Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War by Andrew J. Bacevich
Neocons are guided by what Professor Bacevich Called the "Washington
Rules" the credo that the USA has to "lead, save, liberate, and transform" (which means
engaging is permanent war for permanent peace) the world to assure international order and peace.
The "catechism of neocon thinking" consists of three dogma:
- the world must be organized the way the USA consider to be the best.
- only the U.S. can do it,
- this includes dictating principles and those who do not to accept those principles are rogue
nations that should be squashed by military force if nessesary.
These assumptions take the form of the "credo" -- which holds
that the United States has the unique responsibility to intervene wherever it wants, for whatever
purpose it wants, by whatever means it wants. See
Nulandgate as the most
The "sacred trinity" of global military presence, global power projection, global interventionism
is used to achieve those ends, using his "Washington Rules" as the template. The Jimmy Carter
segment was particularly eye-opening. Neocons have an attitude that the USA is uniquely
qualified to take on the worldwide foes of peace and democracy, forgetting, revising, or ignoring
the painful lessons of World War II, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. they believe that such war
mongering will lead the USA into period of unprecedented peace.
And the consequences of such actions in Ukraine can serve as yet another illustration of "the
idiocy of neocon vision of benevolent Us hegemony"
as Michael S Rozeff noted in his arcticle at LewRockwell.com:
Neocons deny having a political philosophy, but this is a ruse. They have
core beliefs and ideas that guide their policies. See here for
Their philosophy, among other things, has this
“In other words, the United States should wage war in order to combat
creeping nihilism. In the revealing words of Kristol and Kagan, ‘The remoralization of America at home ultimately requires the remoralization of
American foreign policy.’ Going to war, sacrificing both treasure and blood
in order to bring ‘democracy’ to strangers—this is a mission worthy of a
This mission, put into practice in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria,
Yemen, Somalia, and now Ukraine, has failed. Democracy has not been brought
to these nations. Death, destruction, refugees, chaos, instability,
continual strife, civil wars and increased terrorism have all been the
results of implementing this one facet of neocon political philosophy.
The neocons told the world precisely what they were after and how to get
it. When the U.S. government followed their theories, utter failure
resulted. This means that neocon political theory must be utterly wrong. The
outcomes it expected didn’t happen. In fact, we observe very nearly the
opposite of their projections.
One summary of neocon theory appears in the mission statement of Keep
America Safe, formed by Elizabeth Cheney and William Kristol:
“Keep America Safe will make the case for an unapologetic approach to
fighting terrorism around the world, for victory in the wars this country
fights, for democracy and human rights, and for a strong American military
that is needed in the dangerous world in which we live.”
These policies actions were supposed to result in benevolent American
hegemony. Neocon theory calls for American hegemony, based on the idea that
such hegemony is benevolent. This presumes that nations subjected to such
hegemony find it beneficial and to their liking.
We know that these ideas have failed in country after country. They must
be wrong ideas. What’s wrong with them?
Neocon theory treats foreign peoples as if they could be manipulated like
robots or puppets. It doesn’t take into account their systems, cultures,
histories and their natural responses to having their countries invaded. It
doesn’t take into account their divisions. It ignores the reasons for their
existing political system and equilibrium among competing forces.
The neocons act as if they think that American force and know-how somehow
overcome all the political, social, economic, moral, cultural, language,
tribal, ethnic and religious issues present in these foreign lands. This is
a completely wrong idea.
Neocon theory ignores the methods, mainly warfare and subversion, by
which hegemony is imposed. It assumes that invasions and subversion are done
in such ways that the affected nations have no cause for complaint. This
assumption is completely false.
A war begun by the U.S. in some foreign land is assumed to create hordes
of surviving people in the affected country who are gratified by having been
“freed” by American applications of force. These people are assumed to be
homogeneous enough to install a stable democracy. The people are assumed to
be democrats-in-waiting who get together to form a democratic government
that is superior to the previous regime. These assumptions are all
The theory completely overlooks the destruction initiated by the U.S.
that goes on to create the new political environment. This destruction and
errors of American administration are assumed to have negligible affects on
the behavior and psychology of this newborn people. This assumption
The foreign peoples are assumed to share certain values that form a
stable basis for a new state. This has never been the case in any country in
which the U.S. has intervened.
The neocons believe that a number of the new leaders of the nation who
have been educated in western universities will be lauded by their peoples
and form a new government that will command the respect and loyalty of their
peoples. This does not happen. This is another false assumption.
The new leaders chosen and blessed by the U.S. are presumed to have
values that are American political values. This is usually not the case, but
even if it is the case, the assumption that the peoples of these countries
are going to fall all over themselves to support their puppet leaders and
the American system of values and government is a false assumption.
The neocons believe that arms can be distributed into friendly hands and
kept there, so that select local forces will support the new state or bring
it about. This assumption has been proven false.
The neocons believe that if American force do not create the democracy
and the rights, then American money and advice will. This has never been the
case. Instead, vast waste, debt, mismanagement and corruption ensue.
This is not an exhaustive list of fallacies, errors and faults in neocon
thinking. It hardly scratches the surface. It doesn’t delve into other and
deeper faults and limitations of their philosophy. But this is enough to
suggest that neocon policies have failed because the theories and
assumptions they are based upon are utterly false to reality.
There are other rival and complementary theories concerning neocon
policies. There is the theory that neocons have a strong Zionist component
that has supported Israeli aims of creating chaos in certain Middle Eastern
nations. This theory has evident support, but it doesn’t explain the full
range of policies and countries in which the U.S. has intervened. It doesn’t
explain the full range of persons who are neocon supporters. Nevertheless,
this has been a significant factor as has been the influence of AIPAC and
Israel. This theory of Zionist sympathy doesn’t explain the methods chosen
in intervening in so many countries and it doesn’t explain the size and
scope of the resources committed. A very large amount of American force,
wealth and energy has gone into trying to build democracies and/or states
sympathetic to U.S. aims and influences. If the production of chaos had been
the goal, it could have been achieved much more easily.
A related theory has it that the neocons always wanted the chaos that has
been produced. They lied. This is a very implausible theory. For each
intervention, there can be found many neocon statements from diverse pundits
and officials in support, pointing out what would be accomplished and saying
that the results would be rather easy to achieve. It is implausible to
believe that all were programmed to lie about their intentions, hopes and
forecasts. Furthermore, in specific cases we see that instability occurred
only after various errors were made or various difficulties encountered that
go back to the false assumptions outlined above. Americans tried very hard
to achieve success in these lands. They failed because they were operating
with false assumptions about the peoples and lands involved.
Ukraine is the latest example of neocon failure. There is abundant
evidence that the intent of American intervention was to bring Ukraine into
the American fold — benevolent hegemony. Democratization and removal of
corruption have been two of the aims. There is strong evidence that these
attempts have mushroomed into a confrontation between West and East. Was
this planned by neocons all along? It’s very doubtful. They thought they’d
gain Iraq at low cost and easily and they thought the same about Ukraine.
They assumed away the many issues that relate back to divided peoples in
This neocon failure to gain Ukraine easily doesn’t imply that neocons
will not now attempt to take advantage of this East-West confrontation to
weaken and ensnare Russia, to demonize Russia and to ramp up a proxy war
with Russia. The neocons are opportunistic. However, if the analysis above
is correct about the false assumptions that neocons habitually make as they
implement their philosophy, what we can expect is that they will misjudge
Russia. They will ignore the uniquely Russian traditions, strengths and
reactions to American pressures. They will treat the Russians like robots or
as beings who merely calculate costs and can be induced to behave as
instructed in order to remove sanctions. The neocon policies applied to
Russia will produce perverse results on a larger scale than ever.
UFPPC (www.ufppc.org) Digging Deeper CXXXVII:
September 27, 2010, 7:00 p.m.
Andrew J. Bacevich,
Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War
(New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, August 2010).
The Washington consensus on national security policy that constitutes convention wisdom in American
foreign policy began with the Cold War and survived, remarkably, the Vietnam War and the disintegration
of the Soviet Union, no longer serves American interests, but the failure of the Obama administration
to alter it shows that change can only come from the American people.
Introduction: Slow Learner
The author's faith in orthodoxy began to crumble when visiting the BrandenburgGate in Berlin in the
winter of 1990-1991(1-4). In October 1990 a visit to Jenarevealed the backwardness of EastGermany (4-6).
During his years in the Army, Bacevich had kept down doubts; after the end of the Cold War he retired,
and his loss of status freed him to educate himself (6-10).
"George W.Bush's decision to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 pushed me fully into opposition"
(10). "This book aims to take stock of conventional wisdom" (11). The past 60 years of American history
shows continuity: a symbiotic "credo" (formulated by Henry Luce in 1941 as the "American Century") and
a "sacred trinity" ("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") together
define "the rules to which Washington adheres" (11-15).
In this book, "Washington" refers to the upper echelons of the three branches of government, the
main agencies of the national security state, select think tanks and interest groups, "big banks and
other financial institutions, defense contractors and major corporations, television networks and elite
publications like the New York Times, even quasi-academic entities like the Council on Foreign Relations
and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government" (15).
This book aspires to
(1) trace the history of the Washington rules;
(2) show who wins, who loses, and who pays under them;
(3) explain how itis perpetuated;
(4) show that the rules have lost what utility they might once have had;
and (5) re-legitimate "disreputable (or 'radical') views to our national security debates" (16).
The American Century is ending, and it "has become essential" to devise an "alternative to the reining
national security paradigm" (16-18).
Ch. 1: The Advent of Semiwar.
As president, Barack Obama's efforts to change the U.S.'s exercise of power "have seldom risen above
the cosmetic"(20). He made clear he subscribes to the "catechism of American statecraft," viz. that
1) the world must be organized, 2)only the U.S. can do it, 3) this includes dictating principles, and
4) not to accept this is to be a rogue or a recalcitrant (20-21).
It follows that the U.S. need not conform to the norms it sets for others and that it should maintain
a worldwide network of bases (22-23).
Imagine if China acted in a comparable manner (23-25). The extraordinary American military posture
in the world (25-27). To call this into question puts one beyond the pale(27). James Forrestal called
this a permanent condition of semiwar, requiring high levels of military spending(27-28).
American citizens are not supposed to concern themselves with it (29-30). As to how this came about,
the "standard story line" presents as the result of the decisions of a "succession of presidential administrations,"
though this conceals as much as it reveals (30-32).
Eisenhower's 1961 Farewell Address on the "military-industrial complex" was a rare exception (32-34).
More important than presidents were Allen Dulles [1893-1969] and Curtis Lemay [1906-1990] (34-36).
Bacevich attributes the vision for an American-dominated post-World War II world with the CIA playing
an active role to the patrician Dulles (36-43). The development of the U.S. military into a force capable
of dominating the world, especially in the area of strategic weapons, he attributes to the hard-bitten
Curtis LeMay, organizer of the StrategicAir Command (SAC) (43-52). Dulles and LeMay shared devotion
to country, ruthlessness, a certain recklessness (52-55). They exploited American anxieties and insecurities
in yin (Dulles's CIA) yang(LeMay's SAC) fashion, leaving the mainstay of American military power, the
U.S. Army, in a relatively weak position(55-58).
Ch. 2: Illusions of Flexibility and Control
Kennedy kept Dulles and LeMay to signal continuity, but there was a behind-the-scenes struggle led by
Gen. Maxwell Taylor to reassert the role of the U.S. Army by expanding and modernizing conventional
forces that was "simultaneously masked by, and captured in, the phrase flexible response " (60; 59-63).
This agenda purported to aim at "resisting aggression" but really created new options for limited aggressive
warfare by the U.S. (63-66).
McNamara engaged in a struggle with LeMay to control U.S. policy on nuclear weapons, but he embraced
the need for redundancy based on a land-sea-air attack "triad" and LeMay et al. "got most of what they
In the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy instituted the morally and legally "indefensible" Operation
Mongoose," in effect, a program of state-sponsored terrorism" against Cuba (80; 72-82 [but Bacevich
is silent on its wilder elements, like Operation Northwoods]).
U.S. recklessness caused the Cuban Missile Crisis, and to his credit Kennedy acknowledged this (albeit
privately) and "suspended the tradition" in defusing the crisis (82-87).
Bacevich rejects as a romantic delusion the view that in the aftermath of this crisis Kennedy turned
against the military-industrial complex and the incipient Vietnam war and shows no interest in Kennedy's
assassination itself (87-92).
He sees a parallel between escalation in Vietnam and post-9/11 aggression as "fought to sustain the
Washington consensus" (107; 92-107).
Ch. 3: The Credo Restored.
William Fulbright's The Arrogance of Power (1966) urged a rethinking of the Washington rules (109-15).
A radicalized David Shoup, a Medal of Honor winner and former commandant of the MarineCorps, argued
in "The New American Militarism" (Atlantic, April 1969) that the U.S. had become "a militaristic and
aggressive nation" (120; 115-21). The 1960s Zeitgeist shift made LeMay "an embarrassment, mocked and
vilified rather than venerated," which showed that the Washington rules had incurred serious damage
in Vietnam; the Army was in dire shape (122; 121-27).
Yet astonishingly, in the subsequent decade the "sacred trinity" (cf. 11-15) was "fully restored"
(127). As in post-1918 Germany, élites looked for scapegoats and worked to reverse "the war's apparent
verdict" (128). The Council on Foreign Relations 1976 volume entitled The Vietnam Legacy: The War, American
Society, and the Future of American Foreign Policy is an expression of élite consensus that the Vietnam
war was insignificant, an anomaly (129-34).
By 1980, Democrats and Republicans were again on the same page (134-36).Reagan's election "sealed
the triumph of Vietnam revisionism" (136; 136-38). Andthe end of the Cold War posed no challenge to
the Washington rules, as Madeleine Albright's pretentious arrogance exemplifies (138-45).
Ch. 4: Reconstituting the Trinity
The period from 1980 to 2000 saw "not retrenchment but reconfiguration" (147). The
Except from Macmillan
Introduction: Slow Learner Worldly ambition inhibits true learning. Ask me. I know. A young man in
a hurry is nearly uneducable: He knows what he wants and where he's headed; when it comes to looking
back or entertaining heretical thoughts, he has neither the time nor the inclination. All that counts
is that he is going somewhere. Only as ambition wanes does education become a possibility.
My own education did not commence until I had reached middle age. I can fix its start date with precision:
For me, education began in Berlin, on a winter's evening, at the Brandenburg Gate, not long after the
Berlin Wall had fallen. As an officer in the U.S. Army I had spent considerable time in Germany. Until
that moment, however, my family and I had never had occasion to visit this most famous of German cities,
still littered with artifacts of a deeply repellent history. At the end of a long day of exploration,
we found ourselves in what had, until just months before, been the communist East. It was late and we
were hungry, but I insisted on walking the length of the Unter den Linden, from the River Spree to the
gate itself. A cold rain was falling and the pavement glistened. The buildings lining the avenue, dating
from the era of Prussian kings, were dark, dirty, and pitted. Few people were about. It was hardly a
night for sightseeing. For as long as I could remember, the Brandenburg Gate had been the preeminent
symbol of the age and Berlin the epicenter of contemporary history.
Yet by the time I made it to the once and future German capital, history was already moving on. The
Cold War had abruptly ended. A divided city and a divided nation had re united. For Americans who had
known Berlin only from a distance, the city existed primarily as a metaphor. Pick a date— 1933, 1942,
1945, 1948, 1961, 1989—and Berlin becomes an instructive symbol of power, depravity, tragedy, defiance,
endurance, or vindication. For those inclined to view the past as a chronicle of parables, the modern
history of Berlin offered an abundance of material. The greatest of those parables emerged from the
events of 1933 to 1945, an epic tale of evil ascendant, belatedly confronted, then heroically overthrown.
A second narrative, woven from events during the intense period immediately following World War II,
saw hopes for peace dashed, yielding bitter antagonism but also great resolve. The ensuing stand-off—the
"long twilight struggle," in John Kennedy's memorable phrase— formed the centerpiece of the third parable,
its central theme stubborn courage in the face of looming peril. Finally came the exhilarating events
of 1989, with freedom ultimately prevailing, not only in Berlin, but throughout Eastern Europe.
.... ... ...
Although commonly depicted as the most advanced and successful component of the Soviet Empire, East
Germany more closely resembled part of the undeveloped world.
... ... ...
Briquettes of soft coal used for home heating made the air all but unbreathable and coated everything
with soot. In the German cities we knew, pastels predominated—houses and apartment blocks painted pale
green, muted salmon, and soft yellow. Here everything was brown and gray
... ... ...
Bit by bit, my worldview started to crumble. That worldview had derived from this conviction: that
American power manifested a commitment to global leadership, and that both together expressed and affirmed
the nation's enduring devotion to its founding ideals. That American power, policies, and purpose were
bound together in a neat, internally consistent package, each element drawing strength from and reinforcing
the others, was something I took as a given. That, during my adult life, a penchant for interventionism
had become a signature of U.S. policy did not—to me, at least—in any way contradict America's aspirations
for peace. Instead, a willingness to expend lives and treasure in distant places testified to the seriousness
of those aspirations. That, during this same period, the United States had amassed an arsenal of over
thirty-one thousand nuclear weapons, some small number of them assigned to units in which I had served,
was not at odds with our belief in the inalienable right to life and liberty; rather, threats to life
and liberty had compelled the United States to acquire such an arsenal and maintain it in readiness
for instant use.2 I was not so naíve as to believe that the American record had been without flaws.
Yet I assured myself that any errors or misjudgments had been committed in good faith. Furthermore,
circumstances permitted little real choice. In Southeast Asia as in Western Europe, in the Persian Gulf
as in the Western Hemisphere, the United States had simply done what needed doing. Viable alternatives
did not exist. To consent to any dilution of American power would be to forfeit global leadership, thereby
putting at risk safety, prosperity, and freedom, not only our own but also that of our friends and allies.
The choices seemed clear enough. On one side was the status quo: the commitments, customs, and habits
that defined American globalism, implemented by the national security apparatus within which I functioned
as a small cog. On the other side was the prospect of appeasement, isolationism, and catastrophe. The
only responsible course was the one to which every president since Harry Truman had adhered. For me,
the Cold War had played a crucial role in sustaining that worldview.
Given my age, upbringing, and professional background, it could hardly have been otherwise. Although
the great rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union had contained moments of considerable
anxiety — I remember my father, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, stocking our basement with water and
canned goods — it served primarily to clarify, not to frighten.
The Cold War provided a framework that organized and made sense of contemporary history. It offered
a lineup and a scorecard. That there existed bad Germans and good Germans, their Germans and our Germans,
totalitarian Germans and Germans who, like Americans, passionately loved freedom was, for example, a
proposition I accepted as dogma. Seeing the Cold War as a struggle between good and evil answered many
questions, consigned others to the periphery, and rendered still others irrelevant.
Back in the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, more than a few members of my generation had rejected
the conception of the Cold War as a Manichean struggle. Here too, I was admittedly a slow learner. Yet
having kept the faith long after others had lost theirs, the doubts that eventually assailed me were
all the more disorienting. Granted, occasional suspicions had appeared long before Jena and Berlin
My own Vietnam experience had generated its share, which I had done my best to suppress. I was, after
all, a serving soldier. Except in the narrowest of terms, the military profession, in those days at
least, did not look kindly on nonconformity. Climbing the ladder of career success required curbing
maverick tendencies. To get ahead, you needed to be a team player. Later, when studying the history
of U.S. foreign relations in graduate school, I was pelted with challenges to orthodoxy, which I vigorously
deflected. When it came to education, graduate school proved a complete waste of time — a period of
intense study devoted to the further accumulation of facts, while I exerted myself to ensuring that
they remained inert.
Now, however, my personal circumstances were changing. Shortly after the passing of the Cold War,
my military career ended. Education thereby became not only a possibility, but also a necessity. In
measured doses, mortification cleanses the soul. It's the perfect antidote for excessive self-regard.
After twenty-three years spent inside the U.S. Army seemingly going somewhere, I now found myself on
the outside going nowhere in particular. In the self-contained and cloistered universe of regimental
life, I had briefly risen to the status of minor spear carrier. The instant I took off my uniform, that
status vanished. I soon came to a proper appreciation of my own insignificance, a salutary lesson that
I ought to have absorbed many years earlier. As I set out on what eventually became a crablike journey
toward a new calling as a teacher and writer—a pilgrimage of sorts—ambition in the commonly accepted
meaning of the term ebbed. This did not happen all at once. Yet gradually, trying to grab one of life's
shiny brass rings ceased being a major preoccupation.
Wealth, power, and celebrity became not aspirations but subjects for critical analysis.
History—especially the familiar narrative of the Cold War—no longer offered answers; instead, it
posed perplexing riddles. Easily the most nagging was this one: How could I have so profoundly misjudged
the reality of what lay on the far side of the Iron Curtain? Had I been insufficiently attentive? Or
was it possible that I had been snookered all along? Contemplating such questions, while simultaneously
witnessing the unfolding of the "long 1990s"— the period bookended by two wars with Iraq when American
vainglory reached impressive new heights—prompted the realization that I had grossly misinterpreted
the threat posed by America's adversaries. Yet that was the lesser half of the problem. Far worse than
misperceiving "them" was the fact that I had misperceived "us." What I thought I knew best I actually
understood least. Here, the need for education appeared especially acute.
George W. Bush's decision to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 pushed me fully into opposition.
Claims that once seemed elementary—above all, claims relating to the essentially benign purposes of
American power— now appeared preposterous. The contradictions that found an ostensibly peace-loving
nation committing itself to a doctrine of preventive war became too great to ignore. The folly and hubris
of the policy makers who heedlessly thrust the nation into an ill-defined and open-ended "global war
on terror" without the foggiest notion of what victory would look like, how it would be won, and what
it might cost approached standards hitherto achieved only by slightly mad German warlords. During the
era of containment, the United States had at least maintained the pretense of a principled strategy;
now, the last vestiges of principle gave way to fantasy and opportunism. With that, the worldview to
which I had adhered as a young adult and carried into middle age dissolved completely. *
What should stand in the place of such discarded convictions? Simply inverting the conventional wisdom,
substituting a new Manichean paradigm for the old discredited version—the United States taking the place
of the Soviet Union as the source of the world's evil—would not suffice. Yet arriving at even an approximation
of truth would entail subjecting conventional wisdom, both present and past, to sustained and searching
scrutiny. Cautiously at first but with growing confidence, this I vowed to do. Doing so meant shedding
habits of conformity acquired over decades. All of my adult life I had been a company man, only dimly
aware of the extent to which institutional loyalties induce myopia. Asserting independence required
first recognizing the extent to which I had been socialized to accept certain things as unimpeachable.
Here then were the preliminary steps essential to making education accessible. Over a period of years,
a considerable store of debris had piled up. Now, it all had to go. Belatedly, I learned that more often
than not what passes for conventional wisdom is simply wrong. Adopting fashionable attitudes to demonstrate
one's trustworthiness—the world of politics is flush with such people hoping thereby to qualify for
inclusion in some inner circle—is akin to engaging in prostitution in exchange for promissory notes.
It's not only demeaning but downright foolhardy. This book aims to take stock of conventional wisdom
in its most influential and enduring form, namely the package of assumptions, habits, and precepts that
have defined the tradition of statecraft to which the United States has adhered since the end of World
War II— the era of global dominance now drawing to a close. This postwar tradition combines two components,
each one so deeply embedded in the American collective consciousness as to have all but disappeared
The first component specifies norms according to which the international order ought to work and
charges the United States with responsibility for enforcing those norms. Call this the American credo.
In the simplest terms, the credo summons the United States—and the United States alone—to lead, save,
liberate, and ultimately transform the world. In a celebrated manifesto issued at the dawn of what he
termed "The American Century," Henry R. Luce made the case for this spacious conception of global leadership.
Writing in Life magazine in early 1941, the influential publisher exhorted his fellow citizens to "accept
wholeheartedly our duty to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as
we see fit and by such means as we see fit." Luce thereby captured what remains even today the credo's
essence.3 Luce's concept of an American Century, an age of unquestioned American global primacy, resonated,
especially in Washington. His evocative phrase found a permanent place in the lexicon of national politics.
(Recall that the neoconservatives who, in the 1990s, lobbied for more militant U.S. policies named their
enterprise the Project for a New American Century.) So, too, did Luce's expansive claim of prerogatives
to be exercised by the United States.
Even today, whenever public figures allude to America's responsibility to lead, they signal their
fidelity to this creed. Along with respectful allusions to God and "the troops," adherence to Luce's
credo has become a de facto prerequisite for high office. Question its claims and your prospects of
being heard in the hubbub of national politics become nil. Note, however, that the duty Luce ascribed
to Americans has two components. It is not only up to Americans, he wrote, to choose the purposes for
which they would bring their influence to bear, but to choose the means as well. Here we confront the
second component of the postwar tradition of American statecraft. With regard to means, that tradition
has emphasized activism over example, hard power over soft, and coercion (often styled "negotiating
from a position of strength") over suasion. Above all, the exercise of global leadership as prescribed
by the credo obliges the United States to maintain military capabilities staggeringly in excess of those
required for self-defense. Prior to World War II, Americans by and large viewed military power and institutions
with skepticism, if not outright hostility. In the wake of World War II, that changed. An affinity for
military might emerged as central to the American identity. By the midpoint of the twentieth century,
"the Pentagon" had ceased to be merely a gigantic five-sided building.
Like "Wall Street" at the end of the nineteenth century, it had become Leviathan, its actions veiled
in secrecy, its reach extending around the world. Yet while the concentration of power in Wall Street
had once evoked deep fear and suspicion, Americans by and large saw the concentration of power in the
Pentagon as benign. Most found it reassuring. A people who had long seen standing armies as a threat
to liberty now came to believe that the preservation of liberty required them to lavish resources on
the armed forces. During the Cold War, Americans worried ceaselessly about falling behind the Russians,
even though the Pentagon consistently maintained a position of overall primacy. Once the Soviet threat
disappeared, mere primacy no longer sufficed. With barely a whisper of national debate, unambiguous
and perpetual global military supremacy emerged as an essential predicate to global leadership. Every
great military power has its distinctive signature. For Napoleonic France, it was the levée en masse—
the people in arms animated by the ideals of the Revolution. For Great Britain in the heyday of empire,
it was command of the seas, sustained by a dominant fleet and a network of far-flung outposts from Gibraltar
and the Cape of Good Hope to Singapore and Hong Kong. Germany from the 1860s to the 1940s (and Israel
from 1948 to 1973) took another approach, relying on a potent blend of tactical flexibility and operational
audacity to achieve battlefield superiority.
The abiding signature of American military power since World War II has been of a different order
altogether. The United States has not specialized in any particular type of war. It has not adhered
to a fixed tactical style. No single service or weapon has enjoyed consistent favor. At times, the armed
forces have relied on citizen-soldiers to fill their ranks; at other times, long-service professionals.
Yet an examination of the past sixty years of U.S. military policy and practice does reveal important
elements of continuity. Call them the sacred trinity: 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. Together, credo and trinity—the one defining purpose,
the other practice—constitute the essence of the way that Washington has attempted to govern and police
the American Century. 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.
Together they provide the basis for an enduring consensus that imparts a consistency to U.S. policy
regardless of which political party may hold the upper hand or who may be occupying the White House.
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. As used
here, Washington 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. Washington,
in this sense, includes the upper echelons of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the
federal government. It encompasses the principal components of the national security state— the departments
of Defense, State, and, more recently, Homeland Security, along with various agencies comprising the
intelligence and federal law enforcement communities. Its ranks extend to select think tanks and interest
groups. Lawyers, lobbyists, fixers, former officials, and retired military officers who still enjoy
access are members in good standing. Yet Washington also reaches beyond the Beltway to include big banks
and other financial institutions, defense contractors and major corporations, television networks and
elite publications like the New York Times, even quasi-academic entities like the Council on Foreign
Relations and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
With rare exceptions, acceptance of the Washington rules forms a prerequisite for entry into this
world. My purpose in writing this book is fivefold: first, to trace the origins and evolution of the
Washington rules—both the credo that inspires consensus and the trinity in which it finds expression;
second, to subject the resulting consensus to critical inspection, showing who wins and who loses and
also who foots the bill; third, to explain how the Washington rules are perpetuated, with certain views
privileged while others are declared disreputable; fourth, to demonstrate that the rules themselves
have lost whatever utility they may once have possessed, with their implications increasingly pernicious
and their costs increasingly unaffordable; and finally, to argue for readmitting disreputable (or "radical")
views to our national security debate, in effect legitimating alternatives to the status quo. In effect,
my aim is to invite readers to share in the process of education on which I embarked two decades ago
in Berlin. The Washington rules were forged at a moment when American influence and power were approaching
their acme. That moment has now passed. The United States has drawn down the stores of authority and
goodwill it had acquired by 1945. Words uttered in Washington command less respect than once was the
case. Americans can ill afford to indulge any longer in dreams of saving the world, much less remaking
it in our own image. The curtain is now falling on the American Century. Similarly, the United States
no longer possesses sufficient wherewithal to sustain a national security strategy that relies on global
military presence and global power projection to underwrite a policy of global interventionism. Touted
as essential to peace, adherence to that strategy has propelled the United States into a condition approximating
perpetual war, as the military misadventures of the past decade have demonstrated.
To anyone with eyes to see, the shortcomings inherent in the Washington rules have become plainly
evident. Although those most deeply invested in perpetuating its conventions will insist otherwise,
the tradition to which Washington remains devoted has begun to unravel. Attempting to prolong its
existence might serve Washington's interests, but it will not serve the interests of the American people.
Devising an alternative to the reigning national security paradigm will pose a daunting challenge—especially
if Americans look to "Washington" for fresh thinking. Yet doing so has become essential. In one sense,
the national security policies to which Washington so insistently adheres express what has long been
the preferred American approach to engaging the world beyond our borders. That approach plays to America's
presumed strong suit—since World War II, and especially since the end of the Cold War, thought to be
military power. In another sense, this reliance on military might creates excuses for the United States
to avoid serious engagement: Confidence in American arms has made it unnecessary to attend to what others
might think or to consider how their aspirations might differ from our own.
In this way, the Washington rules reinforce American provincialism—a national trait for which
the United States continues to pay dearly. The persistence of these rules has also provided an
excuse to avoid serious self-engagement. From this perspective, confidence that the credo and the trinity
will oblige others to accommodate themselves to America's needs or desires — whether for cheap oil,
cheap credit, or cheap consumer goods—has allowed Washington to postpone or ignore problems demanding
attention here at home.
Fixing Iraq or Afghanistan ends up taking precedence over fixing Cleveland and Detroit. Purporting
to support the troops in their crusade to free the world obviates any obligation to assess the implications
of how Americans themselves choose to exercise freedom. 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.
"...Bacevich scores a direct hit on the foundations of the American national security state
with this scathing critique, and demolishes the unspoken assumptions that he believes have led the United
States into a senseless, wasteful, and counter-productive posture of nearly perpetual war. These assumptions
take the form of the "credo" -- which holds that the United States has the unique responsibility to
intervene wherever it wants, for whatever purpose it wants, by whatever means it wants -- and the supporting
"trinity" of requirements for the U.S. to maintain a global military presence, to configure its military
forces for global power projection, and to counter threats by relying on a policy of global interventionism"
The Counton March 25, 2014
Bacevich scores a direct hit on the foundations of the American national security state with
this scathing critique, and demolishes the unspoken assumptions that he believes have led the United
States into a senseless, wasteful, and counter-productive posture of nearly perpetual war. These
assumptions take the form of the "credo" -- which holds that the United States has the unique responsibility
to intervene wherever it wants, for whatever purpose it wants, by whatever means it wants -- and
the supporting "trinity" of requirements for the U.S. to maintain a global military presence, to
configure its military forces for global power projection, and to counter threats by relying on a
policy of global interventionism.
Bacevich invites readers to consider how we would respond if China, for example, were to increase
its military spending to the point that it surpassed the combined defense budgets of Japan, South
Korea, Russia, India, Germany, France and Great Britain; created forward-deployed garrisons around
the world; partitioned the globe into territorial (and space) commands, each with a Chinese four-star
general in command; maintained a vigorous program of military exercises in countries around the world;
and created a long-range strike force, capable of employing conventional, nuclear, or cyber weapons
on short notice; and then points out that this imaginary Chinese program pales in comparison to the
actual U.S. defense posture. Is it any surprise, Bacevich asks, that the United States now tends
to see every problem around the world as requiring an American military solution, or that other countries
don't necessarily take American altruism for granted?
Bacevich's final chapter -- titled, with a nod to Voltaire, "Cultivating our own Garden" -- makes
a plea to reject the "Washington rules" that have led us to permanent war and return to our founding
ideals. Our purpose, he argues, is not to shape the world in our image, but rather "to be America,
striving to fulfill the aspirations expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution."
Neither isolationist nor naive, Bacevich argues forcefully that U.S. military forces should be used
only as a last resort, and only in self-defense or in defense of our most vital interests. In short,
he concludes, "if the United States has a saving mission, it is, first and foremost, to save itself."
Uncomfortable, subversive stuff indeed. An absolute must-read for anyone concerned with our future.
By Robert T. OKEEFFE on December 30, 2010
Bacevich's book summarizes two decade's thinking and writing about America's self-inflicted geopolitical
dilemmas. It assails a frame of mind (or climate of opinion that is so pervasive that its assumptions
are considered beyond criticism or even analysis) that has been responsible since 1945 for the creation
of the many institutions and interest groups that prosper as organs of the "national security state"
that the US has become. The assumptions underlying the conventional wisdom of the security state
are: American exceptionalism and its corollary that we have a historical duty and mission to spread
freedom and democracy across the globe (i.e., we are the world's necessary and indispensable policeman
- sometimes propped up by the risible idea that this is a divinely appointed mission); the notion
of "global power projection" (or "forward defense") that requires U.S. armed forces to be ready at
any time for any thing in any place; and the consequent militarization of U.S. foreign policy. At
the present time our leaders are telling us that we must be prepared to take on a variety of vague
"threats" to US security for the indefinite future, in other words that we will be (and should be)
at war on a more or less permanent basis. The latest collective fantasy of the national security
establishment is that we must somehow play the key role in resolving the political and cultural problems
of the Mid-East, from Israel through Iran to Pakistan (let's be clear about one thing - though we
dabble, meddle, and invade all over this portion of the map, we don't have the slightest chance of
long-term success in any one of these arenas of conflict, especially if we chose to follow the path
of military intervention, which has only exacerbated instability and recruited bodies for various
One simple truth that contradicts the implications and assumed responsibilities of the above notions
is that the "mission" has been fabricated and fine-tuned over the past seventy years by the multifold
agents of the "military-industrial complex" of Eisenhower's valedictory warning and is at stark odds
with the wisdom and restraint of our founding fathers and their successors for most of the 19th century.
We started to think imperially in the 1890s and to act imperially after WWII. Almost all the "threats"
since 1945 have been ginned up in ideological dress or through hysterical fear-mongering by our national
security establishment. We've been advised of nonexistent "gaps" with respect to our alleged enemies'
abilities or told that the fall of a friendly regime (read "compliant and bribable" regime, usually
corrupt and locally detested) somewhere 10,000 miles away will have dire consequences. (I remember
the days when a communist take-over of Laos was touted as a major security threat to the US and the
Western World - does anyone even mention that country's name today, much less its political system
and its key role in world? The notion was fanciful from the beginning, as was the "domino theory"
of which it was a part. Every potential domino that was about to fall was really just one more indigestible
client state that became a drain on the resources of Moscow and Beijing, presumably our real enemies
at the time. And we also willfully ignored the fact that communist movements in third-world countries
were the vehicle of nationalism, leading to tragic-farcical experiments that failed and to splits
within the so-called "monolithic" communist block. Our intelligence on these matters was so bad that
we even missed the signs of the Russian-Chinese break-up.)
Another simple truth is that in spite of our bloated and gargantuan military establishment (the
maintenance of which does have dire implications for our economy), we do not have the capacity to
succeed in our numerous foreign misadventures -- we are, from our bi-partisan political leadership
right down to the military battalion or company operational level, ineffective and incompetent (this
incompetence, which allows military-political theories and theorists to constantly "fail upward"
is the big elephant in the room that is a taboo subject in American political life). Illustrative
of this, Bacevitch points to media complicity and public acceptance of instantly fabricated "larger
than life figures" such as Generals Petraeus and McChyrstal whose pronouncements about "the way forward"
in unwinnable conflicts are eagerly parsed for genius and insight, when they are in fact nothing
but standard-issue bloviation and pablum. But, for the most part, the real villains in this sorry
recent history of military misadventures have been civilians, the "big thinkers" of national security
fancies and nostrums, men like Kahn, McNamara, the Bundy brothers, Rostow, J. Alsop, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz,
Boot, et al. (Bacevich's "semi-warriors"). None of their predictions have been accurate, and all
of their approaches have failed, because their goals were often purely rhetorical or incapable of
So we have a cast of the usual suspects who feather their career nests and bank accounts at the
expense of the rest of the nation (as do their benefactors and beneficiaries, the vast web of defense
contractors). But Bacevitch does not let the rest of us off the hook just because we've been misled,
deliberately deceived, and generally conned into co-operation with the overall program of the national
security establishment. As he points out, both by omission and commission, we choose to be misled
because the program demands so little of us in terms of thought and effort. When actual sacrifice
is demanded (e.g., through conscription, as during the Korean and Vietnamese wars) the public soon
tires of the inconsistencies and false justifications for our military adventures abroad. Recognizing
our impatience and querulousness in the face of failure or prolonged effort, the defense establishment
no longer demands any sacrifice from us - as long as we consent and pay our taxes we'll be left alone,
and the professionals (the volunteer-based armed forces, assorted think tanks, and talking heads
who pose as "defense intellectuals", an oxymoron if ever there was one) will handle our problems
for us. We even have mercenaries ("private security firms" such as Blackwater, literally a den of
thugs and war-profiteers) to pick up the slack when manpower runs short. Bacevich supplies a post-1945
genealogy of the most important formulators of our current national defense doctrines, starting with
those two "Dr. Strangeloves", Allen Dulles and General Curtis Le May, whose agencies, the CIA and
the Strategic Air Command, mushroomed and were considered sacrosanct in their budgetary claims during
the 1950s and 60s.
It's a sorry picture - and, I believe, a very accurate one - that Bacevich paints of the U.S.A.
His suggested remedies are both social and political. With respect to the former he realizes that
a much larger proportion of the citizenry has to become active and engaged with these issues. We
need a large and loud collective public voice to move our rather spineless politicians toward supporting
practical and affordable (rather than "global" and limitless) solutions of our problems. I have no
optimism on this point because we live in a land of bread, circuses, and maximal self-indulgence,
which implies minimal private commitments to public welfare (the sheer vapidity and phony "significance"
of enterprises such as Facebook and Twitter point in this direction, with a large portion of society
now "empowered" to dwell in the land of Narcissus). Politically we need a very sudden and drastic
reversal - a president (and a Congress), for instance, who would initiate a program of cutting our
overseas military bases and the overall military budget by 50%. (Then we could, as Bacevich often
puts it, "fix Cleveland and Detroit" and many similar places where our national priorities should
be placed.) We could afford to cut even more of our stupendous military budget without jeopardizing
our real ability to defend the nation - rather than "project global power" -- since it exceeds that
of the rest of the world's military budgets combined. We can kill anyone ten times over but this
always seems insufficient to our national security gurus and mavens. Such cuts also seem politically
unlikely and would immediately give rise to hysteria, conspiracy theories and witch-hunting. As a
matter of fact our political leadership (including President Obama, a terrible disappointment in
this respect) doesn't have the nerve for it, or even the intelligence for it. The sad truth seems
to be that, like Imperial Rome during its period of maximal extension, our system will implode due
to the draining of our resources by these completely nugatory geopolitical pursuits.
[Jul 26, 2015]
Bacevich is the Top Voice
K. Johnson VINE VOICE on September 6, 2010
Andrew Bacevich returns with "Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War," when his message
is needed more than ever. Extensive research with mature and articulate writing, an Army career and
academic credentials, Bacevich focuses on what most are not even aware of. He is one of the chief
voices that should be heard on the topic of US foreign policy. The author focuses on the all-important
question of which we know the answer: who benefits?
"Washington Rules" examines our current concept of continuous (perpetual) war against abstract
nouns to promote....abstract nouns. It began after WWII: the era of perpetual war. Lemay, Dulles,
and Maxwell Taylor are some of the many semi-warriors engaging in and promoting semi-war by the complex,
powerful, and pervasive military-industrial complex (MIC). Too powerful for Commander-in-Chiefs to
attempt to reduce or challenge, regardless of political party or personality. President Obama increased
"Defense" spending by 9% from the previous year. The POTUS must be "tough" and "strong," and this
is expressed in sustaining the Credo of world enforcer and policeman to promote economic interests,
the military welfare machine, in all corners of the world. Much of the voting (and non-voting) public
incorrectly believe in the illusion of choice by two parties th Credo.
Obama, is merely a continuation. Perpetuating the same foreign-military policies that came into
existence in 1946.
Funneling hundreds of billions from the US taxpayer to the corporations of Northrup Grumman,
Raytheon, BAE Systems, Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, United Technologies, L-3 and others. The foundation
of the MIC functions in a permanent state. It will only erode and collapse when the funding is no
longer possible. When this will be, is hard to gauge. But there will be a time when it ceases. It
will cease when the US hits a certain financially point where it can no longer keep funding.
In addition to the military-industrial complex corporations, former Strategic Air Command (SAC)
and CIA, is the Pentagon/DoD (military) itself: 700 billion dollars of taxpayer money per year. Three
hundred thousands soldiers overseas, 90,000 sailors abroad in what is termed an "empire of bases."
The recent addition to the MIC is the newest bureaucracy: Department of Homeland Security. 1,271
government agencies and 1,931 private companies.
There were times when the US policy makers, military leaders and public could have learned from
errors and ignorance (South East Asia, 1960s & 70s) but did not gain any insight after the debacle
was over. Instead, history was re-written for the masses and the politicians of today, and public
school books almost entirely omit American actions and policies in South East Asia during this era.
The power and benefit of this book by Bacevich is that citizens (readers) will become more aware
of what is happening and where the US is headed historically. Although Bacevich notes that America
can choose, the military-industrial complex is supported by the mainstream media, which influences
the public. It is too powerful to be stopped until it implodes simultaneously with America's financial
The only question, is "when."
In addition to "Washinton Rules," Andrew Bacevich's other books are highly recommended.Selected
"...These rules have pushed the United States to a state of perpetual war. With enemies supposedly
everywhere, the pursuit of security has become open-ended. "
"...One is reminded of
who, in 1630, told the future residents of Massachusetts Bay Colony: "We shall be as a City upon a Hill,
the eyes of all people are upon us." Over subsequent decades, Winthrop's sermon became the American
mission, fired by self-righteousness and fueled by self-confidence. From that mission emerged the idea
of Manifest Destiny -- American ideals should spread across the continent and around the globe. Along
the way, Americans lost sight of what Winthrop actually meant. His words were both inspiration and warning:
Aspire to greatness, but remain honorable. Power lies in virtue. Winthrop envisaged a shining beacon,
worthy of emulation. He saw no need to come down from the hill and ram ideals down the throats of the
"...Back in 1963, the Kennedy administration was faced with a steadily disintegrating situation
in Vietnam. At a turbulent cabinet meeting, Attorney General Robert Kennedy asked: If the situation
is so dire, why not withdraw? Arthur Schlesinger, present at the meeting, noted how "the question hovered
for a moment, then died away." It was "a hopelessly alien thought in a field of unexplored assumptions
and entrenched convictions." The Washington rules kept the United States on a steady course toward disaster.
"...Barack Obama once promised that change was coming, but then quickly adhered to the old rules
by escalating an unwinnable and certainly unaffordable war in Afghanistan. Failures, as Steffens hoped,
have been illuminating, but after each flash of light, darkness has prevailed. "
WASHINGTON RULES: America's Path to Permanent War
By Andrew J. Bacevich
Metropolitan. 286 pp. $25
CULTURES OF WAR
By John W. Dower
Norton. 596 pp. $29.95
"We need some great failures," the muckraking journalist
wrote in his autobiography. "Especially we ever-successful Americans -- conscious, intelligent, illuminating
failures." What Steffens meant was that a people confident in righteousness need occasionally to
be reminded of their fallibility. The past 50 years have produced failures aplenty -- the Bay of
Pigs, Vietnam and Iraq among them. Unfortunately, as Andrew Bacevich and John Dower demonstrate,
the light of failure has not penetrated the darkness of delusion. As a result, wars provide a repeating
rhythm of folly.
Rules" and "Cultures
of War" are two excellent books made better by the coincidence of their publication. In complementary
fashion, they provide a convincing critique of America's conduct of war since 1941. Steffens would
have liked these books, specifically for the way they use past failures to explain the provenance
of our current predicament.
Read "Cultures of War" first. It's not an easy book, but it is consistently perceptive. Dower
examines Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, Sept. 11 and the second Iraq War, drawing disconcerting linkages.
Pearl Harbor and Iraq, he feels, demonstrate how otherwise intelligent leaders are drawn toward
strategic imbecility. Both attacks were brilliantly executed in the short term, but neither
paid sufficient attention to the long-term problem of winning a war. More controversially, Dower
pairs Hiroshima with Sept. 11, both acts of terror born of moral certitude. Osama bin Laden and Harry
Truman justified wanton killing with essentially the same Manichean rhetoric. Motives, context and
scale might have been different; methods were not. For both leaders, the ability to separate good
from evil made killing easy.
In 1941, Americans drew comfort from the stereotype of the irrational Oriental. They assumed that
the Japanese would be easily defeated because they were illogical -- as their attack upon Pearl Harbor
proved. That attack was indeed illogical (given the impossibility of defeating the United States
in a protracted war), but it was not peculiarly Japanese. As Dower reveals, the wishful thinking,
delusion and herd behavior within the court of Emperor Hirohito was a symptom of war, not ethnicity.
The same deficiencies, in 2003, convinced those in the Oval Office that invading Iraq was a good
Since the culture of war encourages patterned behavior, folly proliferates. This is the essence
of the Washington rules that Bacevich elucidates. The rules dictate that protection of the American
way of life necessitates a global military presence and a willingness to intervene anywhere. Power
and violence are cleansed by virtue: Because America is "good," her actions are always benign.
These rules have pushed the United States to a state of perpetual war. With enemies supposedly
everywhere, the pursuit of security has become open-ended.
The alternative, according to Bacevich, is not isolationism or appeasement, two politically loaded
words frequently used to pummel those who object to Washington's behavior. He advocates, instead,
a more level-headed assessment of danger, advice all the more cogent since it comes from a former
soldier. Iraq and Afghanistan did not threaten America; in fact, those countries and the world have
become more dangerous because of heavy-handed American intervention. Nor does North Korea pose a
threat. Nor did Vietnam.
One is reminded of
who, in 1630, told the future residents of Massachusetts Bay Colony: "We shall be as a City upon
a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us." Over subsequent decades, Winthrop's sermon became the
American mission, fired by self-righteousness and fueled by self-confidence. From that mission emerged
the idea of Manifest Destiny -- American ideals should spread across the continent and around the
globe. Along the way, Americans lost sight of what Winthrop actually meant. His words were both inspiration
and warning: Aspire to greatness, but remain honorable. Power lies in virtue. Winthrop envisaged
a shining beacon, worthy of emulation. He saw no need to come down from the hill and ram ideals down
the throats of the recalcitrant.
The power of virtue is Bacevich's most profound message. Instead of trying to fix Afghanistan's
Helmand Province, he
insists, Americans should fix Detroit and Cleveland. Instead of attempting to export notions of freedom
and democracy to nations that lack experience of either, America should demonstrate, by her actions,
that she is still a free, democratic and humane nation. Her real strength lies in her liberal tradition,
not in her ability to kill.
Back in 1963, the Kennedy administration was faced with a steadily disintegrating situation
in Vietnam. At a turbulent cabinet meeting, Attorney General Robert Kennedy asked: If the situation
is so dire, why not withdraw? Arthur Schlesinger, present at the meeting, noted how "the question
hovered for a moment, then died away." It was "a hopelessly alien thought in a field of unexplored
assumptions and entrenched convictions." The Washington rules kept the United States on a steady
course toward disaster.
Those unexplored assumptions and entrenched convictions have now pushed the United States
into a new quagmire. Despite that predicament, both Dower and Bacevich try to end positively. "If
change is to come, it must come from the people," argues Bacevich. Dower agrees. But these feeble
attempts at optimism are the least convincing parts of two otherwise brilliant books. Barack Obama
once promised that change was coming, but then quickly adhered to the old rules by escalating an
unwinnable and certainly unaffordable war in Afghanistan. Failures, as Steffens hoped, have been
illuminating, but after each flash of light, darkness has prevailed.
Gerard De Groot is a professor of history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland
and author of "The Bomb: A Life."
Army-officer-turned professor Andrew Bacevich makes the realist case against
For his first
40 years, Andrew Bacevich lived the conventional life of an army officer. In the military world where
success depended on conformity, he followed the rules and “took comfort in orthodoxy…[finding] assurance
in conventional wisdom.” Comfort, that is, until he had a chance to peer behind the Iron Curtain,
and was shocked to find East Germany more third-world shambles than first-rate threat.
That experience, combined with the introspection that followed his subsequent retirement from
the army, led Bacevich to reevaluate the relationship between truth and power. After having taken
his superiors at their word for decades, he slowly came to understand “that authentic truth is never
simple and that any version of truth handed down from on high…is inherently suspect. The exercise
of power necessarily involves manipulation and is antithetical to candor.”
America’s Path to Permanent War is Bacevich’s fourth book on the subject of American exercise
of power. This time, he takes up the question of the political calculations that have produced the
basic tenets of American foreign policy since the beginning of the Cold War, examining how and why
they came to exist and to survive all challenges to their supremacy.
Bacevich describes two components that define U.S. foreign policy.
- The first is what he dubs the “American credo,” which calls on “the United States — and the
United States alone — to lead save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world.”
- Second is what he calls the “sacred trinity,” which requires that the United States “maintain
a global military presence, to configure its forces for global power projections,
and to counter existing or anticipated threats by relying on a policy of global interventionism.”
These rules, Bacevich argues, are no longer vital to the existence of the United States, and have
led to actions that threaten to break the army and bankrupt the treasury. Rather, they are kept in
place by individuals who derive personal benefit from their continuance. Bacevich does not hesitate
to blame a Washington class that “clings to its credo and trinity not out of necessity, but out of
parochial self-interest laced with inertia.”
This is a theme that runs throughout the book: that those who make the rules also benefit from
them, and thus their demands should always be regarded skeptically.
While abstaining from questioning the patriotism of past leaders, Bacevich is not reluctant to
point out how many policies that were later widely embraced were originally trumpeted by ambitious
men who had as much to gain personally by their acceptance as did the country:
- General Curtis LeMay, who built a massive nuclear arsenal as head of Strategic Air Command;
- Allen Dulles, who backed coups across the globe as CIA director;
- General Maxwell Taylor, who rode the idea of “flexible response” from retirement to the position
of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The story of foreign policy, then, is not so much different than any government bureaucracy through
which vast sums of money flow, and is driven as much by officials jockeying for status than by genuine
concern for policy outcomes. Whether in disputes between the Army and the Air Force or the Pentagon
and the White House, and whether over money or over purpose, different sectors of the national security
establishment propose and promote new doctrines that necessitate increasing their budgets and enhancing
But Bacevich is not content to only blame leaders. In contrast to George Washington’s ideal of
the citizen who would consider it his duty to actively serve his country, Bacevich finds today’s
Americans “greedy and gullible,” pursuing personal gain in the stead of collective benefit. Any solution,
he argues, must come from an awakened people who demand change from the people they put in office.
As for what that change should look like, Bacevich proposes a new credo and trinity. As a new
mission statement, he offers: “America’s purpose is to be America, striving to fulfill the aspirations
expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as reinterpreted with the passage
of time and in light of hard-earned experience.”
As a new trinity, he suggests that “the purpose of the U.S, military is not to combat evil or
remake the world but to defend the United States and its most vital interests…the primary duty station
of the American soldier is in America…consistent with the Just War tradition, the United States should
employ force only as a last resort and only in self defense.”
Bacevich writes in the short, clipped style with which he also speaks, presumably a legacy of
his West Point education and decades in the military. His style allows for easy comprehension and
neat packaging of his ideas, and readers will not get bogged down in flowery language.
Parts of Bacevich’s thinking require further scrutiny and remind readers of his self-identification
as a conservative (lowercase “c”). Economically, he is no fan of stimulus spending, and socially
he places blame on individual failings and personal flaws, choosing not to mention an unequal economic
system that leaves tens of millions of Americans with barely the resources to take care of their
families, much less have time to be informed and active citizens.
In fact, the emphasis throughout the book is on the fact that expansionism, at this particular
moment, is not wrong but impossible. Bacevich is, after all, a realist when it comes to international
relations theory, and though he happens to agree with liberal anti-imperials on many issues, it is
often for different reasons.
However, debates over theory can wait for when the republic is in less immediate peril. This is
the second work Bacevich has published under the auspices of the American Empire Project, a book
series documenting America’s imperial adventures and their disastrous consequences. The contribution
of conservative authors to this task is vital. They remind us that opposition to imperialism is hardly
just a liberal cause, and in fact for much of American history was actually a rallying point for
conservatives across the country.
Washington Rules is valuable for putting in print what those inside the military establishment
don’t dare admit: that, even aside from moral concerns, U.S. international strategy is neither successful
nor sustainable and maintained more by lies than by actual results. Bacevich can truly be said to
be a realist in that he understand that leaders, when faced with the choice of admitting failure
or lying, will almost always choose the latter.
Andrew Feldman is an intern with Foreign Policy In Focus.
Softpanorama hot topic of the month
Bacevich - Washington Rules (2010) - Synopsis
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