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STOWELL: Andrew Bacevich is wrong about the use of American military power

Written By | Oct 4, 2014

KABUL, October 4, 2014 — Andrew Bacevich, international relations professor at Boston University, is complaining about the U.S. military again.

Specifically, he sees only folly in a military response to the threat of the Islamic State.

His conclusion is based on a list of particulars.

“Let’s tick them off: Iran (1980, 1987-1988), Libya (1981, 1986, 1989, 2011), Lebanon (1983), Kuwait (1991), Iraq (1991-2011, 2014-), Somalia (1992-1993, 2007-), Bosnia (1995), Saudi Arabia (1991, 1996), Afghanistan (1998, 2001-), Sudan (1998), Kosovo (1999), Yemen (2000, 2002-), Pakistan (2004-) and now Syria. Whew.”

This is a classic set up to substantiate his point that we are involved in a lot of places. A lot. Whew!

Throw in every military engagement in the general area in the past 35 years, and the average American will see that we fight too much for too little, of course.

But why stop at 14? Let’s include Nicaragua, Panama, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Haiti, Germany, Honduras, and Colombia (the War on Drugs!).

Why not include all the places our soldiers or armaments touched during World War II? France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Japan, and the Philippines? Is it because they are outside the “Greater Middle East,” and so don’t neatly support the cloaked implication that we have it out for Muslims or Arabs? Or maybe it’s a cloaked racism that he harbors, the one which relegates the aforementioned to the ranks of the uncivilized.

We shouldn’t include them because the United States didn’t bomb them recently enough to make those actions seem unpalatable to living taxpayers?

Well, that’s because they have been at relative peace for the last 70 years, thanks to “the skillful application of U.S. military force,” which Bacevich so blithely derides.

Okay, so let’s stick with his list on his terms.

Bacevich laments America’s desire to maintain stability in the post-Ottoman Greater Middle East. The U.S. is the heir to the UK, which abandoned all hope of influencing anything “east of Suez” after World War II. So the real heart of the matter for Bacevich and other critics of contemporary U.S. foreign policy is American folly trying to protect interests in places where it is difficult to do so.

It began in 1979 with President Carter and Iran, to make sure we had access to Middle East oil. That explanation held through the 1980s, says Bacevich. In the last two decades or so the need to protect oil has given way to the rhetoric of democracy and human rights.

But even these are illegitimate uses of force, we are told, because force only “induces all sorts of pathologies.”

But does it? In Bacevich’s small set, there are plenty of counter examples. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was chastised and corrected his behavior for a time after very limited force was applied. Kosovo is as stable as a nation arguing for independence could possibly be after a three-month air war, followed by the occupation of a small residual peacekeeping force. Somalia is a case study in what happens when you don’t apply enough force. The same could be argued for Lebanon.

He says it will be nothing short of miraculous if Afghanistan doesn’t go the way of Libya or Iraq, even as American troops are still in harm’s way there, and an optimistic and energetic new president is highly supportive of the U.S. and NATO.

None of this is to say that the use of the American military has always paid off. It certainly hasn’t.

But Bacevich’s formulation is too simplistic. It doesn’t even stand up to his own reasoning:

“We must hope for victory over the Islamic State. But even if achieved, that victory will not redeem but merely prolong a decades-long military undertaking that was flawed from the outset. When the 14th campaign runs its course, the 15th will no doubt be waiting, perhaps in Jordan or in a return visit to some unfinished battleground such as Libya or Somalia or Yemen.”

Bacevich is a thoughtful—and the preeminent—critic of the U.S. military as a foreign policy tool. That’s fine. But his vision of American power is a dogmatic one that refuses to engage in order to protect U.S. interests.

What reason does he have for sparing WWII from his critique? Was it not based on the same selfish national interests? Or the same naïve belief that we could defeat the bad and impose the good?

The truth is that the United States is an imperfect nation in a far less perfect world, a nation that has done far more good than harm. Ususally the fight is difficult, requiring resolve and steadfastness. The battle against the Islamic State might be among the toughest, but it is also manifestly one of the easiest to justify.

Unless you refuse to see any good that can come from the use of military force.


Rich Stowell

Rich Stowell is a writer, a teacher, and a soldier. He dares you to visit him at