Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Long War(s)


It is fortuitous that Alex prompted me to write a review of Andrew Bacevich’s new book in wake of the latest WikiLeaks release of classified documents. Those mildly depressed by the specter of American citizens’ conspicuous detachment from the wars conducted in their name surely welcome this newfound—and undoubtedly soon to be short-lived—attention to US foreign policy.

Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War begins on a personal note. As a West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran, Princeton Ph.D., and, above all, conservative Catholic, Bacevich had always “taken comfort in orthodoxy.” It was not until Bacevich’s retirement from the army, which coincided with the end of the Cold War, that he began to rethink the role of the United States in the world. Bacevich notes:
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.
Although many factors put Bacevich on a new intellectual trajectory, a major catalyst to Bacevich’s ideological reorientation was the curious fact that although the Cold War had ended, the US not only continued its global military presence and commitments but in fact expanded them. This, in turn, contradicted many of his long-held assumptions he acquired as a graduate student studying diplomatic history during the Cold War.

To wit, Bacevich affirms “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." “Belatedly,” Bacevich notes, “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."

Washington Rules is not your typical “Confessions of a former [fill in the blank]” book righteously demanding moral validation for getting “it” right after so many years of getting “it” wrong. Rather, the book is a sustained, and I should say very angry, critique of what Bacevich considers the Washington Consensus of US foreign policy: “a national security strategy that relies on global military presence and global power projection to underwrite a policy of global interventionism.” Bacevich argues forcefully that although the Consensus is claimed to be essential for global peace and security, “adherence to that strategy has propelled the United States into a condition approximating perpetual war.”


Bacevich traces the conception of this strategy to the two figures he calls the “Empire Builders,” Allen Dulles and Curtis LeMay. Though the selection of these two men seems a bit odd, his reasoning is good enough. Allen Dulles presided over the CIA at the height of its mystique and prestige, undoubtedly in large part due to Dulles’ involvement with the coups in Guatemala and Iran. It was not, however, the CIA’s controversial covert operations per se that earned Dulles his important legacy; rather Dulles’ greatest contribution to the Washington Consensus was the global analytical framework from which he operated. When it came to battling the Soviet Union, Dulles was clear about the reach of American statecraft:
“The whole world is the arena of our conflict.” Given that “our vital interests are subject to attack in almost every quarter of the globe at any time,” it had become essential “to maintain constant watch in every part of the world, no matter what may at the moment be occupying the main attention of diplomats and military men.”
This siege mentality, Bacevich asserts, created an “atmosphere of permanent crisis” in which America’s intelligence agencies were given free reign without oversight or regard to the limits of covert operations. “It is not our intelligence organization which threatens our liberties,” Dulles wrote. “The danger is rather that we will not be adequately informed of the perils which face us.” Given this assumption, Bacevich notes that “Self-policing, based on the presumption of good intentions, was deemed sufficient.”

While Dulles laid the foundation for global interventionism, LeMay helped establish global military presence and power projection as the primary mechanisms of American foreign policy. Soon after taking over the Strategic Air Command (SAC) in 1948, LeMay told a group of Pentagon officials: “Our only defense is a striking-power-in-being of such size that is capable of delivering a stronger blow than all of our potential enemies.” [emphasis mine] As such, Bacevich notes, “The concept of ‘massive retaliation’ now emerged as the centerpiece of Cold War strategy.” LeMay established this doctrine of “massive retaliation” in three ways: 1) he led an unprecedented expansion of the SAC’s personnel and bases; 2) he “imbued his command with a culture of maximum readiness;” and 3) “LeMay inaugurated a program of continuous modernization, illustrated by the fielding of successive new bombers, each built in large numbers…”

LeMay’s contribution to today’s condition of permanent war was to establish a commitment to “unquestioned and overwhelming dominance.” This policy required threatening America’s adversaries with overwhelming force regardless of the significance of the threat posed to American interests. How did Americans come to accept such a radical doctrine? Bacevich partially credits LeMay for convincing the public that the only way to secure peace is through jingoism. In LeMay’s words, “The main thing…was that this force was not built simply for retaliation…It was built for people to see, and looking at it, nobody would want to tackle it. That was our main objective.” LeMay hammers home the point in a boasting passage from his memoirs: “There was definitely a time when we could have destroyed all of Russia without losing a man to their defenses.” Thus, Bacevich argues, it was precisely the anxieties derived from the perceived threat of communism in the 1950s that created a culture in which Americans thought their national security paramount and deferred to the judgment of individuals like LeMay who offered a clear solution to the nation’s woes.

The doctrinal legacies of Dulles and LeMay laid out what came to be the bipartisan consensus to US foreign policy, with differences between the two ruling parties based only on the degree of application of certain tactics or policies, but never on fundamental assumptions. Bacevich contends, and here he has plenty of company, that the Vietnam War posed the greatest challenge to the Washington consensus on foreign policy. Both parties contributed to the pursuit of “global military presence and global power projection to underwrite a policy of global interventionism” with alacrity until Vietnam drew questions about the prudence of dumping massive amounts American lives and treasure on a remote region of perceivably little import to great power politics. The staunch resistance to America’s attempt to impose its will on an infinitely weaker foe was sobering to the believers of this foreign policy consensus. Not only did the war raise serious questions about the sustainability of the consensus on purely practical grounds, but, given the unrest created at home and the “anti-Americanism” bred abroad, also its desirability.

This begs the question: what do we make of the 1970s? On this score, Bacevich’s analysis proves quite perceptive. He argues that serious critics of American foreign policy either moderated over time or became tenured radicals pulled into the orbit of post-modern oblivion. “By implication,” Bacevich asserts, “popular grassroots opposition to U.S. foreign policy had been epiphenomenon, lacking in real significance.” The foreign policy establishment went through a mirror image process. Instead of asking fundamental questions about the war and what it meant for American foreign policy, the foreign policy establishment came to conclusions that made the war mostly irrelevant. Mainly, “Things went awry in Vietnam as a result of specific misjudgments and miscalculations, not deep-seated systemic flaws in the American way of life, in the American tradition of statecraft, or in the triad of principles guiding U.S. military policy: This defined their position.”

Indeed, this moment of self-doubt and reflection was short-lived. Bacevich asserts that the 1980s under the Reagan Administration brought about the reconstitution of and belief in “the trinity” of global military presence, global power projection, and global interventionism. The evidence for the latter is overwhelming and therefore not necessary to recount here. What’s most interesting about this reconstitution of the trinity is its implications for the post-Cold War era. According to Bacevich, the Clinton and Bush I Administrations’ greatest achievement was not doing much at all in terms of changing US foreign policy. In Bacevich’s count, from 1945 to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US engaged in six large-scale military actions abroad, but there have been nine major military interventions in the period since the fall of the Berlin Wall. [The former period included “Korea, Lebanon (twice), Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, and Grenada,” while the latter period includes “Panama, the Persian Gulf (twice), Kurdistan, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.”] If Bush I and Clinton did nothing to alter America’s commitment to “the trinity” established by Dulles and LeMay during the formative years of Cold War, naturally Bacevich sees George W. Bush only double-down on the consensus under the new pretext of an open-ended global war on terrorism.


Unlike most fawning journalists, Bacevich provides readers a long overdue critique of General David Petraeus and his counterinsurgency strategy (COIN). Bacevich mainly goes after Petraeus’s famous manual, FM 3-24. Aside from ridiculing the manual’s vacuous “paradoxes” presented as words of wisdom [for example, he cites the following sentence from the manual and proceeds to jump all over it: “Many important decisions are not made by generals.” When was this ever not obviously the case, except perhaps in the eyes of generals and their groupies?], Bacevich rightly sounds the alarm at the radical implications of the Petraeus doctrine in a somewhat lengthy passage well worth quoting:
FM 3-24 expanded and blurred the definition of warfare, describing it not as a contest between opposing armed forces, but as a “violent clash of interests between organized groups.” In modern war, the army’s primary purpose was no longer to fight. The manual’s detailed and lengthy index contained not a single entry for “battle” or “battlefield” and made only passing reference to “combat.” […] The ultimate aim was not primarily to dismantle or defeat an insurgency, but to “foster effective governance” in an environment where governance was notably absent. “Legitimacy is the main objective,” the manual declared. Yet legitimacy is a notoriously slippery concept, difficult to define, much less measure. To designate the creation of legitimacy as a primary wartime goal is equivalent to designating the pursuit of wealth as a primary goal in life. In effect, you have embarked upon an infinitely expansible enterprise. When is government sufficiently legitimate? When is a tycoon sufficiently rich? Who decides? According to what criteria? The endpoint of such a venture is necessarily arbitrary, subject to redefinition, and revocable.

How can Americans extract themselves from this deplorable state of never-ending crisis that leads to never-ending global-interventionism? Bacevich’s answer to this question falls short in part because his entire analysis, while illuminating in many ways, ultimately falls short as well. Aside from practical prescriptions on limiting the scope of national security policy, Bacevich places most of the burden on the American citizenry. He argues that Americans don’t ask fundamental questions about its foreign policy in large part because they bear very little of its consequences. Specifically, Bacevich points to the elimination of the conscript military having a profoundly negative effect on Americans’ notion of citizenship. Since an embarrassingly small number of Americans have to bear the burden of carrying out America’s misguided foreign policy, the nation at large becomes quite passive (at best) and forgetful (at worst) of the reasons for and consequence of its foreign policy. Bacevich sums up this line of reasoning in an article published shortly after the release of his book: “The way to activate a democratic brake is to ensure that all Americans bear the brunt of war. Promoting awareness of the casualty gap won't do that. Hitting Americans where it hurts…just might.”

There is certainly something to be said about America’s minimalist, cost-free conception of citizenship. Indeed, as Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen concluded in their impressive empirical study, The Casualty Gap, “when America goes to war, it is the poorer and less educated in society who are more likely to die in combat.” Nevertheless, (and this is mostly anecdotal) given the seemingly underwhelming political participation of those who already serve in the military and the tendency of those who enlist to defer to authority, this strikes me as a strange way to encourage unorthodox thinking about America's role in the world. Another factor for Bacevich to consider is the increasing reliance on private contractors to do the work traditionally done by the military. So long as well-paid mercenaries are there to serve in positions citizens are supposed to occupy, the disconnect between American citizens and the policies carried out in their name will persist. A good way to test his hypothesis is to consider a question posed by the political scientist-turned historian (he knows better now) Jason Brownlee: “Were the wars with a conscript army less destructive and less frequent, really, than what we've had since? The problem is not returning Americans to the character Bacevich and his generation exemplified in the 1960s, but progressing beyond it.”


Considering his qualified admiration for William Appleman Williams, Bacevich’s critique—which uses the Cold War as the starting point—seems surprisingly dismissive of a long history of American claims to exceptionalism and manifest destiny which were in turn used to justify expansionist policies. Although Bacevich is certainly correct in making note of a new era of global American military presence following World War II, the notion that this represents an entirely new sort of American militarism bent on expansive—to put it diplomatically—national security interests would certainly be news to Native Americans, Mexicans, Cubans, Nicaraguans, Dominicans, Haitians, and Filipinos, to name just a few. One could very easily argue that the real “Empire Builders” came long before Dulles and LeMay.

Bacevich has a well-earned reputation for being one of the most thoughtful mainstream critics of US foreign policy, yet one gets the sense that his dissent is tolerated only because of his unimpeachable personal background. Nevertheless, an otherwise perceptive critic like Bacevich would be well served by abandoning belief in yet some more conventional wisdom.

Joel Suarez

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