A Conversation With Historian Andrew Bacevich

Susan Kaplan, Senior Reporter and Host of All Things Considered, New England Public Radio

“…Out of order we created chaos. Initially that chaos bred an organization called Al Qaeda in Iraq. But in place of Al Qaeda in Iraq we got this new entity called ISIS. I think it is a fair statement that were the US to have not invaded Iraq in 2003 ISIS simply would not exist today.” —Historian, former Army Colonel and Vietnam War veteran Andrew Bacevich.[1]

I’m a public radio reporter with a passion for covering veterans and the military. Newly acquired knowledge from graduate work in the UMass Amherst history department has woven into my journalism, for the better.

Interviewing authors goes with my job. Andrew Bacevich’s life trajectory has taken him from West Point to Vietnam, Army Colonel to Boston University professor. This storehouse of experience gives his arguments and analysis on war and the military bricks and mortar credence. Bacevich has walked the walk.

Like many other veterans I’ve interviewed, he seldom speaks and never boasts about his service. We spoke on Wednesday, April 13. I was at New England Public Radio in Springfield, Massachusetts. Bacevich, on a book tour, spoke from a hotel room in Atlanta. In our interview Bacevich said, “The US effort to use military power in an effort to somehow fix the greater Middle East pre dates 9/11 by 20 years.” This point is emphatically illustrated at the start of his newest book, America’s War For the Greater Middle East: A Military History.

Andrew J. Bacevich, <i>America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History</i>. New York: Random House, 2016.

Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. New York: Random House, 2016.

The narrative begins in the late 1970s and early 1980s during President Jimmy Carter’s administration. In contrast to Carter’s often-admirable post Presidency reputation, Bacevich contends that during his actual presidency Carter “was insufficiently devious” and “lacked guile” in his decisions and actions about the Persian Gulf.[2] As an example, he describes Carter’s creation in 1980 of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force as an organization that “existed largely on paper.”[3]

However, Bacevich argues, as the need to bolster mostly unexamined assumptions about protecting and being protected from the larger Persian Gulf region embedded in Pentagon “think,” the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force morphed into the United States Central Command, often called CENTCOM. He suggests this move cemented if not a strategy then a commitment to military involvement in the region that remains unabated today.

The book is arranged chronologically and so next turns to President Ronald Reagan, highlighting a directive to the Pentagon to create what Bacevich says could be considered the first draft of the Bush Doctrine of Preemptive war.[4] This massive military build up, Bacevich argues, was predicated on the belief that leaders such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi had to go, and that Reagan basically followed in lock step with the Carter administration’s doctrine. Bacevich unsparingly says about Reagan, “His piece of America’s War for the Greater Middle east was confused, slapdash, and inconsistent. In sum, it was a dog’s breakfast.”

In our interview Bacevich said the Bush administration’s use of 9/11 as a justification for invading the country, along with the evidence of weapons of mass destruction, was spun from whole cloth. He acknowledges the magnitude of 9/11’s scorch on American citizens, including politicians and the press. Still, he says, as horrifying as that act of extreme violence was, it “ just kind of upped the ante rather than initiating the story.”[5]

Bacevich went on to say, “It’s crucially important to understand here in 2016, the gap between the arguments that were presented for invading Iraq and the actual purposes that the George W. Bush administration had in mind.” He believes the US did not invade Iraq because Iraq was strong, but because the US perceived Iraq to be weak.

In the wake of 9/11, Bacevich says, the Bush administration looked to use American military power to transform a large part of the Islamic world—certainly, he says, the Arab world. “Some people referred to the idea as ‘drain the swamp,’ meaning to remove the conditions in the Islamic world that gave rise to organizations like Al Qaeda so that an episode like 9/11 will never be repeated.”[6]

Bacevich believes that the American people are not without culpability, especially now that there is vast evidence of millions of people in countries like Syria who are displaced and terrorized by the region’s continued instability. He says the US should take in many, many more Syrian refugees than the Obama administration has suggested.

When I asked him if he thought that would actually happen he said, “No, of course not. And indeed the fact that it won’t happen reveals how thin is the American people’s willingness to acknowledge that there is a moral obligation. So, it’s easier to sort of ease my conscience to send the US Marines to go and fight in the Syrian Civil War conflict and pretend that I’m actually doing something to address the moral catastrophe that previous US policies have undertaken, but of course all that does is lead to the death of more Marines.”[7]

Retired Boston University Professor Andrew Bacevich’s new book is called America’s War For the Greater Middle East: A Military History. Bacevich is a former Army Colonel who served in Vietnam. Bacevich’s son also served in the military; he was killed in Iraq in 2007.

Here’s the link to my interview with Andrew Bacevich on NEPR. It ran during All Things Considered on May 5, 2016. You can also listen below:


[1] Andrew J. Bacevich, interview by Susan Kaplan, New England Public Radio, April 13, 2016.

[2] Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s War For The Greater Middle East: A Military History. New York: Random House, 2016. Pp. 10-11.

[3] Ibid, p. 34.

[4] Ibid, p. 51.

[5] Ibid, p. 51.

[6] Andrew J. Bacevich, interview.

[7] Andrew J. Bacevich, interview.

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