Blogs > HNN > Ron Briley, Review of Andrew J. Bacevich's "Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War" (Metropolitan Books, 2010)

Jan 18, 2011 2:24 pm


Ron Briley, Review of Andrew J. Bacevich's "Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War" (Metropolitan Books, 2010)



Andrew Bacevich’s provocative Washington Rules challenges the nonpartisan consensus which has dominated American foreign policy from the Cold War through the global war on terror and numerous military interventions. Bacevich argues that every American President from Harry Truman to Barack Obama has subscribed to four basic assumptions: the world must be organized or shaped in order to prevent chaos; only the United States possesses the power to enforce world order; the international order must be defined by American values which have universal validity; and despite opposition in some quarters, most of the world accepts and welcomes this role for the United States. According to Bacevich, these fundamental principles of American foreign policy are implemented through what he terms “the sacred trinity of U.S. military practice;” international stability requires that the United States maintain a global military presence, this force must be prepared for global power projections, and potential threats must be addressed by military intervention. Thus, the United States is posed to project its interest in the world through military power and interventions, creating a condition of perpetual war. Echoing the refrain of President Dwight Eisenhower’s warning about the undue influence of the military-industrial complex, Bacevich concludes that by the early 1960s, “semiwarriors—those who derived their power and influence by perpetuating an atmosphere of national security crisis—had gained de facto control of the United States government” (33).

This well articulated critique of American foreign policy is not provided by a 1960s radical now serving as a tenured professor. Rather, Bacevich, currently a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, is a graduate of West Point and reached the rank of Colonel before retiring from the military. Bacevich subscribed to the Washington rules by which American foreign policy is conducted until the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, when as a military officer stationed in Europe he was able to observe first hand the extent to which Washington policymakers had oversold the Soviet threat.

Bacevich makes his powerful critique of American foreign and military policy in a clear, analytical fashion free from emotional appeal. The author makes his case with an astute chronological examination of American global ambitions from the late 1940s to the present, although he tends to ignore the extent to which aspirations for empire and the employment of military force have always powered American expansionism. This raises the question of how abrupt the changes in American policy were during the post World War II period, but certainly the scope of these imperial ambitions and rise of military spending were unprecedented.

Bacevich argues that the foundation of the Washington rules was provided in the post World War II period with Allen Dulles at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and General Cutis LeMay at the Strategic Air Command (SAC). Convinced of the righteousness of the American cause, the CIA under Dulles engaged in covert operations in nations such as Iran, Guatemala, and Cuba; sponsoring activities that today we might label state-sanctioned terrorism. On the other hand, LeMay was an advocate for massive nuclear retaliation which would destroy any society willing to attack the United States. Despite his reservations regarding the military-industrial complex, Eisenhower did little to reign in the powers of the CIA and SAC, their Congressional supporters, and military contractors who benefited from the Cold War.

This reliance upon covert operations and the nuclear option tended to undermine the role of the Army, but this would change with the Presidency of John Kennedy and war in Vietnam. Following the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Kennedy administration insisted that direction of the national security state be placed more directly in the hands of the President. But as Bacevich demonstrates, Kennedy was a Cold Warrior whose continued harassment of the Cuban state helped provoke the Cuban Missile Crisis, and there was no debate as to how the Cuban Revolution constituted a threat to American interests. Kennedy also increased the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam, employing General Maxwell Taylor’s strategy of flexible response which would allow the President to apply force in limited wars and avoid nuclear confrontation. Bacevich concluded that in overthrowing Ngo Dinh Diem, Kennedy expanded the military commitment to South Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson followed the Kennedy course in Vietnam, increasing the number of ground forces and instituting a bombing campaign that would persuade North Vietnam to abandon its design on the South. As flexible response failed to achieve its ends in Vietnam, the Johnson administration stubbornly clung to its policy, afraid that admitting a mistake would undermine America’s global presence and power projection.

Concentrating upon the critique of the Washington rules offered by Marine General David M. Shoup and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair William J. Fulbright, Bacevich argues that the disaster in Vietnam allowed briefly for the questioning of the post World War II foreign policy consensus. Both Shoup and Fulbright challenged the ability as well as desirability of America attempting to pose its will upon the world. Despite the arguments of Shoup and Fulbright, most policymakers insisted upon viewing Vietnam as an anomaly. While miscalculations were made in Vietnam, the fundamental principles of the Washington rules remained intact under Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—while the emergence of a volunteer army made it easier for the United States to avoid domestic dissent when deploying military force.

Bacevich concludes that military strategies have evolved since the First Persian Gulf War; ranging from the Revolution in Military Affairs, emphasizing primacy in cyberspace, to the Donald Rumsfeld focus upon rapid deployment in which U.S. forces dictate the tempo of events. While the Rumsfeld strategy produced initial success, the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan discredited rapid deployment. Accordingly, the Washington rules have now endorsed the counterinsurgency policies of General David Petraeus, which Bacevich argues further perpetuates permanent war. And this is the strategy which President Obama has endorsed in Afghanistan.

To break the cycle of permanent wars, Bacevich maintains that Americans should concentrate upon “cultivating our own garden” as recent history indicates that the United States is unable to impose its will on the world by force. Instead, the nation should return to the concept of “a city upon a hill” and seek to influence the world through moral example. Bacevich proposes a new set of rules for the American military that would include as its primary mission not combating evil or remaking the world, but defending the United States and its vital interests. In pursuit of this mission, Bacevich argues that American soldiers should not be employed globally, and force should only be used as a last resort and only in self-defense. Bacevich’s vision directly challenges the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war and the myth of American innocence.

But in the final analysis, altering the conventional wisdom of the Washington rules will require that the American people assume the duties of citizenship; including asking questions of power and forming a citizen army in which all share in the responsibility of defending the nation. The idea of returning to a draft or instituting a system of compulsory national service is, to say the least, controversial, but is difficult to argue with Bacevich’s conclusion that to restore American democracy and the nation’s reputation in the world, an educated and engaged citizenry is essential. As an initial project for this more informed citizenry, I would suggest reading Andrew Bacevich’s Washington Rules.




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