Stop and reflect on this key moment in US history

Stop and savor this moment, amidst the rush of our daily lives.  The Nobel Committee highlighted for us that we ate at a  key moment in history.  Andrew Bacevich explains why in “Afghanistan – the proxy war“, op-ed in the Boston Globe, 11 October 2009 — The most important and insightful part is at the end.  Excerpt:

The question of the moment, framed by the prowar camp, goes like this:  Will the president approve the Afghanistan strategy proposed by his handpicked commander General Stanley McChrystal? Or will he reject that plan and accept defeat, thereby inviting the recurrence of 9/11 on an even larger scale? Yet within this camp the appeal of the McChrystal plan lies less in its intrinsic merits, which are exceedingly dubious, than in its implications.

If the president approves the McChrystal plan he will implicitly:

  • Anoint counterinsurgency – protracted campaigns of armed nation-building – as the new American way of war.
  • Embrace George W. Bush’s concept of open-ended war as the essential response to violent jihadism (even if the Obama White House has jettisoned the label “global war on terror’’).
  • Affirm that military might will remain the principal instrument for exercising American global leadership, as has been the case for decades.

Implementing the McChrystal plan will perpetuate the longstanding fundamentals of US national security policy: maintaining a global military presence, configuring US forces for global power projection, and employing those forces to intervene on a global basis.

The McChrystal plan modestly updates these fundamentals to account for the lessons of 9/11 and Iraq, cultural awareness and sensitivity nudging aside advanced technology as the signature of American military power, for example. Yet at its core, the McChrystal plan aims to avert change. Its purpose – despite 9/11 and despite the failures of Iraq – is to preserve the status quo.

Hawks understand this. That’s why they are intent on framing the debate so narrowly – it’s either give McChrystal what he wants or accept abject defeat. It’s also why they insist that Obama needs to decide immediately.

Yet people in the antiwar camp also understand the stakes. Obama ran for the presidency promising change. The doves sense correctly that Obama’s decision on Afghanistan may well determine how much – if any – substantive change is in the offing.

If the president assents to McChrystal’s request, he will void his promise of change at least so far as national security policy is concerned. The Afghanistan war will continue until the end of his first term and probably beyond. It will consume hundreds of billions of dollars. It will result in hundreds or perhaps thousands more American combat deaths – costs that the hawks are loath to acknowledge.

… If the Afghan war then becomes the consuming issue of Obama’s presidency – as Iraq became for his predecessor, as Vietnam did for Lyndon Johnson, and as Korea did for Harry Truman – the inevitable effect will be to compromise the prospects of reform more broadly.

At home and abroad, the president who advertised himself as an agent of change will instead have inadvertently erected barriers to change. As for the American people, they will be left to foot the bill.

This is a pivotal moment in US history. Americans owe it to themselves to be clear about what is at issue. That issue relates only tangentially relates to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or the well-being of the Afghan people. The real question is whether “change’’ remains possible.

About the author

For links to his writings see Andrew Bacevich’s work.

Andrew J. Bacevich (Colonel, US Army, retired) is Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University. A graduate of the U. S. Military Academy, he received his Ph. D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University. Before joining the faculty of Boston University in 1998, he taught at West Point and at Johns Hopkins University.

His new book Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War is forthcoming.

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the following:

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Other posts about Afghanistan:

  1. How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan?, 15 September 2009
  2. Let’s blow the fog away and see what General McChrystal really said, 23 September 2009
  3. About those large and growing Afghanistan security forces…, 26 September 2009
  4. A General explains how the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics will bring us victory in Afganistan, 27 September 2009
  5. DoD did not consider troop levels when devising our latest  “>Af-Pak war plans, more evidence that their OODA loop is broken, 8 October 2009


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6 thoughts on “Stop and reflect on this key moment in US history”

  1. Bacevich’s views are always clarifying and welcome. It helps to be able to say “yes, this is a turning point”, rather than “oh, here we go again. . . the same old arguments based on the same wrong premisses.” But, I’m afraid the latter is true. What is the opposition to McCrystal’s plan? Joe Biden’s plan, which merely substitutes intervention in Pakistan for intervention in Afghanistan. No one in this administration, or the political establishment generally, seems capable of thinking of a non-interventionary, non-imperial US foreign policy. Even our supposedly wiser European partners seem to go accede to this role for us.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I suspect Bacevich uses this as a rhetorical device, drawing attention to another opportunity about to be lost. As you note, this is the pattern of our history for the past 50 years. But each dawn brings forth a new day, and hope costs us nothing.

    While it’s easy to laugh at the Nobel Peace committee, perhaps they too were trying to draw attention to this opportunity for America to break with its past. Everybody does what they can.

  2. SOS Clinton said, short and crisp, yesterday on BBC, the aim of the US *today* in Afghanistan, is to rob the Al Quaida the staging ground against the US and the West. The Taliban in a communique said, some days ago, they would not help Al Quaida menace the West( at long last they realized what do they need to do). The DOD doesn’t listen either to the President(any commander asked about his aim, as reported by the Times for years, says, the Afghans should obey, pure and simple) or to the enemy(for the DOD the Taliban is identical to Al Quaida). As Hamlet said, that’s the question.

  3. Afghanistan is a bottomless pit into which one shovels money AND lives. We need more than just an Afghanistan strategy, we need a grand strategy. Lind has advocated going on the Strategic Defensive against the jihadists, and with the U.S. having just 4% of the world’s population, I don’t see a more rational posture. Like the real Fabius, American leaders must husband its strength and resources for “the long, difficult task of rebuilding.”

  4. The question I would like to see discussed , is what may happen when we do all pull out ? The worst case surely for Afghanistan /Pakistan is – Cambodia . What manner of men are waiting in the wings that we know of , are any of them possible Pol Pots ?
    Fabuis Maximus replies: The worst possible case is the boggy man leaps out and eats us all. This has been endlessly discussed, often as flights of imagination with only minimal tethers to reality.

  5. I’ve noticed that once a dove achieves great power, they (more or less) turn into a hawk. Is this a move to retain power?

  6. Too many things have been rolled into the decision…
    > Anoint counterinsurgency – protracted campaigns of armed nation-building – as the new American way of war.
    Until of course it fails. At which point it’s 1975 denial sets in and the cycle starts all over again.
    >Embrace George W. Bush’s concept of open-ended war as the essential response to violent jihadism (even if the Obama White House has jettisoned the label “global war on terror’’).
    Are there any voices in the US against this ? Given that declaring a never-ending war is how America deals with all big problems.
    >Affirm that military might will remain the principal instrument for exercising American global leadership, as has been the case for decades.
    Is there any alternative? Given that American Global Leadership itself is a core value.

    >are any of them possible Pol Pots ?

    Most of them are already in the Karzai government.

    The US military’s stock of myths included the idea that it had finally worked out how to win in Vietnam but wasn’t allowed to implement it properly. So the have basically the same playbook.

    If Obama goes for the military recommended option we are in for a lot more bloodshed.

    The armies pulling back to “defend the populated centers” and abandon less inhabited
    areas looks a lot like the implementation of free fire zones.

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