificing. But the rest of us aren’t. The rest of us are being told to go shopping, if you recall, to pep the economy up back in 2001.
TA: So if it’s as important as World War II, if we’re drawing that analogy, we may be doing it rhetorically but when it comes to what we’re actually funneling to winning…?
SVE: We’re not doing enough. Both the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan have been waged on the cheap.
TA: We’ve been told that we’re spending, what is it? $2 billion a week? Some astounding figure. Is that really so small?
SVE: One rule about war is that you want to go in and win decisively at the outset. If you don’t, it’s like a peat fire. The mess you create goes underground…
TA: And goes and goes and goes…
SVE: And burns. Yeah. And you can’t get rid of it. So what we’ve seen in Iraq is if we’d gone in with a big enough force at the outset, we might have been able to avoid the insurgency. But now we face an insurgency and it’s much harder to get rid of than it would have been to prevent. Same in Afghanistan. The Bush administration under-resourced the war afterwork. They put very few resources into giving Hamid Karzai the security help he needed or the economic help he needed. Now we see the Taliban are back. Now getting rid of them? It’s like an infestation. It’s going to be very hard to get rid of.
TA: World War II lessons being forgotten. Price being paid. Next strategic point: forging alliances and deals, then and now.
SVE: We won World War II on the backs of our allies. Americans think that World War II was won by the heroism of US troops. In fact, US battle deaths were only 3.7% of the total deaths of the Allies during World War II.
SVE: Yes. The US allies took over 96% of the battle deaths.
TA: We’re talking primarily Russia…
SVE: Russia, China, Britain, France, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Those were the main allies.
TA: But this time our boys – and now girls…
TA: … in the grinder.
SVE: Yes, exactly. There’s a larger lesson here. America had great success in world affairs in the 20th century because it was able to marshal allies to pay the biggest blood price and economic price for our success in World War II and in the Cold War. (And World War I, for that matter…)
TA: Do we have potential alliances like that now? Nobody’s stepping up to take these losses, not that I can see…
SVE: Well, because the Bush administration hasn’t made mobilizing allies a priority. You’ll recall that after 9/11, our NATO allies voted a NATO emergency and announced that they were willing to declare themselves at war with terror and to send forces to Afghanistan. And the Bush administration basically blew them off and said, “We don’t need your help.” The view of the Bush people, early in the administration, was that allies are more of a hindrance than help.
TA: And never mind NATO allies. In World War II, FDR worked with Josef Stalin, one of the country’s greatest avowed enemies!
SVE: He was willing to work with lots of bad guys. Stalin – horrible man, mass murderer, Josep Broz Tito – the murderous leader of Yugoslavia, Chiang Kai-shek – odious leader in China. So he’d make deals with the devil to beat the worst devil.
TA: And we won, and the victory monuments are all over. The cost of dropping that lesson from World War II?
SVE: Now we’re all alone. Well, not completely alone, but we bear the prime costs of the war on terror, especially the prime costs of the war in Iraq. Our losses are high and the dollar costs are huge because we’re doing this with small help from others. Only the British are giving us really important help in Iraq.
TA: It’s a rich list and it goes on… Next strategic point comparison: waging the war of ideas, then and now.
SVE: Roosevelt understood that shaping public opinion in the US and abroad was crucial to victory. If the world thinks you’re the good guys and approves of your goals and thinks you’re working to make their lives better, they’ll help you. He invested lots of energy in mobilizing Hollywood and other media resources to tell America’s tale to the world, to convince the world that the allied cause was the right cause. He had Frank Capra making those famous films – you know, “Why We Fight…” and much of Hollywood was mobilized to this effort.
TA: I can imagine people saying, “Yes, but Hitler was an easier target. He was disgusting to the Islamic world…” Bin Laden doesn’t look potentially so odious.
SVE: It’s true that enemies in World War II were very grotesque and easy to paint as the bad guys. But it’s true today!
TA: Shouldn’t it be, anyway!
SVE: It should be! Yes! The idea that we’re losing a public relations war to bin Laden I think is a disgrace. Bin Laden is, I think, a thoroughly grotesque figure. He’s murdered thousands of Muslims; his political idea of an Islamist tyranny has already been tried in Afghanistan and in Sudan and in Iran and shown to fail.
TA: You say: “That the US is losing a public relations contest to such primitive thugs is an appalling failure and a disgrace to those US officials responsible…” What have we forgotten here? Is there some idea… we should pull out, why is it so hard to promote an attractive American vision that would eventually trump bin Laden?
SVE: I think the Bush team, in the very early war on terror, didn’t think the war of ideas was important. I think they defined the main problem in the Middle East to be that people weren’t sufficiently frightened of the US, that they didn’t put credibility behind US threats.
TA: “Never mind if you respect us, fear us!”
SVE: Exactly. They had the Caligula theory of statecraft. “Let them hate us as long as they fear us.” And they were overlooking that we also need to persuade the world to come to our side. They put very little money into this. Only $1.3 billion is now being spent on diplomacy, to shape world opinion. Even still today. And only a small fraction of that is aimed at the Muslim world. This is a tremendous blunder.
TA: And if that idea battle is lost in the Muslim world, you’ve got a billion Muslims… what?…tilted against the US.
SVE: 1.3 billion, Tom! Hate to give you the bad news!
TA: Great. God bless them. But the battle of ideas is critical if you get a great big population that is just soured on anything to do with the US. You’ve got built-in problems.
SVE: We can’t end the terror problem against the US until we cause a change in the terms of debate in the radical wing of the Islamist wing of the Muslim world. This is a prerequisite for success.
TA: Next piece here… “the soft landing for the defeated”… it looks anything but soft these days in Iraq and Afghanistan.
SVE: Part of winning the peace in World War II was to reform the defeated states and bring them back to the civilized world and, in fact, mobilize them for the Cold War against Soviet Union. The US put lots of effort, lots of money, and lots of talent into bringing German, Japan and also Italy and Austria into the western world and getting them going in the right direction.
TA: …In a few minutes we’ll be joined by Andrew Bacevich… We’ve got through a lot already. We come to a couple of others [strategies] here: creating peaceful order and how the US approached that under FDR and Marshall, and bringing in the best people.
SVE: FDR understood that it was important to work hard to create a peaceful order in the world that the US would dominate in 1945 and created institutions to insure that the new world would be peaceful. And a new economic order so that free trade would flow. A UN which had some peace-causing benefits. The net benefit of these efforts was to create peace, not between east and west but within the west so that the west could be united. FDR didn’t foresee this, but it was very important that these institutions exist so that the relationships among the western powers be well-oiled and therefore the west was ready for the Cold War and ready to contain the Soviet Union and in the end to defeat it.
TA: And now he [Bush] was just over for the G-8 meeting and talking with the folks…?
SVE: Well, the Bush team put very little effort in bring Iraq and Afghanistan to a peaceful solution, and they’ve also failed to understand that peace on the periphery of the Muslim world is very important. Al Qaeda lives on war. It thrives on war. They recruit using the bloody shirt of those who die in wars involving Muslims in their recruiting message. And so the Arab-Israeli conflict is gasoline for their fire. The Kashmir helps their conflict – it helps them recruit and it helps them train. The war in Iraq does. The Chechen conflict does. The US should be in the peace business. If you want to defeat Al Qaeda, you want peace in the Muslim world and peace on the periphery of the Muslim world. The Bush team has basically gone AWOL on the peace mission. They have let the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fester. They’ve done nothing to bring an end to the Kashmir conflict. And they’ve gone into Iraq and started a war that Al Qaeda is thriving on.
TA: “The best people.” Roosevelt put outstanding people in place. He had Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, George Patton, Chester Nimitz and William “Bull” Halsey and many more…
SVE: Yes. FDR picked as his chief strategist in World War II General George C. Marshall who was a brilliant leader and a brilliant strategist who himself was a stickler for competence. He was famous for his “little black book” which he kept for many years in which he took notes on every officer he ever met, judging whether this person was fit for command or not.
TA: And he was just one of a great team.
SVE: Marshall then selected the best team to ever run our armed forces in wartime, I believe. Today I think Bush has tolerated poor performance by many people on his team. He’s appointed people based on ideology not competence. Then, after they perform poorly, he’s left them in office. The best example is Rumsfeld who committed epic blunders in his management of the Iraq war. The list is a yard long, ranging from not going in with enough troops, failing to plan the post war, disbanding the Iraq army, so on and so forth.
TA: “Uniting Americans.” I was struck by this. I didn’t know how Roosevelt had put aside his rather dramatic politics. He declared that “Dr. Win-the-war” had replaced “Dr. New Deal.” He put his politics on ice, to some extent.
SVE: Yes. He dropped his divisive domestic programs, the New Deal programs, and declared that he was now moving to a new program. And he appointed Republicans to high positions in his war cabinet, including Frank Knox, who’d been the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 1936 – he made him Secretary of the Navy. He made Henry Stimson, a Republican, Secretary of War. He also brought in other Republicans to run the war – Frank Lovett and others. And so he had a unity policy. Whereas the Bush team has had a… they’ve not pursued a unity policy on the war. They’ve basically excluded Democrats from consultation and policy-making. And they’ve used the war as a political weapon in local campaigns.
TA: “Forgotten lessons from a world war well and quickly won.” Let’s turn to Bill, calling from Holliston, Massachusetts.
Bill: A question: I think the history in and of itself is valuable and the points being made are valuable, but I’m just wondering about the comparison because the war seems so different. We have a war on a concept like terror… and just considering the different presidencies comparing Roosevelt to George Bush…
TA: On the basics… That’s a great question. Here we’ve got not the armored ranks of German panzers and Japanese Zero fighters, but terrorists, guerrilla war. We’ve got sectarian war to a greater extent we had in World War II by far. Are these apples and oranges?
SVE: Bill’s right. These wars are different in some ways but they’re similar in others. The most important different way is that World War II was an interstate war against a major power; the war on Al Qaeda is basically a global guerrilla war, if you will, quite different in its nature. But there are some eternities to war; some constants that are true in every war. Setting priorities will lead to a better result than failing to do it. You better go after your main enemy first, whoever that is. You should find allies where you can and ask them to bear as much burden as you can. This is always going to reduce your costs. You should solve problems the cheap way instead of the expensive way, and often persuading people to your cause is the cheapest, easiest way to get their help instead of using force. You need to appoint the best people, for sure, in every war – you’re going to do better when your finest are in charge rather than when your B team is in charge.
TA: So, whatever the parameters, these apply. Jackie’s calling from Melrose, Massachusetts.
Jackie: I think we’ve all forgotten that at the end of World War II, which we all supported, that Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and also President Eisenhower, our future Republican president, all said, “We must have no more wars!” And yet, for no reasons, we’ve had eight wars, all considered preemptive wars, wars of choice.
TA: They may not have been all preemptive, but there sure have been a lot of them. What do you take from that, Jackie? Are we just too trigger-happy?
Jackie: Let’s recall what Eisenhower said. Beware the military-industrial complex. And let’s not forget, I’m sorry to say, the Democrats (I’m a Democrat myself) enough Democrats voted for this war so that the war went on. Although, of course, Congress did not declare this war. The president just went at it after he got a certain kind of resolution…
TA: Let us pick that up. Steve, what about it? Are we too quick to go to war? It took Pearl Harbor to get us into World War II. People have said 9/11 is like that… Are we too quick?
SVE: I think, down through the last century, we’ve been both too quick and sometimes too slow. I think the US was too slow to mobilize against Germany in the ‘30’s. But I’d love to review with you the Cold War. I think the Vietnam War was a mistake – we should have stayed out. I think crossing the 38th parallel in 1950 was a mistake in Korea. We should have gone into Korea, but we shouldn’t…
TA: …should not have provoked the Chinese to step in…
SVE: Exactly. So we made big mistakes in the Cold War. We always do. That’s part of the warp and woof of managing world affairs – and it’s a great thing to talk about! But it could have been a lot worse. If FDR had not managed the endgame of World War II correctly, the Cold War could have been a much tougher business. It could have been lost. We could have failed to contain the Soviet Union.
TA: Why do you think the lessons of such an important war – all Americans and not just big security thinkers but everybody looks up to World War II and salutes it as the way it can and should be done. How could we forget lessons of such war?
SVE: This gets into another subject, but I’m disturbed that American public culture doesn’t study diplomatic and military history more. Our colleges and universities are increasingly not teaching it as a subject. History departments across the US are increasingly not teaching diplomatic and military history in their course offerings. This is a very dangerous thing that’s going on.
TA: In our White House, in our Pentagon, in the “halls of power” – those people don’t know?
SVE: Well, there’s a broad public culture here, I think, of Americans not thinking that history is serious business and that studying the past is a serious thing to do… I also think that within the Bush team there is a bad feeling about past US policy makers. They think in general that those who came before them were wimps and that they don’t have much to learn from past American policy makers. So they tend to be somewhat dismissive of the need to study and learn from those who came before them.
TA: We live and learn and the lessons can be painful.
TA: I want to turn now to another big security thinker… Andrew Bacevich joins me in the studio. He’s a professor of International Relations and History at Boston University. A US Army veteran himself, he served in Vietnam and Gulf War. He’s a retired US Army colonel, West Point graduate. His recent op-ed piece in the Boston Globe is called
Andrew Bacevich: Well, I think I’d pick up on one of the points Steve Van Evera was making about the quality of the leadership that is present in trying to guide this war. I think you could make the argument that our senior military leadership has been tremendously disappointing. The JCS -- the modern JCS – were created in 1947 as part of the reorganization of the national security apparatus post-World War II.
TA: Weren’t they created in part in response to the lessons of World War II? We thought this was the way to go. This was the FDR formula.
AB: It was the FDR formula. And indeed yes, it was the appreciation of the role played by people like General Marshall and others of the “Joint Chiefs,” as they were then called, but only existed because Roosevelt said they should exist not because they had any Congressional, legislative basis…
TA: …institutional structure?
AB: And so the idea in 1947 was that we were going to reinvent that institution, we were going to make it permanent, we were going to define it, we were going to create a body of senior military officers who would provide advice to the decision makers so the decision makers would craft wise policies, will avoid the war if it can be avoided, and will wage successfully those wars that could not be avoided.
TA: That is, the civilian decision-makers. The “deciders.” This was the interface at the top of the military with the top of our civilian structure.
AB: The JCS are not commanders. They are advisors to the civilian leadership that makes the basic decisions. To the Secretary of Defense and to the President. The defacto firing of General Peter Pace, the current chairman, to me is one more indication of the extent to which this institution, the JCS, has simply not served the nation well. Now, when Pace is let go – I said fired but he’s simply not reappointed for what is usually a second two-year term – Secretary of Defense Gates appoints Admiral Mike Mullen to replace him and says, “Mullen’s a good guy.” And Mullen is a good guy. And this was going to fix the problem. I think that even if Admiral Mullen is a “good guy,” this institution is so dysfunctional, has come to be so dysfunctional over its sixty years of existence, that a better approach is not to simply appoint a new guy to be in charge but to consider scrapping this system and create new mechanisms for providing military advice to the president. Because we do want good military advice to be provided.
TA: … But we do have to have an interface between the civilian and the military. They do need advice. What’s wrong with this current structure and how would you begin to change it?
AB: I think the problem does indeed go all the way back to the 1940’s when there were tremendous struggles between the military and the senior leadership over a wide variety of issues connected to nuclear weapons, connected to budgets, debate about basic strategy, racial desegregation. And the point is that the Joint Chiefs from the 1940’s have tried to intrude into arenas that in fact properly belong to the civilians.
TA: You said the history here is one of “conniving, double dealing, and mutual manipulation.” You remind us of Dwight D. Eisenhower, of course a former general himself, and he left the presidency in his farewell address warning that the military-industrial complex could well “endanger our liberties, our democratic processes.” You say that amounted to a tacit admission that he, as Commander-in-Chief, had lost control of his generals on the JCS.
AB: Because when you look at the history of the administration, the civil-military history is one in which senior military leaders were constantly trying to undermine or to change Eisenhower’s basic policies. A very good example of that… and the question here is not whether the policies were smart, the civilians need to decide. But a good example of that is the strategy of “massive retaliation,” the reliance on nuclear weapons, and this hurt the Army in a budgetary sense. Senior Army leaders like Matthew Ridgeway and Maxwell Taylor exerted themselves to find all sorts of ways – press leaks, going to Congress – to try to discredit the basic strategy of the President of the United States.
TA: But this time out, the dynamic feels the other way around. It’s been military officers who’ve been discredited by civilian leaders!
AB: The civilians have learned the lessons of the Eisenhower era, of the Kennedy era. And the big lesson they have learned is to try to marginalize the military and what we see – and I think, sadly, General Pace is a good example of this – the way to marginalize the Joint Chiefs is to appoint to the JCS people who are pliable, people who don’t rock the boat, people who are accommodating. Who will go along. That’s what we’ve gotten into…
TA: … Instead of our best advisors, our clearest thinkers, our strongest voices…
AB: Instead of the people who would say, “Mr. President, this will fail.” Or, “Mr. President, this enterprise” -- let’s say the invasion of Iraq – “will produce complications that we cannot possibly foresee.
TA: Of course Colin Powell talked like that! He was that kind of chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
AB: Well, he was. But of course again Powell, as I tried to explain in the piece, Powell also overplays his hand by intruding into all sorts of areas where he should not have strayed. Powell tried to make himself, if not the policymaker, at least somebody who could exercise veto power over the policies. Presidents ever since, both Clinton and this president, have said, “We’re not going to have that problem. We’re not going to choose smart, savvy, charismatic people to be the chairman…
TA: …Let’s turn to our listeners. Bill is calling from Charleston, South Carolina.
Bill: …Andy, let me send my condolences to you. Heartfelt. What do you see as the decision mechanism if not the JCS? Some independent form, like a Colin Powell sitting on the Hill somewhere?
AB: Well, again, it’s not decisions, it’s advice. But frankly, yes. What I suggest in the piece I wrote for the Boston Globe is that we separate the advisory function from the function and responsibility of managing the services, which is, of course, what the service chiefs do on a day-to-day basis. And I think we might want to give some consideration to creating a form of wise men – wisdom is, above all, what we want to be able to provide to the president and the secretary of defense. Wisdom. And candor. And, I think, the ability to rise above both parochial considerations and partisan considerations. And so these wise men might be retired officers but I would say not necessarily retired 4-star officers. 4-stars aren’t necessarily the wisest people. The wise men, and it could be women as well, might not even be retired officers, and might be people who have spent their lives studying warfare and military affairs. But some separate advisory body that the president and the secretary of defense could turn to with a high level of confidence that they would be receiving sound advice, not tainted by partisan or parochial considerations.
TA: The key thing you’re saying there is you would separate the body of advisors. They would not be involved in the day-to-day running of the military.
AB: Correct. And would have, in a sense, no axe to grind in terms of whether or not we should have more aircraft carriers or fewer jet fighters.
TA: But let me ask you about that. Someone might say, well, if they’re not involved in running the military, how are they going to know what we are actually going to do, our actual capacity. Will they have that sort of tactile feel for what can be done?
AB: Well, again, I would imagine that these wise men and women would be students of military affairs and students of national security policy. They may well – probably the great majority of them – will have been retired professional officers. But again, some of them might be people who had served as civilians with the secretary of defense, or people who had been academics. Not pushing the civilian… I’m just saying we ought to be able to think more broadly about who can provide that kind of advice, high quality advice. And the answer is not necessarily people who are wearing 4 stars on their shoulders.
TA: In uniform. In command.
TA: As I read it, it sounds wonderful. But isn’t this problem, the place where civilian and military meet in the system is problematic by beautiful design, isn’t it? I mean, how are you ever going to have advisors who are completely disinterested or who don’t have political agendas. Is that achievable?
AB: It may not be. And indeed, if we imagined that an administration came to power with its particular ideological point of view, then I suppose the president might just go ahead and pick advisors that he said… “I know these people think the way I think.” I would hope that, under this system that I’m outlining, the set of advisors would have to be confirmed by the Senate. And so there might be some efforts to insure that they weren’t simply political hacks, cronies, chosen by the president. But let me also emphasize that to me the larger argument I’m trying to promote here is not that I have the answer to the problem. What I’m really trying to promote is that there is a problem.
AB: There is a problem that the system we have evolved over the past sixty years, that we call the Joint Chiefs of Staff, doesn’t work.
TA: President Bush always says he’s taking the advice of his military commanders! Is that a lie?
AB: One hates to call the president a liar but I have real doubts, especially during the tenure of Secretary Rumsfeld, that military advice was being offered in a very forthright manner or was being welcomed. I have serious doubts…
TA: So what do you do in a situation where the civilian leadership seemed to really want this war? In our system, do we want a military that’s really going to push back and say no?
AB: We want a military that is going to push back in the sense that these leaders will say to the people for whom they work, “This is our judgment. This is what you must understand.” But emphatically, the decisions must be made at the end of the day by the civilian leadership.
TA: Are you sure those things have not been said within the Joint Chief? In this war?
AB: No. It’s difficult for us to say. When the archives are opened in 50 years, the picture may look somewhat differently. But you cited earlier the example of General Shinseki who was, at one moment, somebody who did speak up, who did say (he was testifying before a Senate committee), “This occupation is going to be uglier, more complicated, and more costly than we are imagining.” And he was humiliated.
TA: And we’re reading in the New Yorker Seymour Hersh reporting on General Taguba who, when he exposed Abu Ghraib – which was his job – was given the cold shoulder…
AB: …was punished and basically shoved into retirement. I suspect within the ranks of the flag officers in the various services they probably knew about his fate long before Seymour Hersh wrote about it in the New Yorker.
TA: Chilling effect…
AB: So again, to say that the JCS system is broken is not to say that the problem with our national security policy is exclusively reflecting a failure of the military. Heavens no! The primary responsibility for the debacle of Iraq rests with the president and with his inner circle of decision makers. But I do believe that the senior military leadership owns a piece of the responsibility.
TA: Let’s to Jeff in Buffalo, New York.
Jeff: My question was about the parallels people seem to be making with a lot of politicians looking for victory in Iraq and it seems to me that the parallels when we go back to World War II to find victory there – it seems to me we’re having a hard time figuring out which side we’re on. In many ways we are the invaders but we supported the insurgents back in World War II. And in many ways it seems to me that we’re not able to see the big picture. Which is maybe we’re fighting the problems that the Germans had keeping the land they had invaded. I’m wondering if we’re not seeing something a little bit of something very ugly in history inside the people that are running our decision-making.
AB: I endorse about 98.7 percent of what Stephen Van Evera said, making those comparisons and the principles that produced success there… I do think one place where the comparison breaks down – I think you had a caller who was getting at this – is that this is not a war like that war. The Iraq war is not a war like World War II. More broadly, I think, the national security threat posed by Islamic radicalism is not like the national security threat posed by National Socialism in Germany and by Japanese imperialism.
TA: Jeff is suggesting that the US is the bad guy this time. Has it come to that?
AB: Well, no. Judgments about good guys and bad guys are very, very difficult to make. I’m afraid that we’re not the bad guy, we’re the stupid guy in terms of the way we’ve gotten ourselves into the predicament. But the larger point is that there are real limits to the comparisons we can make with World War II in terms of understanding how to go forward in Iraq at this point. As a matter of fact, I’d say that in an operational sense there are very few lessons from World War II that could be applied to the battleground that is Iraq today.
TA: 10,000 pushing right now. We’re told [inaudible] Al Qaeda outside of Iraq. Stephen Van Evera looking at very basic things: alliances, “the best people,” marshalling resources – I suppose these are almost indisputable. I want to go to the other part of your recent argument. We hear again and again, in the presidential debates, almost everybody standing up and saying, “We are going to build a bigger US military.” On the Democratic side and on the Republican side. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama, McCain, Giuliani, Mitt Romney… all saying this. You say, “Wrong instinct! Wrong idea!”
AB: I think it’s a cheap applause line in a sense. Everybody knows that US forces – land forces – are indeed overstretched. They are. Emphatically overstretched. So it becomes an easy applause line for a presidential candidate to say, I’ll expand the size of the Army…
TA: But isn’t it clear we’re so overstretched people are going out over and over again? Shinseki said we needed more troops at the get-go. To a layperson, it can easily make sense. By gosh, we’d better more people in there!
AB: But to recite that applause line seems to me dodges the larger issue. The larger issue is the strategic one. If one thinks that, the way to win a global war on terror is to invade and “liberate” countries; if indeed we think that Iraq is a model for the future, then you betcha! I mean, then the problem of these speeches is that we don’t need 100,000 new troops, we probably need about a half million or a million.
TA: Which nobody is talking about.
AB: But the real question is, given the manifest failure of Iraq, what ought to be the principles that inform the way we are going to adjust to the treat posed by Islamic radicalism. And invade and “liberate” countries ought not to make anybody’s list of what the principles are.
TA: What’s your alternative vision?
AB: I think – again, my intent here is not to say “here’s the three easy steps for a simple answer” (if I could do that I’d be a famous guy!) – I think that rather than thinking of the response to Islamic radicalism as finding ways to use American power to fix Islam rather than trying to do that. That really is what the Bush administration has been attempting,
TA: Fix Islam with a rifle.
AB: We ought to try to contain the problem, to limit the problem which both recognizes the limits of our own power and also recognizes that, to the extent Islam is going to change and evolve, as it is, it’s going to change and evolve in response to forces that come from inside the Islamic world. What we want to do to try, as best we can, to nudge gently that process in a direction that will lead to congenial relations between ourselves and the people of the Islamic world. That’s a long project. It’s not in particular a military project.
TA: Let’s go to Sayeed in Boston.
Sayeed: …I just want to make a comment and maybe inject some reality into the rhetoric that in general surrounds this war on terror. My thought is that the US is allied with some of the most disgusting governments in the world – and with drug lords and warlords and people who are accused of war crimes. For example, people in Afghanistan. By betraying the true values of democracy in the West – equality, freedom, and justice and the rule of law…. Those debates are ignored and we’re talking about very detailed technicalities. What’s happening is not a gentle nudge. It’s really a grab for the helm, saying, “Make a radical turn our way…”
TA: Regime change. Pushing out the battle of ideas.
AB: I do think that would be a fair description of the thinking within the Bush administration probably roughly between September 12, 2001, and the president’s second inaugural address.
TA: Go for the head.
AB: …That we were going to be the sponsors of freedom and democracy and it’s our way or the highway. I think those notions have been utterly discredited by events. Not simply events in Iraq but events in the West Bank and in Gaza and Lebanon. The problem is now, in what really becomes its waning months, has no coherent set of principles to guide policy and really is now engaged in simply improvising and making things up from day to day. We are, in that sense, adrift.
TA: …How has your private loss [the recent loss of a beloved son in Iraq] has affected your thinking about this very public issue, this war, these challenges?
AB: Well, I have to say it hasn’t affected my thinking at all. One needs to try to evaluate policy based on a set of principles, informed by a sense of history, and the principles to which I subscribe – and the understanding of history that I have come to – persuaded me from the outset that this is an unnecessary war, and a wrong-headed war, and I long ago became persuaded that it’s an utterly mismanaged and bungled war. Nothing that’s happened to me personally has changed that.