Vulcan Zakheim attacks Dove Bacevich, some thoughts by Political Reporter

Kudos to Mr. Bacevich. He has managed to evoke from one of The Vulcans a shrill defensive polemic, which at times recovers itself to make some trenchant but short lived observations, in which this policy maker defends not just the catastrophically failed War on Terror but the whole of American Foreign Policy, post World War II. Not to speak of his defense of his fellow Vulcans, like Paul Wolfowitz, while not forgetting his disrespectful treatment of ‘Douglas J. Feith, merely the eighth-ranking civilian official in the Pentagon’.

In these two quoted paragraphs from Bacevich’s book, this soldier/historian make clear beyond doubt his value as that rarest of civic actors/thinkers. Mr. Zakheim continually makes the mistake of quoting Bacevich at his most revelatory:

“the vacuum left by . . . [the British]; intractable economic backwardness and political illegitimacy; divisions within Islam compounded by the rise of Arab nationalism; the founding of Israel; and the advent of the Iranian Revolution.” …

“Schwarzkopf [the field commander who led the operation against Saddam] . . . shared MacArthur’s penchant for theatrics. As with Patton, maintaining his emotional balance required a constant struggle. Like Eisenhower, Schwarzkopf had a volcanic temper. . . . And like the thin-skinned Bradley, he was quick to take offense at any perceived slight. Generalship in wartime requires foresight, equanimity, and a supple intelligence.”

The latter of these quotations evokes this observation:

Apparently, these were qualities that MacArthur, Patton, Eisenhower and Bradley—those failed commanders of yesteryear—all did not possess.

Amidst the dross of political defensiveness Mr. Zakheim provides an answer to a reader’s search for a plausible reason for his polemic, for it’s bluntness is again instructive:

Bacevich considers the Clinton administration’s response to Al Qaeda’s bombing of both the World Trade Center in 1993 and the USS Cole in 2000 to have been laughable. But he reserves most of his spleen for the Bush administration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of the team of veteran policymakers that Bush brought with him into office, Bacevich writes, “They arrived knowing everything they needed to know. They just didn’t know enough to avert a horrific attack on the World Trade Center.” Certainly counterterrorism czar Dick Clarke, in particular, tried to warn of an impending Al Qaeda attack on an American target, but Bacevich goes too far in conveying the impression that Bush and his national-security team somehow could have both forecast the exact nature of 9/11 and prevented it and that, therefore, someone should have “lost his or her job . . . [been] reprimanded or demoted.” As the 9/11 Commission made clear, the failure was systemic, not individual.

Mr. Zakheim  and his fellow Vulcans were part of a ‘systemic failure’, this destructive myopia  about 9/11, then takes on a rhetorical life as a sub rosa ‘reason’ for the crimes of Afghanistan and Iraq?

And what is always de rigueur, for the Vulcan menage, a pseudo-defense of the IDF.

Bacevich claims that once initial combat operations had ended, and the American military confronted a growing insurrection and civil war, it adopted the “get tough” posture of the Israeli Defense Forces. Bacevich argues that the IDF’s tactics “reflected an Israeli determination to maintain a permanent grip on the West Bank,” while the similar practices of American forces “raised the specter of the United States maintaining permanent control of Iraq.” He is wrong on both counts. The IDF has never taken a political position on retention of the West Bank, no doubt because much, if not most, of its officer corps supports a two-state solution. IDF tactics, while harsh, and perhaps too harsh, have always been intended to deter future acts of terrorism; on balance, Israel does a much better job in this regard than, for example, Western European forces. In any event, just as the IDF’s operations have no impact on Israeli political decisions regarding the future of the occupied territories, so American counterinsurgency operations in Iraq were in no way a signal of American long-term intentions. Indeed, as Bacevich himself points out, it was George W. Bush who signed an agreement for the withdrawal of American combat troops from that country.

The next two paragraphs Zakheim alludes to his argued stance of a demonstrable political paranoia manifested by Mr. Bacevich: about the  breadth and depth of Vulcan political machination, as if The Project for a New American Century’s manifesto was not easily accessible to even the most incurious of readers.

One claim in particular goes to the heart of Bacevich’s argument. Buttressed by no source higher than Douglas J. Feith, merely the eighth-ranking civilian official in the Pentagon, Bacevich alleges that Iraq was only a prelude to greater things—the remaking of the Middle East via the overthrow of the likes of Qaddafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Beyond the fact that Feith did not necessarily speak for his Defense Department superiors—and certainly did not speak for the White House—his list of targets did not include Egypt’s Mubarak, the Gulf kingdoms and emirates, and the kings of Jordan and Morocco, for the simple reason that these countries and their rulers were all allied to Washington and, in the case of Egypt and Jordan, had peace treaties with Israel.

Bacevich does quote “one Bush Administration official,” who says, “The road to the entire Middle East goes through Baghdad.” But who was that official? And how senior was he or she? We don’t know, and Bacevich doesn’t tell. In a similar vein, his criticism of the Iraq War, as with many of his assertions throughout the book, relies far too heavily on pundits and columnists. He cites journalists as sources for what policymakers thought (Bob Woodward, whose own books have no notes, is a particular favorite) and employs them as putative spokesmen for a government in which they never served. In this regard, Max Boot in particular is a frequent Bacevich foil. Unfortunately, Bacevich’s passionate opposition to the war simply overwhelms what might otherwise have been a reasonable critique of an operation that most analysts now agree was woefully misdirected from its very inception.

Then we as readers reach the long awaited denouement of Mr. Zakheim  polemic, which doesn’t even surprise, as part of the Vulcan rhetorical set piece of Munich, always Munich:

He blames Obama for not ending the “War for the Greater Middle East,” and for expanding and perpetuating it by surging troops to Afghanistan, a place that he describes as, in words that echo Neville Chamberlain’s shameful characterization of Czechoslovakia, “a distant country about which most Americans knew little and cared even less.”

Then this rather surprising argument by Mr. Zakheim about the vexed question of the ‘judgement’ of Obama, Petraeus and McChrystal, made by a policy technocrat with no military experience- it is astounding in its rhetorical assurance of some self-proclaimed insight base in an imagined empiricism? Not to speak of the revelations of Petraeus’  undeniable incompetence!

He assails David Petraeus, “arguably the most overtly political senior military officer . . . since MacArthur” for launching a “veiled challenge to the authority of the commander in chief” by publicly supporting Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s case for a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Bacevich goes on to say that Petraeus and McChrystal successfully pressured “the green-as-grass commander in chief without personal military experience” to surge more troops into Afghanistan. Yet the green-as-grass Obama did not hesitate to sack McChrystal over an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, pressure or no. That Obama not only did not fire Petraeus, but appointed him to head the CIA, clearly demonstrates how Bacevich has misunderstood the president’s relationship with his generals.

The next four paragraphs in Mr. Zakheim’s polemic is devoted to Bacevich’s criticism of  Obama’s Foreign Policy: this paragraph offer some valuable insights that almost emancipates itself from the polemical dross:

Bacevich rightly criticizes Obama’s posture, or more accurately, the absence thereof, vis-à-vis the Syrian Civil War. As he puts it, “Libya represented a model of thoughtful planning and competent execution in comparison with Obama’s one other foray into regime change [namely, Syria].” Once again, he offers no new insights, much less alternatives to Obama’s policies. Moreover, his argument that the administration’s use of drones and special-operations forces against Islamic terrorists in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere is a sign of the administration’s “confusion” seems itself confused. What might intervention in Syria have to do with fighting terrorists elsewhere? The former, if fully implemented, could have resulted in regime change; the latter actually is in support of regimes seeking to govern their unruly nations.

Yet this rhetorical mood is dispelled by a return to polemic:

In any event, Obama’s worst sin appears to have been a willingness to reinsert American forces into Iraq. After having asserted, inaccurately, that “the last non-U.S. foreign troop contingents pull[ed] out of Iraq during the summer of 2009” (the British stayed on until mid-2011), Bacevich asks, “Why did Washington choose to reengage militarily in Iraq?” He answers, “Because it couldn’t think of anything better to do.” It is as if the emergence of ISIS as a new terrorist state, with an expanding geographical base and recruits from the world over, including the United States, should not have merited an American response. Once again, Bacevich offers no new real insights, other than to criticize whatever Obama and his team have done.

The last sentence of this  quoted paragraph takes a stance against the very reason and practice of criticism:  ‘Once again, Bacevich offers no new real insights, other than to criticize whatever Obama and his team have done.’ The purpose of Mr. Zakheim’s self-apologetical propaganda is take the onus off his failed policies, to call those policies calamitous is not to engage in hyperbole, but to engage and put that onus on an irresponsible critic, not vested in the self-evident Vulcan Tribalism. Revile and cast out the nonconformist. Look to the concluding paragraphs of Mr. Zakheim’s essay, for the proof of that defamation of Mr. Bacevich: His anger is still there; his insights are unoriginal; and his policy prescriptions are as superficial as they ever were. Shades of Donald Trump.

A RESPECTED military historian recently remarked to me that Bacevich constantly rewrites the same book. He has a point. In recent years Bacevich has written The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2009); Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (2011); The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2013); and Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (2014). Bacevich’s latest volume is simply a rehashing and updating of these other books.

There is considerable merit to the argument that the United States needs to be more discriminating in its involvement in overseas conflicts, particularly civil wars that pose no clear threat to America’s vital national interests. Over the past several decades, the United States has been far too prone to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries, often to remove and replace their leaders. On the other hand, the very fact that Americans have grown tired of overseas conflicts, and that Obama for all his faults—and there are many—at least prefers not to enmesh the country in new foreign adventures, belies the assertion that America is addicted to armed intervention in the Islamic world. But Bacevich suffers from his own addiction: he cannot bring himself to modify the case against America and its “establishment” that he has been making year after year. His anger is still there; his insights are unoriginal; and his policy prescriptions are as superficial as they ever were. Shades of Donald Trump.

Political Reporter


About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.'
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