The Interview: Professor Andrew J. Bacevich

Adriel Kasonta: After the second Paris massacre of 13 November 2015, the coalition of America, Europe, and Russia has committed itself to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). Do you, as a qualified soldier (retiring with the rank of Colonel), and an international relations specialist believe in possibility of achieving this vague goal? If yes, then what would be the best way to proceed?

Professor Andrew J. Bacevich: I am confident that ISIS can be defeated. However, ISIS is merely one expression of a much larger problem, to which there is no military solution. That problem is the widespread dysfunction that affects large parts of the Islamic world. The dysfunction has many sources, one of which is past Western behaviour. But the core issue is this: the challenge of reconciling Islam with modernity. Only the people of the Islamic world can accomplish this task and it will likely require generations for them to do so. In other words, we are dealing with a problem that not only has no military solution, but that has no solution of any kind that can be imposed by the outside.

Kasonta: Many conservative political scientists, public commentators, and journalists tend to describe current situation by referring to Samuel Huntington’s term of “clash of civilisations,” where they see the current state of affairs as an Islamic invasion, which has to be repelled with the same force as the Umayyad Caliphate aggression during the Battle of Tours or the Ottoman Empire during the Battle of Vienna. Therefore, is it true that the current conflict between Christians and Muslims is inevitable and has its roots in cultural and theological differences predestining “the clash,” or maybe in something else – namely European imperialism of colonial era, followed by American imperialism based on desire to have access to oil, allowing to maintain George Kennan’s formulation of purpose?

Bacevich: Political scientists tend to simplify history to support their theories. Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” argument does that in spades. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that Muslims have their grievances against the West. The point is not to pass moral judgment but to recognize the complexity of the situation and therefore to understand that “carpet bombing” ISIS is unlikely to get us very far.

Kasonta: G. K Chesterton wrote in 1956 in his book titled “What’s wrong with the world” the following: “Many a magnanimous Moslem and chivalrous Crusader must have been nearer to each other, because they were both dogmatists, than any two agnostics. “I say God is One,” and “I say God is One but also Three,” that is the beginning of a good quarrelsome, manly friendship. But our age would turn these creeds into tendencies. It would tell the Trinitarian to follow multiplicity as such (because it was his “temperament”) (…) Meanwhile, it would turn the Moslem into a Monist: a frightful intellectual fall. It would force that previously healthy person not only to admit that there was one God, but to admit that there was nobody else. When each had, for a long enough period, followed the gleam of his own nose (like the Dong) they would appear again; the Christian a Polytheist, and the Moslem a Panegoist, both quite mad, and far more unfit to understand each other than before.” Would you agree with this statement? And therefore, was John Paul II correct by saying on his visit to Morocco in 1985 that “dialogue between Christians and Muslims is today more necessary thanever. It flows from our fidelity to God and supposes that we know how to recognize God by faith, and to witness to him by word and deed in a world ever more secularized and at times even atheistic”?

Bacevich: Yes, inter-religious dialogue is more important than ever. But we should have realistic expectations about what dialogue will accomplish in the near-term. On both sides of this conflict, there are those who use religion cynically and dishonestly.

Kasonta: In your recent piece for The American Conservative (January/February 2016 edition) titled “Gangsta Jihad” you are focusing on Jason Burke’s “The New Threat” book, which profound part brings to my mind a British black comedy film titled “Four Lions.” In that sense, do you think that “jihadism with gangsta criminality” expressed by “jihadi lone wolves” in Europe can be successfully tackled without fair examination of European colonialism (from arbitrary borders to thieving local elites) and its repercussions on Arab/Muslim minorities leaving in i.e. France, where they were excluded from the full participation in social life of their new country, while being asked to assimilate – something which is perceived as one of the reasons why young Muslims, caught between two Worlds, turn to hate preachers convincing them that their homelands have been broken and exploited by the West, which on the other hand is treating them as a second class citizens?

Bacevich: Gangsta Jihad was Burke’s formulation, not mine. But it’s useful because it captures the way that violent Islamism is dispersing. Its organizational units are becoming smaller and therefore more difficult to identify and address. The French and others in Europe are in a fix. They seem not to know how to assimilate. Absent assimilation there remains only expulsion, which would be both morally problematic and exceedingly difficult to implement.

Kasonta: Should Christians attempt to facilitate Muslims reconciliation with modernity in order to turn them into “liberal democrats who worship Allah,” or rather let them find their own way – as they did?

Bacevich: It would be presumptuous of us even to make the attempt. Muslims must find their own path. The most we can contribute is this: To set an example that demonstrates that faith and modernity are not necessarily at odds.

Kasonta: You are perceived as one of the most “persistent, vocal critics of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, calling the conflict a catastrophic failure,” and describing George W. Bush’s endorsement of “preventive wars” as “immoral, illicit, and imprudent.” You lost your son (God rest his soul!), who was an Army officer like yourself, who died fighting in the Iraq War in May 2007. Why, in your opinion, US as a Christian superpower abandoned or misinterpreted the “Just war theory” (mainly ‘the right to go to war’ (jus ad bellum))?

Bacevich: A good question for which there is no simple answer. I wrote a book on this subject called “The New American Militarism.” The bottom line is this: at the end of the Cold War for a variety of reasons, Americans succumbed to the proposition that military power had become our strong suit, offering the best way to organize the world to suit our interests and values. After 9/11, we put that proposition to the test and it failed. Few Americans today are willing to acknowledge that failure. So we blunder on.

Kasonta: Bearing in mind the United States presidential election of 2016,do you think that the next commander in chief can change this motion in foreign policy?

Bacevich: I see very little likelihood, unless Bernie Sanders wins the presidency. And that is highly unlikely.

Kasonta: By the way. What is your prediction for the upcoming election? Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders?

Bacevich: It’s too soon to tell, but my guess is that the race will end up pitting Clinton against Cruz, with Clinton winning in the end. But that is only a guess. Anything could happen.

Kasonta: Changing the region. Having in mind your previous opinion on Barack Obama as the best choice for conservatives in the fall, saying: “this liberal Democrat has promised to end the U.S. combat role in Iraq. Contained within that promise, if fulfilled, lies some modest prospect of a conservative revival,” what is your opinion on his administration’s recent proposal of more than $3.4 billion in military spending in Europe next year – far more than the $786 million in the current budget – and sending more troops to Europe for short-term deployments in order to deter Russia?

Bacevich: Well, I expressed my opinion in 2008 when the choice was Obama or McCain, not Obama or Abraham Lincoln. I see no reason to revise my negative opinion of Senator McCain as a prospective president. On Europe, I regret the necessity of having to return U.S. troops there since doing so simply ensures the further unwillingness of Europeans to tend to their own security.

Kasonta: Would you agree that this decision is at odds with the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, under which both sides promised not to station large numbers of troops along borders shared by Russia and members of the alliance, where NATO seems to be gradually conversing itself from a defensive alliance into an instrument of power projection?

Bacevich: I’d say that the Russian agreement with NATO is now defunct.

Kasonta: What is your advice for countries like Poland, which are caught between Washington and Moscow? How should they form their foreign policies in order to maintain their own national interest without being accused by their Western neighbours that they haven’t fully transcended demons of the communistic past on the one hand, and on the other hand, without making an enemy with Russia?

Bacevich: Be realistic about the threat posed by Russia, which is real but not existential. Putin is not Stalin. Quit expecting the Americans to save the day. Reconstitute NATO as a serious defensive alliance, centered on European powers rather than the US. Europe possesses ample military potential to deal with any external military threats. Whether it can demonstrate the necessary will and political cohesion is the question.

Kasonta: What does it mean for you to be a “Catholic conservative”?

Bacevich: To attend to the magisterium even as it evolves during a time of great upheaval. In the end, it still all comes down to “Love God and love your neighbour,” which, of course, is easy to say and not so easy to do.

Kasonta: What are, in your opinion, the main challenges facing young Catholics involved in foreign policy and politics, who want to preserve their moral and ethical integrity?

Bacevich: To get over the tendency to think that we live in a Manichean world in which our side is right and the other side is wrong. That’s almost always not the case.

Kasonta: What is the key advice that you are giving (or would give) to your students, who are leaving the academia after graduation?

Bacevich: Know yourself. That sounds like a cliché but it’s not. Self-knowledge is difficult to acquire. But you need it to decide what you are meant to do. Step one is getting past what others expect so that you can choose to be the person you are meant to be.

Biographical note:

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University. He graduated from the US Military Academy in 1969, later serving in Vietnam, Germany, El Salvador, and the Persian Gulf. 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 Johns Hopkins University. Bacevich is the author of several books, including: “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, “The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War,” “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (American Empire Project),” “The Long War: A New History of U.S. National Security Policy Since World War II,” and the new book “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military Historywhich will appear in April 2016. His essays and reviews have appeared in a wide variety of scholarly and general interest publications including: Wilson Quarterly, National Interest, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Nation, American Conservative, and the New Republic. His op-eds have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today, among other newspapers.

Oryginalna wersja wywiadu w języku angielskim została zamieszczona na prośbę profesora Bacevicha.

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