The effete liberal intellectual is one of the favorite straw men for the right-wing branch of the American establishment. In fact, for defenders of triumphant US militarism, an attack by a member of the ”radical” left is almost welcome. They simply have to label the critic – who probably teaches at an eastern university and wears glasses – an America-hating snob who doesn’t support the troops. Implicit in this attack on the speaker (instead of the argument – the right wing never met a logical fallacy it didn’t like) is the assumption that our academic spent the ’60s smoking pot and burning flags, and could probably do with a salutary punch in the nose. And who cares what that wimp says?
With this in mind, it’s clear that a former military man who now questions the catechisms of US power is a problem for the perception managers. The neo-conservative editorial-writer can’t impugn the patriotism of someone who served his country. (This is particularly true for the many US neo-cons who conveniently avoided fighting the Vietnam War.)
And forget about threatening to hit this critic if his arguments get under your skin, as William F Buckley famously threatened to do to Noam Chomsky on television in 1969. Your average Fox News blowhard probably doesn’t want to tangle with someone who was trained in unarmed combat.
Worst of all, the former warrior has insights into the system in which he served. He or she can shine light into corners of policy that the Pentagon and its apologists would prefer were kept darkened. This is exactly what Andrew J Bacevich, a former US army colonel, does in his excellent Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. Bacevich lays out the rarely spoken assumptions that have come to guide US foreign policy since the end of World War II. He then details how these assumptions have led the country into a series of wars that didn’t need to be fought, and have culminated in a war that seemingly can’t be ended.
For Bacevich, there are four essential premises that have led the US to become a permanent warfare state. One: the world must be shaped. Two: only the United States is capable of doing this. Three: only the US has the right to do so because it is intrinsically good. Four: the rest of the world accepts these principles – and countries that don’t are ”evil empires” or ”rogue states”. These four principles comprise what Bacevich calls the national security consensus, or credo. They are the “Washington rules”.
From the principles flows the practice. The consensus has resulted in the enshrining of what Bacevich calls the sacred trinity of US military practice: a global military presence; the ability to project power anywhere in the world; and a penchant for intervention abroad by force. This trinity keeps America in a constant state of crisis, in what James Forrestal, the first US defense secretary, called a state of ”semiwar”. Bacevich writes:
Conceived by Forrestal at the beginning of the Cold War, and reflecting his own anticommunist obsessions, semiwar defines a condition in which great dangers always threaten the United States, and will continue doing so into the indefinite future. When not actively engaged in hostilities, the nation faces the prospect of hostilities beginning at any moment, with little or no warning. In the setting of national priorities, readiness to act becomes a supreme value.
In Bacevich’s view, semiwar has been a debacle, both for the US and for the world at large. For Americans, it has resulted in obscene – and unaffordable – levels of defense spending, a military that has far too much power over US policy and a succession of real wars that cost many lives and much treasure, but have done little to really advance American interests in the world.
This is to say nothing of the suffering US foreign policy has inflicted on non-Americans. Bacevich doesn’t spend a lot of time on this subject, although it seems clear enough that he thinks his country has plenty to answer for abroad. At one point inWashington Rules, he discusses a famous moment in 1996 when Madeleine Albright – then permanent representative to the United Nations – was asked about a report that 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of US sanctions against the country. ”It’s a hard choice,” she replied. ”But I think, we think, it’s worth it.” For Bacevich, this comment is very revealing:
Albright’s response once again expressed a perspective that enjoyed wide currency and that still remains central to the Washington consensus. American purposes are by definition enlightened… The pursuit of exalted ends empowers the United States to employ whatever means it deems necessary. If US-enforced sanctions had indeed caused the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children, at least those children had died in a worthy cause. This was not cynicism or hypocrisy on Albright’s part. It was conviction encased in an implacable sense of righteousness.
But it is not just civilian casualties that US policymakers are unconcerned with. For Bacevich, there is no outcome – no matter how disastrous – that will make the American establishment question either the premises of the Washington consensus, or the sacred military trinity that they underpin.
He shows this clearly in his analysis of three American wars: Vietnam and the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Vietnam War ended up devastating three countries, turned the US into a debtor nation and crippled the American army as a fighting force for years afterward. The invasion of Iraq quickly became a bloody quagmire that cost endless dollars and lives but served only to increase the influence in that country of Iran – the US archenemy du jour. And after a quick, painless (for the West, at least) victory over the Taliban in Afghanistan, the US and a shrinking list of its allies are now bogged down in a brutal counter-insurgency, employing tactics that Bacevich argues were discredited during the Vietnam War.
Have US elites learned anything from all this? Not a chance, Bacevich says. Soon after the last Americans left Vietnam, the process of whitewashing what happened there began. The gospel now is that the US failed in Vietnam because it couldn’t get the formula quite right. It made specific errors in how it employed its power there, errors that saw a worthy undertaking derailed. But the consensus of American exceptionalism, of American power as a moral force with a duty to reshape the world, survived intact.
Fast-forward to today, Washington Rules argues, and you see the same process at work. The US history of its Iraqi adventure is already being rewritten around what Bacevich sees as the mythology of the ”surge”. And an appropriate narrative for the Afghan war is sure to follow.
Propelled by Bacevich’s terse, active prose, Washington Rules is an easy read. And for such a short book, it’s a surprisingly deep examination of US military history since World War II. But it doesn’t satisfactorily answer the larger question of why America can’t put an end to its permanent national emergency, its perpetual semiwar. Why do US elites, both military and civilian, keep believing in the credo and the trinity, no matter what the cost? Are they deluded or disingenuous? Or put another way, do they really believe their own bullshit?
Bacevich seems torn on this question. We have seen him describe Albright as neither a cynic nor a hypocrite. And he gives the impression that other key US figures – like Eisenhower-era CIA chief Allen Dulles and air-force nuclear warrior Curtis LeMay – were true believers, whatever their other faults. But he also, in a single paragraph in the book’s conclusion, tells us who benefits from the Washington rules. His answer: Washington does. Believing the credo and accepting the trinity delivers ”profit, power and privilege to a long list of beneficiaries” inside the US establishment, Bacevich writes. But if this is so, are we supposed to accept that all of Washington’s spear-carriers really believe the gospel that they preach?
If there is ambiguity in Bacevich’s position (and to be fair, his other books may resolve it), perhaps it is because the author is wary of moving too far into the territory of the most famous academic critics of US power, such as Chomsky and Michael Parenti. For them, there is nothing bungled about American foreign policy. Its goal is to advance corporate capitalism, in the United States and abroad.
Under this reading, as long as the rich elites of the world make out – which they are doing more than ever today – it doesn’t matter how many of the little people get stepped on, or how much chaos ensues in the US or anywhere else. In parts of Washington Rules, Bacevich leans toward this position, but he refuses to come down from the fence.
Book: Washington Rules by Andrew J Bacevich
Book Review By: Jim Ash
Jim Ash is a Canadian writer and editor