At the end of July I presented an analysis of an article Andrew Bacevich had written as a sort of introduction to his latest book, Washington Rules.
In that post I assumed that Bacevich was coming from a Clausewitzian perspective and that his position centered on three main points: First, "the Western concept of war sees war as a political instrument, that is in Clausewitzian terms. Military means becomes the instrument of appropriate policy ends". Second, "this is not the same as seeing war as a "problem solver" since pursuing a policy is not the same as solving a problem, which may be much more complex. One could for instance wage war in order to distract one's own population from domestic concerns, thus attempting to solve a domestic problem but using war as an instrument in a way that compromises the means and fails to consider the ultimate results of the war in question that one has initiated". And finally, "the reluctance of both the US and Israel to see the fallacy of this view". That is specifically mistaking the instrument of narrow policy for a "problem solver" that can reshape the geo-political landscape.
After reading the book, I find that my initial analysis holds up well, but that Bacevich has broader argument to make.
So what about the book as a whole? Washington Rules can be read as both a description of what has become of US political culture since 1945 and a warning of where that culture could take us if not turned around/radically changed: That is the "Rules" in the title can serve as both a noun and a verb, to rule one has to follow the rules, even if the rules themselves are dysfunctional.
"Washington" for Bacevich is
"less a geographic expression than a set of interlocking institutions headed by people who, whether acting officially or unofficially, are able to put a thumb on the helm of state . . . includes the upper echelons of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches . . . the principle components of the national security state . . . the intelligence and federal law enforcement communities . . . select think tanks and interest groups . . . big banks and other financial institutions, defense contractors and major corporations, TV networks and elite publications, even quasi-academic entities. (page 15)
The "rules" consist of two interlocking components that allow Washington to rule. These are what Bacevich describes as the "credo" and the "trinity". The credo is simply the assumption/belief that the US and the US alone is summoned "to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world" (p 12). The credo concerns purpose, whereas the trinity concerns means, or the use of means. Following Clausewitz, Bacevich's trinity has both related moral and material elements: its moral side consists of the emphasis of "activism over example, hard power over soft and coercion over suasion" (p 13), while the material are "global military presence, global power projection and global interventionism" (p 14). Bacevich writes:
The relationship between the two is symbiotic. The trinity lends plausibility to the credo's vast claims. For its part, the credo justifies the trinity's vast requirements and exertions.
Admittance to the ruling circle requires openly embracing both the credo and the trinity, something that President Obama did the night he was elected (p 19).
The whole book's purpose concerns the history, critique and dismissal of the credo and trinity and the call for popular support for a new consensus on which to build a new US foreign policy, one that is much better suited to our current reality.
In doing this Bacevich provides a revisionist view (in the most positive sense of the term) of post-World War II US history. The Washington rules first developed after 1945 under Truman, were expanded significantly under Eisenhower, and were modified and implemented under Kennedy and his successors. Bacevich notes that Eisenhower alone offered a warning at the end of his presidency of what had been created in part by his own policies (the famous warning of the "military-industrial complex" of his farewell address, pp 32-34 & 225-6). He also dismisses the argument that Kennedy would have withdrawn from Vietnam had he not been assassinated (pp 90-92).
Vietnam was the potential turning point and given the degree to which the rules had failed miserably it is astounding that they came back so quickly. Perhaps a good indication of how public attitudes had changed is in the comparison of two people, one real and one a product of the cinema. General Curtis LeMay was the creator of the Strategic Air Command, and along with Allen Dulles and the CIA, is one of the two important figures from the 1950s that Bacevich describes in detail. Going into the 1960s LeMay was still a national hero. By 1968, as George Wallace's running mate for the presidency on a third party ticket he had been reduced to a "dangerous buffoon" for suggesting that a few well-placed nuclear bombs could reverse the tide of the Vietnam war (p 124). An indication of where this was leading is shown by the brilliant portrayal of Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper by Sterling Hayden in the classic Dr Strangelove of 1964. By 1970, not only Vietnam, but US nuclear policy, which LeMay had championed, had been called into question.
What was the result? Did the Washington rules come to a well deserved end? Instead of a reassessment, by the end of the Carter administration and with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the rules had been reestablished without much question at all, as Bacevich writes, "Seldom has a war been so fervently memorialized even as it was being so thoroughly drained of meaning" (p 128). Much of this had to do with the nature of the official assessment which allowed for only acceptable views to be expressed. Scapegoats were identified, the failure due essentially to "tactics" and the actual strategic nature of the defeat buried. Those in power simply had too much interest in maintaining the status quo. This narrow-minded self interest remains with us today in George W Bush's War on Terror, since to call into question the events that "paved the way for September 11, 2001" would "call into question a national security tradition that goes back decades" (p 86). Approaches go under new names, but are simply repeats of past failed policies, for example Global COIN as a repeat of JFK's "Flexible Response", Bush's delusional "transformation of the Middle East" as the flip side of Eisenhower's domino theory and Obama's targeted assassinations by predator drone a high-tech repeat of "Operation Mongoose" and the "Phoenix Program". The durability of the credo/trinity precludes any strategic reevaluation and reduces the problem once again to tactics which only allows for their tool kit of military responses.
This is turn eliminates the possibility of effective strategic thought or useful application of strategic theory. As an excellent example of this we have the Surge of 2007, which "trivialized the very concept of strategy" (p. 190). The Surge was all about marketing and (re-)packaging, allowing those who had supported the Iraq war to regroup under a new banner and turn the tables on those we did not support the war. Questioning the success of the Surge was unpatriotic, even Unamerican, attacking the troops and the great man of the hour General David Petraeus.
Bacevich describes Petraeus's actual achievement thus:
Changing the way that a war was perceived - whether within the inner circle of power or in the eyes of the public - could be tantamount to changing reality itself. In a time of crisis, the soldier who demonstrated a capacity to alter perspections might well parlay military authority into influence extending well beyond the narrow realm of military affairs. (p. 195)
Not success, but the illusion of success for the delusional, which well describes our national security situation at present. It is also important to point out that Petraeus's "success" required that he adhere to the Washington rules and play to the strengths of a powerful propaganda machine, that is success is seen as maintaining the status quo no matter what the actual reality may dictate. To Bacevich's credo we can thus add the comforting assumption that the American enterprise of Empire is deemed as "too big to fail", only a question of keeping the US public supportive. Petraeus - and even presidents - simply become instruments for the continuation of the national security state and the rules under which it functions.
Bacevich's description of the Washington Rules seems at first glance remarkably similar to Thomas Kuhn's concept of a "paradigm" in that it comprises a world view in which the institutions involved measure and judge the phenomenon under investigation. Scientists are trained, evaluated and rewarded based on their adherence to the paradigm of their community. Kuhn himself doubted the applicability of his concept to the social sciences - to which strategic theory and political science belong. For this reason the Washington Rules are better classified as an ideology which has a much less firm connection to reality, and which to me would indicate we could remain under the thrall of the Washington rules until we reach political and social collapse. Bacevich agrees (p. 229).
Bacevich's conclusion is that the American people are complicit in the continuance of the Washington rules. An all volunteer force and massive deficit spending allow the price of Empire to be localized to a relative few while the costs are shifted to future generations. The choice other than the Washington rules, if it can ever get wide-spread dissemination, is an older trinity which defined the military as made up of mostly citizen soldiers serving to defend the narrow interests of America itself, not an Empire that benefits the ever expanding intersts of a corrupt parasitic elite.
To disenthrall ourselves from the Washington rules is in essence to rediscover ourselves as a nation. This book serves as wake up call for exactly that.
Andrew Bacevich has just come up with a brilliant article in The New Republic . . .
He makes some very important points:
Operation Desert Storm didn’t turn out that way. An ostensibly great victory gave way to even greater complications. Although, in evicting the Iraqi army from Kuwait, U.S. and coalition forces did what they had been sent to do, Washington became seized with the notion merely turning back aggression wasn’t enough: In Baghdad, Bush’s nemesis survived and remained defiant. So what began as a war to liberate Kuwait morphed into an obsession with deposing Saddam himself. In the form of air strikes and missile attacks, feints and demonstrations, CIA plots and crushing sanctions, America’s war against Iraq persisted throughout the 1990s, finally reaching a climax with George W. Bush’s decision after September 11, 2001, to put Saddam ahead of Osama bin Laden in the line of evildoers requiring elimination.
Emphasis mine. Then there's this . . .
Unable to win, unwilling to accept defeat, the Bush administration sought to create conditions allowing for a graceful exit. Marketed for domestic political purposes as “a new way forward,” more commonly known as “the surge,” this modified approach was the strategic equivalent of a dog’s breakfast. President Bush steeled himself to expend more American blood and treasure while simultaneously lowering expectations about what U.S. forces might actually accomplish. New tactics designed to suppress the Iraqi insurgency won Bush’s approval; so too did the novel practice of bribing insurgents to put down their arms.
And this . . .
Which brings us to the present. After seven-plus years, Operation Iraqi Freedom has concluded. Operation New Dawn, its name suggesting a skin cream or dishwashing liquid, now begins. (What ever happened to the practice of using terms like Torch or Overlord or Dragoon to describe military campaigns?) Although something like 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, their mission is not to fight, but simply to advise and assist their Iraqi counterparts. In another year, if all goes well, even this last remnant of an American military presence will disappear.
So the Americans are bowing out, having achieved few of the ambitious goals articulated in the heady aftermath of Baghdad’s fall. The surge, now remembered as an epic feat of arms, functions chiefly as a smokescreen, obscuring a vast panorama of recklessness, miscalculation, and waste that politicians, generals, and sundry warmongers are keen to forget.