Washington Rules: America’s Path To Permanent War
Written by a former Army Colonel, Washington rules: America’s path to permanent war (Bacevich, 2010) is a striking analysis of America’s pro-military psyche and determination to “to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world” (Bacevich, 2010, p. 12) through worldwide militarism. Commencing post-World War II, the global military presence that has become a fact of American life has been supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, though it has significantly drained our resources. While some critics and this reader take issue with some aspects of Bacevich’s book, in many respects it provides a voice of sanity in the face of the U.S.’s now-unbearable global pro-war stance.
Bacevich’s book is anything but the compliment, “Washington Rules!” Washington rules: America’s path to permanent war (Bacevich, 2010) relates his own educational journey from a pro-military conservative soldier to a questioner who attacks the American consensus about America’s global rights and responsibilities. Bacevich states that since World War II, two components have dominated the American consciousness regarding our military presence on the globe. The first element is a “credo” that “summons the United States — and the United States alone — to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world” (Bacevich, 2010, p. 12). The second element is a “sacred trinity” of continual consensus, no matter which political party controls the White House or Congress: “an abiding conviction that the minimum essentials of international peace and order require the United States to maintain a global military presence, to configure its forces for global power projection, and to counter existing or anticipated threats by relying on a policy of global interventionism” (Bacevich, 2010, p. 14). “Global military presence” means that the United States maintains military personnel and weapons around the world. “Global Power Projection” means that the United States positions, arms and plans its forces to strike anywhere in the World, at least theoretically “immediately.” “Global Intervention” means that the United States has the right and duty to essentially police the World, intervening in any threatening situation.
Based on these two elements of credo and trinity, the United States has spread its military might around the globe in a so-called “flexible response” (Bacevich, 2010, p. 60) that keeps us in a constant state of pre-war or war, believing that we have the right, duty and capability of policing the entire world. Though this stance has been couched in the term “flexible response” since the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, the global aggression is unmistakable. Bacevich maintains that those two elements have “propelled the United States into a condition approximating perpetual war” (Bacevich, 2010, p. 16). Consequently, in times of international crisis, such as 09/11, America is not disposed to reevaluate its foreign policy; rather, America’s response is uniformly and expensively military. That condition seemed workable at one point but is no longer viable for the United States: “The Washington rules were forged at a moment when American influence and power were approaching their acme. That moment has now passed” (Bacevich, 2010, p. 16). Bacevich maintains that the U.S. has used up and/or lost the authority, good will and respect it had in 1945, and “no longer possesses sufficient wherewithal” to sustain its credo and trinity (Bacevich, 2010, p. 16).
While explaining our aggressive credo and trinity, Bacevich remains an equal-opportunity accuser. Rather than pointing the finger at a single presidential administration, Congress or political party, Bacevich traces the birth, growth and abiding history of our global militarism through every decade, starting with the presidential administration of Harry S. Truman and continuing through at least the first administration of Barack Obama (Bacevich, 2010, p. 20). In fact, Bacevich lays much of the abiding blame on persons other than any given president, who is actually “Pretending to the role of Decider” (Bacevich, 2010, p. 31). In Bacevich’s estimation, presidents are largely controlled by the structures built by someone else, such as Allen W. Dulles, the CIA director from 1953 — 1961 and major developer of the CIA in the 1950’s (Bacevich, 2010, pp. 37-8) and Curtis E. LeMay, who built up the Strategic Air Command, starting in 1948, to become a major instrument for nuclear war (Bacevich, 2010, pp. 35, 45). Bacevich believes the CIA and SAC were significantly instrumental in building a Washington consensus of global military domination: “Important in their own right, these institutions wielded influence well beyond their formal mandate. The CIA and SAC promulgated a set of precepts that left a deep and lasting imprint on the entire National Security State” (Bacevich, 2010, p. 34). Though Bacevich specifically speaks of Dulles and LeMay as major architects of the Washington consensus, he also blames the individuals and institutions that gain from our perpetual state of emergency, such as: defense contractors; big banks; interest groups; major corporations; television networks; elite publications. As far as Bacevich is apparently concerned, these people and institutions perpetuate Washington rules for their own gain of money, power or prestige (Bacevich, 2010, p. 15). Bacevich also blames the American public, who encourage or at least allow this Washington consensus (Bacevich, 2010, p. 154). According to Bacevich, Americans notice only colossal disasters like Vietnam and “The citizens of the United States have essentially forfeited any capacity to ask first-order questions about the fundamentals of national security policy” (Bacevich, 2010, p. 27).
In Bacevich’s estimation the “consensus”: grew during the Eisenhower administration (Bacevich, 2010, p. 60); was embraced by the Kennedy administration partly due to President Kennedy’s fixation of Fidel Castro (Bacevich, 2010, p. 79) and partly due to Kennedy’s belief that Vietnam would test our “flexible response” capabilities (Bacevich, 2010, p. 90); grew during the Johnson administration, particularly when he committed combat troops to Vietnam in 1965 (Bacevich, 2010, p. 31); suffered markedly during the Johnson, Nixon and Ford administrations, due to the “draw” (or defeat) in Vietnam and strong anti-war sentiment (Bacevich, 2010, p. 122); was directly confronted by the Carter administration, which attempted to change the way in which Washington works (Bacevich, 2010, p. 241); then saw a resurgence under the Reagan administration (Bacevich, 2010, p. 152) and the George H.W. Bush administration’s so-called “preventive war” (Bacevich, 2010, p. 137) that continued through the Clinton administration (Bacevich, 2010, p. 137), grew to perhaps its greatest strength during the George W. Bush administration (Bacevich, 2010, p. 171) and has continued through the Obama administration (Bacevich, 2010, p. 249).
In the face of these problems, Bacevich offers solutions. He suggests a new credo based on our Constitution and Declaration of Independence that makes the U.S. A model of our ideals rather than a global military empire (Bacevich, 2010, p. 237). In addition, Bacevich would replace our current militaristic “trinity” with a new trinity that: uses our military only for national defense and to protect vital national interests (Bacevich, 2010, p. 238); withdraws our troops from occupation of areas “where the American presence costs the most while accomplishing the least” (Bacevich, 2010, p. 239); and rather than keeping a very large army of warrior-professional soldiers who are constantly ready for war, using citizen-warrior soldiers for specific military events (Bacevich, 2010, pp. 240-3). Accompanying those suggestions, Bacevich stresses the importance of the American people: “If change is to come, it must come from the people” (Bacevich, 2010, p. 249) because Washington has too much to lose by changing.
Analysis and Critical Evaluation
A review of Bacevich’s background is useful for determining his qualifications to make his assertions. Bacevich was graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, served in the U.S. Army for 23 years, is a Vietnam veteran and retired from the U.S. Army with the rank of Colonel (Bass, 2010). After retirement from the military, he obtained a PhD in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University and taught at West Point and John Hopkins before joining the faculty of Boston University’s Department of International Relations. He is currently the Director of Undergraduate Studies and a professor of International Relations and History at Boston University. He has authored or edited several books about American militarism, including: American empire: The realities and consequences of U.S. diplomacy (2002); The new American militarism: How Americans are seduced by war (2005); The long war: A new history of U.S. national security policy since World War II (2007); (editor); The limits of power: The end of American Exceptionalism (2008); and Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (2010). He has also written essays and reviews for such notable publications as: The Wilson Quarterly, The National Interest, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Nation, The New Republic, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Boston Globe, and Los Angeles Times. Finally, he has held fellowships at the American Academy in Berlin, the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, the John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Council on Foreign Relations (Boston University, 2012). Clearly, Bacevich’s orientation and educational/professional history are geared toward the examination of U.S. militarism abroad and his expertise has been recognized and encouraged with fellowships by several distinguished institutions. Furthermore, Bacevich’s roots are quite conservative:
“By temperament and upbringing, I had always taken comfort in orthodoxy. In a life spent subject to authority, deference had become a deeply ingrained habit. I found assurance in conventional wisdom” (Bacevich, 2010, p. 3).
Bacevich’s conservative orientation, education and experience make him a well-qualified critic of U.S. militarism.
Other Experts’ Opinions and This Reader’s Thoughts
Bacevich’s book was reviewed by at least two other experts. Gary J. Bass, a Politics and International Affairs professor at Princeton, as well as the writer of Freedom’s battle and Stay the hand of vengeance, called Bacevich “a fierce, smart peacemonger” (Bass, 2010) in his book review for The New York Times. Nevertheless, Bass takes issue with two aspects of Bacevich’s book. Bass believes Bacevich “overdoes the high dudgeon” (Bass, 2010) when Bacevich compares the policymakers who pushed into a “war on terror” with “slightly mad German warlords,” possibly referring to Hitler. Bass also believes Bacevich glosses over Americans, such as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who struggled against the CIA and global militarism (Bass, 2010). Despite Bass’ disagreement with some aspects of Bacevich’s book, Bass also notes that Bacevich should be heard, not only for his own military service, but also for his son’s army service and death in the Iraqi war (Bass, 2010).
Gerard De Groot is a History professor at St. Andrews University and writer of The Bomb: A life, as well as a book reviewer for The Washington Post. Reviewing Bacevich’s book along with Cultures of War by John W. Dower, De Groot praises both books as excellent and providing “a convincing critique of America’s conduct of war since 1941” (De Groot, 2010). In addition, De Groot particularly praises Bacevich’s message of “the power of virtue” rather than killing in that America can demonstrate that her “real strength lies in her liberal tradition; not in her ability to kill” (De Groot, 2010). Though De Groot praises both author, he also believes that Dower’s and Bacevich’s attempts to end on a positive note about the American people’s ability to change the current situation are “the least convincing parts of two otherwise brilliant books” (De Groot, 2010) because “after each flash of light, darkness prevailed” (De Groot, 2010).
In addition to the exceptions taken by Bass and De Groot, a couple issues leap to mind when reading Bacevich’s book. Bacevich’s proposal that America no longer rely on professional warrior solders brings to mind Ken Burns’ 2007 documentary, The War, which details our nearly-catastrophic lack of training, weaponry and all-around preparation for World War II (Burns, 2007). In the face of that frightening situation, the lack of a large, well-prepared force of professional soldiers seems foolhardy. Secondly, Bacevich’s insistence that we only defend ourselves and/or fight for vital interests is problematic. Given our sometimes-creative interpretation of “defense” and the importance of natural resources such as oil, for example, it is difficult to know what will constitute defense and/or a vital interest and who will decide what constitutes defense and/or a vital interest. Perhaps insisting that Bacevich give more concrete examples of defense and/or vital interests is insisting too much from him; however, those issues will certainly arise if/when we rely on Bacevich’s solutions.
Washington rules: America’s path to permanent war is an indictment of the Washington consensus that positions the U.S. As the World’s Big Brother and Policeman. Commencing with the Truman Administration, Bacevich traces the birth, development and maintenance of the Washington consensus built on a credo in which the United States alone must “lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world,” along with the “trinity” of global military presence, global power projection and global interventionism. Based on these two elements of credo and trinity, along with the complacency of the American people, the United States has spread its military might around the globe in a so-called “flexible response” thrusting us “into a condition approximating perpetual war” that is costing the country dearly in human and nonhuman resources. Bacevich then suggests solutions in the form of a new credo in which the United States becomes a model of the ideals set forth in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence. He also suggests a new trinity in which America shifts from: a large professional military constantly prepared for war to more of a citizen-warrior force; use of our military for world domination to use of the military for defense and vital interests only; global occupation to withdrawal from areas in which the cost clearly outweighs the benefit.
Bacevich’s book is widely praised, though problems have been noted. Though chiefly praising Bacevich’s book, Gary J. Bass takes issue with: at least one of Bacevich’s severe analogies between our policymakers and possibly Hitler; Bacevich’s exclusion of examples in which American leaders and the American public acted against the foregone conclusion of the Washington consensus. Gerard De Groot also praises Bacevich’s book but believes that Bacevich’s belief that the American public can change the current situation is too optimistic. In addition to the criticisms posed by Bass and De Groot, it appears that Bacevich’s suggestion of eliminating our large, well-armed professional military is an invitation to a disaster that we were fortunate to miss during World War II. Finally, Bacevich’s suggestion of defense-only and vital interest-only use of our military raises significant issues about what constitutes “defense” and “vital interest,” as well as the important issue of who will decide what constitutes “defense” and “vital interest.” In sum, Bacevich’s book raises important perspectives and historical examples that compel the reader to examine and challenge the current Washington consensus; however, the book is also somewhat flawed and/or incomplete.
Bacevich, A.J. (2010). Washington rules: America’s path to permanent war. New York, NY: Metropolitan Books.
Bass, G.J. (2010, September 3). Book review – Washington rules – America’s path to permanent war. Retrieved on May 31, 2012 from www.nytimes.com Web site: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/05/books/review/Bass-t.html
Boston University. (2012). Andrew J. Bacevich | International Relations | Boston University. Retrieved on May 31, 2012 from www.bu.edu Web site: http://www.bu.edu/ir/faculty/alphabetical/bacevich/
Burns, K. (Director). (2007). The War [Motion Picture].
De Groot, G. (2010, September 12). Andrew Bacevich’s “Washington rules” and John Dower’s “Cultures of war.” Retrieved on May 31, 2012 from www.washingtonpost.com Web site: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/10/AR2010091003604.html
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