Andrew Bacevich and I have had oddly parallel lives. He came from the heartland and I from the Washington establishment, but we are just about exactly the same age. Both of us joined the Army late in the Vietnam era, but I was merely an enlisted man in the non-combatant reserves while he began a long career as an officer, reaching the rank of colonel. After retiring in the early 1990s he went into academia, just when I was joining the faculty of the Naval War College. He was originally a Republican and has now become an independent while I have always been a Democrat, but we are equally disgusted with both parties, especially as regards foreign policy. And we are two of the very few members of our generation still daring to question the basis of American foreign policy since the Second World War--the theme of his new book, Washington Rules. I should also add that we count one another as friends.
Washington Rules is a troubling book for anyone who happens to believe that rationality drives the policy-making process in Washington--or even that it could. It surveys the whole period from 1947 or so to the present rather impressionistically, focusing on some key personalities like Curtis LeMay, Allen Dulles, Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, and going into detail with respect to only a few crises. I do not agree with all its historical judgments, particularly with respect to the 1960s, but I freely concede that I learned a lot about recent history from this book, and that in any case, its overall point is far more important than any disagreements over specific facts. Bacevich argues that a Washington consensus has dominated our thinking and our policy for the last 63 years (if not the last 70), that is, the span of our lifetimes. It is built, he says, around a trinity of ideas: that the United States is uniquely ordained to defend, and extend, the realm of freedom around the world; that that mission requires a network of far-flung bases; and that we must be willing to engage in combat, as necessary, to secure our aims. That consensus, he argues, has survived eleven changes of Administration (Presidents, actually, play relatively minor roles in his narrative, and with good reason), and cataclysmic events ranging from the Vietnam War to the collapse of Communism. Only briefly in the 1970s has it ever been challenged and it has repeatedly come back stronger than ever--and it shows no signs of abating now.
According to Bacevich, his awakening began with the end of the Cold War, when he got to see behind Communist lines in Eastern Europe and discovered that the enemy was far more less formidable than he had been led to believe. My parallel awakening began much earlier, in 1968, after the Tet Offensive made clear that we were not winning the Vietnam War. (It is an interesting fact, one that Bacevich does not mention, that a whole industry subsequently sprung to try to argue, wrongly, that the Tet Offensive did not prove that at all.) Given that we could not win it, I began to ask myself whether it had been necessary to fight it at all, and I had soon decided that it had not. The United States, I concluded--and this was a big change from what I had previously believed--did not have to be desperately interested in the fate of every spot on the globe, even if Communism was involved. Certain areas were far more important than others, and the world was also full of self-regulating mechanisms that would help keep the United States and its allies safe without our active involvement.
Young and innocent, I flattered myself that many of my fellow countrymen had drawn similar conclusions. Some had. Bacevich points out that General David Shoup (of whom I was well aware at the time) and J. William Fulbright, among others, gave the Washington consensus its most serious challenge of the whole postwar period during that time. But by 1974, I was shocked to discover, things were back on track in DC. I was amazed to learn that Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger had decided that the CIA had to support one Marxist faction against another in newly independent Angola, even though the pro-Soviet Marxists had already come to terms with Gulf Oil there, just to show that the United States was not a paper tiger after Vietnam. That was only the first of many pieces of evidence that Vietnam was going to be regarded merely as a blip on the curve, albeit one that had made the Army gunshy and ended the draft. Some years later, in the late 1970s, Theodore Draper pointed out that no one who had had the sense to oppose the Vietnam War from the beginning seemed to have gained additional power and influence as a result, while no one who had advocated it seemed to have suffered any great loss of reputation or clout.
In fact, I noticed during the 1980s that since the time of my birth, the focus of American attention around the world had shifted progressively from the most advanced and important areas, such as Western Europe and Japan, to ever poorer and remote ones, including the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Central America, and even the Horn of Africa. The reductio ad absurdum of this process seemed to have arrived in 1979 when we became frightened about Soviet control of Afghanistan. Little did I know that that was only the beginning.
The end of the Cold War did lead to meaningful reductions in military spending during the 1990s--but as Bacevich points out, it did not lead to any major changes in the way Washington approached the world. During that decade, our armed forces--with whom I was now working--were configured to fight one of two wars, a new Korean war or another war in the Gulf. But meanwhile, Bacevich shows effectively, Madeleine Albright, Clinton's second Secretary of State, kept the prevailing view alive in the midst of a new world. Specifically, Albright tried (unsuccessfully) to bring about earlier American military intervention in the Balkans and supported sanctions against Saddam Hussein even while admitting that they might have caused the deaths of half a million Iraqi children. More generally, she bluntly stated that the United States was sticking to its principles in the midst of a new era.
Neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz had, of course, been arguing since Communism collapsed that American power should now overawe or defeat anyone who stood in its way. Documents released in the last few weeks by the National Security archive show that putting this philosophy into practice by taking down Saddam Hussein (a goal which, to be fair, Bill Clinton had already endorsed as well) was an immediate priority for the Bush Administration, one which 9/11, if anything, delayed. To Bacevich--and I am afraid that he is right--both tyrannies like Saddam's and terrorist attacks are simply excuses from "semiwarriors," as he calls them, like Robert McNamara, Wolfowitz, and Fred and Kimberly Kagan to keep American power moving forward, ever forward, without seriously asking what we are likely to accomplish or how it is going to make America safer. Meanwhile, in some of his most scathing passages, Bacevich shows how successive generations of military officers have stepped forward to meet the needs of particular civilian decisions. When Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz planned painlessly to topple one dictatorship after another (and Tony Blair has now confirmed, by the way, that invasions of Iran and North Korea were supposed to follow the move against Iraq), military thinkers like Admiral Arthur Cebrowski stepped forward with "networkcentric warfare." When the application of such techniques created chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan, David Petraeus--who had actually been waiting for this moment since the 1980s--stepped forward with a revised counterinsurgency doctrine. I am ashamed to admit that I did not realize that Petraeus's new handbook for counterinsurgency, FM 3-24, defined Al Queda as a global strategic threat, requiring "a global strategic response, one that addresses the array of linked resources and conflicts that sustain these movements while tactically addressing the local grievances that feed them." We have essentially embarked upon a world-wide crusade against ignorance, poverty and anarchy, with the Army and Marines in the lead--even though all the evidence, in my opinion, suggests that the presence of US forces if the single thing most likely to encourage Islamic extremism, as well as terrorist attacks committed by Muslims living in the West.
Even more painful are the pages devoted to the Obama Administration. The Democratic Party, Bacevich points out, rode back into power in Congress in 2006 on the back of the Iraq War, but made no attempt to bring it to a conclusion through the power of the purse, instead sitting back while Bush expanded it. Two years later Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination in large measure because he had opposed the Iraq war (unlike John Kerry or Hillary Rodham Clinton), and promised in the campaign, to bring it to a conclusion. He also promised, however, to expand the effort in Afghanistan. He showed in many ways from the beginning that he had no intention of challenging the Washington consensus. He presided over a strategy review that never even addressed the question of whether staying in Afghanistan was doing any good at all, but focused on the issue of how many more troops to send. And now he is firmly established as yet another consensus President in foreign affairs, with the situation in Iraq deteriorating once again and things going worse and worse, it would seem, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Clearly, I find my self more in agreement with my friend Andy than not, and equally bemused as to whether anything can cause us to reverse course. Things have changed since he and I were young. Because we no longer have a draft, we must fight our wars on a much smaller scale, and because we now have precision-guided weapons we do not have to wreak the kind of havoc that we did in Vietnam--even though the secondary consequences of the invasion of Iraq were horrific, and Afghans are suffering much as well. Meanwhile, after its rough patch in the 1970s and 1980s, the national security establishment seems to have freed itself from any serious oversight, much less punishment for misdeeds, up to and including torture. And the defense budget, which actually fell in the 1970s and again in the 1990s, is now at an all-time high and its share of GDP is once again increasing. Our obsession with overwhelming military power is one of the biggest reasons, I suspect, that Europe has done so much better at maintaining its infrastructure and its industrial plant than we have--we have given them and the Japanese the chance to focus on more important matters, and they have done so. Bacevich must know that his book, by its very nature, cries out to be dismissed with a shrug and a rolling of the eyes by his targets in Washington, but he is a great comfort to concerned citizens who have watched us frantically seek out new worlds to conquer for decades on end.