Andrew Bacevich: ‘Christian realism’ for foreign affairs

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Andrew Bacevich, a retired historian and foreign policy scholar at the Pardee School of International Relations at Boston University, is one of the leading advocates of a non-interventionist approach to U.S. foreign policy.

Unlike many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, Bacevich is less likely to advocate for the use of military power as a solution to conflicts and threats around the world. He instead emphasizes the importance of diplomacy and the strength of domestic defenses. He has written numerous articles explaining and elaborating on his views.  He has also authored over a dozen books including: America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, and The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War.

Bacevich is no armchair theorist. He is a retired U.S. Army officer who served in both Vietnam and the Persian Gulf wars and began his teaching career at West Point. He recently spoke with the NewBostonPost about his approach to foreign policy, how to deal with ISIS, and his take on the presidential election. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for readability.

Describe your approach to foreign policy.

Andrew Bacevich: If I had to assign myself a label I would call myself a ‘Christian realist.’ Christian realism is a foreign policy perspective that originated with Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous moral theologian and public intellectual who was really a titanic figure on the American scene from the 1930s into the 1960s. The essence of Christian realism—which is very much at odds with anything that smacks of utopianism—is to appreciate that there is evil in the world to which we must respond but also to appreciate that our own motives are likely to be less pure than we may fancy them to be. It’s not simply that the motives of the other guys are suspect but we ourselves should always be mindful of the extent to which our own motives [may] be subject to question. That’s the outlook that I tend to adhere to when I look at the world and the way it works.

So it sounds like humility is central to your approach?

Bacevich: Yes, a Christian realist would insist that even in acting against evil that we should do so with humility. Attempting to maintain self-awareness would prevent us from overreacting. To illustrate the point, I think the U.S. response to 9/11 is germane. There’s no question that the 9/11 attack was an act of great evil. There’s no question that the United States faced security challenges—threats—to which it was incumbent upon the United States to respond. But the response of the George W. Bush administration—to embark upon this great crusade, ostensibly bringing democracy to the Arab world and promoting our definition of human rights went way beyond what the situation called for. And it was that arrogance and absence of self-awareness that has caused us enormous trouble, whether in Iraq or elsewhere.

Back to this idea of ‘Christian realism.’ For those who may not be familiar with it, please elaborate on what the term ‘realism’ itself refers to?

Bacevich: Realism is a perspective that, when applied to international relations, believes that nations are inevitably engaged in a competition for power and that only if we accept that fundamental reality are we able to both understand events as they are unfolding and also navigate a prudent course for our own country. Realists are at odds with those who think that good will alone can bring about a condition of world peace. Realists are skeptical of anyone claiming that he or she has a plan that will yield world peace.

Let’s talk about some specific issues. How, for example, would you deal with the threat of ISIS?

Bacevich: The global war on terrorism was informed by an expectation that U.S. military power could fix that part of the world. Bush believed that Iraq offered an attractive start point for a project that was intended to go far beyond Iraq. We were going to correct the dysfunction in the Islamic world that gives rise to radical violent jihadism. An assumption of American military invincibility turned out to be false. So what we have done through our misguided application of military power is to, first of all, impose enormous cost upon ourselves both in terms of money wasted and blood expended. But we’ve also exacerbated the instability that already existed in that region. Quite specifically, overthrowing Saddam Hussein shattered Iraq, created opportunities for al Qaeda to establish a branch in Iraq, and that branch has subsequently morphed into ISIS. So people like Donald Trump claim that President Obama created ISIS. Actually [it’s] far more accurate to say that George W. Bush did—not that he personally did but that the policies of the George W. Bush administration created the conditions under which ISIS has emerged.

So how do we deal with ISIS without repeating the mistakes Bush made?

Bacevich: The beginning of wisdom is to define ISIS not as the problem but as a symptom of a problem. In other words, if you could destroy ISIS tomorrow you would not destroy—you would not eliminate—radical jihadism. Jihadists would form a new organization. So the challenge is to get at the root causes and when you say, ‘What are the root causes?’ you open up a cornucopia of complexity.

I would argue that the problem consists of, in no particular order: pervasive economic underdevelopment, corrupt and unenlightened local leaders, [the] legacy of European colonialism, the legacy of misguided previous U.S. policy—overthrow of the Mosaddegh government in Iran in 1953 offering one example, the creation of Israel and all the complications that have resulted from the presence of Israel in the region, divisions within Islam that lead to antagonism, the challenges that Muslims as adherents of a faith tradition have with reconciling faith with the imperatives of living in secular modernity. So all of these things are part of the problem and there is no simple response. The belief of some that American military power can provide a response is wrongheaded and events have demonstrated how wrongheaded that idea is. So the place to begin is to acknowledge that the war against global terrorism has been a misguided proposition from the outset.

What do you recommend we do?

Bacevich: The first thing we do is recognize that, as a threat to the United States, the threat is actually fairly limited. ISIS is not going to invade and overthrow our government. And so step number one is to erect effective defenses to minimize our vulnerability to this threat and that means ensuring that our domestic security agencies are properly supported, resourced, and properly led. So it’s far more important to ensure, for example, that the TSA does its job well. [It’s] far more important to do that than to drop bombs on ISIS in in Iraq. So step number one is to protect yourself.

Number two, is to get countries in the region that are most directly threatened by jihadism—get them to take ownership of the problem. Get the Iranians, the Turks, the Saudis, Egyptians, Iraqis—get them to make common cause to deal with the threat that endangers them far far far more than it endangers us. [It’s] a diplomatic task; it’s not a military task.

Finally, the third thing we should do is to try as best we can—even though our efforts will only have effects on the margins—to encourage Muslims—particularly those who live in the region, it’s not Muslims who live in the United States—to find a way to reconcile faith with modernity so that they don’t feel threatened by all that we in the West have come to represent, help them get to the point where they believe they can be good Muslims even as they live alongside a world that is frankly moving away from religiosity.

How you do that?

Bacevich: Well you don’t do it overnight and mostly they got to do it on their own. That’s why in the meantime what we do is protect ourselves.

How does immigration factor into this? Do we just put up walls everywhere and keep out everybody, as Trump seems to want to do?

Bacevich: That would be a stupid response. The other day Trump in his typical way talked about ‘extreme, extreme vetting.’ There ought to be vetting. We have always been a country that accepts and makes the most of talented people coming from abroad and we should adhere to that tradition. Again, having government agencies in the domestic security business that can do their job effectively here is key. We should ensure as best we can that people who come here, come here with the proper intentions—not to harm us, but sometimes we’re going to get it wrong. There is no perfect security system but if we attend to the problem of vetting—not what Trump calls ‘extreme vetting’—but of comprehensive vetting, we can minimize the likelihood that bad guys are going to come to America for the purpose of doing Americans harm.

Just to clarify: We do have vetting of immigrants now. But is it working? Or not?

Bacevich: By and large it’s working. I don’t have a sense that our country is being overrun by jihadists.

What we seem to have are domestic copycats, such as the shooter Orlando who had no real connection to ISIS.

Bacevich: That was my impression as well. The media is too quick to respond to every incident by saying—not necessarily labeling it as a terrorist act—but by immediately saying things like, ‘Authorities are inquiring as to whether this is a terrorist act.’ So they frame it in a way that terrorism is assumed to be the default explanation.

But we have seen ISIS attacks in other areas of the world, most notably in Europe. Do they face more of an immediate threat than we do?

Bacevich: They do. The Europeans face a problem that is a more serious problem than we do. Guess what? That’s their problem. We should assist as we can. We should share intelligence. If it appears that we do a better job of assimilating people from abroad than the French do of assimilating then perhaps there are ways in which we can help them improve on that score. But quite frankly a terrorist attack that occurs in Belgium or France is not any more of a threat to the United States than a terrorist attack that occurs in Egypt. We need to get over this notion that somehow we are a European country. We’re not.

Another big issue is Iran. Is the nuclear arms agreement we have negotiated with them a good deal?

Bacevich: I support the Iran nuclear deal. I think it’s too soon to tell exactly what it’s going to yield. It’s certainly a good thing that Iran is not going to develop a nuclear weapon for at least the next ten years and I think most people accept the fact that we have a high level of assurance that in that regard the deal is a sound one.

The question is [with] Iran in effect being brought back in from the cold what are the implications? Will the Iranian government choose to be a force for stability in the region? Or will the Iranian government choose to be a promoter of instability and terrorism? I think it’s too soon to tell. But it’s a bet that I’m willing to take—given that the changing political color of Iran in which enormous numbers of young people, the rising generation, have a favorable view of the United States and want to be part of the modern world, they don’t want to be part of the world that the clerics represent—that there’s a reasonable chance that over a period of time Iranian policies will move in the direction of what we would judge to be responsible policies. But to emphasize, the jury’s still out and we’re not really going to know how this plays out probably for a number of years and we’ll just have to see.

What are your thoughts on the presidential election and the foreign policy views of Clinton and Trump?

Bacevich: The American people are presented with poor choices.

So neither one is better than the other in your view?

Bacevich: No, that’s not my view. Mr. Trump is utterly ill-equipped to be president and I would be deeply troubled were he to prevail. I think Hillary Clinton is a flawed candidate but she is certainly a person who is intelligent, well-informed, seasoned, and arguably could handle the job. I just think that the principles from which she operates, particularly in terms of foreign policy, would be less than desirable. So we have a choice between one candidate who is incompetent and should be deemed ineligible and another candidate who is deeply flawed.