Breaking “Washington Rules”

Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of international relations and history at Boston University, a speaker at the Affordable World Security Conference at the Newseum in Washington on March 27–28, 2012, spoke with EWI’s John Sinden, Jr. He addressed his views on the U.S. role in global security and the way the U.S. sees itself internationally.

(This interview was originally published by the EastWest Institute)

In your new book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, what are the “Washington rules,” and how do the components you call the American credo and the sacred trinity play into them?

The “Washington Rules” are the hidden-in-plain-sight habits that constitute the essential elements of U.S. national security policy: “defense” forces designed not for defense but as instruments of global power projection; a vast network of bases to maintain a global military presence; the marriage of forces and presence to support a penchant for global interventionism. The “American credo” provides an ideological justification for this “sacred trinity” of practice.

You point to the trend of high-ranking U.S. policy officials mobilizing support from the citizenry for military endeavors abroad through scare tactics such as alluding to an inflated existential threat. You also argue that the U.S. government keeps the public cushioned from the human and fiscal costs of war. In your opinion, what actions can the U.S. public take to reverse these trends and become more involved in foreign policy and defense spending?

Americans universally claim to “support the troops.” Alas, that’s mostly talk. We need to demonstrate meaningful support for the troops by paying closer attention to how they are actually used. If we value the troops, we should wish to keep them from harm and to protect them from being abused.

Recent U.S. military initiatives have been primarily focused on combating networks of violent extremism. Can extremist ideology and resentment toward the United States be defeated militarily? If not, what other avenues do you advocate for countering these networks?

The American military’s MO over the past decade has gone from liberation to pacification to assassination. I’m all for killing bad guys when there is no alternative. The problem with targeted assassination as a policy is that it amounts to war divorced from politics rather than war as a continuation of politics. The animus directed against the United States and the West that comes out of the Islamic world has a historical and political basis. If our “war” in (against?) the Greater Middle East is ever to end, we’ve got to take seriously the political grievances that sustain the violence directed against us.

In Washington Rules, you suggest limiting the U.S. military footprint, specifically in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, because as you state: “Priority [for base closure] should be given to those regions where the American presence costs the most while accomplishing the least.” What do you think of the argument that the presence pays dividends in stability as several states in the Middle East and North Africa undergo violence and political change?

I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s bulls–t. If we survey the ever-intensifying levels of U.S. military activism in the Greater Middle East since the promulgation of the Carter Doctrine, the record is quite clear: Our actions promote instability, not the reverse.

Is there a specific point or message concerning U.S. defense policy, or defense policy in general, you want your readership to take away from your other new book The Short American Century?

The new book is a collection of essays in which distinguished scholars reflect on what the American Century was all about—a matter that falls within the purview of historians, since the American Century has ended. The views expressed vary greatly—that was my intent. As to what readers might take away from the book, I can only speak for myself.

I believe that the record of the American Century ought to teach us humility. Those who inhabit (or who seek) positions of power in Washington peddle the notion that history has a purpose and a destination and that Americans are called upon to guide—or, if need be, coerce—humanity toward that destination. It’s all nonsense. In reality, if history has a purpose, we humans are incapable of divining it. The best we can do is to try to cope with whatever surprise lurks just around the corner.

The Affordable World Security Conference is designed to weigh competing priorities for future security policy. What do you think receives too little attention?

What receives too little attention is the imperative of putting our own house in order—economically, politically, culturally, and morally.

What emerging security issue—economic stability, environmental sustainability, cybersecurity, etc.—do you think poses the greatest challenge to the current world security structure?

Damage to the environment that stems from the universalization of American-style consumer culture.

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