This book aims to take stock of conventional wisdom in the most influential and enduring form, namely the package of assumptions, habits and precepts that have defined the tradition of statecraft to which the United States has adhered since the end of World War II – the era of global dominance now drawing to a close. This postwar tradition combines two components, each one so embedded in the American collective consciousness as to have all but disappeared from view (pp. 11-12).
That is from the introductory chapter, with title describing himself as a “Slow Learner”, of the important new book by Andrew Bacevich. The book is being published next week. I am honored to have been given a pre-publication copy to review. And I will start by saying this book addresses so many issues of importance, not only to those of us here, but to the nation and the world. Have no doubts that I highly recommend it.
Before I get into the specifics of this book, allow me to remind you about Bacevich, a West Point grad and career army officer who has become one of the most important voices critical of the national consensus on things related to national security. He is now a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. Many will have seen him on Bill Moyers Journal. I wrote about his previous book, The End of American Exceptionalism, when I was sent a review copy by his publicist – apparently there was some interest in several pieces I had done about his various op eds. You can read that review, from November 2008, here.
About a month ago, I did a diary on an op ed by Bacevich that covered some of the material of this book.
Let me also be clear that I do not consider myself an expert in matters of national security. I am reasonably knowledgeable about post World War II history, I am not alone here in being someone who reads extensively in the general media about matters of statecraft including military and intelligence matters, and I pay attention to the discussions, such as they are, among talking heads, think tank denizens, and some political figures on such matters. I found this book completely accessible and comprehendible. I will be offering my remarks about it as an interested amateur in the matters it covers, an amateur but also a concerned citizen.
Bacevich acknowledges that as a career army officer he had been very much a company man,
only dimly aware of the extent to which institutional loyalties induce myopia. . . . Belatedly, I learned that more often than not what passes for conventional wisdom is simply wrong (p. 11)
These words describe a realization that began for Bacevich around two decades ago: while as a serving Army officer he visited Jena and the former East Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall, visits which he says provided him with a reality fundamentally at odds with his previously held assumptions. Much of his work since then has been as a result of the study and reflection that followed thereupon. One might argue that the final pieces of this understanding came during the last administration. We read on p. 10 that Bush’s launching of war against Iraq
pushed me fully into opposition. Claims that once seemed elementary – above all, claims relating to the essentially benign purpose of American power – now appeared preposterous.
Bacevich describes the tradition of statecraft in terms of a trinity of practice and a credo of purpose. He says that “The trinity lends plausibility to the credo’s vast claims, and the credo justifies the trinity’s vast requirements and exertions (p. 15)”.
The credo can be describe as the norms according to which international order ought to work, with the U. S. being charged with the responsibility for enforcing those norms. Bacevich traces this back to the idea of Henry Luce of an American Century, and reminds us that the terminology offered by the neo-cons near the end of the Clinton administration was labeled the Project for a New American Century. This credo is a basic pillar of every argument that posits the United States as any of the following: sole remaining superpower; the essential nation; the exemplar to the world; the spreader of democratic ideals (and you can add to the list).
As to the means, the trinity is that we value activism internationally over example, hard power over soft, and coercion over suasion. Bacevich notes that the final of these three is often described as “negotiating from a position of strength.” He also notes that the role of global leadership inherent in the credo “obliges the United States to maintain military capabilities staggeringly in excess of those required for self-defense” (p. 13).
While this review has yet to get beyond the first few pages of the book, by now you should have a very good sense of the thrust of it. Bacevich makes his argument by a thorough examination of the history since World War II, with detailed looks at events and people of the past who in part set the pattern for what we encounter today.
Before I proceed to a more detailed analysis of some of the book, I’d like to offer a few not so random quotes that will give you a sense of it.
The United States has drawn down the stores of authority and goodwill it had acquired by 1945. Words uttered in Washington command less respect than was once the case…. The curtain is now falling on the American Century (p. 116)
After quoting from the 1st SecDef James Forrestal the labeling of a state of permanent crisis as “semiwar” Bacevich tells us
Semiwarriors created the Washington Rules. Semiwarriors uphold them. Semiwarriors benefit from their persistence. (p. 28)
Writing about the Bay of Pigs plan
Eisenhower was hardly the first and would not be the last president to bequeath his successor a poison pill. (p. 72)
About the bombing of N Vietnam as an extension of the conflict in Vietnam:
In effect, the United States needed to bomb North Vietnam to affirm its claims to global primacy and quash any doubt about American will. Somehow, in distant faraway Southeast Asia, the continued tenability of the Washington consensus was at stake. (p. 98)
Attempting to show a parallel between what happened in Vietnam in 1965 and what happened after 9-11, with the launching of the “global war on terror” –
As in 2001, so in 1965, the underlying purpose was anything but defensive. In the wake of painful tragedy, U. S. officials preoccupied themselves not with protecting exposed American assets (whether Camp Holloway or Manhattan), but with doubling down on the existing approach to exercising global leadership. In both cases they rejected out of hand the possibility that such an approach might itself render the United States more vulnerable rather than more secure. (p. 99)
About how hard it is for voices contrary to the consensus point of view to be heard in Washington:
Indeed, the range of acceptable opinion in a typical faculty lounge is orders of magnitude greater than that which prevails in precincts where U. S. national security policy gets discussed and formulated. (p. 134)
And one last example, from near the end of the book, on page 223:
The Washington rules provide a sterling example of the tendency to disregard what actually works and stubbornly cling instead to familiar practices that manifestly fail to deliver what they promise: in this case, ensuring the safety and well-being of the United States at a reasonable cost while keeping faith with professed American values.
Hopefully those excerpts will give you a sense about the book more than my merely offering analysis, to which I will now return.
Bacevich says that the consensus rest on four key assertions:
1. The world must be organized/shaped to avoid chaos
2. Only the U. S. has the ability to “prescribe and enforce” such an order
3. America has the responsibility to articulate “the principles that should define the international order. Those principles are necessarily American principles, which posses universal validity.
4. Other than a few rogues and “recalcitrants” everyone understands and accepts this reality.
If in reading this you are thinking about the chutzpah, the arrogance that underlies it, perhaps you might then remember a book with the title The Arrogance of Power by Sen. William Fulbright. That Senator will, along with former Marine Commandant David Shoup, serve as one part of a key pair of individuals Bacevich uses to make his argument.
The first pair is the apparent odd couple of Allen Dulles, long-time head of the CIA, and Curtis LeMay, who first as head of SAC and later as Chief of Staff of the Air Force largely shaped America’s policy of massive nuclear strikes, of wanting to have overwhelming nuclear superiority. Bacevich describes LeMay as the father of overkill. For those not aware of the public careers of the two men, this section of the book is invaluable. I believe that Bacevich makes a strong case that the policies pursued by these two helped to set the framework for the Washington consensus, or as he calls it, the Washington Rules. By the end of his life LeMay became a sad figure, serving as Vice-Presidential running mate to George Wallace in 1968. And to understand the aforementioned quote that by the end of Eisenhower’s term the framework was in place, perhaps once paragraph from near the end of this section will help explain the importance of these two men. It appears on page 55:
To avert the outbreak of cataclysmic war, Strategic Air Command threatened destruction on a scale never before seen, with LeMay giving every indication that he was more than willing to make good on that threat. To ensure the survival of freedom, democracy, and liberal values, the Central Intelligence Agency engaged in activities that in our own day would satisfy the definition of state-sponsored terrorism, with Allen Dulles giving every indication that even the dirtiest of dirty tricks were acceptable as long as they were perpetrated by the honorable men of the CIA.
If in reading that you hear echoes of justifications from the last administration, or even the idea that as Americans what we do is inherently right even though we punish people from other nations who act in similar fashion, you are beginning to grasp the thrust of Bacevich’s argument, or at least part of it. He is opposed to the Washington Rules, thinks they violate what should be the principles of this nation.
There have been few moments within the past 6+ decades where that consensus was threatened. The period of Vietnam certainly provided the greatest challenges, and one can look at the administrations of both Reagan and the first Bush as being focused on overcoming any doubts or reservations still lingering from Vietnam.
Two men were key in raising those doubt, William Fulbright of Arkansas, long-time chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and David Shoup, winner of the Medal of Honor at Tarawa, who once he left his position as Commandant of the Marine Corps became one of the harshest critics of Vietnam. Also key, in a different sense, was the Senate Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield of Montana, whom it is worth noting probably understood far more about Asia than almost anyone else in the government – he was a scholar of Japan and after leaving the Senate served as our ambassador in Tokyo where he and his wife were greatly beloved. The difference is that Mansfield offered his criticisms and concerns largely in out of sight communications with the administration, while Fulbright and Shoup were public and vocal.
Whatever opportunity there might have been to rethink the credo, the trinity, the entire approach, we moved away from it. And as Bacevich points out, we repeat many of the same mistakes of judgment, the exclusion of dissenting voices. He argues that the reason this happens is that the Washington Rules benefit Washington – certainly our current version of the military-industrial complex, which goes far beyond anything imagined by Eisenhower, provides financial incentives to former officers and politicians, enables politicians to bring jobs and spending to their districts, provides the military with more money and personnel and opportunity to try out new weapons and supposedly new theories.
In 1963 the US actively supported a coup to overthrow the Diem government. To our great surprise, we wound up with a situation of greater chaos – for better or for worse, Diem’s near dictatorial control had kept the lid on various factions who promptly began to assert themselves and to contend with one another. If you see a parallel to disorder in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was removed from power, that was also my reaction.
For the Kennedys, for better or worse, Castro became a target out of all proportion to the threat he actually posed to the United States. JFK’s obsessions with Castro has a clear parallel with the obsession of G. W. Bush towards Saddam Hussein.
Or perhaps we can discuss times when the U. S. government “investigates” failure of policy. On p. 74 Bacevich notes that the group empaneled to investigate the Bay of Pigs included Gen Maxwell Taylor who was looking for an increased role for the Army, Allen Dulles who certainly wanted to limit damage to the CIA, and Robert F. Kennedy, whose own involvement in plots against Castro would not become fully known for many years. The group, which also include CNO Arleigh Burke, focused more on tactical and operational issues and somehow seemed to avoid any examination of policy. As Bacevich writes,
It was the equivalent of investigating a bridge collapse without bothering to asses the integrity of the basic engineering design.
And lest we think that this is an isolated incident, we encounter something similar in a panel organized by Anthony Lake for a study published in 1976 under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations. Bacevich notes that the 24 authors of the group were all-white, all-male, and with only two exceptions, all American. He writes that they were all eminent, respectable, and could be counted on to keep their disagreements within permissible boundaries. He then writes, on p. 130:
In short, the outcome of Lake’s project was predetermined by the roster of participants. As is so often the case in Washington – from Maxwell Taylor’s inquiry into the Bay of Pigs down to the various investigations conducted in the wake of the Abu Ghraib torture and abuse scandal – what purported to be a searching examination was in reality a carefully stage exercise intended to foreclose unwanted conclusions.
And as Bacevich notes, forget about Marxists, pacifists and the like, Lake’s group was so narrow it had no room for either William Fulbright or David Shoup.
The end result of the Lake study was that it treated Vietnam as an anomaly, rather than how they should have seen it, at least according to Bacevich – as symptomatic of the failures of the Washington Rules.
Bacevich is aware that this nation has had its critics who posed a different perspective on the nation. Bacevich writes “Those critics questioned the wisdom and feasibility of forcibly attempting to remake the world in America’s image (p. 236). He cites as exemplars George Kennan, William Fulbright, Christopher Lasch, and Martin Luther King, Jr., citing for the last the famous speech at Riverside Church a year before his assassination. He ties them together in a paragraph that begins on page 236 and flows to the following page:
The essential credo to which each of these figures subscribed, a variant of the convictions first articulated by the Founders, deserves renewed consideration today. Its essence is simply this: 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.
. Endless war interferes with this task, when our goal should be to demonstrate “the feasibility of creating a way of life based on humane, liberal values” thereby illuminating the path for others who might seek to follow it.
There is much more in this book. Bacevich provides extensive documentation for the references he uses to make his argument. That enables the reader to go back to those sources to see if his use of them is appropriate. For those I knew and those I checked, it was.
Many of us here supported Obama hoping that we would see a change in how our government policy is done, especially military policy, human rights policy (such as Guantanamo and other overseas sites), domestic spying, and the like. One can regularly read here the disappointments, sometime bitter, at what some view as the abandonment or even betrayal of things people though they were promised during the campaign. Near the end (p. 249) he concludes that on the Washington Rules, Obama has, like LBJ, failed, in this case telegraphing it b his commitment to expand the US troop commitment in Afghanistan, justifying the action in his December 2009 speech at West Point.
Thus did the president who came into office vowing to change the way Washington works make known his intention to leave this crucially important element of his inheritance all but untouched. Like Johnson, the president whose bold agenda for domestic reform presaged his own, Obama too was choosing to conform.
Bacevich wants to offer more than criticism, although there is plenty, and it is not limited to partisans of one party. He points out that for the military to continue to function on the worldwide scale that the Washington Rules expect with an all-volunteer army where it is hard to get people to sign up inevitably leads to the hiring of what many of us would consider mercenaries – the Blackwaters and the Triple Canopies. If we had any doubt, after the recent series in the Washington Post we are now well aware of similar patterns in our intelligence operations.
During the heyday of Curtis LeMay, he was setting American nuclear policy, not the President, not the Congress, not even the Joint Chiefs. There is a real risk that we are seeing similar patterns arise today. Bacevich points out that Democrats fear being targeted as weak on military matters, on terrorism, so they look for occasions where they can say, in my words, “me too – I’m just as tough as you are.” Thus we have an expansion of a war in Afghanistan that we cannot win, just as we knew well before the end that we could not win in Vietnam. Do we then continue to expend treasure and lives to prove a point about America’s toughness, about our “commitment” to our “allies”??? What price do we pay in foregone opportunities to heal our nation at home? How long can we continue to pile debt upon debt onto future generations?
Andrew Bacevich knows that the argument he is making will not be welcomed in most of Washington. He knows the difficulty of trying to change the discussion, to rethink the basic approach to policy. Nevertheless, he thinks it is still worth the effort. Hence this book.
The book is far richer than I have been able to demonstrate in the too many words that already make up this posting. I wanted to give a sense, to encourage you to read it. There are so many other passages I had marked that struck me. Some are better than those I have offered. As I said of the book above the fold, Have no doubts that I highly recommend it.
Perhaps the importance of this book can be grasped at least in part by its conclusion. Bacevich writes that if change is going to come it will come from the people, who will have to recognize the importance of self-awareness, of the absolute necessity of seeing things as they are, without blinders.
And then there is this final paragraph:
Americans today must reckon with a contradiction of gaping proportions. Promising prosperity and peace, the Washington rules are propelling the United States toward insolvency and perpetual war. Over the horizon, a shipwreck of epic proportions awaits. To acknowledge the danger we face is to make learning – and perhaps even a course change – possible. To willfully ignore the danger is to become complicit in the destruction of what most Americans profess to hold dear. We, too, must choose.
I did not have to buy the book to read it. Had I simply picked it up and begun to leaf through reading selectively and randomly, I would quickly have decided I needed to read it. That would be true even were I not already familiar with the depth and insight of Bacevich’s previous work.
This is an important book. I urge all to read it, to ponder it, to challenge our public officials to consider what Bacevich presents.
I have as always the same hope. Reading Bacevich I begin to doubt that it is possible. “We have always been at war with East Asia.” So we read in a book whose title was a date more than a quarter century in our past. As we look at our present, with conflicts lasting longer than any other war in our history, with some pushing for additional conflicts with Iran, with those who want to turn smaller nations like Venezuela into enemies to justify the continuation of the kinds of policies that have begun to bankrupt this nation, morally as much as financially, what then do we do?
I don’t have the answer, and I will not abandon my hope. I suggest that reading Bacevich can be an important step in the direction of what I long for. It will by itself be insufficient. We have a nation, a society, a government still to be changed. We, too, must choose.