A Revisionist View of U.S. National Security Policy
Many students of international relations, this reviewer included, held high hopes in 1990 that the end of the Cold War offered a real opportunity to reset the global political picture and to re-evaluate the role of the United States in the process. Those hopes were frustrated, first by the so-called “peace dividend,” which forced President Clinton to reduce significantly the U.S. diplomatic establishment as well as the armed forces; and then by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which thrust the country back onto a war footing.
Now the death of Osama bin Laden has encouraged some commentators to suggest that the war on terror should no longer be the primary driver of U.S. national security policy. Andrew Bacevich’s outstanding analysis of the origins and current state of those policies, almost a year old by now, would provide an outstanding basis on which to begin a renewed dialogue on changing the direction of U.S. policy.
Bacevich is well qualified to initiate such a dialogue. The retired U.S. Army officer is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University who has written previous books on U.S. military power and its limits. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and has written for the major newspapers and international relations journals.
Don’t be confused by the title. Washington Rules means the rules by which U.S. national security policy has developed since 1945. After World War II, Bacevich argues, a consensus was formed that has directed that policy ever since. He identifies four elements of that consensus: 1) “that the world must be organized (or shaped)...” lest chaos reign; 2) “that only the U.S. has the capacity to prescribe and enforce such a global order;” 3) that “America’s writ includes the charge of articulating the principles that should define the international order” and 4) that everyone except for a few “rogues and recalcitrant[s]” accepts this reality. He goes on to explain how this consensus has permeated the foreign policy and defense establishments, the Congress, and the public perceptions over succeeding decades, and how it has led to the rise of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned about.
That consensus has defined how Washington has chosen to deal with successive challenges to its dominance ever since. From Gen. Curtis LeMay and the policy of massive nuclear retaliation during the Cold War, to the mix of counterinsurgency and massive bombing in Vietnam, to the sub-rosa support of counterinsurgency in Central America and Africa during the 1980s, to the success of U.S. arms in the 1991 Gulf War, the consensus has persevered.
But it is not unchallenged. Bacevich weaves into this narrative the views of outstanding public servants such as Senator William Fulbright who have challenged that consensus at every stage. Unfortunately, as Bacevich suggests, always as voices crying in the wilderness.
Bacevich devotes the final third of this outstanding book to criticism of the most recent iteration of the consensus, the new mantra of counterinsurgency (commonly shortened to COIN), especially as enshrined in the current Army Field Manual. In a nutshell, Bacevich believes:
In the end, Bacevich is not optimistic that the consensus will change. But he expresses the hope that a “new credo” might emerge that would “acknowledge...the recalcitrance of humankind, the difficulty of deciphering history’s purposes, and the importance of husbanding American power.” That credo, he points out, harkens back to the principles that guided the U.S. during the first century and a half of its existence – focusing on putting our own house in order and not compelling others to adopt a distorted version of a “city on a hill.” Yet in Bacevich’s view this is not a new isolationism but rather recognition that the 21st century will require common effort to improve mankind, an effort in which the wholehearted participation of the United States will be indispensable.