Why fight wars our president doesn’t believe in and we can’t pay for? asks retired colonel and military historian Andrew Bacevich.


Sacrifice. It’s a word Andrew Bacevich uses when discussing U.S. national security policy. While he pays respect to the tiny percentage of Americans who currently fight our wars, he also laments that more Americans don’t help shoulder those wars, and decries our politicians for having stopped asking anything of the American people. Bacevich, though, knows what it means to sacrifice. A retired U.S. Army colonel, Bacevich served in post-war Germany, fought in Vietnam, and taught at West Point. In 2007, he lost his twenty-seven-year-old son, Andrew, Jr., in Iraq. While Bacevich refuses to speak about this in interviews (“what is private ought to remain private”), one can surmise that the tragedy was compounded by Bacevich’s profound opposition to the war. Indeed, Bacevich fundamentally disagrees not only with current U.S. militarism in the Middle East but with the unwieldy behemoth that the American national security state has become.

Bacevich’s opposition, however, was not born of a father’s anger over a lost son. It is the opposition of a scholar, teacher, and author who has spent nearly half his life studying American foreign policy and seeing, sometimes from the inside, its uneven, often terrible results. It is an opposition that gathered particular urgency after 9/11, and since then Bacevich has proved an unrelenting and increasingly influential critic of U.S. national security policy. As Bacevich views it, that policy continues to follow a playbook that was penned sixty years ago and no longer makes sense, if it ever did. Blind adherence to this playbook has resulted in our current predicament: 370,000 troops stationed in more than thirty-five countries, a Middle Eastern war that looks increasingly like a quagmire, a defense budget that is bankrupting the country, and, worst of all, a political system that has become little more than theater.

While these criticisms may seem akin to those leveled by “radicals” such as Dennis Kucinich, Bacevich maintains that his views are consistent with classic conservatism. In fact, Bacevich began his writing career in right-leaning publications such as the National Review and the Weekly Standard. But his trenchant critiques of U.S. militarism clashed with the views of mainstream conservatives, and in recent years he has been embraced primarily by those on the left. He is now a frequent contributor to The New Republic, The Nation, and TomDispatch.com. A professor of history and international relations at Boston University, he has authored four books on U.S. foreign policy. His latest, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, was released in August.

In Washington Rules, Bacevich argues that U.S. national security policy remains mired in post-World War II exigencies, which held that the best way to defend against Soviet encroachment or the rise of another Hitler was through a gargantuan defense and vigorous military and economic interventionism. Initial successes, most notably with the rebuilding of Europe under the Marshall Plan, were soon overshadowed by a dubious new creation. President Eisenhower dubbed it the “military-industrial complex”—“an immense military establishment” married to a “permanent armaments industry” whose “economic, political, even spiritual” influence reached into “every city, every Statehouse, and every office of the Federal government.” The heads of the new agencies that formed this complex concocted a self-sustaining credo that Washington continues to worship: American global militarism is essential to preserving peace, it is always benevolent, and to withdraw it would mean “isolationism, chaos, and catastrophe.”

These are the “Washington rules,” and they’ve been embraced by every American president since Truman. While Bacevich had hoped that our current president would begin a rewrite, he asserts that Obama blew that chance with his decision to escalate the Afghanistan War. Indeed, Bacevich has grown increasingly critical of Obama, a president for whom he voted and has called “the smartest guy to come down the pike, in terms of politics, in a long time.” In the following interview, Bacevich discusses his increasing disillusionment with Obama, and his pessimism about the prospects of the U.S. ever changing course in its national security policy. Why pessimism? Because of America’s continued dependence on foreign oil, and the likelihood that many future wars will be fought over it. Of course, reducing this dependence would involve asking our citizens to do something they just don’t seem to want to do: sacrifice.

—Jake Whitney for Guernica

Guernica: In your new book, you point to Eisenhower’s farewell address as a courageous moment for an American president. That’s a well-covered speech (it turns fifty in January), and Eisenhower was on his way out of office. Why invoke that?

Andrew Bacevich: When you go back and read that speech, you notice that Eisenhower was not suggesting that we disarm or that our military power was unnecessary. What’s important is Eisenhower’s charge to the American people to be alert and knowledgeable about our meshing enormous military power with liberal democratic values, to pay attention and be sensitive to the dangers of that dilemma. We need to recognize how we have failed to respond to that charge. In a time when war has become seemingly a permanent phenomenon, the American people tend to think that their only obligation with regard to defending the country is to act as cheerleaders for the less than 1 percent of our fellow citizens who serve.

Guernica: In Washington Rules, you define Washington as not only policymakers but also corporations and financial institutions that directly benefit from America remaining in a state of perpetual war. Are you saying that Wall Street is also part of the military-industrial complex?

Andrew Bacevich: No question about it. In my book I refer to something I call the American credo. That is the claim that the United States alone has been called upon to lead, liberate, save, and transform the world: If we fail to shoulder the task then the world will be thrown into chaos. There is not an iota of evidence to support this proposition. But it is one that is deeply embedded in the thinking of corporate America, in the thinking of the people that run the New York Times or CBS news. It pervades the institutions that comprise the national security state—the CIA, chiefs of staff, military services. But I argue that these convictions stem not only from a perception of what is good for the country but also from what is good for the institutions and the people who lead them. The national security consensus may well serve these institutions; the Washington rules do provide the basis for the Pentagon to argue for its budget; the Washington rules do provide opportunities for generals and admirals to fly about the world in their executive jets. But the Washington rules no longer serve the well-being of the country. People in Washington are blind to that reality.

It’s no longer America’s army; it’s now Washington’s.

Guernica: A point that you’ve repeatedly made is that a key moment on our path to permanent war was when Nixon ditched the draft in the nineteen seventies because it disengaged most Americans from wars fought in their name.

Andrew Bacevich: Yes, the abandonment of the draft and the concept of the citizen-soldier—as well as the refusal of the present generation to pay for wars. We don’t serve and we won’t pay: these two factors together have created circumstances in which Washington has acquired ever greater latitude in terms of deciding when and where to send the army. To state the matter starkly, it’s no longer America’s army, it’s now Washington’s.

Guernica: You’ve also said that Americans don’t really support the troops; they give lip service to it, affix stickers to the backs of their cars, but not much more. Politicians, too, pay soldiers meager wages, overextend them, and don’t take care of them when they return with mental or physical disabilities. Yet politicians invariably laud the troops as our “best and brightest.”

Andrew Bacevich: From one perspective, of course, it’s entirely appropriate to laud the troops. Whether the wars make sense or not, our soldiers choose to serve and make very considerable sacrifices. That is tremendously admirable. The problem is that we believe that simply saying nice words suffices to acquit our own obligation. The ongoing cost of American wars since 9/11 comes to about four hundred billion dollars per year; those are just war costs, not the Pentagon’s full budget. If you divided that by the number of taxpaying households, the result is approximately three thousand dollars per household. So if we were to pay for our current wars, the average household tax bill would go up by some three thousand dollars per year. If our government told us we needed to pay another three thousand dollars per year, the American people would be instantly reengaged with the wars undertaken in their name. Yet we know the cost is being passed to future generations. That we view that as acceptable is as irresponsible and immoral as imposing the burden of service and sacrifice on such a small minority. The politicians bear considerable responsibility. But we are also complicit.

Guernica: One reason we are complicit, though, is because we’ve been repeatedly told that these wars are necessary.

Andrew Bacevich: Part of the argument of my book is that they’ve convinced us that there is no alternative to the national security consensus to which we have adhered.

If our government told us we needed to pay another three thousand dollars per year, Americans would instantly reengage with the wars undertaken in their name.

Guernica: You say that Washington repeatedly tells us that the only alternative would be “isolation and catastrophe.”

Andrew Bacevich: Anybody who questions our militarized approach to global leadership is immediately labeled an isolationist—as if there were no alternatives between global militarism and pulling up the drawbridges and turning inward. There are all kinds of alternatives. Where we the people have fallen down—and where the media have fallen down and where the people who write books have fallen down—is in failing to articulate those alternatives so that the national security debate could be richer. Because there really is no national security debate.

Guernica: That debate I presume should include discussing how our actions abroad lead to some of these disasters.

Andrew Bacevich: Absolutely. Let’s take the case of the wars that followed 9/11. Washington is absolutely committed to the proposition that 9/11 came out of the blue. There’s no historical context. Because if you insist that there ought to be some historical explanation for 9/11—which is different from saying that there is a justification for 9/11; there cannot be a justification—and you look for the historical roots of that heinous act, then you necessarily confront questions about U.S. policy in the Islamic world. For instance, viewed in the context of the Cold War, U.S. support of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the nineteen eighties to try to eject the Soviets looks like genius. But in a post-9/11 context U.S. involvement in Afghanistan looks quite different. And then there’s Saddam Hussein. Americans discovered Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait in 1990. Well, the U.S. had forged a partnership with him during the nineteen eighties because it was convenient to support him against the Islamic Republic of Iran. But why was Iran hostile to the U.S.? Is it possible that it had something to do with U.S. involvement in overthrowing [Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad] Mossadegh back in 1953 and then supporting the regime of the Shah for twenty-five years? The story is a complicated one. And to tell that story necessarily calls into question the national security consensus to which we continue to adhere. But Washington doesn’t want those questions raised. And I’m sorry to say Americans are quick to defer to Washington on these matters.

Guernica: During the 2008 presidential race, Ron Paul suggested that our foreign policy did have something to do with 9/11, and he was immediately accused of saying the U.S. deserved to be attacked.

Andrew Bacevich: The 2008 presidential campaign illustrated how impoverished the debate over national security policy has become. With the U.S. fighting two wars, it was the perfect opportunity for a searching reexamination of U.S. national security policy. There were two candidates who wanted to promote that re-examination, Ron Paul on the right and Dennis Kucinich on the left, and they were both treated as wackos. Their anti-interventionist views fell outside what the mainstream of the two parties and the media considered to be permissible. So the national security debate ended up being: Are you for the Iraq war or are you for the Afghanistan war? We elected the guy who was for the Afghanistan war, and lo and behold that’s what we got.

Is there any evidence that U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is contributing to the instability of Pakistan? Yes, a mountain of evidence.

Guernica: One of your most provocative arguments in Washington Rules is that American military and political leaders exaggerate foreign threats in order to increase their own budgets and power, and while these leaders talk about preserving peace their actions actually encourage military confrontations. Are you saying that American leaders consciously push us closer to war to increase their own power?

Andrew Bacevich: American leaders are so lacking in imagination on national security matters that they can’t conceive of any alternative to this excessive use of military power. It is producing consequences quite the opposite of what they are intended to produce. Let’s look at some cases. We are told that among the reasons necessary for us to persevere in Afghanistan is because of the Islamic threat to Pakistan. Is there any evidence that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has contributed to the stability of Pakistan? No. Is there any evidence that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is contributing to the instability of Pakistan? Yes, there’s a mountain of evidence. If we look at Pakistan in 2001 at the time of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, there was a negligible Islamist presence. Nine years later there’s a very large Islamist presence. Through our insistence on occupying Afghanistan we are directly contributing to the destabilization of Pakistan. And yet, best I can tell, responsible authorities in Washington, both civilian and military, are absolutely blind to this. Perhaps they are willfully blind.

Guernica: Let’s turn to Obama. You voted for him, you’ve called him the smartest politician to come down the pike in a while, yet you’ve been increasingly critical of his escalation of the Afghanistan war, even though during the campaign he said Afghanistan was the war worth fighting.

Andrew Bacevich: Perhaps I’m cynical about politics. But I interpreted his campaign rhetoric about Afghanistan as an effort to insulate him from the charge of being a national security wimp. His decision to escalate was certainly not a decision that his supporters were clamoring for. My speculation is that facing a wide array of challenges in his first year, and recognizing that he had only a limited number of chips to play, the president chose not to take on the national security consensus. I fear that having done that, he has squandered the only real opportunity he will have to change the way Washington works with regard to national security. Because whether he recognizes it or not, in escalating and prolonging the Afghanistan war, the president did, in effect, embrace the Washington rules. There is very little evidence in his speeches and in his appointment of senior officials that he has any intention of pursuing serious national security reform.

My suggestion is we begin by bringing home troops whose presence is no longer useful: [in] Afghanistan, where our continuing presence destabilizes Pakistan, and Europe.

Guernica: You’ve suggested that he was doomed from the start in that sense, because of the people he surrounded himself with.

Andrew Bacevich: The first clue that he wasn’t going to change the way Washington works in this regard came in the form of his initial appointments: re-appointing the Republican secretary of defense, appointing a retired four-star marine to be his national security advisor, a retired four-star naval admiral to be the director of national intelligence—though that appointment didn’t work out. Even the appointment of Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state. She is by any measure a very hawkish Democrat. So Obama certainly did not attempt to surround himself with unorthodox thinkers. These appointments were an early indication that the hopes I had invested in his candidacy were not going to be borne out.

Guernica: Does he deserve credit for getting us out of Iraq?

Andrew Bacevich: Very much so. Though I’m not sure that if McCain had been elected events would have taken a very different course. Most Americans had a belly full of Iraq and as conditions have achieved whatever precarious level of stability that they have, they’ve provided an opportunity for us to bow out. Whether or not the president will get the last 50,000 out remains an open question. I believe he wants to. But there will be people in the Republican Party who will argue for a long-term military presence there. Will the Iraqi political class settle its differences and govern? Will the Iraqi security forces be able to hold their own against an insurgency which is still very much a threat to Iraq’s internal security? Those are open questions.

Guernica: Let’s take a look at what changing course in national security policy might look like. We currently have 370,000 troops stationed in more than thirty-five countries. Should we bring them all home?

Andrew Bacevich: No. My suggestion is that we begin by bringing home those troops whose presence clearly is no longer useful. Two examples that come to mind are Afghanistan, where our continuing presence destabilizes Pakistan, and Europe. Our commitment to Europe is in some respects the granddaddy of them all. Back in 1949 when NATO was created, a U.S. commitment to secure Western Europe probably made sense. But today the threats to European security are negligible. So the time has come for us to disengage militarily from Europe and bring troops home. But one of the points I’m trying to make is that the alternative to globalism and overextension does not necessarily imply bringing everybody home tomorrow. The U.S. military presence in East Asia probably makes sense. In that case the U.S. presence in Japan and South Korea probably contributes to the stability of that region. To put it another way, were we to withdraw from East Asia militarily, there’s a good chance that one result would be to touch off an arm’s race involving Japan and China and probably South Korea. So we need to retrench, we need to lower our profile. But that doesn’t mean that everybody needs to come home immediately.

Guernica: Would you recommend we engage more using soft power?

Andrew Bacevich: I am not a particular proponent of soft power. I think that our ability to promote economic development is fairly limited and is very much dependent upon local conditions. That said, if we’ve got a trillion dollars lying around, we could get more for our money if we used it to promote economic development rather than to support a protracted military experience. Here’s an example. I’ve argued that Mexico is orders of magnitude more important to the U.S. than Afghanistan. Mexico is increasingly threatened by what one could call an insurgency. The insurgents happen to be warring drug lords. But nonetheless, weak and to some degree corrupt Mexican institutions are facing a very severe internal threat. It would make much more sense to be focusing attention and resources that are currently being wasted in Afghanistan in Mexico. But if you were going to address Mexico’s internal problems, the last thing you’d want to do would be to send in a large American army. If the U.S. can in any way help Mexico deal with their problems, then that help is probably going to have to come in the form of economic assistance to promote sustainable development. There is one place where soft power could have a positive impact.

Guernica: Since World War II, the U.S. has been involved by my count in seven wars. And of course the globe has seen countless others. But there has been nothing of the scope and devastation of World War I or World War II when our policy was isolationism. Do you see no evidence in this to suggest that our global interventionist policy has worked?

Andrew Bacevich: [Long pause] I think that [another pause], since 1945, there really has been only one case in which there was a potential for another conflict on the scale of World War I or World War II. That was the Cold War. In retrospect, we overstated the Soviet threat and frequently misunderstood Soviet motivation. That said, the competition between the Communist bloc and the West was a serious and dangerous competition. The fact that that competition didn’t produce World War III should be seen as a success; a success to be credited to—though not entirely—the United States. A success certainly marred with horrendous errors of judgment, of which Vietnam would be one very large example. But nonetheless, given the differences in the way the Marxist-Leninists and the proponents of Democratic Capitalism viewed the world, the fact that we managed to avoid blowing up the world is a good thing. That said, it seems to me that most of the interventions large and small undertaken by the U.S. did not contribute in any significant way to avoiding World War III.

Guernica: Can the fact that there hasn’t quite been a third World War or a havoc wreaker on the order of Hitler, can that possibly be credited to global policing and interventionism? I think many see the Holocaust as the ultimate reason why intervention is necessary.

Andrew Bacevich: The notion that we have to go policing the planet to prevent Adolf Hitler from climbing back into his saddle is patently absurd. There is no Hitler; there is no Stalin. There are a variety of thugs that do great evil in the world. But the threat posed comes nowhere near the threat posed by some of these earlier antagonists. I emphatically include Osama Bin Laden. The notion that Osama Bin Laden poses a threat akin to Adolf Hitler is silly. The same went for Saddam Hussein when he was in power.

Guernica: There’s a new movie out, Countdown to Zero, in which Valerie Plame and others insist that terrorists like Osama bin Laden are actively pursuing nukes. Isn’t it, therefore, more important than ever that some sort of intervention take place?

Andrew Bacevich: No, it’s more important that we work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. If elimination seems to be a bridge-too-far, then let’s establish and enforce a strict non-proliferation regime.

Guernica: You’ve said that the big challenge in the Islamic world is how to reconcile its belief about God’s role in human life with modernity. And you’ve said that the real purpose of Bush’s global war on terror was to force the Middle East to change in ways that were conducive to American interests. Do you believe Obama is pursuing the same policy?

Andrew Bacevich: He is in Afghanistan. And yet there’s an important difference. To the extent that there was any strategic logic to President Bush’s Freedom Agenda, the logic was based on an expectation that by triggering liberal democratic reform in Iraq we would bring about that kind of change elsewhere in the Islamic world. That expectation was beyond foolhardy from the outset. That said, at least they had an idea. The Obama Administration has no idea, not even an unrealistic one like the Freedom Agenda. So we have Obama persisting in the Afghanistan War while there really is no plausible strategic rationale. The rationale for the Afghanistan War has been reduced to the notion that that’s where the 9/11 plot was hatched so if we’re not in Afghanistan then there could be another 9/11 planned there. But the jihadists are not headquartered in Afghanistan. Even if General Petraeus could wave a magic wand and transform Afghanistan into a liberal democracy, the problem posed by anti-American jihadism would not be reduced in any appreciable way. So one of the things that I fault President Obama the most for is that in perpetually expanding the Afghanistan War he has acted in ways that are simply devoid of sense.

Guernica: In an article for The New Republic, you went as far as to suggest that Obama is more deserving of contempt than Bush because at least Bush believed in the Iraq War, whereas Obama doesn’t really believe in Afghanistan. But that almost sounds like you’re saying Bush’s doctrine of preventative war is morally justifiable as long as it’s heartfelt.

Andrew Bacevich: I neither said nor implied that the Bush Doctrine is morally acceptable or strategically sensible. However, I do think that there is something particularly suspect in waging a war that you don’t fully believe in. My guess is that describes President Obama on Afghanistan.

Guernica: Obama said he believed in the Afghanistan war on the campaign trail, and then he held a long review to determine the best strategy. It seems you’re arguing that he doesn’t believe what he says he believes? You’re not the first.

Andrew Bacevich: I guess I’m suggesting that politicians sometimes say things for domestic political purposes.

Guernica: What about the argument that if we leave Afghanistan the Taliban will return to power and the country will again become a training ground for terrorists?

Andrew Bacevich: First of all, it’s not clear that the Taliban has aspirations beyond ruling Afghanistan. We should not confuse the Taliban and al Qaeda. Their aspirations are quite different. Also, when that argument is made, it is posed, once again, as if there are only two choices: either we have to continue to fight the war until the cows come home or we’re just going to let the Taliban do whatever they want. There are other choices. For example, let’s say that our withdrawal led to the Taliban returning to power. It would be quite plausible for us to communicate to the Taliban the following message: ‘We don’t much care what you do in Afghanistan as long as you don’t allow Afghanistan to again become a sanctuary for terrorists intent on attacking the U.S. Should you choose to disregard this then you are going to be subjected to a very fearful punishment.’ That threat I suspect would have considerable influence on the Taliban. Why? Because they know we are capable of throwing them out of power. Since they want to stay in power, they would probably respect those kinds of red lines that we drew.

Guernica: What about human rights issues? Time magazine recently ran on its cover a photograph of an Afghani woman who had her nose cut off by the Taliban. How much do we take these issues into account when assessing whether we should stay or leave?

Andrew Bacevich: There’s very little in American history to suggest that moral considerations drive decision-making. That said, as citizens we might wish to have our public debate over policy admit moral considerations. There I would say three things. If indeed moral considerations ought to inform U.S. policy, why do Afghans come first? Go back to my Mexico case. Why does what we owe to the people of Afghanistan outweigh what we owe to the people of Mexico? Our interaction with the Afghan people is relatively recent and relatively brief. Our relations with Mexicans go back to the founding of the Republic of Mexico in 1821. U.S.-Mexican relations since then have never been undertaken with any particular regard for Mexicans. Today the quasi-insurgency that threatens Mexico exists because of our demand for drugs and because our lax gun laws permit the drug lords of Mexico to arm themselves and commit horrendous acts of violence. So why should the moral debt we owe to Afghans take precedence over the moral debt we owe Mexicans?

The second thing I would say is that if indeed we owe a moral debt to the people of Afghanistan, then why is the perpetuation of war the best way to acquit that obligation? If indeed we are concerned that there will be many more cases like that woman who had her nose viciously cut off and we want to prevent that from happening, why keep 100,000 troops in Afghanistan? Instead, how about bringing 100,000 Afghan women who feel threatened to the U.S.? Get them out of danger instead of perpetuating the cycle of violence in their country. The third thing I would say is that if indeed we have an obligation to the people of Afghanistan and the perpetuation of war is the best way to meet that obligation, then shouldn’t the American people have skin in the game? Shouldn’t we be willing to send our own children and our grandchildren rather than somebody else’s son or daughter or grandson? If indeed it’s so darned important, then why shouldn’t we pay for it? Why should the expense of the war simply be laid on future generations? What I’m saying here is that those who raise the moral issue more often than not either don’t think seriously about how moral issues ought to figure in policy, or in some cases raise the moral issues for cynical purposes. Their real purpose is to create this fraudulent argument for perpetuating the war.

Guernica: Does that include Time magazine?

Andrew Bacevich: That was just sensationalistic journalism. That cover was described as “war porn“ and I think it’s an apt description. If you want to put a photograph of a brutalized or suffering human being on the cover of Time magazine, surely we could do that every week of the year. Sometimes the people would come from Africa, sometimes from Philadelphia, sometimes from Venezuela. It is kind of a manipulative approach to journalism.

I do think that there is something particularly suspect in waging a war that you don’t fully believe in.

Guernica: Throughout this interview you’ve suggested America scale back its global presence and its policy of interventionism. But that seems increasingly unlikely in light of our dependence on foreign oil. We’ve passed peak oil and it seems likely that many future wars will be fought over it.

Andrew Bacevich: This gets to the heart of the dilemma. What we call the American way of life is premised on expectations of a very high level of personal mobility, which presumes the availability of large amounts of very cheap energy. Given the way the economy has evolved over the last eighty or one hundred years, to cut to the chase, American freedom as we understand it requires lots of cheap oil. Therefore, in order for us to make a serious effort to wean ourselves from this ever-growing dependency would require us rethinking American freedom—revising the American way of life. Were we flexible in that regard, then options to significantly reorient our energy policy would become available. But there is very little evidence that we are willing to bend. The Jimmy Carter malaise speech of 1979 that I wrote about in my previous book continues to be a very telling episode. Carter was courageously and farsightedly trying to get Americans to recognize that there was something very insidious about this dependence on foreign oil. He connected it to our understanding of freedom and he challenged us to re-think freedom. We rejected that council and opted instead to listen to Ronald Reagan who said we could have everything we want forever. We are living with the consequences. And Carter’s abject failure to get Americans to acknowledge the negative consequences of the American way of life scared the bejesus out of the entire political class so nobody is willing to talk about sacrifice; nobody is willing to talk about American culture as part of the problem— but it is part of the problem. It is that fact which emphasizes the extent to which there really are no easy solutions. We are our own worst enemy.

Guernica: When you say ‘revising the American way of life,’ what do you mean—a simpler life?

Andrew Bacevich: To define freedom in a way that is not as intimately connected with conspicuous consumption and individual autonomy. And yes, that probably means in a material sense to be willing to live with less. Try to have that be your campaign slogan and run for the presidency: ‘Vote for me and I will help you live with less.’ [Laughter]

Guernica: It’s ironic that Carter made a valiant attempt to do something about this—arguably our most pressing problem—yet most people consider him a lousy president.

Andrew Bacevich: But he folded, too. By January 1980 he enunciated the Carter Doctrine, probably the most pernicious of all the doctrines named after presidents. That doctrine declared the Persian Gulf a vital strategic interest and committed the United States to using force to keep anyone else from controlling it. Over time that morphed into the belief that we should use force to make sure that we controlled it. How much mischief has resulted from the Carter Doctrine? A whole lot.

Guernica: How about the symbolism of Carter affixing solar panels to the roof of the White House, and then Reagan tearing them down as soon as he took office?

Andrew Bacevich: [Laughter] I can’t say I remember that. But those symbols are important. The problem is that the efforts since the nineteen seventies to wean ourselves off oil have not really risen much beyond the symbolic. We get [60 percent] of our oil from abroad, and there is no doubt that despite all the drill-baby-drill rhetoric that comes from the Republican Party, we cannot satisfy our oil demand by relying on domestic sources. So if oil use is going to continue to grow then dependence is going to grow. And these problems will never go away.

Guernica: Do you think building a green infrastructure could help solve multiple problems at once: jobs, finally moving away from oil demand, and so on?

Andrew Bacevich: Yes.

Editors Recommend:

Wolf in the Heart: Historian and departing Newsweek editor Evan Thomas on how he (like Remnick and Keller) caught war fever after 9/11, the obsession with being a man, and how his dad glowed in Navy whites.

The Less True Sport: a story by Peter Sipe.

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