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When ‘Trashing Our Allies’ Was All the Rage

Is it blatant dishonesty or a convenient bout of amnesia? It’s hard to tell. What I do know is this: the supposed American devotion to alliances, now being celebrated by those who deem the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis as heralding the end of Western civilization, is a load of malarkey.

The canonization of Mattis as a secular saint was underway in record time. In The New York Times, David Sanger describes Mattis as “the last senior official in the administration deeply invested in the world order that the United States has led for the 73 years since World War II, and the global footprint needed to keep that order together.” Here the tradition of Marshall, Acheson, and Kennan ostensibly ends and the precipice beckons.

To the wise and seasoned defense secretary, Sanger writes, “alliances were a force-multiplier.” To the foolish and impetuous commander-in-chief, “they are mostly a burden.” To drive the point home, Sanger recruits Robert Kagan, who obligingly chides President Donald Trump for treating allies as “freeloaders who can go to hell if they don’t get on board.” 

Treating allies with disrespect is no doubt a terrible thing. Yet not so very long ago it was Kagan and his fellow neoconservatives who were telling allies unwilling to get onboard to go to hell. The moment was the run up to the Iraq war. The George W. Bush administration was urging American allies to join our mission. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein would initiate a great crusade to democratize the Middle East. What could possibly go wrong?

Apparently failing to appreciate that Washington’s operative definition of ally is “we decide, you agree, photo op to follow,” the Krauts and the Frogs refused to go along.

To which Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld replied: so what? In their view, allies were window dressing—nice to have if convenient, but utterly expendable if they dared to interfere with the exercise of American global leadership. Regarding Iraq, the Bush administration did not hide the fact that the United States would go it alone if necessary. “Coalition of the willing” was the phrase devised to gussy up what was little more than a policy of naked unilateralism.

The Germans? Ingrates who had managed to forget their debt to the United States, dating from 1945 and continuing through the Cold War. And the French? “Cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” Together the two European nations formed an “axis of weasel.” They could both go to hell.

As it actually took shape, the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld coalition of the willing consisted mostly of the United Kingdom, led into war by a prime minister subsequently derided by his own countrymen as George Bush’s “poodle.” Tagging along were various other military contingents, together mustering firepower roughly equivalent to that of the Joplin, Missouri Police Department. Not a lot of capability, but since the war was sure to end up as a great romp—or so its proponents believed—none of this was expected to matter. The mighty forces of the United States would make short work of anyone foolish enough to resist. The favored term was “cakewalk.”

As is so often the case in war, things did not go as expected, to put it mildly. The reckless U.S. invasion of Iraq set in train a sequence of events leading—wouldn’t you know it—to the election of a president promising to put “America First.” 

Donald Trump is a fool. Let there be no doubt on that score. But let there also be no confusion about how the United States got into the mess in which it finds itself today. Back in 2002 and 2003, various warmongers decided that noncompliant allies could “go to hell.” They got their wish and we live with the consequences.

Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.

33 Comments (Open | Close)

33 Comments To "When ‘Trashing Our Allies’ Was All the Rage"

#1 Comment By foxhuntingman On December 27, 2018 @ 8:44 pm

Donald Trump is no fool.

#2 Comment By PAX On December 27, 2018 @ 8:44 pm

I think a lot of countries and their dead and wounded would resent your comment about the Joplin PD. The Israelis actually asked the Australian SAS to go in before the invasion and eliminate the scuds. This appeared in the Jerusalem Post but not the LA Times. Many countries agreed with Pat Buchanan’s “Whose war?” in TAC ( [1])and felt it was propelled by one group for their interests and that it was none of their business to commit their lives, limbs,and treasure. Seems the facts agree with them. I do not believe the neocons are credible. But the mainstream media and purchased politicians treat them as supernovas when it comes to issues of war and peace; especially in the Middle East.

#3 Comment By tz On December 27, 2018 @ 10:21 pm

I wonder how many articles said Obama or Bush were fools in AmCon…

#4 Comment By Andover On December 27, 2018 @ 10:40 pm

Let ’em have it, Professor. God knows they earned it.

Look at those photos, the superior smirks on Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld’s faces. And then reflect on their recklessness and incompetence.

I will never forgive what these people did to America. And I’m only one of a great many Americans who feel that way.

#5 Comment By Kurt Gayle On December 27, 2018 @ 11:04 pm

Andrew Bacevich says: “Donald Trump is a fool. Let there be no doubt on that score.”

Yet the “fool” Donald Trump managed to get himself elected President of the United States on a platform of no new wars in the Middle East and—after the defeat of ISIS—getting the US out of Syria, and also Afghanistan.

The “fool” Donald Trump has just announced that he is pulling all remaining US troops out of Syria and withdrawing half of the remaining US troops from Afghanistan.

The “fool” Donald Trump could have done these things a lot more quickly but for the uniform opposition of the Deep State, the Republican Party Establishment, the Democratic Party Establishment, the neocons, the mainstream media, and the endless sniping of retired non-interventionist academics like Mr. Bacevich who would rather snipe and call Trump a “fool” than applaud his worthy efforts and work to help him.

#6 Comment By Stephen J. On December 28, 2018 @ 12:07 am

The writer states: “Back in 2002 and 2003, various warmongers decided that noncompliant allies could “go to hell.” They got their wish and we live with the consequences.”

I believe the “warmongers” and their “consequences” have spread like a deadly disease throughout the Middle East. Millions dead, millions of refugees, countries reduced to rubble and the fires were lit by the warmongers in the “Iraq invasion.” Which spread to other countries by those addicted to war. Therefore, one has to ask:
“Will The War Criminals Be Brought To Justice in 2019? Or Is Justice Dead and Buried”?

It has been said that: “The wheels of justice turn slowly…” but based on the evidence available the “justice” wagon appears to have been deliberately crashed, and it is dead and buried by war criminals in positions of power. These people (are they really people?) are getting away with murdering millions of people in a number of countries. Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and other countries too are suffering from the depredations and illegal wars planned by them.

The past and present ruling scum
Are getting away with what they have done
Their wars on Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen too
Caused millions of deaths and refugees anew…
[much more info on this at link below]

#7 Comment By you go on ahead … I’ll catch up with you later On December 28, 2018 @ 1:56 am

“The Israelis actually asked the Australian SAS to go in before the invasion and eliminate the scuds. “

Israel regards Australia as populated by dumb colonials chafing at the bit for another Gallipoli, especially if that were the heart’s desire of Uncle Sam’s very special “no daylight” friends.

Interestingly, judging by their contribution to the last seventeen years of American-led wars in the Middle East, the Israelis themselves appear to be pacifists. Extraordinarily well-armed ones, of course, thanks to US taxpayer largesse.

#8 Comment By Frank D On December 28, 2018 @ 7:12 am

Donald Trump is no fool.

He’s a lying idiot. 10% pay raise my ass…

#9 Comment By BobS On December 28, 2018 @ 7:44 am

“Donald Trump is no fool.”

What a fool believes.

#10 Comment By Bryan On December 28, 2018 @ 9:31 am

You don’t have to go back that far to see neocons trashing American allies. Just look at the things they’ve been saying about Turkey, the only country in the region that we have a treaty with, and which has fought alongside us more than any other country in the region.

#11 Comment By DIH On December 28, 2018 @ 11:28 am

Andrew Bacevich, it’s a good article, but you ruined it with “Donald Trump is a fool.”

It’s the only thing anyone who read it will remember, especially when it has nothing to do with your point that Trump is right about something.

#12 Comment By DocB On December 28, 2018 @ 2:39 pm

Pat, as a guy who lives just outside Joplin, your pen ran away with your mind. Next time you are looking for a comparison, stick to something fictional: for instance Grand Fenwick. Those of us in SW Missouri are proud of our Law Enforcement folks, where the surplus MRAPs are used to rescue folks in high water, not to serve warrants; and where a lot of our JPD, JCSO, and NCSO folks are vets of the conflicts.

#13 Comment By Jeeves On December 28, 2018 @ 2:53 pm

Bad neocons! Bad! Neocons are the new racists.

Did one of these neocons (did I mention that they are bad?) actually tell France and Germany to “go to hell”? Please provide citation (the epithets you do cite, e.g., “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” were not to my knowledge uttered by Bush & Co.)

Donald, on the other hand, was pretty frank about a singular issue: the failure of NATO allies to pay their fair share of GDP on defense, i.e., free-riding. Trump’s not wrong, but his America-first disdain for allies is more targeted than any issue raised by the (bad) neocons. To my knowledge, there were no reprisals visited on France or Germany on account of their being “unwilling.” That kind of threat came from Trump.

Yes, Mr. Bacevich, I think we all (even some bad neocons) agree Iraq was a terrible idea, America’s worst foreign policy blunder–ever. Wash, rinse, spin dry. That topic’s done.

#14 Comment By fabian On December 28, 2018 @ 3:29 pm

Trump is a fool who, so far, hasn’t got 70,000 of our soldiers killed or wounded. So, this “fool” apart, whom would you have voted for? Because all the other “non fool” would have already sent to Syria, or somewhere else, what’s left of the army.

#15 Comment By fabian On December 28, 2018 @ 3:31 pm

Kurt Gayle; you rock. I couldn’t have written it better.

#16 Comment By Ed On December 28, 2018 @ 4:06 pm

The fool is the person who tells the king the truth when the wise men are too afraid.

Still, it’s uncontestable that Donald Trump doesn’t have expertise or experience with foreign policy or other areas of government operations.

The gamble was that Trump would have the right instincts to deal with whatever came up. It’s quite a gamble, but if you thought that the other candidate had precisely the wrong instincts and the wrong policies, you might have been willing to take the gamble.

#17 Comment By Jeeves On December 28, 2018 @ 4:43 pm

Turkey, the only country in the region that we have a treaty with, and which has fought alongside us more than any other country in the region.

“More than any other country in the region”? That’s not saying much, since some of these countries are of relatively recent origin. The Ottomans were allied with Germany in WWI, and the Turks were neutral for most of WWII. But they did send soldiers to Korea. I’m not sure that’s enough of a reason not to badmouth their authoritarian, quasi-theocratic regime.

#18 Comment By Ken Zaretzke On December 28, 2018 @ 5:22 pm

“Donald Trump is a fool. Let there be no doubt on that score.”

Maybe you should ask your Nation magazine fellow contributor, Stephen F. Cohen, if he agrees with you that Trump has no statesmanlike qualities.

Why don’t you tell us what you think about amnesty and open borders? I’m 95% sure you favor those things, and that the moral feelings you have about migrants is what propels your contempt for Trump, which mysteriously exceeds your disdain for George W. Bush. Prove me wrong, Mr. Bacevich.

#19 Comment By Joseph T. On December 28, 2018 @ 6:25 pm

Nice article, but I could have done without the “fool” comment. Better to leave such gratuitous remarks out in the future. You have too much that is important to say.

#20 Comment By PAX On December 28, 2018 @ 6:35 pm

You go ahead…
That was one point that the local neocons missed. Another is that Australia’s greatest general was General Monash (WW1), who was Jewish and is a national hero. Some historians argue that he should have been in charge of all allied forces on the Western Front in WW1, but bigotry was a deterrent. Another point is that the 2003 Iraq invasion (see Patrick’s “Whose war?”) was illogical and unjustified from the perspective of nearly everyone in the world but the selfish and self-absorbed neocons and their bought for local (on the cheap) politicians.

#21 Comment By Cassander On December 28, 2018 @ 7:52 pm

To Prof Bacevich

Your constant ridiculing of the President undermines your credibility. I am inclined to believe you adopt this position in order to curry favor with old line academic elites who also hate the President. You need to be more honest with yourself.

#22 Comment By Janwaar Bibi On December 28, 2018 @ 10:32 pm

Another point is that the 2003 Iraq invasion (see Patrick’s “Whose war?”) was illogical and unjustified from the perspective of nearly everyone in the world but the selfish and self-absorbed neocons and their bought for local (on the cheap) politicians.

This is nonsense. The Iraq war was in the interest of the Saudis and the Israelis, which is why “Bandar Bush” and the Israel lobby in the US promoted the war. The only clueless people were ordinary Americans, and some of them seem to be clueless even today.


#23 Comment By Dardan On December 29, 2018 @ 12:31 am

@Jeeves : “But they did send soldiers to Korea. I’m not sure that’s enough of a reason not to badmouth their authoritarian, quasi-theocratic regime.”

Turkey is housing several million refugees from our disastrous Mideast wars, keeping them from flooding into and further destabilizing Europe.

Turkey controls some of the most strategically important real estate in the world, including the Black Sea cork. For decades it has exercised that control in ways that conduced to US interests, and it is doing so right now.

Two reasons to remember that Turkey is one thing and its current leadership is another. And that its “authoritarian, quasi-theocratic” regime is certainly no worse, and in some ways more palatable, than Saudi Arabia’s. Or Egypt’s. Or Israel’s.

#24 Comment By Josep On December 29, 2018 @ 4:51 am

Ah yes, the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” cliché. Where do I begin…
What brought me to TAC in early 2017, aside from [4], was reading of how the US government began a slew of French-bashing in 2003 when France refused to fight in Iraq. Let me think of some examples:
* French fries were renamed to “Freedom Fries”.
* some people made jabs about body odor.
* others called the bravery/loyalty of the French into question, accusing them of cowardice/treason for refusing to fight in Iraq.
* people were encouraged to boycott any French companies as well as non-French companies with relations to French ones. French’s, a mustard manufacturer, even tried to declare that it wasn’t French despite the name.
* “conservatives” rejoiced when tens of thousands of elderly French died in the 2003 heat wave.
* some people demanded that the Statue of Liberty be dismantled and shipped back to France.
The blog miquelon.org documents French-bashing in American media.

I’m rather surprised that the neocons (both American and British), while rejecting everything French, continued to drink pasteurized milk, use the Braille system, use words such as bureau and platoon, and/or fly hot-air balloons, most (if not all) of which were of French origin. For them to crap on the French is to bite the hand that feeds them.

At the time, I was only four years old and my family was living in China at the time. My American dad, who I remember frequenting sites like lucianne.com back then (he still does today), doesn’t seem to remember such a boycott.

I don’t know about you guys, but as an American citizen of French descent myself, I’ll go on a limb and say that 2003 would’ve been a bad time to be American. Had I known about it back then, I’d be eager to learn Russian and possibly “seek asylum” in Russia.

This is just my two rubles worth.

#25 Comment By Josep On December 29, 2018 @ 5:05 am

One thing I forgot to mention was that John Kerry, the Democratic 2004 presidential candidate, was smeared by Bush for his ability to speak French. For all his flaws, I’d like to know how differently the Iraq War would’ve turned out had Kerry won.

Another thing to note is that, back when Bush was president, so-called “Freepers” (members of the forum Free Republic) would go to German news websites such as Der Spiegel and gerrymander opinion polls regarding Bush by selecting and submitting the “Most Favorable” option, clearing their browser’s site cookies, and repeating the process until it appears as if more and more people support Bush than oppose him. If I recall correctly, this despicable act of gerrymandering was called “Freeping”.

#26 Comment By TomG On December 29, 2018 @ 9:45 am

One of the most foretelling things about reality TV Trump was the weekly climax, “You’re fired!” I learned from Peter Drucker decades ago that if your ‘go to’ solution is firing people you are a poor manager. Hire well and find employees strengths. That served me extremely well over my 40 years of management.

Tillerson, Mattis, Bolton, Pompeo–all are poor hires to a candidate that wanted to reign in foreign intervention. Trump’s greatest failing is one of Management 101. He can’t seem to staff a team without drawing from the swamp he claimed to want to drain.

#27 Comment By Flavius On December 29, 2018 @ 11:29 am

The American Conservative was onto something brave and noble when it was founded. I don’t recall that it called GWB a fool but its pages redounded with criticism of his administration’s folly in prosecuting its wars, ruinous at home and more ruinous abroad. And it recognized the cancer of neo-conservativism, a neologism coined to camoflage the pseudo-religion of american exceptionalism uber alles.
But alas, the American Conservative lost its way almost entirely during the Obama Administration because it continued to nurture the greater part of its contempt, just contempt I would add, for the neo-conservatives who had lost executive power, Republicans, while largely giving a pass to the neo-conseervatives who had assumed it, Democrats. When it came to the disastrous policies that were being implemented, nothing much had changed; but when it came where American Conservative had reserved its fervor, it for some reason had forgotten where it was that the noxious powers were resident.
Well, now that a Republican is exercising the executive power, if Trump can be called a Republican (he calls himself a Republican at any rate), Bacevich slurs Trump as a fool, even as he exercises his office in a manner that Bacevich himself might have scripted. The criticism is beneath Bacevich and it undercuts the authority of his policy prescriptions which are generally well wrought.
Bacevich knows policy because he has been there. What does he know about Trump that anyone should care that at the moment Trump does something he considers wise, he still thinks him a fool. Bacevich would serve himself and his topic better if he would just stick to it.

#28 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 29, 2018 @ 3:56 pm

I am not inclined to believe the president is a “fool.”

Nor do I think Gen. Mattis is a fool or a warmonger. His position is fairly clear. A withdrawal requires some responsible manner. Afterall, we once again emboldened and encouraged a revolution that resulted in death and all manner of mayhem.

We leave behind others who will pay a stiff price, if we don’t take steps to ensure some reconciliation. Though it is my read, that a peace process has already been put in place. Minus much input from the US. That perspective of his concern makes some sense, an immediate withdrawal, leaving those we encouraged in the wake is irresponsible.

And no, my comments are not an invite them to the US. Though many wish as much for all manner of reasons than their safety.

#29 Comment By David On December 29, 2018 @ 7:17 pm

It appears that Bacevich included the somewhat gratuitous “fool” remark to ensure that his article not be viewed as an endorsement of Trump. He does not say that Trump has not done some things that are not foolish (how’s that for a triple negative?). In any case, Trump has clearly done some foolish things, e.g, after campaigning on a platform of non-interventionism, appointing the extreme neocon John Bolton as his national security adviser. Whether that makes him a fool I leave it to others to debate.

#30 Comment By Bryan On December 30, 2018 @ 10:35 am

“I’m not sure that’s enough of a reason not to badmouth their authoritarian, quasi-theocratic regime.”

Turkey fought with us in WWII, Korea, Desert Storm and in Afghanistan after 9/11. Does any other nation the Mideast even come close to them? Furthermore, Erdogan came to power in a free and fair election in which all Turkey’s subject were free to vote, unlike the de facto theocracy Israel and the naked theocracy Saudi Arabia. Just because Turkey doesn’t kowtow to the American whims and wishes doesn’t make Erdogan a theocratic dictator. And remember, he actually served time in prison for praying in public, which makes Turkey more secular than the U.S. in this respect.

#31 Comment By sanitation worker On December 30, 2018 @ 11:22 am

Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld didn’t just trash America’s allies. They trashed America itself.

#32 Comment By Mork D On January 5, 2019 @ 5:24 pm

I defend Andrew’s characterization of Trump as a fool.

If any commenters found themselves elected President, on an anti-war basis, would they hire three (3) generals to serve in their cabinet and staff? Would they let John Bolton ANYWHERE near any levers of power? Would they demand a yearly increase in the Pentagon’s budget?

I hope not. Trump is erratic at best and seems to favor taking action merely to undo something Obama did, it plays well with his base. His base, not principled anti-warriors and libertarians, but rather mostly scared older working class white folks along with a venal monied class, who are afraid of losing their stranglehold on the USA, culturally and economically, and culture-wise who think fondly back on the “good old days” as it’s portrayed on TV and can’t fathom what life was like for a non-white person before the Civil Rights Act passed (1964, not that long ago.)

#33 Comment By Dave Sullivan On January 7, 2019 @ 11:49 am

I agree Mr Bacevich, trump is a fool, and would add, those who believe his “end US wars” schtick. First, for the “but Hillary” crowd…whoever was elected in 2016 was going to find no “new wars” to engage in. All the easy pickings were gone, and the US military was too broken to put some new invasion together. Review some trump campaign highlights..”wmd lies” ok, push for an investigation..crickets. Get us out of ME wars ? He has escalated every theater, you numbskulls dont even get that the troops he says he is going to withdraw, are troops he put in. Now, there is one promise he kept..”carpet bomb ISIS cities, kill their families” No, he didn’t use b-52s, not a good look. Instead, two marine 155mm artillery batteries brought in 2017. They have used 80ooo shells as of Nov 2018, considering Pentagon accounting, let’s call it 100ooo. A 155 guided shell has a 100meter kill diameter, 200 meter casualty diameter. If each shell kills one civilian, and mains 2, your “peace president” appears to be more like Charlie Manson than any kind of reformer.