Washington Rules; or does it..?

Andrew J Bacevich. Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (2010).

Here Bacevich offers an angry & passionate historical analysis of how the U.S. got into the continuing war (‘against terror’) stance it now manifests to the world at large, basically through a profound change of cultural & political attitude after WW2 (though the change began at the beginning of the 20th century), which led to ‘the postwar tradition of American statecraft’ (13). So the ‘Washington Rules’ (or ‘Washington consensus’) came into being (a tradition, he says, ‘so deeply embedded in the American collective consciousness as to have all but disappeared from view’), based on 2 components making up a credo, backed by a ‘sacred trinity’ of practice in the world. First component: ‘specifies norms according to which the international order ought to work and charges the United States with responsibility for enforcing those norms.’ This means only the U.S. can, & should, ‘lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world’ (12). 2nd component: emphasizes ‘activism over example, hard power over soft, and coercion (often styled “negotiating from a position of strength”) over suasion. Above all, the exercise of global leadership as prescribed by the credo obliges the United States to maintain military capabilities staggeringly in excess of those required for self-defense’ (13). And over the past 60 years, despite all the apparent social, cultural, & political changes, U.S. ‘military policy and practice does reveal important elements of continuity. Call them the sacred trinity: 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’ (14).

How did Bacevich, who for his first forty-one years was a solid (even stolid) citizen-soldier (he retired from the U.S. Army with the rank of colonel), come to be the angry, historically astute & defiantly patriotic precisely in his critique of power, writer of this book & The Limits of Power? He provides an answer in his ‘Introduction: Slow Learner,’ where he explains that he first began to question ‘the truths I had accumulated over the previous twenty years as a professional soldier’ when he first visited the other side of the fallen ‘Iron Curtain,’ & saw the realities of life there. As someone who had always accepted orthodoxy, he nevertheless set out to educate himself about the realities of world politics, & tells us of that journey here, ending up as a professor of history & international relations at Boston University (one whose students get a very different view of U.S. politics & history than most citizens do). At any rate, his studies have led him to the perspective & the knowledge he argues from throughout Washington Rules.

I guess anyone interested could uncover the history he presents in the first 5 chapters of Washington Rules, but it would take a lot of research to do so. It’s both a highly familiar story of how ‘American statecraft’ has worked, under presidents of both persuasions, since the end of WW2 & a carefully documented critical analysis of how that statecraft has failed, though hardly anyone near or in power has ever understood or admitted that. Bacevich chooses a subtly personal way of exploring that history through the careers of a number of especially outstanding figures. There is far too much information here to even attempt a summary, but his major argument suggests that, although approaches & (political as well as military) tactics & views have often changed, they have always served the ‘Washington consensus’ & its ‘sacred trinity.’ He starts by paying (some small) homage to the Eisenhower & his ‘justly famous “Farewell Address” [that] stands out as one of [the] rare exceptions’ (32) to the consensus. But although his warning about ‘the “military-industrial complex” … provided a sobering tutorial in political reality’ (32), it finally had no lasting effect. And besides, although he didn’t admit it, Eisenhower had himself been an ‘ally and enabler’ (33) to the very forces he warned against as he left office. No, the people who really counted were not necessarily presidents. Among the first of these were Allen Dulles, who enlarged the remit of the CIA, & Curtis LeMay, who basically created the Strategic Air Command, & its policy of ‘assured destruction.’ But times change & so do presidents; under Kennedy, new men ascended: Robert McNamara & his colleagues providing a ‘new’ philosophy of readiness that still followed the consensus, right into the eventual fog of the Viet Nam War. ‘For a time the Viet Nam War threatened to discredit the Washington rules’ (109), but not to worry, the powers-that-be will not let that happen if they can help it, & Bacevich demonstrates why: power, vast amounts of money, etc, all provide reason enough to keep those rules ruling. And so, various ‘thinkers’ provided ‘reasoned’ arguments ‘proving’ the Viet Nam experience an anomaly, not a sign that the ‘rules’ do not work. Reagan, Bush Senior, & Clinton all bought into the ‘rules’ in their own ways. And then, Bacevich brings us to the last bunch of what he calls ‘semiwarriors,’ those who think up new ways of projecting power, usually without any combat experience (the one man who had some, Colin Powell, was sidelined): Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, & oh yes, George W Bush. After 9/11, they were able to push through new ways of ‘streamlining’ the military & a doctrine of ‘preventive war’ (the Bush Doctrine, which Bacevich calls ‘a moral and strategic abomination, the very inverse of prudent and enlightened statecraft’ [239]). What he finds both interesting & appalling about all this: the ‘global war on terror morphed into what the Pentagon began styling the Long War, a conflict defined not by purpose, adversary, or location but by duration, which was indeterminate’ – ‘the new normalcy’ (182). This was new: ‘Not even the most hawkish proponent of American global leadership … had ever proposed committing the United States to a policy of war without foreseeable end. Yet over the course of George W. Bush’s presidency, open-ended war became accepted policy, hardly more controversial than the practice of stationing U.S. troops abroad’ (182-3). Bacevich recognizes that the cost is a profoundly moral loss, even more than an economic one (see the great recession of 2008).

Having laid out the hidden history of the Washington consensus & demonstrated its intellectual & moral bankruptcy, Bacevich offers a contrasting vision of a possible U.S. form of statecraft that would be both moral & pragmatic. He reiterates the continuing failure of the Washington rules (they overwhelm even an Obama, elected on a platform to change the way things are done in Washington), recognizing the immense difficulty of overturning them. But, in a truly USAmerican manner, he still turns to a utopian hope that citizens, if informed (as by such books as his) could in fact change the rules & create a politics that would help the U.S. recover both morally & economically. I admire him for that, & as a citizen of the country north of the U.S. that depends upon it for much of its own economic success, I would like to think that something positive such as he proposes could happen. But I’m not at all sure it will; nor I think is he. Still Washington Rules is well worth reading, a cri de coeur of a U.S. patriot who actually has read the Constitution & the writings of those who wrote it & who has thought long & hard about what it would mean for the U.S. to truly show the world how to be a great democracy, something he knows it is not right now.

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One Response to Washington Rules; or does it..?

  1. Thanks, Doug, for an insightful, stimulating, and thought-provoking review. You definitely make me want to read this book, as you always do. Your perceptions are very fine.

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