Dissecting the Perpetual War Machine

Review of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War by Andrew J. Bacevich

by , November 09, 2010

Andrew J. Bacevich emerged in the first decade of the century as this country’s most widely read and widely respected critic of U.S. militarism and empire.

He has addressed this issue with an intensity that is unprecedented for an academic. With the appearance of Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, he has produced six books illuminating these themes in just eight years, writing three previous books – American Empire (2002), The New American Militarism (2005), and The Limits of Power (2008), and editing two other volumes, The Imperial Tense (2003) and The Long War (2006).

In attracting a broad readership to his critique of U.S. militarism, Bacevich has transcended both the arid tone of most academic writing on the history of foreign and military policy and the Right-Left divide over social and political values. As a former army officer, a Catholic, and a social conservative from the Midwest, he has appealed to both conservatives and progressives unhappy with the militarized pursuit of power abroad and the encouragement of unlimited individual self-gratification at home.

He has argued that the all-volunteer army is the nexus between these twinned developments in U.S. society and global policy. As if to confirm the crucial importance of the all-voluntary army to the system of U.S. militarism, former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson has just recounted in the Washington Post Oct. 29 the strong negative reaction of military officers at a recent dinner to the idea of restoring the draft. The military elites believe it must have the mission of fighting terrorism “even when our attention lags or turns inward,” because “They are not like the rest of America….”

In Washington Rules, Bacevich offers a series of ruminations on how and why the United States has come to what he calls “a condition approximating perpetual war.” He begins by positing a consensus held firmly by the U.S. political, business, foreign policy, and media elite ever since the end of World War II consisting of what he calls “the sacred trinity” of principles: global U.S. military presence, global power projection, and global interventionism.

Bacevich argues that the “socialization” of the political and intellectual elite into this catechism has been so complete that U.S. citizens “have essentially forfeited any capacity to ask first-order questions about the fundamentals of national security policy.” He cites as exhibit one in his case for such vacuous discourse on the subject of national security the dismissive treatment of Dennis Kucinich (on the Left) and Ron Paul (on the Right) because of their refusal to endorse the catechism during the 2008 presidential primaries.

Because of the absence of any serious challenge to this catechism of global exertion of U.S. power over the decades, Bacevich argues, the U.S. populace had come by the turn of this century to “accept the use of force as routine.” That was the deeper shift in attitudes that allowed the Bush administration to capitalize so easily on the 9/11 terrorist attacks to take the United States into the present situation of “permanent war.”

This book marks a new analytical approach to the problem which his riveted him these past several years. In The New American Militarism, Bacevich had sought explanations for the militarism of the post-Vietnam period in the right-wing reaction to Vietnam-era radicalism, the rise of the Christian Right, and the “cultural and intellectual currents emblematic of the postindustrial or postmodern mood” (“the end of history,” globalization, virtual reality, the CNN effect, etc.). In Washington Rules, however, he probes more deeply the nature of the national security state itself in search of causation.

Bacevich cites as a “partial explanation” for the John F. Kennedy administration’s obsession with Cuba the way in which domestic U.S. politics provide incentives for presidents to rely on force merely to inoculate themselves from criticism by the opposition (either from the opposing party or within the Republican Party itself) for being “weak.” That same factor obviously applies to a wide range of presidential decisions on military and foreign policy.

But Bacevich gives even more attention to the personal and institutional interests of the military and civilian national security elites in creating their own “empires.” In sketches of the roles played by CIA director Alan Dulles and commander of the Strategic Air Command Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay during the Cold War, Bacevich observes that both those pivotal figures lobbied the White House for policies (covert operations and investments in massive numbers of bombers and nuclear weapons, respectively) that benefited their institutions and conferred prestige and power on them personally.

Of LeMay, Bacevich writes that his “concern for the well-being of the United States blended seamlessly with his devotion to the well being of the institution he led.”

In making that point, Bacevich has aligned his perspective on the U.S. national security state with two seminal works on the national security state – Richard Barnet’s Roots of War (1971) and Morton Halperin’s National Security Policymaking (1975) – both of which argued that national security officials automatically conflate the interests of their national security organization with those of the nation.

That conflation of interests is the key to the problem of errant U.S. military policies, because it allows national security officials to pursue policies and programs that are sharply at odds with the interests of the U.S. public without the slightest discomfort.

In discussing the U.S. descent into the Vietnam imbroglio, Bacevich eschews single-factor explanation, referring to a litany of personal, political, perceptual, and cultural factors that impinged on U.S. policy.

But he also invokes a structural factor with broader explanatory power: the determination of the Cold War policymakers and their respective institutions to maintain “Washington rules” rather than allow them let them to be supplanted by alternative approaches to national security – approaches that would require less power, prestige, and resources for themselves and their agencies.

“To those whose interests were served by preserving that strategy, this was an intolerable prospect,” writes Bacevich.

In his concluding chapter, Bacevich returns to this pivotal concept of personal and institutional self-interest as a driving force in the militarization of U.S. policy but broadens it even further.

“Who benefits from the perpetuation of the Washington rules?” he asks. In answering that question, he describes a socio-political-bureaucratic system that delivers “profit, power, and privilege to a long list of beneficiaries: elected and appointed officials, corporate executives and corporate lobbyists, admirals and generals, functionaries staffing the national security apparatus, media personalities, and policy intellectuals from universities and research organizations.”

Although Bacevich does not develop this explanatory approach in detail, his emphatic statement of the thesis that a powerful and broadly-defined self-interested elite is now driving the system of “permanent war” offers hope for a U.S. political movement to curb this militarism.

A central weakness of that movement in the past has been the absence of a common analysis of the problem. Bacevich’s embrace of this new paradigm of self-interest of the national security state and the political and private sector elites associated with it could provide the juice for a stronger and more effective campaign at a time when the system is more vulnerable politically than ever before.

(Inter Press Service)

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