by James M. Wall
Andrew J. Bacevich’s latest book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, arrives in stores this week.
In what should serve as an introduction to his book, Bacevich‘s recent essay on TomDispatch.com is entitled: “The End of (Military) History?: The United States, Israel and the Failure of the Western Way of War”.
A career army officer who is now a professor of international relations at Boston University, Bacevich has, since 2005, produced four books that cover both US foreign policy and the role the military plays in that policy.
Bacevich is a 1969 West Point graduate. He served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War, in 1970 to 1971. He held posts in Germany, including the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the United States, and the Persian Gulf before he retired with the rank of Colonel in the early 1990s.
He holds a doctorate in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University, and taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins University prior to joining the faculty at Boston University in 1998.
On May 13, 2007, Bacevich’s son, Andrew J. Bacevich, Jr., was killed in action in Iraq by an improvised explosive device south of Samarra in Salah ad Din Governate.
Bacevich’s essay, and his new book, are warnings to Americans, and to Israelis, that we are racing down our mutual “path to permanent war”.
This summer, Israel is acting very much like a preprogrammed Manchurian Candidate, in its determination to stay on the path toward war with Iran.
Two earlier World Wars between the “great” Western powers, which Bacevich describes as “armed conflict in the industrial age [which] reached new heights of lethality and destructiveness,” inflicted “staggering material, psychological and moral damage.”
Wars can no longer be won. European nations know this, which accounts, in part, for their reluctant and minimum involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Only two democracies failed to grasp the reality that war is never a solution–the US and Israel, both of which continue down their mutual path “to permanent war”.
The US and Israel pretend to pursue lofty and peaceful goals, but in the lexicon of American and Israeli politics, peace is a codeword for forcing an enemy to accept a condition of “permanent inferiority”.
In their own special way, the US and Israel cry peace, when, as Bacevich writes, it is obvious that in both countries, the civilian and military elites “prepare obsessively for war.”
To be an American soldier today is to serve a people who find nothing amiss in the prospect of armed conflict without end. Once begun, wars continue, persisting regardless of whether they receive public support.
President Obama’s insistence to the contrary notwithstanding, this nation is not even remotely “at” war. In explaining his decision to change commanders without changing course in Afghanistan, the president offered this rhetorical flourish: “Americans don’t flinch in the face of difficult truths.”
In fact, when it comes to war, the American people avert their eyes from difficult truths. Largely unaffected by events in Afghanistan and Iraq and preoccupied with problems much closer to home, they have demonstrated a fine ability to tune out war. Soldiers (and their families) are left holding the bag.
If any overarching conclusion emerges from the Afghan and Iraq Wars (and from their Israeli equivalents), it is this: victory is a chimera. Counting on today’s enemy to yield in the face of superior force makes about as much sense as buying lottery tickets to pay the mortgage: you better be really lucky.
By 2007, the American officer corps itself gave up on victory, although without giving up on war. First in Iraq, then in Afghanistan, priorities shifted. High-ranking generals shelved their expectations of winning–at least as a Rabin or Schwarzkopf would have understood that term. They sought instead not to lose.
In Washington, as in US military command posts, the avoidance of outright defeat emerged as the new gold standard of success. As a consequence, US troops today sally forth from their base camps not to defeat the enemy, but to “protect the people”, consistent with the latest doctrinal fashion.
Meanwhile, tea-sipping US commanders cut deals with warlords and tribal chieftains in hopes of persuading guerrillas to lay down their arms. . . For the conflicts in which the United States finds itself enmeshed, “military solutions” do not exist.
As [General David] Petraeus himself has emphasized, we cannot “kill our way out of” the fix we’re in.
In this way, he also pronounced a eulogy on the Western conception of warfare of the last two centuries.
In the simplest terms, the American credo summons the United States–and the United States alone–to lead, save, liberate and ultimately transform the world.
In a celebrated manifesto issued at the dawn of what he termed ‘the American Century’, Henry R. Luce made the case for this spacious conception of global leadership. Writing in Life magazine in early 1941, the influential publisher exhorted his fellow citizens to ‘accept wholeheartedly our duty to exert on the world the full impact of our influence for which purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.’
Luce’s concept of an American Century, “an age of unquestioned American global primacy, resonated, especially in Washington. It quickly found a permanent place in the lexicon of national politics.
Even today, whenever public figures allude to America’s responsibility to lead, they signal their fidelity to this creed. Along with respectful allusions to God and “the troops,” adherence to Luce’s credo has become a de facto prerequisite for high office. Question its claims and your prospects of being heard in the hubbub of national politics become nil.
The credo emphasizes “activism over example, hard power over soft, and coercion (often styled ‘negotiating from a postion of strength’) over persuasion.”
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. After World War II, “an affinity for military might, emerged as central to the American identity”.
Looking back over the last sixty years of US military policy and practice and a continuity emerges. Bacevich calls these consistent elements:
“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 thrusts by relying on a policy of global interventionism. (p. 14)
The relationship between the “credo” and the “sacred trinity” which outlines how the United States is to maintain its global expansion and international control is important. “The trinity lends plausibility to the credo’s vast claims.”
Whichever political party holds power in Washington, the credo and the trinity will always provide the basis for an enduring consensus that guarantees a consistency to US policy.
Bacevich insists “from the era of Harry Truman to the age of Barack Obama, that consensus has remained intact. It defines the rules to which Washington adheres; it determines the precepts by which Washington rules.”
In this sense, Washington is “less a geographic expression than a set of interlocking institutions headed by people who, acting officially or unofficially, are able to put a thumb on the helm of state.”
Those institutions always include the branches of the federal government, the principal components of the “national security state”, the departments of Defense, State, and more recently, Homeland Security, along with the agencies that comprise the intelligence and federal law enforcement communities.
When Senator Joe Lieberman demanded the chairmanship of Homeland Security Senate Committee; when the Israel Lobby went nuts over the thought of Charles Freeman as chair of the National Intelligence Council; and when Dennis C. Blair, who initially appointed Freeman, lasted only a year as Director of National Intelligence, the keepers of the “Washington Rules” knew what was going on.
The consensus had to be protected. The “credo” had to be secure and the US-Israel team had to be free to carry out the dictates of the “sacred trinity”, global military presence; global power projection and global interventionism. That is why Bacevich calls them sacred; they must be honored.
Did President Obama, who promised us change, know what was going on? He does now.
What other entities are involved in maintaining and protecting the “credo”? Here are a few listed by Bacevich: “select think tanks and interest groups, lawyers, lobbyists, fixers, former government officials and retired military officers who still enjoy ‘access’.”
Beyond the Beltway [outside Washington] the protectors of the “Washington Rules” Bacevich’s list includes “big banks, and other financial institutions, defense contractors and major corporations, television networks and elite publications like the New York Times, even quasi-academic entities like the Council of Foreign Relations and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.”
You want to enter and remain in the world that runs this nation? Know the “rules” and keep them inviolate.
Bacevich gives the reader five reasons why he wrote Washington Rules:
first to trace the origins and evolution of the Washington Rules–both the credo that inspires consensus and the trinity in which it finds expression;
second, to subject the resulting consensus to critical inspection, showing who wins and who loses and also who foots the bill;
third, to explain how the Washington rules are perpetuated, with certain views privileged while others are disreputable;
fourth, to demonstrate that the rules themselves have lost whatever utility they may once have possessed, with their implications increasingly pernicious and their costs increasingly unaffordable;
and finally, to argue for readmitting “disreputable (or ‘radical’ ) views to our national security debate, in effect legitimating alternatives to the status quo.”
It is a heavy order Bacevich has served up for us. As I read and reread his five points, I find myself no longer depressed over the state of our nation but immensely encouraged to keep moving forward. There is too much at stake to give up now.
It is time to change the system from within. Is President Obama the Change Agent we had hoped he would be? Still too soon to tell.
There are occasional signs the President knows he is trapped inside the binding chains of the Washington Rules. He needs our help if he is to break the chains which are leading us further along the “path to permanent war”.
The picture above: A US Marine patrol moves through a sand storm in March, 2009, in Qalanderabed in souhwest Afghanistan. ( by John Moore/Getty Images). Image from Boston.com.