Andrew Bacevich argues convincingly that the outmoded notions underlying U.S. national security policy are propelling us into bankruptcy at home and perpetual war abroad. These notions are the “Washington rules” of his book’s title, which evolved after World War II in response to the cold war with the Soviet Union.
“This postwar tradition combines two components, each one so deeply embedded in the American collective consciousness as to have all but disappeared from view,” Bacevich writes.
The first component—what Bacevich calls the “American credo”—exhorts the United States both to set norms for the world order and to enforce them. “In the simplest terms, the credo summons the United States—and the United States alone—to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world.”
One of the first to proclaim this credo was magazine publisher Henry Luce writing in Life in 1941 envisioning what he called the American century. He urged Americans to “accept wholeheartedly our duty to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.”
The means Luce speaks of comprise the second component of U.S. statecraft after World War II. These are what Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a Vietnam veteran, calls the “sacred trinity.” These consist of “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.”
Exercising global leadership on these terms, notes Bacevich, “obliges the United States to maintain military capabilities staggeringly in excess of those required for self-defense.” The size and extent of our national security state includes $700 billion per year in military spending, as much or more than the rest of the world combined. The United States also has 300,000 troops stationed abroad, also more than the rest of the world combined.
How did we get here? The first secretary of defense, James Forrestal, anticipating a long struggle with the Soviet Union, coined the term “semi-war,” a condition in which great dangers threaten the United States into the indefinite future. Semi-warriors created the Washington rules, uphold them and benefit from their continued existence.
Two early semi-warriors stand out. Allen Dulles, C.I.A. director from 1953 to 1961, extended the agency’s reach around the world, overthrowing democratically elected governments in Iran and Guatemala. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, who led the Strategic Air Command from 1948 to 1957, built SAC into a highly efficient weapon—nuclear-armed planes always airborne—that kept the peace by threatening “destruction on a scale never before seen.”
By the end of his presidency in 1961, Dwight Eisenhower apparently had some second thoughts about what he had helped create, as he warned the nation in his farewell address of the dangers of “the military-industrial complex.” From threatened massive nuclear retaliation keeping the peace during the Eisenhower years, the “action intellectuals” of the Kennedy years preferred a “flexible response,” which included the willingness to use the Army to fight limited proxy wars against the Soviets.
During the Kennedy administration, the Bay of Pigs was followed by an ever-deepening involvement in Vietnam. About the latter debacle, Bacevich marvels at how little was learned: “In retrospect, what distinguishes the legacy of Vietnam is not how much things changed, but how little.” And so for the presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton “the war had no truly important lessons to teach, none at least that should call into question the larger record of U.S. policy or alter its future course. Reflecting on the past took a backseat to looking ahead.”
The original impetus for the Washington rules was the struggle with Communist totalitarianism that began after World War II. Yet when that struggle ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Washington semi-warriors kept their aggressive focus. “The Red Menace had disappeared,” Bacevich writes, “but humankind more than ever needed the United States to show the way.”
Bacevich describes in detail but does not stop with the disastrous militarism of the George W. Bush administration. Indeed, as has every U.S. president since the start of the cold war, President Barack Obama too seems to be keeping faith with the vision of an interventionist America.
Lyndon Johnson failed to challenge the Washington rules when in 1965 he escalated the Vietnam War he inherited. Similarly, after a policy review during his first year as president, Obama chose to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Withdrawal was apparently “off the table.” “Like Johnson, the president whose bold agenda for domestic reform presaged his own, Obama too was choosing to conform,” Bacevich writes.
Against the Washington rules, the author argues for reordering the hierarchy of national priorities, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., for America “to come back home.” Bacevich offers an alternative credo: “America’s purpose is to be America, striving to fulfill the aspirations expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as reinterpreted with the passage of time and in light of hard-earned experience.”
The alternative “trinity” he proposes includes a U.S. military meant not to combat evil or remake the world but to defend the United States and its most vital interests. Second, “the primary duty station of the American soldier is in America.” Third, “consistent with the Just War tradition, the United States should employ force only as a last resort and only in self-defense.”
Bacevich may not be heeded, but he is right. U.S. efforts to transform nations and shape global events through military force and covert action are not succeeding, arguably creating more problems than they solve. We do not have the means or the wisdom to save the world, and our foundation at home is crumbling.