Washington Rules: one professor’s take on America’s ‘permanent war’

After graduating from West Point, Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich spent a career in the army. A self-described ‘company man’ who eventually reached the rank of colonel, he became progressively more critical of U.S. foreign policy. In his latest book, he warns of the dire domestic consequences of American wars abroad

SK: What are the Washington rules?

AB: It’s a shorthand for a national security consensus that I argue evolved in the wake of World War II and continues to exist down to the present day. I break that consensus into two major components: One explains what we need to do while the other describes how we intend to do it. The first component I call the American credo, that is, the abiding conviction that the world needs to be organized and only the United States has the capacity, wisdom and power to do that organizing.

The second component of the Washington rules I call the sacred trinity. The sacred trinity really gets to how we use military power. Here there are also three basic components: The first is that we configure our forces not for national defense but for power projection, the second is that we base our forces around the world, and the third is a combination of the first two which supports a consistent pattern of global interventionism. Global power projection, global presence, and global interventionism: That’s the sacred trinity.

SK: The first chapter of your new book starts by recalling then-President-Elect Obama’s speech to a crowd of supporters in Chicago’s Grant Park. Is number forty-four following the same rules?

AB: By and large. I cite that speech to note that he insisted that the United States has the ability to bend the trajectory of history in a particular direction. The words – perhaps unique to Obama. The sentiments – very commonplace. Beyond that, I think the crucial decision that indicated that – with regard to national security – the President was not going to deliver on the change he had promised was the Afghanistan decision. I think the Afghanistan decision presented the President with a great opportunity to ask basic questions about the course of national security policy and he basically blew that opportunity.

SK: At the end of the war in Vietnam, Daniel Berrigan remarked that a society driven to consume “ultimately ends up by consuming lives” in wars fought to preserve access to energy reserves and other key resources. What’s your response to that?

AB: It strikes me as basically sound. There really is something about the American way of life that seems to be averse to self-awareness and critical self-examination. I have to say that as I have gotten older it has become ever more apparent to me that the tendency to define freedom in terms of consumption really lies at the root of so many other problems and it’s only when Americans are able to recognize that consumption provides a false definition of freedom that we may able to wean ourselves from so many counter-productive and self-destructive habits. Our penchant for excessive reliance on military power not least among them.

SK: You spend a chapter unpacking what has become a very important term since 9/11: the Long War.

AB: In the immediate wake of 9/11 President Bush designated that conflict as “the global war on terror.” That phrase became the label that was commonly attached to post-9/11 U.S. policy. By the time Obama was elected it was increasingly apparent that waging the global war on terror was not going to yield success anytime soon. When Obama took office that phrase really disappeared from common discourse. In the meantime the Pentagon, specifically military officers in the Pentagon, have begun using this term Long War as a substitute or replacement for global war on terror.

I think the label is an exceptionally good one because it really does capture the essence of the predicament which we’re in. It’s a war that is described by duration. That is, it is indeterminate. It doesn’t describe the enemy. It doesn’t describe the purpose. It doesn’t describe the location. Rather, the phrase just simply indicates that this is a conflict which, if we persist in pursuing it, is just going to go on for a long, long time.

SK: And the Long War marks a transition from traditional forms of warfare to what we’re seeing in Afghanistan – a kind of “armed social work.” You yourself have noted that today’s officer corps is sounding less like General Patton and more like Jane Addams. Is military victory in the classic sense passé?

AB: Well, I think what’s notable here is that the officer corps has concluded that military victory is passé. General Petraeus is widely viewed as the most celebrated soldier of his generation. He has said repeatedly that there is no military solution to the kind of conflicts we face in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has said quite explicitly, “We cannot kill our way out of the predicament in which we’re in.” So, it’s not simply that it’s a bunch of peaceniks or leftists who are making this argument. Rather, it is the officer corps itself. Again, this I think is something that deserves far more attention than it has gotten.

The whole basis of having a military profession has rested on the premise that force remains an effective instrument of statecraft and that there are certain specialists – professional soldiers – who possess a unique ability to translate violence into some politically purposeful outcome. The American officer corps today really has abandoned that notion and instead is engaged in some version of armed nation-building. You have to ask yourself why military officers in particular would have any facility for nation-building. And of course you also have to ask yourself what nation-building costs and whether or not we really know how to do it.

SK: In your book you talk about how Washington gets to do what it wants because it enjoys public apathy. What is responsible for this civic crisis?

AB: I think one factor that can never be underestimated is the basic corruption of the American political system. We have two parties that make a show of differing on first-order principles but in many respects really collaborate with one another in maintaining the basic status quo. They collaborate with one another to maintain the Washington rules.

SK: You suggest that the U.S. should “cultivate its own garden” rather than trying to remake the world in its own image. What would it take to effect this kind of change in direction?

AB: An acknowledgment of the limits of our ability to bring about positive change beyond our borders. To acknowledge that something like the transformation of Afghanistan consistent with our values is a bridge too far. Let the Afghans self-determine. I think it would also require a change in our collective moral outlook, where we would find unacceptable conditions existing in our own society – whether enormous disparities of wealth and poverty, or the erosion of our environment. Confronted with things like that, rather than shrugging our shoulders we’d stop and say, “No, that needs to be the priority.” Instead of fixing Afghanistan, we’d go fix Detroit.

Andrew Bacevich(Courtesy Photo)

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