Andrew Bacevich on China’s Rise as Global Superpower & Decline of U.S. Empire After Iraq Invasion
Written by GRB on 22/03/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has left Moscow, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders declared a “new era” in Chinese-Russian relations. During a joint news conference, Putin said, quote, “Russia-China relations are at the highest point in the history of our two countries,” he said.
Xi Jinping arrived in Moscow Monday, just three days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin, accusing him of committing war crimes in Ukraine. On Tuesday, Xi Jinping discussed China’s 12-point peace proposal to end the war in Ukraine.
PRESIDENT XI JINPING: [translated] I would like to point out that in the Ukrainian settlement, we consistently follow the principles of the U.N. Charter and stand on an objective and unbiased position. We do actively promote reconciliation and resumption of talks. Our stance is based on the very essence of the matter and on the truth. We are always for peace and dialogue. We are firmly standing on the true side of history.
AMY GOODMAN: Russian President Vladimir Putin said China’s plan could be the basis to end the war.
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] Of course, we did not ignore the situation around Ukraine. We believe that many of the provisions of the peace plan put forward by China are consonant with Russian approaches and can be taken as the basis for a peaceful settlement, when they are ready for that in the West and in Kyiv. However, so far, we see no such readiness from their side.
AMY GOODMAN: In recent weeks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed willingness to talk to Xi Jinping about China’s peace plan. A senior Ukrainian official has told CNN that discussions are underway to organize a call between the two leaders, but nothing has been set yet. Zelensky spoke in Kyiv on Tuesday.
PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY: [translated] We invited China, both publicly as well as through diplomatic channels, to participate in our peace formula. We invite China for dialogue, and we wait for a response.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby dismissed China’s ability to be an impartial mediator between Russia and Ukraine.
JOHN KIRBY: But I don’t think you can reasonably look at China as impartial in any way. They haven’t condemned this in — this invasion. They haven’t stopped buying Russian oil and Russian energy. President Xi saw fit to fly all the way to Moscow, hasn’t talked once to President Zelensky, hasn’t visited Ukraine.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk about the Russia-China summit, the war in Ukraine, as well as the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we’re joined by Andrew Bacevich, chair of the board and co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, retired colonel, Vietnam War veteran. Bacevich is professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University and author of several books, his latest, On Shedding an Obsolete Past: Bidding Farewell to the American Century.
Professor Bacevich, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: There’s a lot to talk about today, from what happened 20 years ago, the U.S. invasion to Iraq, to the Ukraine war. But let’s begin in the present, this latest news of the Xi-Putin summit, the Chinese peace plan that was offered, and Zelensky’s response to it. Do you see a path right now? Start off by talking about the significance of the summit.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, first of all, you know, we should not take at face value anything the parties say, whether we’re talking about Russia, China, Ukraine or the United States.
I think what impresses me is the evidence of Chinese diplomatic activism. And I say that also with reference to their role in bringing about the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Our diplomacy, American diplomacy, strikes me as reactive and unimaginative and ineffective. But I think Chinese diplomacy appears to be more imaginative and potentially more effective. What that says is — guess what — the world is changing in important and dramatic ways with regard to the distribution of power and influence worldwide. And this simply confirms, in a sense, what we’ve always known, or known for a long time, which is that, yes, indeed, China is emerging as a global superpower on a par with the United States of America.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the peace plan that they’ve offered? And while Zelensky is not accepting that, saying it would mean that Russia would stay within the occupied areas in Ukraine, in both Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and could allow them to invade at any future point, but just the fact that he is saying, “I do want to talk with the president of China,” and has presented his own peace plan. If you’ve analyzed that?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I haven’t analyzed it in any great detail, but I think you’re actually making the key point, that Zelensky’s willingness to talk, to hear out China, suggests an openness to China serving as the intermediary, which will make some sort of deal possible. It’s highly unlikely that there’s going to be one side that wins and the other side that loses in this conflict, even though that appears to be the expectation of the Biden administration, you know, that Ukraine will win, Russia will lose. Ain’t gonna happen. And so there has to be a compromise. And it would appear to me that Zelensky is signaling a willingness to compromise, whereas the United States is sticking to a very hardball position.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the U.S. is saying they can’t trust China, but talk about why you think China and other countries could be seminal in mediating a peace deal.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think the larger context here is one that other commentators have recognized, and that is that the Ukraine-Russia war is a proxy conflict. It’s a proxy conflict that is a subset of a larger competition between the West, led by the United States, even if our leadership is somewhat precarious — between the West and the People’s Republic of China. And again, I think what we’re seeing is assertiveness, imagination on the part of the People’s Republic that has not met with anything comparable from the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, if you can talk about this moment in time? The corporate media is hardly dealing with this very significant 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the Ukraine war, you know, going on during this time. And even when the mainstream media does, it’s the same people who 20 years ago pushed, beat the drums for war, for that invasion — and I’m not just talking about Fox — in the same way political leaders, from Joe Biden to Hillary Clinton, when they were in the Senate, voted for the U.S. invasion —
ANDREW BACEVICH: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: — that President George W. Bush pushed forward. Talk about the effects of this disastrous war, where still, unlike in Afghanistan, 2,500 troops are still there.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think a preliminary question is: Why did the United States invade Iraq in the first place? And there are multiple answers to that question. I think, in many respects, the most important answer is that the Iraq War was envisioned by both the Bush administration and by proponents of the war — for example, in the media — was envisioned as a way to demonstrate that 9/11 really didn’t mean much of anything, that the United States was still the one and only global superpower, that if we sent U.S. troops to Iraq, if we beat up Saddam Hussein, overthrew Saddam Hussein, that that would suffice to erase the obvious implications of the 9/11 attacks, meaning the obvious implications being that we were far more vulnerable, far weaker than the post-Cold War claims of being the indispensable nation would seem to suggest. So, it was an effort to show that 9/11 really didn’t matter. That effort assumed that the United States would win a great, decisive, inexpensive military victory in Iraq. And, of course, that didn’t come to pass.
Here we are 20 years later. I think you’re right: There really is an unwillingness on the part of the establishment to grapple honestly with the implications of the war. And in a sense, an ironic sense, I think the Ukraine war gives the establishment a convenient opportunity to change the subject. So, you’re right: We still have U.S. forces in the Middle East. We persist in the basic structure of national security policy, spend more money on the military than the next 10 biggest military powers in the world, maintain 800-plus bases around the world, maintain these regional command headquarters, like Central Command and NATO and so on. We’ve learned nothing. And that’s sad, to put it mildly, and, I think, also sets us up for a repetition of that mistake. We’re in this showdown, a proxy showdown, with Russia and Ukraine. We seem to assume that Putin’s war efforts will consist entirely of conventional weapons, despite the fact, of course, that Russia possesses a massive nuclear arsenal. So, we make these convenient assumptions about the way a war is going to go, and then, of course, we’re utterly surprised when the war doesn’t follow the required script.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Bacevich, you recently wrote a piece for The American Conservative headlined “And the winner is… Twenty years after the Iraq invasion: America’s humiliation was China’s gain.” Talk more about this.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think — I mean, I think there’s no question about it, that over the past 20 years, you know, if you were — if it was a matter of stock prices, China’s stock prices have gone up, have flourished; our stock price has plummeted. We have frittered away power. We have frittered away influence. And I wouldn’t say that the Iraq War is the one and only explanation for relative American decline, but it has been a very important contributing factor. And if the imperative of the moment would include putting a floor under that decline, then it seems to me the place to begin is with an honest recounting of the Iraq War, its origins, its conduct, its implications. But there’s not a heck of a lot of evidence to suggest that that honest recounting is going to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think of the right, in terms of questioning the Iraq War, leading many to believe, you know, sort of sides are switching and shifting? There are those that are deeply questioning the Ukraine war in the peace movement, who are saying negotiation is the only solution here —
ANDREW BACEVICH: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: — fearing that this could lead to a nuclear war. But those on the right — I mean, even in Florida, DeSantis, the governor, who could be challenging Trump, saying it’s just a territorial dispute, and so many Republicans saying stop funding the war in Ukraine.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Yeah. You know, should we — as citizens, should we believe that when politicians speak in public, they are expressing a principled perspective? Or is it more likely that they’re actually saying things that reflect domestic political considerations? I have to say — and I don’t mean to be cynical — I have to say I’m in the latter camp. So, yeah, so now that Biden owns the Ukraine war, we see lots of Republicans sounding dovish, or at the very least cautious, with regard to the use of force. I’m not persuaded that the positions staked out today by Democrats and Republicans reflect principled points of view as opposed to what’s politically convenient in the moment.
AMY GOODMAN: Going back to Iraq, and in a moment we’re going to be speaking with a well-known Iraqi American who, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, left Minneapolis and said, “I don’t care if I just have to sweep the streets of my city of Najaf, I’m going to be there with my people,” and has now returned. We see that President Putin has been now charged by the International Criminal Court with war crimes. The question of where American officials should stand, not 20 years later, but even 10 or before that. President Obama was famous for saying we should always just look forward. But for culpability when it comes to the destruction of this nation of Iraq, what about George W. Bush, who — yesterday I was saying on the show — just a day after 9/11, when we know 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, was pushing his counterterrorism czar, Richard Clarke, on the issue of Iraq, “How can we make that connection?” And Richard Clarke was saying back to him, “There is zero connection.” But then, what this means, what this led to? Should he also be charged with war crimes? And should others be in the dock with him?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, first of all, there’s no question, in my opinion, that the Iraq War, initiated by the United States, a war of choice, was a crime, a really horrid crime. I’m probably easier on President Bush than many other people are. You know, I view him as an individual, really, of limited talent, to put it bluntly. He became president because his last name was “Bush.” He was an unimaginative figure and was utterly unprepared for what happened on September 11th. And his reaction, which I wouldn’t defend, I think is primarily attributable to the associates that he chose to surround himself with. In other words, if I’m looking for bad guys, I don’t begin by looking at Bush. I begin with Cheney and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice, people who fancied themselves to be strategic thinkers. They fancied themselves to have a grasp of world politics, who believed that American military might was so great that we would sweep aside Saddam Hussein’s forces, and some vast benefit would result. Well, they miscalculated. They were utterly wrong. And so, when I’m looking for somebody to blame, I tend to blame those people more than Bush — not letting Bush of the hook. He was the commander-in-chief. But again, I think, in at least some sense, it was not his hands that were on the controls.
AMY GOODMAN: If Bush was so untalented, why couldn’t the largest antiwar movement in the world stop him? And it’s not only in the United States. I mean, remember, February 15th, 2003, millions of people took to the streets of the world to stop the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I don’t think Bush or anybody in the Bush administration cared about world opinion. I mean, they cared about whether or not they were going to be able to line up certain allies, like Great Britain, to support the war. In that, they succeeded. You know, shame on Tony Blair. But I don’t think world opinion factored, in a large sense, in the inner circles of Washington, D.C. But your larger question is — because I remember those. I happened to be in New York City, in Manhattan, on the day of the — was it February, I think, 15th?
AMY GOODMAN: February 15, 2003.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Moving, massive, astonishing, and I think had zero political impact. Why? Well, I think that says something about our democracy, that elites tend to bow toward the will of the people, but then, when they sit around the table and they make decisions, decisions related to war and peace, I don’t think that they think very seriously about, “Well, you know, what do the folks back in Indiana think?” Their calculation is shaped by considerations of power and, again, I would say, with regard to the Bush administration in 2003, when the war began, radically defective understanding of the war, understanding of ourselves, understanding of the potential of American military power. So, our leadership, elected and appointed, was stupid. The people, actually, I think, had a better grasp of the dangers that we were undertaking when we went to war with Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Andrew Bacevich, we want to thank you so much for joining us, chair of the board and co-founder of the antiwar think tank Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, retired colonel, Vietnam War veteran, professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University. His latest book, On Shedding an Obsolete Past: Bidding Farewell to the American Century. He’s speaking to us from Punta Gorda, Florida. We’ll link to your latest piece in The Boston Globe headlined “The self-deceived deceivers of war.”
Coming up, we continue with our weeklong 20th anniversary of the Iraq War special by going to Minneapolis to speak with Sami Rasouli, a beloved Iraqi American restaurateur in Minneapolis who moved back to Iraq after the U.S. invasion to be in his home country, where he founded Muslim Peacemaker Team. Now he’s back. Stay with us.