Washington Rules

Andrew J.  Bacevich has steller conservative credentials. He is a former colonel of the United States army, a Vietnam veteran and some time contributor of National Review, the conservative journal started by William F. Buckley, Jr. Bacevich lost his son to the Iraq war who was killed in combat in May 2007.

The book is subtitled ‘America’s Path to Permanent War’ and is a critique of post war US militarism. Bacevich identifies two components of the post war political consensus. The first component is the unquestioned assumption of the need for American global primacy. The idea is that the international capitalist system is a force for peace and prosperity and that it is underwritten by US military hegemony. The second component is the trinity of policy requirements for the US to maintain a global military presence, to configure its forces for global power projection, and to counter threats by a policy of global interventionism. From Truman to Obama, this consensus has endured and lends a remarkable consistency to US military and foreign policy through the post war period.

All of the above is pretty obvious to any serious observer. Bacevich goes on to provide a history of defence policy through the post war period. There is a very interesting section on the policy of massive nuclear retaliation and the origins and structure of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) which was responsible for the massive nuclear arsenal of tens of thousands of warheads. Another section offers a brief but interesting look on the reliance on covert operations and the CIA. The discussion on the search for usable military options, i.e., the policy of flexible response, is an illuminating look inside the elite circle of strategic decision making in Washington.

Bacevich essentially subscribes to the theory of the military-industrial complex. The idea that the commercial and financial concerns closely tied to the Pentagon are the key beneficiaries and drivers of sky high defence spending and a policy of global military dominance. And that it is their influence in Congress and in the defence establishment (think tanks, the lobbyists etc) that perpetuates the consensus.

The problem with this theory is not that it is not credible, the military industrial complex is real. There is little doubt about the influence and power of the corporations like Halliburton, Bechtel, Lockheed Martin and Blackwater. The problem is that the formulation of this consensus is too narrow. It is not just a consensus among politicians and the defence establishment. It is, in fact, a consensus among a large section of the the business and policy elites. From Wall Street to the New York Times, almost the entirety of the articulate elite who dominate the public sphere share this assumption: the global economic order dominated by Western capital is not just a force for good but rather it is necessary for civilization itself, and that US global military hegemony is required to underwrite it.

Bacevich’s criticism of this enterprise are all valid: the opportunity cost of the trillions of dollars spent on defence, the mounting toll of dead and wounded troops, the perpetuation of ponderous bureaucracies subsisting in a climate of secrecy and deception, the distortion of national priorities as the military industrial complex siphons off scare resources, the evisceration of civic culture that results when a small guard shoulders the burden of perpetual war while the vast majority shops.

Bacevich’s solution is to ‘bring America home’. He contends that the goal of American statecraft is not maintaining a specific world order, nor policing the planet by the force of arms. Rather it is to create a more perfect union at home. He wants to replace the old trinity with a new one, I quote:

  1. The purpose of the US military is to defend the United States and its most vital interests.
  2. The primary duty station of the American solider is America.
  3. Consistent with the Just War tradition, the United States should employ force only as a last resort and only in self defence.

All well and good. But is it going to happen any time soon?

Not a chance.

For the foreseeable future the United States will keep its military commitments in the Middle East and the Far East. The military bases in Iraq and Kuwait are going to stay, as are the aircraft carriers in the Persion Gulf. The control and flow of oil is of crucial to the functioning of the global economy and of vital interest to Western capital. The aircraft carriers in the Pacific and the military bases in Japan and Korea are required to contain to only serious challenger to US global hegemony: China. Furthermore, the United States will get increasingly entangled in Central Asia and Africa, where most of the new oil fields are located. The military fight against radical Islam is expanding out from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen, Sudan and Somalia. It is going to last decades and we are certainly nowhere close to the end. Don’t expect the boys to come home any time soon.

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