America’s Dismal Foreign Policy — and What to Do About It

Review by Geoffrey Wheatcroft – 7 August 2021

America’s Role in a World Transformed

Available on Apple Books and other book sellers.

By Andrew Bacevich

“Twenty years ago this Sept. 11, America suffered a horror that led to far larger disasters. Within little more than 18 months the United States had embarked on not one but two unneeded, unconstitutional and — as it proved — unwinnable wars. Today, after waging the longest war in their history, the Americans have scuttled from Afghanistan (as Churchill would have said), and from Iraq too, with President Biden announcing the withdrawal of the last combat troops. Both countries have been left to stew in their own juice, or in bloody chaos, with the real victors in one case the Taliban, and Iran in the other. Few great powers in history have suffered such humiliating failures.

These woes have at least led to a new mood of reflection, on America’s history and role in world affairs, and the most useful critiques have come not from the liberal left or the soggy center (which was implicated in the disasters). Few critics have been more penetrating than Andrew Bacevich, a conservative Catholic who made his career as an Army officer and saw active service in Vietnam and the first gulf war, a contrast indeed to the chickenhawks and armchair warriors of Washington. His first and easiest task in “After the Apocalypse” is to deride the failures — who now defends those wars? — and to give a rogues’ gallery of the politicians (including Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden) and journalists (including two New York Times columnists) who supported the Iraq war at the time.

But there is much more, and Bacevich looks back at the long and rather weird tradition of American exceptionalism, as it’s called. From Lincoln’s “last best hope of earth” to Wilson’s belief that America could “vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world,” the idea runs to Bill Clinton’s “the greatest nation on earth,” Madeleine Albright’s “we are the indispensable nation” and on to Hillary Clinton’s “America is great because we are good.” Other nations may have sometimes basked in their own self-esteem, but have the leaders of any other modern country ever spoken quite like that?

To make his point sharper, Bacevich compares his task with that of Marc Bloch, a great historian who served as a French Army officer in two wars and was later captured and shot by the Germans when serving in the Resistance. In his brilliant book “Strange Defeat,” Bloch tried to make sense of his country’s catastrophic collapse in 1940. France was ruled by men “brought up in mental bogs,” Bloch wrote, all their mistakes “engendered by the faulty teaching of history.” That is all too true of America, Bacevich observes, now, and for a long time past.

“Just as the self-congratulatory domestic narrative centers on the ineluctable expansion of freedom ‘from sea to shining sea,’” Bacevich writes, “so, too, the narrative of America abroad emphasizes the spread of freedom to the far corners of the earth.” America’s account of its foreign policy, he notes, is “even less inclined than the domestic narrative to allow room for ambiguity and paradox,” and it excludes “disconcerting themes such as imperialism, militarism and the large-scale killing of noncombatants.” He finds a dissonance between windy rhetoric and harsh reality even in “the good war” 80 years ago, which was by no means so good for all Americans, or all countries.

Starting in 1942, Bacevich reminds us, Frank Capra made “Why We Fight,” a series of seven government-sponsored documentary movies that gave “a greatly simplified account of the origins of World War II” and described “a people deeply devoted to liberty and equality for all.” An addendum to those movies was called “The Negro Soldier,” and quite evaded the grotesque irony that America was fighting a war against the most hateful racial tyranny in history with a rigorously segregated Army, with that “Negro soldier” mostly kept in menial roles.

Looking down at Kabul, May 2021.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

And maybe World War II has distorted the American perspective ever since. When President Biden speaks of “the strength and audacity that took us to victory in two world wars,” he forgets that the United States entered those wars belatedly (and in the second case involuntarily), and it succeeded largely thanks to the ordeals endured by others. The first war against Germany was won by the blood sacrifice of the French and British Armies, the second by the blood sacrifice of the Red Army, with American casualties modest by comparison, and the crucial American contribution in both cases financial. Since then, when has the United States actually won a war? From the stalemate in Korea to the latest failures it’s hard to see any clear victory.

What Americans have failed fully to recognize is what might be called the impotence of great might. In the heyday of the Cold War two vast superpowers faced each other, each armed with an immense array of nuclear warheads. It seemed that no other country could possibly prevail against either. But what actually happened? The Americans were humiliated in Vietnam by one ragtag peasant army and the Russians were humiliated in Afghanistan by another. And in both cases the effect on national self-confidence was grievous. The Afghan adventure destroyed the morale of the Red Army before precipitating the collapse of the Soviet Union, and by the 1970s the U.S. Army in Vietnam could have been described in the words an 18th-century English general used of his own army, “in a state of licentiousness which must render it formidable to everyone but the enemy.”

Some of Bacevich’s points are the sharper for being personal: Recalling the atrocious use of defoliants in Vietnam, he adds ruefully that “the high incidence of prostate cancer among Vietnam veterans (myself included) has been traced to their probable exposure to Agent Orange.” “After the Apocalypse” is offered, he says, “not for my own contemporaries but for those who will inherit the muddle we have made.” And what a bunch we contemporaries are! Compare us with our predecessors. In my own country, every prime minister from 1940 to 1963 — Churchill, Attlee, Eden and Macmillan — had formerly served as an infantry officer in the Great War, whereas in 2003 we were taken into the Iraq war by Tony Blair and a government of more than a hundred ministers, not one of whom had ever performed any military service whatever.

Comparably, in the three decades from 1961, four of seven American presidents had once served as officers in the Navy in the Pacific campaign, creditably in Nixon’s case, heroically in the cases of Kennedy, Ford and Bush the Elder. By contrast, and by odd coincidence, three of the four presidents over the next three decades — Clinton, Bush the Younger and Trump — were born within a matter of weeks of one another in 1946. That made them exactly of an age to serve in Vietnam, which of course none of them did. Before his untimely death 11 years ago, the great historian Tony Judt said that he was “more or less the same age as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — a pretty crappy generation, when you come to think of it.”

And today? America still has an awe-inspiring 750 military bases in some 80 countries, truly an empire on which the sun never sets, and the military-industrial complex longs to build ever more fantastical (and fantastically expensive) weapons systems with no obvious purpose. As Bacevich says, that might be a better place to start defunding than with the police. And he recommends a phased American withdrawal from NATO, whose purpose has indeed been obscure since the Cold War ended.

More than that, he commends an alternative course “based on realism, prudence, scrupulous self-understanding and an appreciation of the world as it is rather than as policy elites might wish it to be.” , Good luck with that, a cynic might reply. But one can only hope that Bacevich is read and understood by a generation young enough to see through and reject those dismal elites.”

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of several books, including the forthcoming “Churchill’s Shadow: The Life and Afterlife of Winston Churchill.”

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