“Washington Rules” by Andrew J. Bacevich

by Joshua H. Liberatore

If you missed Andrew Bacevich’s compelling Limits of Power, which published in the fall of 2008 and headed off the presidential transition with stern warnings to both major parties about the fate of our imperial ambitions, his new book, Washington Rules, extends the lesson with fresh insight about continued American militarism during the two intervening years, charting specific disappointments faced by anyone who believed the ascension of Barack Obama would signal major framework shifts in U.S. foreign policy. To an even greater extent than his previous analyses – beginning with the much denser The New American Militarism in 2006 – Washington Rules examines the historical and bipartisan underpinnings of what Bacevich terms “the Washington consensus” – the unspoken but widely recognized “rules” of American statecraft abroad that have led us down the grim path of constant warfare. In Bacevich’s estimation, our behavior overseas is neither profitable nor honest and the sooner we make a fulsome accounting of the costs the better.

    In brief, the Washington consensus resembles a secular, nationalist faith. It begins with a “credo,” the conviction that Americans are duty-bound to remake the world in the image of purportedly “universal” values. In fact, these values are as simplistic as they are parochial: representative democracy; freedom of speech, religion, press; free-market capitalism; racial, gender, socioeconomic equality; rule of law. Growing out of the basic credo that mandates that the U.S. act as global policeman is the “sacred trinity”: global military presence, global power projection, and global interventionism.

    Together, the credo and the trinity represent the unvarying sales pitch offered by politicians, think tank analysts, policy intellectuals, and members of the mainstream media as to why we must send troops and treasure to the far corners of the world and maintain over 700 military facilities globally. Political slogans and specific vocabulary change, Bacevich argues, but the consensus never does. Whether it’s prosecuting the “global war on terror”, “making the world safe for democracy,” or “protecting American interests,” what’s at stake is a very narrow set of policy options benefitting a small but powerful elite of industrial and political profiteers. Deviation from the consensus is not only not tolerated, it is scarcely countenanced; neither have elections promising “change” properly delivered it.

    The Washington rules have promised little actual reward for American society as a whole and most Americans individually, unless the twin fantasies of cheap oil and foreign manufactures count as existential boons. Even though it’s possible to view the consensus as having been founded in idealism and goodwill, only a self-deception of heroic dimensions would allow us to see it as winning program. Indeed, the most cynical assessment of the consensus that only focuses on American lives and American dollars – leaving international credibility and moral strength aside – would find nothing but colossal waste and mismanagement. Meanwhile, Americans have failed to apply those same “universal” values on the homefront, as Bacevich puts it, “cultivating our own garden.” Burdened by crushing debt and limited by badly overstretched volunteer armed forces, the consensus promises both fiscal disaster and social upheaval in the long run. Signs of the former are already evident on the horizon. Upholding universal values in the world at large, it turns out, is not only functionally impossible but prohibitively expensive.

Bacevich’s approach in Washington Rules is three-fold. A powerfully moving introduction recounts his personal experience of enlightenment, when a visit to the Brandenburg Gate in East Berlin signaled the end of his 20-year military career and the beginning of his new education in international affairs. Then, Bacevich sketches the theoretical underpinnings of the Washington consensus, with trenchant commentary on how the consensus is applied, how it has failed, and why it matters for our nation’s future. Finally, his investigation profiles some of the leading personalities – early progenitors such as Allen Dulles and Curtis LeMay and more recent acolytes like David Petraeus – responsible for crafting, refining, and maintaining the consensus, as well as treating the few – such as William Fulbright – who have courageously opposed it. Then, in a concluding chapter that would hold up well as a standalone essay, Bacevich charts an alternate course, in which the consensus is reined in and Americans look to their own affairs in earnest, fixing “Cleveland and Detroit rather than Baghdad and Kabul.”

Although Bacevich begins the book with an anecdote about the shedding of his former naïveté regarding the U.S. role as guarantor of global security, the crisp argument that follows brooks neither idealism nor cynicism, but good old-fashioned American pragmatism. Even if we wanted to continue down the path we have taken since World War II, we can no longer afford it or ignore its tremendous human and moral costs. On top of hard learning and cogent analysis, Bacevich’s prose is crystal clear and vigorous, and Washington Rules shows him at the top of his game. The lessons he offers are not to be ignored.

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