BOOKS/Jake Whitney

What Does It Take to Get US Off the War Train?

Andrew Bacevich was a middle-aged Army officer serving in Germany in 1990 when he had an epiphany. The Berlin Wall had just been torn down, and Bacevich was trolling around what had been the communist East, absorbing his first glimpses of life under Soviet rule. Often portrayed as the gem of the Soviet empire, what Bacevich saw before him “more closely resembled part of the undeveloped world.” The roads and highways were narrow and crumbling. Shabby-looking men peddled artifacts of the Red Army. Dilapidated buildings and scarred statues dotted the monochrome landscape, and a thin layer of black soot covered everything.

That moment Bacevich began to question what he’d always been told about the Soviet Union: that it was a world power on par with America, to be respected and feared — and fought. What he was seeing, however, was something different. This was a system in obvious decline. So why had he been told such blatant untruths? This question led to others: If the Soviet empire was not the superpower it had been billed as, why did the United States launch so many wars to defend against its influence? Moreover, what did it say about America’s bloated defense budget? It was then, he says in his new book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War [Metropolitan Books], “my worldview started to crumble.”

That worldview consisted of the tenets that every American born after World War II gets hammered into his consciousness, and which Bacevich refers to as the “Washington rules:” American globalism is necessary, it is always a force for good, and to withdraw it risked “appeasement, isolation and catastrophe.” After Bacevich’s epiphany caused him to doubt this catechism, he traded his military career for one as a scholar. After George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, his crumbling worldview collapsed entirely, and his true vocation was born: relentless challenger of the status quo. Washington Rules is Bacevich’s latest assault on American foreign policy, and it is a non-partisan, cover-to-cover exercise in contrarianism.

To Bacevich, the “military-industrial complex” – Eisenhower’s famous term for the incestuous relationship between the Pentagon and defense contractors — determines US foreign policy, and nothing else. Thus, it is ludicrous to expect any single president to change it, and that includes our current one. In fact, presidents, he says, are in reality not “deciders” at all, but rather “the medium through which power is exercised.” Had Truman not been president in 1945, whoever sat in his place just as surely would have dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Same goes for Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs invasion, Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War, even Dubya’s Iraqi invasion. “In each case, the erstwhile commander in chief did little more than ratify a verdict that others had already rendered.”

Sound like the stuff of conspiracy theories?  Some will see it that way and remain unconvinced. But to Bacevich, that’s exactly what the Washington consensus expects. If you question the status quo, you’re not to be taken seriously. He points to the 2008 presidential race. The only two major politicians to challenge Washington orthodoxy were Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, and they were dismissed as unelectable oddballs. In a memorable exchange during the South Carolina Republican primary debate, Paul suggested that American globalism played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks, and Rudolph Guiliani promptly came out swinging in defense of the rules. He slammed Paul’s comments as “absurd” and demanded that he “tell us he didn’t really mean” them. The audience exploded in applause.

The 9/11 attacks, like other American tragedies such as the Vietnam War and Bay of Pigs, could have been — and to Bacevich, should have been — an opportunity for a public dialogue about US interventionism. But no such discussion occurred. That our meddling abroad could have played a role in such disasters is not something the consensus was prepared to consider. Why? Because if Americans saw things as they really were — that Washington has been exaggerating its threats for the past 60 years — it could mean a drastic reduction in power and money for hoards of powerful and wealthy people. Instead, better to pretend that tragedies like 9/11 are committed by “evildoers,” or to simply “depict the problem as appearing out of the blue, utterly devoid of historical context.”

Such arguments are not exactly new. Noam Chomsky, of course, has been making similar ones for 40 years. Bacevich is easier to digest; not because he’s easier on interventionism — he’s nearly as scalding as Chomsky — but because he portrays the problem with Washington as a systemic breakdown that had a clear starting point: the birth of the CIA and Strategic Air Command. This is when our government became truly secretive and war-making was removed from public purview. If the problem is systemic, then the average person can do something about it: change the system. 

Bacevich, like Chomsky, is not a partisan critic; he is as lacerating with Democratic administrations as Republican ones. In fact, he points to Jimmy Carter’s decision to militarize the Middle East as the spark that lit the fire of Islamic terrorism. And of Obama, for whom he says he voted, Bacevich has become increasingly critical. This is because of Obama’s escalation of the Afghanistan war. But here is where Bacevich gets confusing. If presidents aren’t really deciders, how can he blame Obama? Bacevich’s answer comes in the final pages of Washington Rules. Obama’s tragic blunder, he asserts, was in surrounding himself with career adherents to the rules — men like Robert Gates, a Bush holdover; Jim Jones, a retired four-star general; and Hilary Clinton, an unabashed hawk. Once enveloped by such people, fundamental change became impossible. The result? An even deeper commitment to the longest running war in American history — which, as Bacevich lamented to Bill Moyers recently, was “the same decision John McCain would have made.”

Jake Whitney is a freelance writer from New York. This originally appeared in the Valley Advocate in Massachusetts.

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2010

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