Washington Rules – America’s Path to Permanent War. Andrew J. Bacevich. Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York. 2010.
Andrew Bacevich has written another authoritative and well written book examining the U.S. military and its influence on the United States. His writing – here as with his earlier works  – is provocative, challenging, well researched, informative, and logically argued. Only someone thoroughly imbued with the rhetoric of U.S. benign stewardship of global affairs and ignorant of many key events within recent and current U.S. foreign affairs might be able to ignore Bacevich’s presentations and contentions about U.S. foreign policy and U.S. militarism.
This most recent work, Washington Rules, is appropriately titled and well focused on the one main theme that ‘Washington’ – the political and military structures of U.S. government – is responsible for and the only country capable of maintaining world peace through global leadership and the only means to do so is through military might. This leads to Bacevich’s “trinity”: a global military presence, global power projection, and global intervention. The route this trinity takes through successive governments from Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon through to Bush, Clinton, and more Bush demonstrates that it is neither a Democratic nor a Republican ideal but is instead a government institutional ideal that all presidencies have bought into up to and including Obama. The media presents presidents as being the “…Decider, a president all too often becomes little more than the medium through which power is exercised.”
Certainly there have been differences in approaches, permutations of ideas and means, changes in structures and devices, but the over-arching “American credo of global leadership and the sacred trinity of U.S. military practice – commit the United States to what is in effect a condition of permanent national security crisis.” This permanent crisis, fostered first by anti-communism and now by anti-terrorism, this trinity, this strategy “has propelled the United States into a condition approximating perpetual war.”
Ironically, by being so engaged, “this reliance on military might creates excuses for the United States to avoid serious engagement” making it “unnecessary to attend to what others might think or to consider how their aspirations might differ from our own.” That also leads to “an excuse to avoid serious self-engagement” to the extent that “citizens of the United States have essentially forfeited any capacity to ask first-order questions about the fundamentals of national security policy.”
Those statements, coming from a retired U.S. army colonel who has taken it upon himself to educate himself about the discrepancies he perceived after the fall of the Berlin Wall, are a powerful indictment of the U.S. military, political, and economic structures that allow a state of perpetual war while ignoring the problems at home, “Fixing Iraq or Afghanistan ends up taking precedence over fixing Cleveland and Detroit.” Education becomes part of the answer as “When Americans demonstrate a willingness to engage seriously with others, combined with the courage to engage seriously with themselves, then real education just might begin.”
All the Presidents
After these introductory comments, Bacevich takes the reader on a tour through the highlight events of U.S. foreign policy as dealt with by successive presidents.
Starting with Eisenhower, the base line was set for a paradigm of global dominance via covert activities from the CIA under the tutelage of Allen Dulles, and overt activities with the start up of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), under the tutelage of General Curtis LeMay. The CIA’s ‘successes’ included the overthrow of the Mossadegh constitutional democracy in Iran in 1953  and the CIA instigated coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz Guaman in Guatemala.  LeMay’s success was the creation of the overwhelming nuclear force of bombers that he provided the battle plans for, worrying little about costs as per Congress, “SAC served as an institutionalized economic stimulus program.”
Both were intent on defeating the looming national security crisis of communism. While Dulles and Lemay “testified to [their] hopes of averting a showdown with the Soviet Union, each promoted patterns of behaviour that increased the risk of such a confrontation.”
Transiting from Vietnam
From that base Bacevich works forward in time. The Kennedy years witnessed Cuba and Vietnam, two significant events which reinforced the U.S.’ adherence to the ‘trinity’ of global affairs. It also witnessed the development of a “fraternity of nuclear strategists” who were “Trafficking in jargon tricked out as profundities” generating “a dizzying array of obfuscating twaddle.” Not much has changed there except that perhaps the “twaddle” gets piled higher and deeper as time goes on.
Vietnam, “a war fought to sustain the Washington consensus,” resulted after all was said and done as a transformation of “a people’s army into a professional force,” in which “decision makers gain[ed] a free hand to use a military over which the American people had forfeited any ownership.”
Former UN ambassador and secretary of state, Madeleine Albright serves as Bacevich’s focus to demonstrate how the Washington rules had been “fully refurbished” for delivery “into a new millennium.” He quotes four significant statements from her, the two which stand out are, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” and the usual U.S. boasts that “…we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further…into the future.”
Bacevich recognizes the language as “pretentious…grating…and royal” yet realizes that she was “deadly earnest…and expressing sentiments widely shared across the foreign policy elite.” These views, “central to the Washington consensus…the pursuit of exalted ends empowers the United States to employ whatever means it deems necessary,” resulting in, as described earlier in the book, “highly flexible moral standards.”
Into the Gulf
The presidency under Jimmy Carter is often viewed in the media as that of a ‘peace’ president, but Carter did more than his share to push forward the military power of the U.S. He reneged on his vow to remove troops from Korea, and under his watch, the Pentagon “began developing a major new base in the Indian Ocean on the British-owned island of Diego Garcia, a project that involved expelling the island’s inhabitants.” This ethnic cleansing of a colonial British claim set up the major base in the Indian Ocean from which the U.S. watches and operates throughout the Middle East and all of Southern Asia.
The big move was in the Middle East – rather than turning down the military presence overseas as the Cold War chilled, Carter set in motion the U.S. adventurism into the Middle East, declaring that any attempt “by any outside power to gain control of the region “as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America,” to “be repelled by any means necessary including military force….The significance of the shift in military posture that Carter set in motion can hardly be overstated.”
Overseas operating bases, rapid deployment, ‘precision’ munitions, and light fast forces became the new norm, with “Operation Desert Storm represent[ing] the culmination of a reform project that had absorbed the energies of the officer corps ever since the Vietnam War ended.” Following this, the blockade of Iraq, the “unexpected” attack of 9/11 which provided the new Pearl Harbour for the fraternity of nuclear/military strategists, then followed by “Iraqi Freedom”, the claim that this “concerted exercise of American power would eliminate the conditions giving rise to violent jihadism and affirm Washington’s claim to global dominion lost all coherence and credibility.”
Open ended war
The final section of the book examines the current overbearing military presence that has extended the Washington rules into an era of proclaimed never ending war. This “Long War”, the “Global war on terror”, two terms now trying to be forgotten – along with Bush’s ill-considered but with elements of truth “Crusade” – represents an era when “open-ended war became accepted policy.” Congress under the Democrats “routinely voted the money needed to ensure the war’s continuation, tacitly signalling their fealty to the Washington consensus.” While Obama campaigned on the slippery concept of change but only “produced results that served primarily to affirm the status quo,” “little of substance has changed” with the Washington rules, only affirmation and extension.
Two groups accommodated willingly to this enterprise. First, “The American people more generally, accommodated themselves to this prospect,” even though “victory had essentially become indefinable and the benefits accruing to Americans were at best obscure.” The second group more obviously was the military itself, wherein “An officer corps that had once resolved to avoid protracted war at all costs now contemplated an era of conflict without end,” and “persuaded [the generation of officers represented by Patraeus] to see armed conflict as an open-ended enterprise.”
Surge, COIN, and Obama’s accommodation
The surge in Afghanistan, (modelled on the surge in Iraq that was “successful” only by a co-relationship with U.S. money buying off the Sunni insurgents) demonstrated that “By escalating the U.S. military presence there, the president in effect ratified the Long War.” The “counter-insurgency campaign” – COIN – or more accurately a “targeted assassination campaign” that is far from accurate – became the new idea introduced into “Obama’s war.”
Obama does not ride easy with Bacevich as with the surge, “the actual ability to exercise choice had already passed from his hands.” The result, reiterated, is the ratification of the long war, wherein “the president had effectively forfeited his opportunity to undertake a serious reassessment of the basic approach to national security formulated over the course of the preceding six decades….Real change would have to wait for another day.”
Recognizing that “there is no end in sight, even though the conditions that first gave rise to Washington rules have ceased to exist,” that “the problem set has changed, while the solutions proffered…remain largely the same,” Bacevich looks for a solution.
First he returns to the credo and trinity express in his introduction. These Washington rules “Deliver profit, power, and privilege to a long list of beneficiaries: elected and appointed officials, corporate executives and corporate lobbyists, admirals and generals, functionaries…media personalities and policy intellectuals from universities and research organizations.” The credo combined with the money and power opportunities “make the imperial city on the Potomac one of the most captivating, corrupt, and corrupting places on the face of the earth.” If the status quo remains, the future holds “a military that is perpetually at war and…an economy propped up by perpetual borrowing caus[ing] one or both to collapse.”
Alternately, Bacevich sees the U.S.’ role as to model democracy and freedom rather than impose it, to create at home a “more perfect union” that is a beacon to illuminate and exemplify the way, and “any policy impeding that enterprise – as open-ended war surely does – is misguided and pernicious,” not to mention deadly and disastrous at home as well as abroad.
He asserts that “No evidence exists – none – to suggest that U.S. efforts will advance the cause of global peace.” Military supremacy is both an illusion and a disaster, and U.S. forces should primarily be stationed in the U.S. The only effort that will succeed is that “U.S. troops should withdraw from the Persian Gulf and Central Asia forthwith.” Unfortunately in that regard, “The Washington consensus persists…because if conforms to and reinforces widely accepted, if highly problematic, aspects of American civic culture,” a large part of which is “individual choice above collective responsibility and immediate gratification over long term well being.”
Ultimately, “If change is to come, it must come from the people.” Thus the need for education “to take on the responsibilities of an active and engaged citizenship – has become especially acute,” otherwise “Over the horizon a shipwreck of epic proportions awaits.”
A powerful conclusion, from a well written, well sequenced work. Bacevich has a logical coherent thread throughout his arguments about the militarization of U.S. society by way of the national security strategies. As for education, it initially rises from seeing enough or being given enough information that is accurate (media take note) such that “dissonance [is] too great to ignore. The ensuing process of confronting illusions…and of dissecting the contradictions besetting U.S. policy [is] sometimes painful and never easy…The ability to see things as they are, without blinders, is [a great gift]”
Bacevich has been well gifted.
Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles' work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.
 see Andrew J. Bacevich:
American Empire, Harvard University Press (2002);
The New American Militarism, Oxford University Press (2005);
The Limits of Power, Metropolitan Books (2008).
 See Stephen Kinzer:
All the Shah’s Men, John Wiley & Sons (2003);
Overthrow, Times Books – Henry Holt and Company (2006).
 see Nick Cullather, Secret History, Stanford University Press (1999) for details of this overthrow.