Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor of international relations at Boston University, is one the most persistent critics of the “Long War.” He is also one of just a handful of critics who can be labeled “conservative.” His latest foray into the debate was yesterday’s piece in the Washington Post‘s “Outlook” section in which he argues against resourcing Gen. McChrystal’s counterinsurgency plan for Afghanistan and recommends, instead, pulling back, engaging in targeted counterterrorist strikes, beefing up security at home and, more generally, adopting a policy of containment. As with U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, Bacevich says the “U.S. should wage a cold war to keep the threat at bay. Such a strategy worked before. It can work again.” ”The goal,” he states, “ought to be limited but specific: to insulate Americans from the fallout” of the likes of al Qaeda.
To carry out the strategy, Bacevich argues, first, the military should focus on targeting the jihadist leadership for elimination through the use of special operations forces (SOF). He eschews the use of Predator strikes as being too imprecise and leading to civilian casualties and, hence, counterproductive as it generates new hatreds and new jihadists. But Bacevich is only kidding himself if he thinks that SOF strikes: a) are not likely to lead to civilian casualties, as well; b) are far less likely to be employed by risk-averse politicians; c) operationally, are far more difficult to carry out when the terrorists are in deep inland areas such as in Afghanistan or Pakistan; and d) are rarely effective in the absence of close-in intelligence to confirm in real-time the exact location of the jihadist target. All of which argues that Bacevich’s “over-the horizon” counterterrorist strategy is, on its own terms, impractical.
Moreover, as Bacevich himself notes, decapitation strategies have not eliminated the threat posed by Hamas or Hezbollah–nor, as Gen. McChrystal could attest, did it eliminate the threat posed by Sunni insurgents and terrorists in Iraq. No one is arguing that such targeted strikes should not be part of a larger game plan but, so far, they have not shown themselves to be strategically decisive.
The second element in Bacevich’s preferred strategy is that of “containment”-meaning in this instance enhanced defenses at our ports of entry (be they physical or electronic) and beefed-up efforts to deny al Qaeda and company the financial and material resources needed to carry out their operations. To this, one has to ask: where has Bacevich been? Massive amounts of money and resources have been put into doing precisely what he now recommends. The only way significantly to tighten up things more would be for the U.S. to substantially isolate itself from the rest of the world, socially, economically and politically–some elements of which Bacevich well might support but which has no currency with the vast majority of the country.
In addition, Bacevich ignores the latter days of the Cold War when containment under the Reagan administration was modified to include not only beefing up American and allied defenses but also challenging the Soviets and their proxies around the world. Indeed, in can be argued that it was the timely modification to containment that made that policy ultimately successful in bringing the Cold War to an end. It was precisely this pressure and the shift in geo-strategic momentum that led Gorbachev to believe that something had to be done to re-energize the Soviet system.
And “finally,” Bacevich notes, “there is the matter of competition” between two distinct world views–in this instance, not between communism and liberal democratic rule and free markets, but between radical Islam and liberal democracies. According to Bacevich, however, the difference in the competition between then and now is that the first struggle was really centered on the question of which vision could prove to be the more effective in the material realm; who could deliver the goods so to speak. Today’s conflict, in contrast, is “rooted in a dispute over God’s place in human history”; the competition is about which view provides the more moral, more just, the more attractive social order. And, in Bacevich’s view, we win that battle only when the U.S. become a far better society, “when we live to the ideals that we profess” and attend to the “pressing issues of poverty, injustice, exploitation of women and the global environmental crisis” that he thinks afflict us. As the comic strip character Pogo used to say: “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Putting aside Bacevich’s impoverished, reductionist reading of the competition between the West and the Communist Bloc during the Cold War–a reading that, for example, neither dissidents nor the late Pope John Paul II would accept–the reality is the West and the U.S. are doing pretty well on the attraction front. Voting with their feet, Muslims in massive numbers have not stopped attempting to immigrate to Europe and the U.S and, indeed, in the case of the U.S., Muslim immigration has actually increased since 9/11. Second, Bacevich ignores the value of winning on the battlefield when it comes “conflicts rooted in the dispute over God’s place in human history.” Precisely because Islam is a religion in which God, Allah, intervenes in this world on behalf of the just, it is theologically and psychologically difficult to sustain the idea that God is on your side if, over time, you are clearly on the losing side and your vision for the future seems ever more distant.
Bacevich begins his piece by noting that, at the “dawn” of the Long War, then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a military audience that “We have two choices. Either we change the way we live, or we must change the way they live.” Bacevich is not so much arguing with Rumsfeld’s basic proposition as just choosing the first of the two options. As with many of the more famous of the former secretary’s axioms, it is overly stark. First, we have made changes in how we live. Second, the “they” of the Muslim world is not, as Bacevich suggests in his article, a monolithic entity. And, of course, the Muslim world has changed. However imperfect Iraq and Afghanistan’s democracies are, they are evidence that neither Baathist nor Taliban rule are inevitable. Afghans are now, for example, disputing the legitimacy of a recent presidential election; they are not calling for a return of a Taliban rule–which, by the way, was a form of rule only recently imposed on the Afghan people.
Yet Rummy’s ruminations are a comfortable fit for Bacevich because the real, underlying point of not only this particular piece but his views more generally is one connected to his own particular brand of conservative Catholicism. For Bacevich, the U.S. is too secular, too trade happy, too materialist. (“The exploitation of women” referred in his article is not, as presumably the Post editors thought, about “equal pay for equal work” but more likely about the sexual objectification of women.) You see, America is really a nation of imperfect men, marked by original sin, who have no right to take the lead globally. Our real concern should be with our own failings-not American preeminence.
Taking his lead from Reinhold Niebuhr, Bacevich believes we are on an utopian mission to remake the world–or, in this instance, the Muslim world; it is a program that is immoral both because it is impossible (and hence counterproductive) given human nature and because, in pursuing it, we adopt policies that chip away at our own morality. (The ends begin to justify the means, etc, etc.) The more limited our ambitions in Bacevich’s view, the less damage we do to ourselves and others.
All of which contains a kernel of truth–but only a kernel. Whatever problems we face domestically, it is just an historical fact that a broader American vision abroad has typically made us a better people at home. Nor is there any evidence that a less expansive (and hence less expensive) foreign and defense policy would free up monies that miraculously would solve a problem like poverty or second-rate schools. To the contrary, more government funds could well confound finding the policies that would actually help alleviate those problems. However, the larger point is that Bacevich and other conservative critics, like George Will, are standing on unsound ground when they argue that the transformative goal of the Long War is utopian. It might be long and it might be difficult but, if anything, the evidence so far suggests that the establishment of decent democratic regimes is possible in all kinds of regions and in countries with diverse cultural histories. That hardly means that failure in the Long War isn’t possible; but to hear Bacevich and others tell it, is inevitable.
Indeed, the underlying irony of the Bacevich’s piece is his holding up the long, hard slog of the Cold War and containment as the model for dealing with today’s terrorist threat. If there was a way to transport him back into time-say, the late 1940s-it is almost certain that he would have joined Walter Lippmann in declaring containment a “strategic monstrosity” in light of his judgment about the American character and the long, flawed history of our European allies. Andy would have been wrong then, just as he’s wrong now.
Gary Schmitt is director of advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute.