An Examination of America’s path to Permanent War
For the last half century, as administrations have come and gone, the fundamental assumptions about America’s military policy have remained unchanged: American security requires the United States (and us alone) to maintain a permanent armed presence around the globe, to prepare our forces for military operations in far-flung regions, and to be ready to intervene anywhere at any time. In the Obama era, just as in the Bush years, these beliefs remain unquestioned gospel.
In a vivid, incisive analysis, Andrew J. Bacevich succinctly presents the origins of this consensus, forged at a moment when American power was at its height. He exposes the preconceptions, biases, and habits that underlie our pervasive faith in military might, especially the notion that overwhelming superiority will oblige others to accommodate America’s needs and desires—whether for cheap oil, cheap credit, or cheap consumer goods. And he challenges the usefulness of our militarism as it has become both unaffordable and increasingly dangerous.
Though our politicians deny it, American global might is faltering. This is the moment, Bacevich argues, to reconsider the principles which shape American policy in the world — to acknowledge that fixing Afghanistan should not take precedence over fixing Detroit. Replacing this Washington consensus is crucial to America’s future, and may yet offer the key to the country’s salvation.
[This is intended as just a quick review – mainly a post to inform you about this book, rather than a full-blown critique or review. I’m a fan of Bacevich’s writing – books and also journalism – so I wanted to just inform readers of his latest release.]
Washington Rules, the author writes, “aims to take stock of conventional wisdom in its most influential and enduring form, namely the package of assumptions, habits, and precepts that have defined the tradition of statecraft to which the United States has adhered since the end of World War II – the era of global dominance now drawing to a close.” The book is a scathing indictment, placed in historical context, of the stubbornness of conventional wisdom and the ease with which those in power succumb to the allure of the national security state. During his European tour of duty in the Army, Bacevich came to see the cracks in American ideology and approach to national security:
“Belatedly, I learned that more often than not what passes for conventional wisdom is simply wrong. Adopting fashionable attitudes to demonstrate one’s trustworthiness – the world of politics is flush with such people hoping thereby to qualify for inclusion in some inner circle – is akin to engaging in prostitution in exchange for promissory notes. It's not only demeaning but downright foolhardy.”
Bacevich identifies two enduring post-WW2 traditions in US foreign policy, before detailing their evolution through the following chapters: “The first component specifies norms according to which the international order ought to work and charges the United States with the responsibility for enforcing those norms.” This component earned greater prominence (not to mention the concrete essence of the US foreign policy credo) when Henry Luce coined the term “The American Century”.
The second component, “tradition has emphasized activism over example, hard power over soft, and coercion (often styled ‘negotiating from a position of strength’) over suasion.” This component “obliges the United States to maintain military capabilities staggeringly in excess of those required for self-defence.” In other words,
“The Washington rules... commit the United States to what is in effect a condition of permanent national security crisis.”
The development of these Rules has been gradual, yet also obvious to anyone who wished to seek out evidence. A disengaged citizenry, however, has allowed the militarisation of American society to grow and develop unopposed: “The citizens of the United States have essentially forfeited any capacity to ask first-order questions about the fundamentals of national security policy.” To voice doubts about US global presence and involvement is to mark oneself as an “oddball or eccentric”, “less than fully reliable”, and “certainly not someone suitable for holding national office.”
As always, one of the strengths of Bacevich’s work is his inclusion of biographies of key officials and theorists – often largely unknown – who originated the ideas that, he believes, have got America into its dangerous contemporary position. In Washington Rules, we get biographies of the two key originators of the Washington Rules: Allen Dulles (first head of CIA) and Curtis LeMay (head of Strategic Air Command). We also get, later in the book, biographies of those who – especially after Vietnam – opposed the Washington Rules, namely Senator Fulbright and General Schoup, whose arguments are so rational and sensible that it is a wonder how they have been lost over the decades. Equally familiar, however, is the author’s tendency to provide biographies that are both interesting yet a little over-long. That being said, the portrait he paints of the original CIA leadership is fascinating – they were all colourful eccentrics. In the post-Vietnam years, when the Washington Rules came under attack, “heresy enjoyed a brief vogue”, but this vogue was short lived as the Washington Rules quickly, astonishingly so, reasserted themselves.
By the end of the Eisenhower era, the elements of the Washington rules were firmly in place. Principles and practices established by the CIA and SAC – “by now the yin and yang of the new National Security State” – had become “sacrosanct” to the Washington establishment. All that remained was for “the rest of the national security apparatus to come into conformity with them.”
The unassailable position in Washington enjoyed by the Rules is astonishing. The first time it was truly tested, the Bay of Pigs, could be argued as a turning point in US foreign policy, and yet, in comparison to 9/11 it was “a moment that created an opening to pose first-order questions, but elicited instead an ill-conceived, reflexive response.” Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and George W. Bush would all squander opportunities to “rethink and reorient U.S. policy, with fateful implications.” Bacevich deals, at length, with the fallout after Bay of Pigs and the questions it posed about the efficacy of covert operations. Naturally, Kennedy et al, devoted as they were to both covert ops and the overthrow of Castro’s regime in Cuba, couldn’t abide any challenge to their methods.
“Why did an administration whose senior members fancied themselves to be pragmatic and analytical go off the deep end in its pursuit of a dictator governing a country that, in 1961, boasted a population of slightly less than six million, a per capita income one-fifth that of the United States, and negligible military power?”
No doubt, Bacevich proposes, “domestic politics provides at least a partial explanation... Reenergizing the campaign to get Castro offered a way of rebutting any charges that the young president lacked toughness and so could be circumvented or ignored.”
“Once the Soviet threat disappeared, mere primacy no longer sufficed. With barely a whisper of national debate, unambiguous and perpetual global military supremacy emerged as an essential predicate to global leadership.”
The Rules do not just dictate action, but they have come hand-in-hand with characterisation of global events frequently wholly ignorant of America’s past policies and actions.
“When some event disrupts the American pursuit of peace – the missile crisis of 1962, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, Saddam Hussein’s assault on Kuwait in 1990, or the terrorist attacks of 9/11 – those exercising power in Washington invariably depict the problem as appearing out of the blue, utterly devoid of historical context. The United States is either the victim or an innocent bystander, Washington’s own past actions possessing no relevance to the matter at hand.”
“Thoughtful reflection”, the author laments, is too often supplanted by “energetic action”, regardless of whether or not such action benefits or worsens the American position. Equally, after major attacks or setbacks, “defence – protecting Americans from harm – never figured as more than an afterthought”, which explains why, after 9/11, there was more administration chatter about invading Iraq than repairing defences. “At stake was a thoroughly militarized conception of statecraft to which those at the centre of power remained deeply wedded.” Instead of defence, Washington set about “depict[ing] the vigorous exercise of American leadership (by which they meant the vigorous application of hard power) as essential to peace.”
The speed with which the lessons and experiences of Vietnam were discarded is appalling. A false choice between the lessons of Munich and Vietnam, Bacevich explains, has led many to simply reject Vietnam as an aberration in US foreign policy, disconnected from the grander strategies and policies of US history. After the interventions of the 1980s-90s, it was clear that “Appeasement rather than overreaction had once again become the sin to be avoided at all costs.”
“For Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and the entire foreign policy establishment, the most important conclusion to be derived from Vietnam was that the American experience was sui generis. This meant, of course, that the war had no truly important lessons to teach, none at least that should call into question the larger record of U.S. policy or alter its future course. Reflecting on the past took a backseat to looking ahead.”
The remilitarisation of America “happened in plain sight.” While the American people may not have actively endorsed the ever-greater militarization of foreign policy, coupled with the concentration of ever more power in the Executive, they nonetheless “passively assented”. White House advisers increasingly operate under the assumption that the “benefits of using force outweighed the risks”. At a bare minimum, “dropping a few bombs all but guarantee[s] an uptick in a president’s approval rating.”
After Operation Desert Storm, Powell “wasted no time in advertising the just-completed campaign as the approved template for all future American wars.” That is, “When (and only when) truly vital interests were at stake, the United States should employ what Powell called ‘overwhelming force’ to make short work of any adversary.” Powell also asserted that the United States should not – echoing John Quincy Adams – seek out monsters in other arenas against whom to deploy this doctrine.
“Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz may not have hankered for war, something with which they had no direct personal experience. What they and other semiwarriors craved was not slaughter but submission – unquestioned political dominance as an expected by-product of unquestioned military dominion.”
As war modernised, it became detached from the population’s experience: War in the post-Cold War world, the author writes, “had become a spectacle, not a phenomenon that inflicted pain and suffering on citizens of the United States.” (154) This is the environment in which the US now conducts war. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars may have caused the deaths of over 4,000 US troops, but it is still held at arms’ length, the costs not immediately apparent.
Bacevich’s book is a timely indictment of the remilitarisation of American society, politics and foreign policy. He does not hold much confidence or hope that the Rules will ever be revealed to be as dangerous as they clearly are to America’s national security. There is some overlap with his previous book, The Limits of Power (especially when detailing Rumsfeld’s ‘revolution in military affairs’, which is also well-detailed in Fred Kaplan’s Daydream Believers).
Historically detailed, insightful, and intellectually convincing, Washington Rules is a must for those interested in the US national security state, and also US foreign policy as a whole.