Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War by Andrew J. Bacevich. New York: Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt and Company), 2010. Reviewed by James Roth.

Written by admin on November 30th, 2010

Every US president since President Truman, says Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel and now a Boston University history professor, has endorsed “the American credo,” a belief that it is up to “the United States – and the United States alone – to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world.” It is a creed that requires no proof, accepted on faith, and must express itself in practice. This is Bacevich’s third book within four years critiquing American power and this time he explores the rules by which the American creed is expressed.

The rules, characterized as a “sacred trinity,” are “an abiding conviction that the minimum essentials of international peace and order require the United States to maintain a global military presence, to configure its forces for global power projection, and to counter existing or anticipated threats by relying on a policy of global interventionism.” (Emphasis in original). The credo and trinity have been remarkably resilient in the face of misadventures in Cuba, Vietnam and now Iraq and Afghanistan but Bacevich concludes they “constitute the essence of the way that Washington has attempted to govern and police the American Century…. From the era of Harry Truman to the age of Barack Obama, that consensus has remained intact.  It defines the rules to which Washington adheres; it determines the precepts by which Washington rules.”

The book’s title therefore carries a double meaning: Washington rules the world (or tries to), and it follows rules. Much of the book is devoted to the ways in which Washington has failed to rule the world and how it has failed to learn from its failures; but primarily, it is about the changing meaning of the rules.

Bacevich persuasively argues that Washington is now engaged in a state of permanent war.  This has be said by others but Bacevich adds a novel twist by suggesting that since the Korean War, the rules by which the Pentagon played changed from seeking to win wars to that of avoiding defeat, usually by dragging out the conflict for an indeterminable time.  It was during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that permanent war became firmly established. “Not even the most hawkish proponents of American global leadership,” Bacevich observed,”  – not Allen Dulles or Curtis LeMay, not Maxwell Taylor or McGeorge Bundy – had ever proposed committing the United States to a policy of war without foreseeable end.  Yet over the course of George W. Bush’s presidency, open-ended war became accepted policy, hardly more controversial than the practice of stationing U.S. troops abroad.”

Bacevich concludes that such conduct simply won’t work.  The credo cannot be fulfilled by military means, and the heavy reliance on military operations threatens national bankruptcy and diverts resources of all kinds from productive domestic projects.  The credo itself is suspect, given that it requires a certain American exceptionalism and will inevitably collide with the aspirations of foe and friend alike.

A serious weakness in the book is Bacevich’s insistence on seeing the conduct of war only as a product of decisions by politicians and military brass, principally the latter.  He levels severe criticisms at some popular figures, including a withering critique of Gen. David Petraeus and his counterinsurgency handbook. But nowhere are economic factors mentioned.  In a discussion of Eisenhower’s farewell address, the corporate side of the military-industrial-complex equation gets short shrift, and it never comes up again.  The military requirements of corporate globalization never figure in his account.

Another short coming of the book is the absence of any discussion of the geopolitical significance of the Middle East and of US interests in the region. The discussion of Iraq focuses wholly on the conduct of the war with no comment on the economic and political reasons for going to war.  This omission is inexplicable, particularly when Alan Greenspan admitted in 1997 that the prime motive for the war against Iraq was oil. The absence of such questioning avoids discussion of potentially overwhelming contributing factors in the development of a policy of permanent war. Similarly, not taking into account the diverse and fractured cultural and political-economic features in the Middle East sidesteps discussion of one of the most influential considerations in determining why military forces will not succeed there.

The absence of a broader context precludes a full recognition of why the US has become so dependent on the military to conduct its foreign relations. But the value of Washington Rules lies in illuminating the personalities that shaped U.S. security policy and built the institutions that carried out that policy and which today sustains the Washington consensus for permanent war.

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James Roth is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Regis University in Denver, Colorado

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