In October 2009, I had the pleasure of attending an Ideas Festival sponsored by the Aspen Institute and the Atlantic. Nearly all the country’s major figures in politics and business were there, grilled (or flattered) by nearly all the country’s leading journalists. When a John McCain or a Janet Napolitano took the spotlight, they were treated by the assembled guests with polite respect and pointed questions. The moment General David Petraeus walked in to take his place at the podium, the entire audience stood in hushed silence, as if the savior himself had suddenly appeared in the District of Columbia.

Washington Rules, Andrew J. Bacevich’s new book, helps make sense of what happened that day. The United States, he argues, is no longer suspicious of a permanent military presence as it was in the days of John Quincy Adams. Nor is it even an ambitious rising power, as it was during the era of Teddy Roosevelt, determined to thrown its weight around. It has become instead a permanently militarized society no longer capable of questioning, let alone dismantling, a gigantic war machine constantly on the lookout for international crises that justify its growth.

Relying heavily on religious language—as I also did above in describing the Petraeus incident—Bacevich posits the existence of a Washington consensus consisting of a credo and a trinity. The former, embodied most grandiloquently in Henry Luce’s 1941 Life essay “The American Century,” calls upon the United States, in Bacevich’s words, “to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world.” The elements of the trinity 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.”

Every American president since Harry Truman, in Bacevich’s view, has signed off on the rules that govern the Washington consensus: more money for the Pentagon, deference to the wishes of military commanders, a determination never to appear weak, and, as a consequence, a willingness to invade other countries at the drop of a hat. To be sure, now and then a president pauses or questions. But these are the exceptions that underscore the permanence of the rules. Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex but only on his way out. Kennedy realized that he had been blindsided by the CIA over Cuba but responded by engaging in even more outlandish schemes to get rid of Castro. Johnson chose not to run again as a result of the debacle in Vietnam but Nixon, seeming to promise peace, escalated the war. The collapse of communism ushered in the age of terrorism. And, most incredible of all, George W. Bush seemingly forgot that Vietnam ever happened when he deliberately chose a course in Iraq that was as hopeless as it was dishonest.

From this historical record, Bacevich concludes that the Washington rules always rule. Presidents try to make a big show of the decisions they solemnly undertake but in reality the decisions have already been made for them. “Pretending to the role of Decider,” as Bacevich puts it, “a president all too often becomes little more than the medium through which power is exercised.” If all this sounds gloomy, Bacevich goes a step further. “There is no end in sight,” he writes about the domination of the Washington rules for the foreseeable future. A deadly combination of fearful public opinion, entrenched bureaucratic power, and lavishly funded lobbying renders the power of the military-industrial complex unassailable. The audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival stood for Petraeus not only out of respect for the seeming success of the Iraq surge with which he was identified, but in recognition of the unique status given to him by his medals and uniform.

I’ve long had mixed feelings about Bacevich’s work. As much as I admire his moral courage as well as the lessons taught by his military experience—he retired from the Army with the rank of colonel—I have also been critical of the one-dimensional quality of his writings. I felt some of that unease while reading the present book. Presidents, I believe, do have choices. George W. Bush, as Bacevich himself recognizes, went far beyond the Washington consensus with his proclamations about preventive war. More surprisingly, toward the end of his term Bush repudiated the belligerent doctrines that will be forever known as Cheneyism. There is a Washington consensus but it has more give than Bacevich often seems to allow.

Having said all that, however, I should add that we have in the past year been offered an empirical test of what can be called the Bacevich thesis. Barack Obama had a decision to make about Afghanistan. Had he opted to bring an end to the perpetual American obsession with sending troops abroad, I believe he would have made a book like Bacevich’s irrelevant. But Obama instead sent the forty thousand troops his military commanders demanded. In so doing he proved Bacevich a prophet. As Bacevich pointed out in a recent blog post, a president who goes to war knowing how futile it will be is as bad as a president who goes to war ignorant of history and blind to his own hubris.

Bacevich was clearly shocked by the Obama decision concerning Afghanistan. I think his instincts are correct here. I cannot imagine a situation more favorable to a move away from ensconced national security thinking than the arrival in office of a president as smart, ambitious, and unconventional as Obama. Yet when Bacevich writes that by the time Obama made his Afghan decision “the actual ability to exercise choice had already passed from his hands,” he hits upon a truth that cannot be dismissed. To change course, Obama would have had to exposed himself to furious and irresponsible Republican sniping, dissent within his own party, selective leaking from the military and the intelligence agencies, and second-guessing from a myriad of editorial pundits. No politician, and certainly not one as careful as Obama, would take that on. Because Obama caved, the Washington consensus is stronger than ever. How fitting that Stanley McChrystal is no longer in charge of the Afghan war, but David Petraeus is.

If anything, Bacevich’s book, as eloquent and damning as it is, does not go far enough. Washington Rules is primarily descriptive. It takes readers through recent history offering capsule portraits of key figures such as Curtis LeMay of the Strategic Air Command and Maxwell Taylor, father of the notion of flexible response. It strikes an autobiographical tone, explaining how the author moved from being an obedient soldier to a dissident and critic. It offers easy-to-understand summaries of key military documents and ideas. For a subject so fraught with jargon, it is impressively reader-friendly. Bacevich writes with a gut-wrenching honesty that gives his charges a credibility frequently missing in pop denunciations of America’s imperial outreach.

Yet if we are to understand—and perhaps someday even change—a consensus that fails so often to deliver what it promises, we also need to dig deeper. Why do Americans succumb so easily to leaders who tell them that there is another war waiting for them around the corner? How come checks and balances put in place by the framers no longer check or balance? Why has the American political system lost the ability to hold those who make horrendous decisions responsible for their actions? What explains why European leaders have been able to find alternatives to war when American leaders seem incapable of doing so? The permanence of the Washington consensus raises as many questions as it answers.

“The citizens of the United States,” Bacevich writes, “have essentially forfeited any capacity to ask first-order questions about the fundamentals of national security policy.” This is a serious and legitimate point that deserves its own first-order kind of investigation. Andrew Bacevich is a prolific writer whose many books constitute one of the best accounts we have of the distortions brought to American life by our childlike dependence on the security war-making seems to offer but never quite delivers. I hope that in his future writings Bacevich takes his analysis one step further and explains how Americans stopped looking for a savior in the heavens and opted instead for the false gods that inhabit the Pentagon and its environs.


Related: American Triumphalism and The War We Can't Win by Andrew J. Bacevich

Alan Wolfe’s most recent book is At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews.

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Published in the 2010-10-22 issue: View Contents
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