The Fiction of U.S. Isolationism
The old canard is an obstacle to a realistic, fact-based approach to foreign policy.
By ANDREW J. BACEVICH • April 4, 2017
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.
Few things would be of greater benefit to the discussion of American statecraft, past, present, and future, than to banish once and forever the term “isolationism.” Whatever descriptive value it may once have possessed has long since vanished. At a time when the United States finds itself mired in wars that are needless, costly, and counterproductive, those who chalk up our troubles to incipient isolationism are perpetrating a hoax.
History After ‘The End of History’
Andrew Bacevich and Tom Engelhardt
January 09, 2017
Who Runs the Pentagon?
Not Defense Secretary Ashton Carter—while he may be more than a figurehead, “the building” has no boss.
By Andrew J. Bacevich
JANUARY 20, 2016
Where Is the Foreign Policy Debate in 2016?
The Charles Koch Institute brings a much needed discussion to New Hampshire.
By SCOTT MCCONNELL • January 19, 2016
By Andrew J. Bacevich DECEMBER 09, 2014
THE JUST-RELEASED Senate report on CIA interrogation practices since 9/11 contains nothing that would have surprised the journalist and critic Randolph Bourne. Back in 1918, in an essay left unfinished at the time of his death later that year, Bourne had warned that “war is the health of the state.”
And so it is. War thrusts power into the hands of those who covet it. Only the perpetuation of war, whether under the guise of “keeping us safe” or “spreading freedom,” can satisfy the appetite of those for whom the exercise of power is its own reward. Only war will perpetuate their prerogatives and shield them from accountability.
What prompted Bourne’s pungent observation was US intervention into the disastrous European war that began a century ago this summer. In 1917, Congress had acceded to President Woodrow Wilson’s request to enter that stalemated conflict, Wilson promising a world made safe for democracy and vowing to end war itself.
Bourne foresaw something quite different. War turned things upside down, he believed. It loosened the bonds of moral and legal restraint. It gave sanction to the otherwise impermissible. By opting for war, Bourne predicted, the United States would “adopt all the most obnoxious and coercive techniques of the enemy,” rivaling “in intimidation and ferocity of punishment the worst government systems of the age.”
And so it has come to pass, the United States in our own time having indisputably embraced torture as an allowable practice while disregarding the rule of law and trampling underfoot the values to which the chief representatives of the state routinely profess to adhere.
How did this happen? To blame a particular president, a particular administration, or a particular agency simply will not do. The abuses described in the report prepared by the Senate Committee on Intelligence did not come out of nowhere. Rather than new, they merely represent variations on an existing theme.
Since at least 1940, when serious preparations for entry into World War II began, the United States has been more or less continually engaged in actual war or in semi-war, intensively girding itself for the next active engagement, assumed to lie just around the corner. The imperatives of national security, always said to be in peril, have taken precedence over all other considerations. In effect, war and the preparation for war have become perpetual. If doubts existed on that score, the response to 9/11, resulting in the declaration of an ambiguous and open-ended global war on terrorism, ought to have settled them.
One consequence of our engagement in permanent war has been to induce massive distortions, affecting apparatus of government, the nation, and the relationship between the two. The size, scope, and prerogatives accorded to the so-called intelligence community — along with the abuses detailed in the Senate report — provide only one example of the result. But so too is the popular deference accorded to those who claim to know exactly what national security requires, even as they evade responsibility for the last disaster to which expert advice gave rise.
“It is worth remembering the pervasive fear in late 2001 and how immediate the threat felt,” Senator Dianne Feinstein writes in introducing the report prepared under her direction. Yet “pressure, fear, and expectations of future terrorist plots do not justify, temper, or excuse improper actions taken . . . in the name of national security.” Hers is a carefully reasoned judgment. As such, it deserves a respectful hearing. Sadly, however, it falls well short of being adequate.
Critics will accuse Feinstein of endangering the nation’s safety, soiling its reputation, hanging out to dry patriotic agents doing what needed doing in our name. This is all nonsense. Her actual failing is far worse. She and her colleagues are doing what the state always does for itself in these situations: administering a little public slap on the hand, after which an ever-so-quiet return to business as usual will ensue.
War is the health of the state. Headline-grabbing scandals involving the national security apparatus come and go. Today’s is just one more in a long series extending back decades. As long as the individuals and entities comprising that apparatus persist in their commitment to permanent war, little of substance will change. Bourne grasped that essential truth. Until Americans come to a similar appreciation, they should expect more of the same.
Even if we defeat the Islamic State, we’ll still lose the bigger war
By Andrew J. Bacevich
October 3, 2014
President Obama did not initiate the long and varied sequence of military actions that has produced this situation. Yet he finds himself caught in a dilemma. To give the Islamic State a free hand is to allow proponents of the caliphate to exploit the instability that U.S. efforts, some involving Obama himself, have fostered. But to make Syria the latest free-fire zone in America’s never-ending Middle East misadventure will almost surely prolong and exacerbate the agonies that country is experiencing, with little ability to predict what consequences will ensue.
Even if U.S. and allied forces succeed in routing this militant group, there is little reason to expect that the results for Syrians will be pretty — or that the prospects of regional harmony will improve. Suppress the symptoms, and the disease simply manifests itself in other ways. There is always another Islamic State waiting in the wings.
Obama’s bet — the same bet made by each of his predecessors, going back to Carter — is that the skillful application of U.S. military might can somehow provide a way out of this dilemma. They were wrong, and so is he.
We may be grateful that Obama has learned from his predecessor that invading and occupying countries in this region of the world just doesn’t work. The lesson he will bequeath to his successor is that drone strikes and commando raids don’t solve the problem, either.
Obama is picking his targets in Iraq and Syria while missing the point
By Andrew J. Bacevich SEPTEMBER 10, 2014
Destroying what Obama calls the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant won’t create an effective and legitimate Iraqi state. It won’t restore the possibility of a democratic Egypt. It won’t dissuade Saudi Arabia from funding jihadists. It won’t pull Libya back from the brink of anarchy. It won’t end the Syrian civil war. It won’t bring peace and harmony to Somalia and Yemen. It won’t persuade the Taliban to lay down their arms in Afghanistan. It won’t end the perpetual crisis of Pakistan. It certainly won’t resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
All the military power in the world won’t solve those problems. Obama knows that. Yet he is allowing himself to be drawn back into the very war that he once correctly denounced as stupid and unnecessary — mostly because he and his advisers don’t know what else to do. Bombing has become his administration’s default option.
Rudderless and without a compass, the American ship of state continues to drift, guns blazing.