Saturday, August 21, 2010

Andrew Bacevich: COIN, the military-industrial complex and where we are now

Several nights ago, I talked with Andrew Bacevich, whose work, as a soldier, a conservative and a scholar, on the broad corruption of American foreign policy since World War II, is a major contribution to understanding the emergence and intractability of imperial oligarchy and the abridgment or frailty of democracy in the United States. His new book, Washington Rules, gives an especially vivid account of how he came –he says quite slowly, but very deeply - to question the imperial pieties that are official Washington. Washington Rules also strikingly traces the David Petraeus/military elite/Frederick Kagan* recycling of the losing strategy in Vietnam, counterinsurgency. Andrew names this "Counterfeiting COIN." In the homage of Congress and the corporate media, Petraeus is ostensibly much more sophisticated than unmentioned and perhaps unthought of McGeorge Bundy or General Westmoreland. See here. But Iraq unravels as I write. See here and here.

Bacevich also sees this as hubris arising from the credo of global domination of American policy. We alone have 800 or so military bases on our own (the French have 5) as he and Chalmers Johnson have emphasized; only the US government thinks of intervening everywhere through military aid, training, troops, bribes, and the like. I would use the term genocidal in Vietnam and debased attempt at colonial conquest and occupation now. Andrew asked me – part jokingly - not to darken his perspective. Since I come from long experience in large anti-war movements, I – perhaps sometimes thoughtlessly – do not take darkness as crushing but as a reason to act against the odds (Andrew doesn't either, but he has never been part of an anti-war movement. He did see the huge and enormously diverse demonstration – 1 1/2 million people - in New York on Feb. 16, 2003. 500,000 were in barricaded off areas of 10,000 at the United Nations plaza itself, another million packed like sardines and shoved away by the police over the next 30 blocks). He thus does not fully see the efficacy and potential of such movements. But his books name, as well as it can be named, the sheer tragic destructiveness and counter-productiveness of American national security “strategy.”

For every poor young American, one might say, must dream in high school of being cycled through a base in Krgyzstan (most of us can’t spell Krgyzstan, let alone point it out on a map) to be blown up or crippled or get ptsd in the mind-numbing danger of Iraq (for the remaining 50,000 “non-fighting” soldier-occupiers) or Afghanistan. Must dream of ending up on the street, becoming one of the homeless of the next 50 years…

Didn’t George Washington warn us about European entanglements, let alone unending Middle Eastern ones?

One should not underestimate the creativity of movements from below. Who would have thought that there could be, at the outset, a huge anti-Vietnam war or civil rights movement? Who would have thought that 25 years would elapse before the elite could figure a way - the end of the draft, a divided and half privatized army - to evade "the Vietnam syndrome"? The elite will not even consider a draft because they all recognize that ordinary citizens are peace oriented - wouldn't want their sons and daughters fighting half away around the world, to end even like the truly admirable Pat Tillman - and would not put up with imperial wars. Public opinion increasingly opposes even a war which affects, life and death, perhaps the families and friends of 1% of the population.

Who would have thought that the greatest international and American movement against aggression in Iraq before a war was launched in world history would appear? I tend to think that against the odds, we can still accomplish a lot.

Yes, we could not stop Iraq, and many activists were deeply disheartened. Yet “Shock and Awe” in the recommendation of Wade and Ullman in a memo on the Pentagon website, called for making of Baghdad “a Nagasaki.” We have just passed the anniversary of that horror, a day of mourning in Japan and internationally. For the first time, the Obama administration sent representatives. US militarism has never looked at or regretted the carnage it has caused – a major reason that the elite, mindlessly, in its own foolish consensus, goes on and on, “the indispensable nation,” relying even as Obama tries to scale back, on belligerences.

Now in contrast to Bush, one of Obama’s important and decent concerns is to do something, however limited, to prevent nuclear war, including heading off a planned new cycle of nuclear weapons. Hence, he sent the representatives to Hiroshima. But Americans – whose country is the only one to have used these weapons – need to take in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That the Pentagon put up and honored a proposal to make Baghdad a "Nagasaki" now appears nakedly – morally speaking – for what it was.

The great international anti-war movement which made the Bush administration lies stand out even in the ordinarily client UN security council and removed legitimacy of any sort from that aggression, resulted in a far lower level – still horrifying – of initial murder of civilians. Rumsfeld bragged that the US had launched 3000 missiles and 3/4 had hit their targets. For the sake of argument, let us imagine that 2250 did hit their targets. What about the other 750? How many civilian lives were “not of interest” to the imperial Pentagon – the US doesn’t keep statistics of the supposedly lesser beings whom the Pentagon murders. And as for the strikes that hit "their targets," we have learned how accurate US “intelligence,” not even speaking the local languages, relying on informers who have interests in being remunerated, not in providing accurate information, is (Osama, I seem to remember, is still on the loose “in his cave” somewhere in the “tribal areas” of Pakistan “on dialysis”).

But many anti-war people were exhausted by a yearlong overtime effort and shattered morally and psychologically that such a corrupt war – one whose lies were excessive even compared to the ordinary “justifications” of American wars and were believed by no one but the corporate media - could have been waged. Many then went into the Democratic Party to try to elect an anti-war candidate – the feckless, although of course compared to Bush and Cheney decent Kerry. Later, it seemed we succeeded with Obama who, as Andrew pointed out, could have initially, in that great burst of enthusiasm in Grant Park and at his inauguration, a moment of enormous and unrepeatable moral credibility at home and internationally, something to steer the ship away from the destructiveness of the military-industrial complex. But Obama didn’t. He is now increasingly, as in Afghanistan – consider the new Petraeus campaign – the prisoner of it.

Only a radical movement from below – unfortunately a very difficult proposition – and not a savior within the establishment, can do it. Only such a movement made the savior in the first place and could challenge him to do better. Now the hopes in Obama – quite justified in the sense that he is an unusual person and politician (see his Dreams from my Father) – reveal, in their frustration that even a mass movement to shift from the horrors of Bush-Cheney, cannot simply through installing a new President – one who will preside over, become a creature of the war complex – hope to turn away the power of that complex. About wars, not so much “change we can believe in” has occurred. Now Obama is much better than other elite alternatives and gives us some time to organize from below (though he is harder – I will just speak for myself as someone who has long fought against racism and learned deeply from the civil rights movement – to organize against. But only determined democratic movements from below of ordinary people will put spine in the decent and comparatively non-self-destructive elements in the elite.

Every semester, Andrew teaches his students Eisenhower’s speech on the military-industrial complex. That speech is remarkable for its identification of the newness of the war economy which had not existed before World War II, before Korea, and already, entered every cranny of social and political life. As "Ike" put it:

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.”

In the Limits of Power and America Rules, Andrew has traced the shaping of American national security policy for 60 years by a goal of global dominance, of bases and projections of force everywhere. He has questioned rightly whether the US imperially had a need to shape regimes everywhere, corruptly intervene, as Eisenhower did, though covert action to overthrow elected leaders like Arbenz in Guatemala (1953) and Mossadegh in Iran (1954), and the like. Perhaps the United States needs to arm itself only (me, with the caveat of supporting multilateral or international forces) or mainly (Andrew) to defend ourselves in case of attack, a very different, less militarized sort of regime. One may recall here the words of Martin Luther King in his 1967 "A Time to Break Silence" on militarism, repression/racism and materialism. King aptly named, then and now, “my government – the most violent government in the world.” See here and here.

As Andrew pointed out to me, Eisenhower also worries in this speech about the corruption of academia, a corruption later multiplied by the CIA and the Rand corporation (a secret and thus phony “university” in which “researchers” are employed by and for the Pentagon).** Eisenhower cleverly speaks of the substitution of such funding for intellectual curiosity, a form of alienation remarkably visible in the mainstream of political “science.” See my "Powerful Pacifists" here and "Political 'Science' and American Aggressions" here.

I went home and read the speech and will use it in classes this year. As a fierce critic of the Vietnam War, Hans Morganthau named the academic-political complex conjoined with the military industrial complex (see Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch 2). He moves toward what I have named the war complex – the military-industrial-political-think tank-academic-corporate media complex – which more strikingly now pursues debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, fires drone missiles from CIA headquarters in Langley to kill civilians wantonly in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, and launches a drumbeat for Israel or the US bombing Iran. Obama still fortunately seems to be trying to head off this last, potentially near fatal mistake in terms of medium run “blowback” for most Americans, most Israelis and much of the rest of the world. America shipwrecked on Iraq and the financial crisis – what will an increasingly world war, full of further nasty surprises, in the Middle East, one endangered by nuclear weapons (Israel) and amplified by the fact that the US cannot send more forces (it has released some from Iraq for Afghanistan, but few poor teenagers, even in a depression, want to sign up) - lead to?

Resistance from below has enormous difficulties. Still, Americans as as Glenn Greenwald points out, are 62 per cent opposed to the Afghanistan war. See here. Greenwald emphasizes the irony: those who crusade against Park 51/the Cordoba Center are disgracing what is honorable in America, its shining conviction for freedom of religion – and using a majority opinion (some 68% in polls foolishly oppose the building of the center led by a Sufi imam who wants to heal relations between religions and detests the fanatics) to attack admirable American liberties. But if they believed in democracy (were not authoritarians), he suggests they would really be concerned to get America out of Afghanistan which some 62% of the population now opposes.

This is the time of withdrawal of combat troops in Iraq. It should be one of immense significance - Keith Olbermann and MSNBC did hours on it three nights ago – Rachel Maddow was in Iraq to watch and interview. Obama might say he is working toward ending these wars, keeping his promises. He has now brought out 100,000 troops (and perhaps a comparable number of mercenaries, though that is secret). Yet Obama did not even make a statement (he will later this month). Here we see the paradoxes of being a “war president,” who presides over the war complex and the slippery David Petraeus and his campaign to stay in Afghanistan, one that it will be hard for Obama to resist (despite the horrors of escalations and drones, Obama may even deserve some credit for trying – halfheartedly - to get some troops out of Afghanistan by 2011, particularly if he sticks to it).

Americans really should really be concerned to get the remaining 100,000 forces, 50,000 regular troops, 50,000-75,000 Xe/Blackwater corporation and other mercenaries out of Iraq.

The current Republican party (and Harry Reid and many other truckling Democrats) oppose basic liberties such as freedom of conscience and habeas corpus – see the pass Obama and co. have given on war crimes here. This elite coalition also ignores anti-war sentiment in the sphere where, if this were a genuine democracy and not a militaristic oligarchy, it ought to hold sway. This is not unusual, but a pattern (one that might be studied in a serious political science). A majority was against the Vietnam War in 1968; the US finally withdrew in defeat only in 1975.

About Afghanistan, the disjunction between the war complex and ordinary people could not be clearer. In a moral idiom, that is a difference between imperial authoritarianism or tyranny and a common good (see my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, chs. 1-2; Democratic Individuality, ch. 1). Those of us who respect democracy from below, the democracy of ordinary citizens who have not breathed the fumes of power nor entered the charmed circle of extolling the emperor’s new clothes, should take heart.

Here is part iv of Eisenhower’s speech:

“A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system -- ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.”

*"To celebrate (Petraeus's) genius was to bask in his reflected glory. Military analysts Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan could scarcely contain themselves. 'Great commanders often come in pairs,'" they announced, " Eisenhower and Patton, grant and Sherman, Napoleon and Davout, Marlborough and Eugene, Caesar and Labienus. Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno can now be added to the list.'...This was myth-making of a high order. Just as Americans had once pointed to Andrew Jackson's victory in the Battle of New proof that the United States had defeated Great Britain in the already concluded war of 1812, so now many came to see the surge as proof that US forces led by the redoubtable Petraeus with his gift for counterinsurgency had emerged victorious in Iraq." Bacevich, America Rules, p 205.

Kagan was also featured in the New York Times puff piece on Petraeus's campaign on the talk shows last weekend to extend the US fighting in Afghanistan. In the run-up to the Iraq War, I debated his father Donald Kagan, a friend and colleague of Allan Bloom, and reactionary classicist. Donald's view is that an empire - he has no interest in democracy or rights - must crush its enemies before they become strong. So immediately after World War I, a million soldiers lost, he imagined Britain invading Germany to get an incipient Hitler. He does not notice that Weimar was a democracy...He also spoke of the Treaty at the end of the first Gulf War as "Versailles 1991." To say that this is mad perhaps does not quite reach what the case is. His other son, Robert, lied with Bill Kristol about Iraq steadily in the run up to that War, and together, they were two - along with Gary Schmitt, of the three principals of the Project for a New American Century. Neocons, as advisors to Petraeus, are not far from power.

** Consider Hans Morganthau’s essay on the “pseudo-totalitarianism” of the CIA in the National Student Association (it secretly suborned the Presidents of the NSA), in Truth and Power, and Gilbert, Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch 2.

The conversation turned to Albert Wohlstetter, the former Trotskyist mathematician whose work on “fail-safe” – that missiles in flight must be resignaled to proceed to the target – was very likely decisive in heading off (so far) unintended nuclear war. Nonetheless, Wolfowitz, Fukuyama and Perle were decisively mentored in their particularly brand of imperial reaction primarily by Wohlstetter (along, for the first two, to a lesser extent, by Bloom and Strauss).


Anonymous said...

If you teach such ideas, I wonder how soon they will come after you. Look, the Israelis try to cleanse the academia.

Amentahru said...

Alan, did you ever write anything on Jean Elshtain's book "Just War Against Terror"? If so, i would love to read it.


Anonymous said...


One could sumarize Jean Elshtain's book in three words: begging the question.

Alan Gilbert said...


I was attacked on Denver television before I came up for tenure - as "a dangerous radical" at the University of Denver for organizing a picket line against KMGH, ch. 7 which was owned by McGraw Hill which published some 40 racist books on Managing Black Workers and the like - under apartheid. But the University of Denver has a strong commitment to freedom of speech, and so far, there is no problem. Since ordinary conservative ideas - habeas corpus distinguishes law from a system of tyranny and torture, it is bad to wage crusading wars to establish, at gunpoint, democracy and go broke doing it, and the like - are now off the charts in mainstream American politics, there is quite a wide spectrum of people who teach ideas which challenge the elite. Unfortunately, rather than listening or debating these ideas, the elite just goes over Niagara without a paddle, on and on...

Alan Gilbert said...


I seem to remember that Jean supported the war in Iraq as just. The war is, in fact, an aggression waged by the United States against the Iraqi people. Her facts - on the alleged connection of Al Qaida to Saddam and other matters - are wrong. I should underline: moral categories involved in just war theory - for instance, that aggression is mass murder, or that murder of civilians is wrong - are uncontroversial (see Democratic Individuality, ch. 1). But every aggressor claims that aggression has been waged against his people or allies, and hence he is answering it. Thus, Hitler in Poland (Polish Catholics were aggressing against Poles of German extraction) and the US in Vietnam (the North was "aggressing" against the South whereas Ho Chi Minh had led an independence movement throughout the country against France, and the US broke the Geneva accords, mandating elections in 1956, because as President Eisenhower corruptly, but frankly said: Ho Chi Minh has the support of 80% of the population and would win.

Think of lawyer's cases about murder - no controversy about the standard or that there is such a crime in this or other societies, deep ones about the facts and the details of the law - and you will get a clear picture of how to think about such arguments.

江仁趙雲虹昆 said...


jbulette said...

i wanted to comment on what [ thought was an oversight in andrew bacevich's excellent perspective detailed in the wash. rules. he mentioned operation phoenix in his scathing review of the viet nam war. phoenix was heralded as an effective effort to win the heart and minds of the vietnamese. in fact, it was a violent, criminal attack on unarmed rural noncombatants. 20,000 deaths have been attributed to this operation. i always thought mi li was instigated by phoenix opertives(cia). this is the apparently the same mindset that gave us abu greib, torture, and renditiions. i think elaborating the grizzly details of phoenix would add considerable weight to bacevich's effort to highhlight the self-destructiveness and immorality of militarists. john bulette m.d.

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