A question of stability

Andrew J. Bacevich, Professor at Boston University specialises in American diplomatic and military history, as well as US foreign policy and security studies. He is also a prolific author. His most recent book is The Limits of Power: American Exceptionalism (2008).  Bacevich gave a special W. S. Walker Memorial Presentation at the recent International Funds Conference titled The Limits of Power – US Imperialism and its effect on international affairs. Here is his presentation. First in a two part series.

I’ve been asking myself how my line of work intersects with yours. I’m in the business of teaching and writing about contemporary international security issues. If I understand it correctly, you’re in the business of investing and managing money.
Our interests coincide when it comes to the question of stability. A primary aim of international security policy is to foster stability – or to state the matter more bluntly to avert the catastrophe of war. 
Yet stability is desirable not only because it implies the avoidance of suffering and bloodshed but because it provides the conditions in which genuine and sustained economic growth becomes possible. In war as in any unfortunate event, some people will enrich themselves – no doubt some people turn a profit off hurricanes – but in general war depletes wealth rather than building it.  
Since 1945, the West has counted on the United States to function as the Great Stabilizer – creating the conditions that will facilitate peace and prosperity. 
In fulfilling this function, the United States has made more than a few errors – the debacle of Vietnam stands out as one prominent example – but by and large it’s willingness to “lead” – that’s the term Washington likes to use – has benefited both Americans and many others. 
To credit the United States with having made Europe rich or with engineering the incredible economic transformation ongoing in Asia would go much too far. Yet the stability that the United States has helped to guarantee in Europe and East Asia since 1945 has at the very least provided an essential precondition for those achievements. 
My message today is that the era in which the world could look to the United States to play
the role of Great Stabilizer may be coming to an end. Should that turn out to be the case, the implications for peace and for global prosperity are likely to be large.
The essential problem is that in the post-9/11 era the United States has lost its strategic azimuth and it’s well on its way to running out of gas.
To illustrate my point let me devote the balance of my presentation to a discussion of Afghanistan, for the last several months – at least until the story of the would-be Christmas bomber broke – national security issue No. 1 in Washington.
Yet when Washington obsesses about what to do about Afghanistan, it is asking the wrong question.
The preoccupation with Afghanistan offers an excuse to avoid talking about strategy. For the most impassioned advocates of what used to be called the Global War on Terror, now re-branded the Long War, Afghanistan serves as a useful dodge. 
Obsessing about Afghanistan distracts attention from the fact that the strategy they once devised to justify the Long War has failed, definitively and irrevocably.
In the midst of a strategic void, it’s always easier – or at least more convenient — to talk about operations and tactics. Why President Obama chooses to indulge this inclination qualifies as a mystery.
That’s where we are today.
The Afghanistan War is now in its ninth year, of course. 
For that conflict to retain any meaningful purpose, our efforts there are presumably contributing to some larger enterprise.
Surely, primitive, landlocked Afghanistan – by no stretch of the imagination the centre of gravity of the larger jihadist threat – cannot itself justify the expenditure of attention, energy, money, and lives on the vast scale entailed by the McChrystal plan or any of its variants. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has correctly noted, “We have no long-term stake there.”
So what is the larger enterprise to which war in Afghanistan contributes? And what is the relationship of that enterprise to the threat posed by violent, anti-Western jihadism? In other words, what’s the strategic concept that connects Afghanistan to the Long War and imbues both with a sense of purpose?
Back when the Long War was young, its strategic purpose was quite clear. 
In order to render harmless the threat posed by violent jihadism, the Bush administration knew exactly what it wanted to do. It did have a strategic concept, immensely ambitious if deeply flawed. The label commonly attached to that concept was Freedom Agenda.
Donald Rumsfeld in October 2001 provided the most succinct statement of that concept: “We have a choice, either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way that they live, and we choose the latter.”
The idea, wrote Douglas Feith in a memo to Rumsfeld, was to “transform the Middle East and the broader world of Islam generally.” Employing American power to change the way they live – where “they” were the 1.4 billion residents of the Islamic world — would (according to Feith) “counter ideological support for terrorism.”  Changing the way they live, he continued, held “the key to defeating terrorism in the long run.” 
To change the way they live – and to make it unnecessary to change the way we live — the Bush administration intended to employ American hard power in a comprehensive effort aimed at remaking the Greater Middle East.  This in a nutshell describes the strategic concept informing the Long War at its birth. 
The Bush administration launched this effort to change the way they live by invading Afghanistan in October 2001. Yet it became almost immediately apparent that Afghanistan was merely a preliminary bout – a tune-up. As a point of origin for a project that aimed at transforming the Islamic world, Afghanistan did not offer a promising venue. 
It was like General Motors or Apple marketing a new product line by unveiling it in Fargo, North Dakota. If you want to make a splash, you don’t go to Fargo. You go to New York or LA.
For the architects of the Long War, Baghdad held an allure equivalent to LA.
As Paul Wolfowitz has emphasized, there was no single reason that explains the consensus reached within the inner circle of the Bush administration regarding the need to invade Iraq. Yet the ultimate explanation lay in this intoxicating vision: by toppling Saddam and liberating Iraq the United States could set in motion a wave of change ultimately extending across the Islamic world.
This vision proved to be an illusion for any number of reasons, not least of them the fact that the United States military was unable to deliver a knockout blow in Iraq. Jump starting the Freedom Agenda required a big win – a decisive victory. Yet in Iraq (as in Afghanistan) decision proved frustratingly elusive.

Read next month Bacevich’s views on Bush’s new domino theory and the return of all eyes on Afghanistan


Andrew Bacevich