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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War

In this excellent book Andrew Bacevich provides an easy-to-read history of the evolution of post-World War II American intervention overseas. Bacevich, a retired Army officer and professor of international relations at Boston University, argues that “prior to World War II, Americans by and large viewed military power and institutions with skepticism, if not outright hostility. In the wake of World War II, that changed. An affinity for military might emerged as central to the American identity.” The book is a history of that monumental shift from a public desire to avoid war to a tolerance for permanent war.

Bacevich first takes the reader through the 1950s, when the postwar U.S. national security apparatus was built and when the “trinity” of Washington rules—American global military presence, armed forces configured for power projection rather than defense, and a willingness to use such forces to intervene worldwide—was adopted as U.S. policy. He could have added that the first U.S. permanent alliances were formed just when the advent of nuclear weapons made them unneeded for American security. Also, during this period, peacetime foreign military and economic aid first became a major tool of U.S. foreign policy.

Initially, according to Bacevich, President Eisenhower, both enamored with and frightened by the dawning of the atomic age, relied on a massive buildup of such destructive armaments to deter the Soviet Union. At the same time, however, he tried to avoid conventional conflict that could escalate into a nuclear conflagration by developing covert operations to do “dirty tricks” in foreign countries. By the end of Eisenhower’s tenure he began to believe that the now-permanent “military-industrial complex” (MIC)—the vested interests in the military services and the industrial interests profiting from the permanent state of Cold War—was a threat to the country’s institutions. Unlike most other authors, who merely deride the MIC’s waste and profiteering, Bacevich is concerned about what MIC-driven foreign interventions are doing to freedom at home.

During the Kennedy-Johnson tenure the long neglected Army was able to use its doctrine of “flexible response” to get back into the national security game by fighting conventional wars that filled the gap between CIA covert action and nuclear war. Vietnam was a failure of that strategy and almost took down the trinity with it. But the “Vietnam Syndrome” didn’t last long, as Ronald Reagan began the march back toward military adventurism. George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton stepped up the interventionism further.

When George W. Bush took office he established the doctrine of preventive war, which pledged to use military force to take out threats to U.S. security before they have even formed (for example, invading the already weakened post-Gulf War Iraq) and established a permanent war footing. His successor has not repudiated either policy.

Bacevich argues that too many vested interests in the security bureaucracies, the defense industry, Congress, and the media benefit from the Washington consensus on interventionism to cause its demise. Only education of the public and civic involvement can turn back these forces that are ruining the republic.

Although Bacevich is correct that only the public can override the vested interests to effect change, that outcome is hard to accomplish because Public Choice theory shows that concentrated benefits of a government policy usually trump costs dispersed across the entire population. The public is rational about how much effort to expend to alter policies that cost each taxpayer only a small amount. Educating the public is important, but it is slow and other solutions may be needed. Bacevich provides little help in this realm. The only other solution Bacevich hints at is a return to compulsory military service, but enslaving people to promote freedom is contradictory. Perhaps, instead, cutting regular forces and putting the bulk of U.S. forces into the National Guard and reserves would better serve Bacevich’s goal of reconnecting the military with society.

Sometimes a crisis provides impetus for public support for reform, but policies aiming at reform can just as well do the wrong thing as the right thing. The record U.S. budget deficits and gaping national debt provide a danger that may allow shrinkage of the grossly excessive U.S. security posture. Across-the-board cuts in every program the government runs—with no exceptions for the military, intelligence, entitlements or any other government effort—might allow the following justification: “In a time of fiscal crisis, everyone has to sacrifice.”

Although Bacevich correctly recommends cutting the Pentagon budget, reducing U.S. overseas military presence drastically, and using the U.S. military only to defend the nation, he could have spilled more ink telling us how we can overcome vested interests to achieve these worthy goals. Despite that deficiency, the book is convincing in its analysis and policy recommendations, and well worth the read as an antidote to the usual “national security” pabulum.