Gold Star Dad Talks Biden’s Folly in Trying to Prolong the ‘American Century’

Andrew Bacevich’s new book, On Shedding an Obsolete Past: Bidding Farewell to the American Century, is a collection of essays that take fresh aim at the target he’s been blasting away at for two decades: the U.S. National Security establishment. Penned during the Trump and Biden presidencies, the essays focus on the defense policies of

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Andrew Bacevich’s new book, On Shedding an Obsolete Past: Bidding Farewell to the American Century, is a collection of essays that take fresh aim at the target he’s been blasting away at for two decades: the U.S. National Security establishment. Penned during the Trump and Biden presidencies, the essays focus on the defense policies of these administrations. They were originally published in TomDispatch.com, an independent web magazine dedicated to covering America’s “forever wars.”

A military historian, former Army officer, and Professor Emeritus at Boston University, Bacevich insists he is a conservative (“not a Republican, the Republican Party is not conservative”), and some of his early writing appeared in right-wing magazines such as The American Conservative. However, his persistent and incisive criticism of U.S. warmaking over the years has endeared him mainly to those on the left, and his articles now frequently appear in magazines such as The Nation and Alternet.org. (He’s also contributed essays to The Daily Beast.)

While his main themes have remained consistent—the Pentagon retains a dangerously outdated Cold War approach to national security, the military-industrial complex is as powerful as ever—this book sees him tackling new concepts: Great Power Competition as the new paradigm, for example, and America’s need to rethink the idea of freedom. I talked to Bacevich by phone recently to discuss his new book, the policies of Trump and Biden, and why the preachings of MLK are as relevant as ever.

You’ve authored more than a dozen books on U.S. defense policy. What are you saying with this book that you haven’t said before?

AB: My skepticism about the utility of force by the U.S. has grown stronger over time, and I’m inviting readers to consider where we are now from a national security standpoint. I strongly believe that once the Cold War ended, and particularly after 9/11, American policy elites became unhinged on war-related matters. Those concerns informed my thinking and I became increasingly angry at the obliviousness of the American public, which allowed policy elites to commit actions of great folly—actions which continue to exact a terrible cost on the nation and on those serving in uniform.

The West’s support for Ukraine is appropriate. But I wish the rest of NATO made a larger effort…

Your book is subtitled “Bidding Farewell to the American Century.” What does that mean?

The term “American Century” originated in an editorial by Henry Luce in February 1941. It made broad claims about America’s capacity to align the world with our values. Many people now use the term to refer to the 2srcth Century but it really begins with World War II. That’s when we made an irrevocable commitment to militarize global leadership. The utility of that framework has disappeared, and we need to abandon it. The problem is that American policy elites cannot conceive of an international order in which the United States does not enjoy primacy—economic primacy, military primacy, cultural primacy. It is crucially important for the well-being of our country to abandon this notion. So the title of my book means saying goodbye to ongoing expectations of global primacy.

What approach did Trump and Biden take toward ending or prolonging the “American Century”?

When Trump embraced the phrase “America First,” his intention seemed to be to end our use of military power to sustain global primacy. But it didn’t happen. We didn’t leave NATO, the wars in the Middle East continued, and the defense budget actually got larger. Once Biden took office, we reverted to the status quo with one exception: Biden accepts that Americans no longer wish to see Americans die in combat. So although you can find small differences between them, broadly speaking Biden’s policies are the same as Trump’s which are the same as the half dozen presidents before them.

But Biden and Trump got us out of Afghanistan. Do you give them credit for that?

Yes. Because a first step in acknowledging that we need a fundamentally different approach to national security is to admit that things aren’t working. I mean, we fought a 2src-year war in Afghanistan and the enemy ousted our chosen regime. Our exit was overdue. Meanwhile, the Ukraine crisis provided a perfect excuse for the establishment to forget Afghanistan and refocus on Russia.

Are you saying that after we left Afghanistan, the Pentagon said “now let’s keep the wars going by pivoting to Ukraine.”

Well, the war in Ukraine plays into the new paradigm. The new paradigm is the idea that “Great Power Competition” will define the 21st Century. This phrase refers primarily to competition with China. But for those who promote this idea, the criminal activity of the Putin regime seems to offer validation that Great Power Competition will lead to war. And I say “seems to” because we have overstated the threat Putin’s Russia actually poses. I believed well before Ukraine that Russia doesn’t pose much of a threat to the United States—with the exception of nuclear weapons.

Does that mean you disagree with our policy of providing arms to Ukraine?

No, the West’s support for Ukraine is appropriate. But I wish the rest of NATO made a larger effort rather than having the United States take the lead. We have other concerns. One of them is the climate crisis, which is treated as an afterthought, and our domestic crisis is the biggest issue we face. There is a great need to restore some semblance of national unity. The events of January 6, for example, pose a bigger threat to our well being than anything Vladimir Putin is capable of—again, with the exception of nuclear weapons.

Can you identify a Biden Doctrine? And was there a Trump Doctrine for that matter?

Trump was too erratic to have a doctrine. He and his administration seemed to be making up policy as they went along. I do think there is a Biden Doctrine. It centers on the expectation of a cosmic competition between democracy and authoritarianism in which it is incumbent upon the United States to lead the democratic camp. If that sounds like Cold War or WWII thinking, it is. Biden believes that the American Century cannot end, and the purpose of his administration is to prolong it. That may resonate with many Americans and it certainly plays well with the national security apparatus because it guarantees continued growth in military spending. But it doesn’t accurately take into account our changing array of threats.

Our policy elite has learned nothing since Vietnam and the motivations must be questioned.

Would you expect Trump to take a new direction in defense policy if he retakes the presidency?

Who the….knows. Seriously. I mean, he’s meeting with anti-semites! Holy shit. But again, the larger point is that the changes Trump said he’d make were not made. There was no Trump Doctrine while he was president so I wouldn’t expect one in a second presidency.

Let’s turn to what I consider to be the overarching theme of your essays: the idea of American freedom. In a column titled “Forever Wars Enshrined,” you mention your son who was killed in Iraq, and you question the common refrain that US soldiers fight and die for our “freedom.” You suggest that the U.S. often makes war for reasons other than freedom. These include “oil, dominion, hubris,” among others.

Patriotic posing—wrapping the flag around our warmaking—is offensive because it provides an excuse to ignore actual motivations for going to war. God knows we should honor those who serve, but when it is accompanied by this posing then we deny ourselves the chance to confront the truth of U.S. policy. My son was killed in Iraq but certainly Vietnam is an earlier example of a profoundly ill advised war. The Bush administration stated they expected a quick victory in Iraq that would transform the country into a democracy. That’s evidence that our policy elite has learned nothing since Vietnam and the motivations must be questioned.

In “Beyond Donald Trump” you cite Martin Luther King’s Riverside Church address and his criticism of American materialism. Your message is that Americans have come to define freedom as limitless consumption without regard for the common good. This drives our warmaking since we need to maintain the resources to continue our consumption.

MLK’s Riverside address has been read as a critique of militarism and as a critique of racism. And rightly so. But King’s emphasis on materialism as one of the “three giant triplets” that we need to confront gets lost. King asked Americans to look in the mirror and recognize how the emphasis on materialism was, in fact, warping our claim to be a society that stands for freedom. That ideal means more than buying stuff. As a conservative, I have long been wary of how we worship freedom. And as Americans, we constantly say we are the freest people on earth. But we don’t spend enough time thinking critically about what freedom has come to mean in our time.

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