Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War

  • Published

Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War by Andrew J. Bacevich. Metropolitan Books, 2010, 286 pp.

It was given to Edward Gibbon, sitting “musing amid the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter,” to conceive the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Two centuries later Army colonel Andrew Bacevich, standing by the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1989, experienced an epiphany revealing to him that America’s benign leadership in the world was pernicious malarkey. The soldier turned polemicist invites readers to share his “education,” as he chronicles the decline and fall of an “evil empire,” America.

According to Bacevich, two beliefs comprise our post–World War II national security “credo:” the United States should lead and transform the world, and America’s activist role should rely on hard power, not suasion. This credo entails a “sacred trinity” of operational military precepts: global military presence, global power projection, and global interventionism. Four dogmas underlie the “catechism of American statecraft:” the world must be reshaped to avert chaos; the United States will prescribe and enforce the global order; America will define the principles of that order; and except for a few recalcitrants, everyone accepts this reality. He portrays two chief “evil empire” builders, Allen Dulles (CIA) and Gen Curtis LeMay (SAC), as establishing the “yin and yang of the new National Security State.” President Obama has brought no real change we can believe in, for no president dares question the “Washington consensus.” In fact, it matters not who holds political office. American politics is merely “theater.”

The Kennedy administration used “flexible response” to provide options for conventional war fighting and unconventional special operations. The result was a Vietnam War “to sustain the Washington consensus” and a campaign of “state-sponsored terrorism” to topple the Castro regime. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton collaborated to shed the constraints of the Vietnam era, pursuing global interventionism under the guise of “forward deployment” of troops, the Navy’s mission of sea control, and “America’s far-flung empire of bases” to strike targets wherever Washington imagines demons. The bungling of the Iraq and Afghan wars gave rise to the doctrine of counterinsurgency (COIN) to repackage the “sacred trinity.”

In characteristically self-righteous, demeaning language, Bacevich derides COIN as a fraud (“lots of foam, but not much beer”), designed to give leaders the illusion of control over chaotic warfare. COIN (“social work with guns”) was hawked with slick marketing by Gen David Petraeus, an “ambitious soldier” with a “courtier’s” manner, and his “lobby” of supporters, such as John Nagl of the Center for a New American Security, while Generals Petraeus and McChrystal basked in a “revived cult of generalship”—“Prince Stanley heir to King David.”

Inspired by the wisdom of his sages (George Kennan, Sen. J. William Fulbright, Christopher Lasch, and Martin Luther “come home, America” King), Bacevich proffers readers an alternative “isolationist credo.” First, the purpose of the US military is not to remake the world but to defend America’s “most vital interests” (undefined). Second, the US military belongs at home in America! What it would do here Bacevich does not say; patrol Washington’s Metro system to make it safe? Hence, the United States should scuttle its overseas bases and get out of the Persian Gulf (al-Qaeda’s goal) and Central Asia. Elsewhere [“Let Europe Be Europe: Why the United States Must Withdraw from NATO,” Foreign Policy (March/April 2010), 71–72], Bacevich has argued that America should ditch NATO and let Europe fend for itself. That leaves a major US regional presence only in East Asia, but scrapping US sea power and force projection would remove that distraction from “cultivating our own garden.” Finally, Bacevich would allow the use of force only as a last resort and in self-defense. Yet, why would anyone much care about an island fortress America?

Bacevich’s caricature of America is shared by Richard Immerman’s Empire for Liberty [Princeton University Press, 2010, 6], a term he calls an “oxymoron” because in creating its imperium, the United States oppressed peoples and did “evil in the name of good.” In The Frugal Superpower [(New York: Public Affairs, 2010), 53], Michael Mandelbaum views the coming retrenchment of America’s global leadership far differently. He explains how economic constraints will curtail America’s post–World War II role. The world will suffer the baleful results of a United States with too little power. Since World War II, Mandelbaum writes, “the United States play(ed) a major, constructive, and historically unprecedented role in the world,” bringing peace and prosperity to much of the globe. Mandelbaum foresees dim prospects for a world with a cash-strapped Uncle Sam: “One thing worse than an America that is too strong, the world will learn, is an America that is too weak” (p. 194).

The age of austerity and a domestically focused America has arrived. For the sake of perspective, it is important to recognize that US defense spending represents less than 4 percent of GDP and less than 20 percent of the federal budget, far less than in recent decades. Since the end of the Cold War and the Persian Gulf War, our armed forces shrank from 2.1 million personnel in 1989 to 1.3 million in 1999; the Army decreased from 769,000 soldiers to 479,000, resulting in an overstretched force. From a 1,000-ship Navy in President Kennedy’s time, after the fall of the Soviet Union the fleet numbered 466 ships. By 2001 it fell to 316; currently, it stands at 285 ships. In years ahead the fleet will likely contract to 237 ships, 25 percent less than the fleet the Navy judges necessary to execute its missions. This is not a picture of robust power projection.

Nevertheless, in a May speech at the Eisenhower Library, Defense Secretary Gates cited President Obama’s invocation of Eisenhower’s counsel to maintain spending “balance in and among national programs.” Gates stated that the splurge of military spending cannot continue as it has, doubling in the last decade: “The gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time.” The president signaled a domestic refocus in his speech on the end of combat operations in Iraq, declaring “our most urgent task is to restore our economy.”

Bacevich does not see the ground shifting before his eyes because he is a “Johnny one-note:” “Amerika.” A “jaded governing class,” he rails, manipulates a nation of hedonists afflicted with a desiccated “civic culture” to perpetuate the “Washington consensus” leading to perdition. Our institutions are dysfunctional. Elections do not matter. Leaders and citizens alike are morally bankrupt. A pox on all your houses! Bacevich’s isolationism would be a risible anachronism, if it were not so dangerous, now that he has achieved media celebrity as a talking “expert” on world affairs. His excoriation of nearly everyone as obtuse or corrupt and his historically discredited prescription for national salvation reflect the irresponsibility of an academic unburdened with making the difficult choices and compromises that are the essence of statecraft in the world as it exists. One wonders why he wrote this book.

John Coffey, PhD

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."