'Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War'

wri-080210-washington-rules-tease

Andrew Bacevich
Pages: 250 | Buy this book

Groupthink is alive and thriving in Washington, D.C., argues Bacevich, who's convinced that America's mightily militaristic and endlessly idealistic approach to the rest of the world is costing the country dearly. Boiling down his argument to the simplest terms: the world would get along just fine without this overarmed global policeman, and more important, the United States would fare far better at home if it weren't squandering so many of its gifts abroad.

What's the Big Deal?

The Pentagon, a nearly three-quarter-trillion-dollar agency, is the largest industrial organization on the planet. And it's armed to the gills. Washington's best and brightest minds—in Bacevich's estimate, the "elected and appointed officials, corporate executives and corporate lobbyists, admirals and generals, functionaries staffing the national security apparatus, media personalities, and policy intellectuals," who are all deriving "profit, power, and privilege" from the status quo—have not only failed you and me, they are steadily running the country into ruin. Though at times he makes his argument with the wrong tools, Bacevich's chief concern—that we're misusing our military—couldn't be more important.

Buzz Rating: Hum

There hasn't been much coverage in advance of publication, but Bacevich is a regular foreign-policy commentator on television, and his book will likely get attention from the big outlets.

One-Breath Author Bio

Bacevich is a professor at Boston University. He graduated from West Point and spent 23 years in the Army, and though he doesn't mention it in the book, his son (First Lt. Andrew Bacevich, Third Battalion, Eighth Cavalry Regiment, Third Brigade Combat Team, First Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas) was killed in Iraq in 2007.

The Book, In His Words

"[My purpose is] to argue for readmitting disreputable (or 'radical') views to our national security debate, in effect legitimating alternatives to the status quo" (page 16), "because these concepts are so deeply entrenched, what passes for a 'debate' over national security policy seldom rises above technical issues" (page 27).

Don't Miss These Bits

1. Kool-Aid, Kool-Aid, everywhere. The problem, according to Bacevich, stems from the insular, self-reinforcing, warped thinking that goes on inside the beltway of Washington. He harps on it so much, you'd almost think he was a provincial politician running for the White House. But his point is well taken: the core principles that have positioned the U.S. as a stalwart against the global scourge of communism, a global policeman, and the tip of the spear in today's global war on terrorism go very much unquestioned. What's debated are the tactics, not the underlying assumptions. After all, so few figures of consequence raise questions like "Why must we fight a global war on terror?" that they're readily sidelined, written off quickly as forgettable members of the fringe.
 
2. The fact is, the rest of the world would go on just fine without us. Bacevich says the world doesn't need a global policeman: U.S. allies in Europe and East Asia can do very well on their own, thank you very much. Russia's no longer a threat. China's an economic partner. And Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela are goof states, not real dangers (page 224). Umm, not so sure about this, but fine, let's have a debate.
 
3. It's worse than ever. On the global war on terror: "Not even the most hawkish proponent of American global leadership—not Allen Dulles or Curtis LeMay, not Maxwell Taylor or McGeorge Bundy—had ever proposed committing the United States to a policy of war without foreseeable end." Worse is "the extent to which the country's military leaders, and the American people more generally, accommodated themselves to this prospect" (pages 182–83).

Swipe This Critique

Bacevich has a vital question to ask: why are we doing any of this? But, to be blunt, he goes about it the wrong way. Much of this book treads ground even familiar to anyone who scored no more than a C in an undergraduate American foreign-policy seminar: the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Bush in Iraq, Obama in Afghanistan. Instead of rehashing the way Washington developed a superinflated ego, it would have been far more interesting—and edifying—had Bacevich written a history of the iconoclasts who were so quickly boxed out by questioning the system, beginning with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, running through Sen. J. William Fulbright and Jimmy Carter, and ending up with ... well, who is that noble citizen today?

Factoid File

Pentagon outlays number some $700 billion annually (that's more than "the entire rest of the world combined"). Some 300,000 troops are now stationed abroad in 39 countries (pages 25–27).

Gradebook


Prose:
For a professor, he's surprisingly eloquent and, above all, passionate.

Construction: Often the narrative lurches backward and forward in time, but the bigger problem is his flawed methodology (see Critique, above).

Bottom Line: The first and last chapters are must-reads. Any serious foreign-policy thinker should heed his call: is the current militaristic approach to the rest of the world really the best and, more important, the only way?