but we have Phil Donahue sitting in for Bill…, with Andrew Bacevich. I was rather disappointed that my PBS station chose to run a pledge drive piece instead of this…, but luckily I have Moyers’ web site to read the transcript. Here are a couple of snips regarding Syria.
PHIL DONAHUE: Welcome. I’m Phil Donahue. Bill Moyers is away this week and I am pleased to be sitting in for him. Our subject is Syria. What began there two and a half years ago as part of the Arab Spring has turned into an all-out civil war. Now has come the shocking evidence of poison gas attacks. A fatal escalation that has led President Obama to ask Congress to authorize the limited use of military force. And if we take action, where and when does it stop?
Historian and analyst Andrew Bacevich is here asking those questions. A graduate of West Point and Vietnam veteran, he served in the military for 23 years before becoming a professor at Boston University. His books include The Limits of Power and Washington Rules. His latest, Breach of Trust.
Andrew Bacevich, welcome…
ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you very much.
PHIL DONAHUE: Well, I’m pleased to have this chance to chat with you for a lot of reasons. One, I don’t know who else has more cred than you.
What would a 23-year graduate of West Point offer us now regarding the dilemma in which Obama finds himself, regarding Syria?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, if I could have five minutes of the president’s time, I’d say, “Mr. President, the issue really is not Syria. I mean, you’re being told that it’s Syria. You’re being told you have to do something about Syria, that you have to make a decision about Syria. That somehow your credibility is on the line.”
But I’d say, “Mr. President, that’s not true. The issue really here is whether or not an effort over the course of several decades, dating back to the promulgation of the Carter Doctrine in 1980, an effort that extends over several decades to employ American power, military power, overt, covert military power exercise through proxies, an effort to use military power to somehow stabilize or fix or liberate or transform the greater Middle East hasn’t worked.
“And if you think back to 1980, and just sort of tick off the number of military enterprises that we have been engaged in that part of the world, large and small, you know, Beirut, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and on and on, and ask yourself, ‘What have we got done? What have we achieved? Is the region becoming more stable? Is it becoming more Democratic? Are we enhancing America’s standing in the eyes of the people of the Islamic world?’
“The answers are, ‘No, no, and no.’ So why, Mr. President, do you think that initiating yet another war, ’cause if we bomb Syria, it’s a war, why do you think that initiating yet another war in this protracted enterprise is going to produce a different outcome? Wouldn’t it be perhaps wise to ask ourselves if this militarized approach to the region maybe is a fool’s errand.
“Maybe it’s fundamentally misguided. Maybe the questions are not tactical and operational, but strategic and political.” You know, I have to say, I’m just struck by the fact that Secretary of State Kerry has become the leading proponent for war. It’s our secretary of state’s job apparently–
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, the attack is a heinous act. Now does the fact that they were killed with chemicals make it more heinous than if they were killed with conventional ammunitions? I’m not persuaded.
I mean, I think the issue, one of the issues here, to the extent that moral considerations drive US policy, and I would say as a practical matter they don’t, but let’s pretend that they do to the extent that moral considerations drive US policy, there’s a couple of questions to ask. One would be, “Why here and not someplace else?”
I mean, just weeks earlier, the Egyptian Army killed many hundreds of innocent Egyptians. And we sort of shook our finger at Egypt a little bit, but didn’t do anything. So why act in Syria? Why not act in Egypt? I think that that needs to be sort of, that needs to be clarified.
And the other question will be, “Well, if our concerns are humanitarian, why is waging war the best means to advance a humanitarian agenda?” If indeed US policy is informed by concern for the people of Syria, let’s just pretend that’s the case even though I don’t think it is. If it’s informed by concern for the people of Syria, why is peppering Damascus with cruise missiles the best way to demonstrate that concern?
I mean, a little bit of creative statesmanship it seems to me might say that there are other things we could do that would actually benefit the people of Syria, who are suffering greatly, who are fleeing their country in the hundreds of thousands. Who are living in wretched refugee camps. Why don’t we do something about that? Why wouldn’t that be a better thing to do from a moral perspective than bombing Damascus?
As much as I appreciated the thoughts on Syria…, it was this piece about how our wars are being sold to us that I appreciated most. As Jackson Browne said in his song, Lives in the Balance …, “They sell our wars…, the same way they sell us clothes and our cars.” I have struggled when one of my Facebook friends posts or shares a “Support Our Troops” message. I feel a little guilty about not “liking” it. Andrew Bacevich explains what I haven’t been able to put into words myself.
PHIL DONAHUE: I know you’re a New Englander. And you in your book “Breach of Trust” you make an observation that I don’t I no one else would make, certainly not in the Boston area. You saw the United States military establishment use the Red Sox to promote pride, pride in the military, all good, all the time.
And they actually recreated a homecoming of a woman, Navy, who at first appeared on the big Jumbotron waving at her family. And of course the place erupted in cheers and the next thing you know from behind, a flag, she appeared real. And they were witness to well something that had to make you cry. She ran to embrace her family, and then the jets flew over. What’s wrong with that?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, it’s the Red Sox exploiting the military and the military exploiting the Red Sox. But both of them together in a sense are manipulating the American people. And they’re encouraging the American people to think that to go to the ballgame on the 4th of July and sing the national anthem and clap for their troops that are on the field.
And then to react emotionally to this contrived reunion all of that is intended to persuade the American people that they have acquitted their responsibility to the troops. That when we say, “We support the troops,” and we all say, “We support the troops,” that that suffices. I go to the ballgame, I clap, I get teary-eyed, and then when they say, “Play ball,” I buy a beer and basically forget about the episode.
And my argument in the book is that that’s not good enough. My argument in the book is that in many respects, that’s, well, it’s an exercise in what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Grace you award yourself without having earned. Grace that enables you to feel that you are virtuous when in fact you are complicit in wrongdoing. And I think that actually describes the relationship between the American people and the American military.
Now some people will be offended to hear me say that. But my argument would be that our first obligation to those we love, to those we care about, is to protect them, to preserve them, to keep them out of harm. And therefore, if indeed we love the troops, if indeed we regarded them as the ultimate manifestation of what is good about our country, then we would all want to make sure that they were only sent in harm’s way when absolutely necessary.
We would insist that they should not be abused. Now since 9/11, they have been abused. Particularly the American Army and the United States Marine Corps have been abused. And I think that that’s wrong. I think that it’s undemocratic, I think that it’s immoral and I think that the American people need to be called on it.
PHIL DONAHUE: Andrew Bacevich, Professor of History, Boston University, graduate of West Point, Army veteran, thank you very much for this very informative hour.
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