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The Story Behind the Permanent War


Washington Rules: Americas Path to Permanent War by Andrew J. Bacevich
(New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010), 286 pages.

During the last decade, left-liberals accused the controversial Bush administration of a wickedness, arrogance, and incompetence that supposedly set that presidency apart from others in American history. Bush was an especially bad warmonger who broke with the traditional and venerable principles that had guided U.S. foreign policy in previous eras. The ineptitude and violent hubris emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue were somehow an aberration, and as soon as the leadership in Washington changed, we could expect the imperial excesses to fade.

The kernel of truth in that characterization was that George W. Bush was a particularly horrible and warmongering president, whose neoconservative advisors and top-level war officials did indeed embrace a more belligerent worldview than average, especially toward Iraq. However, what was often lost in much of the deserved condemnations was any sort of historical perspective. Well before the Iraq war, presidents had firebombed and dropped atomic weapons on Japan. They had overseen the death of millions of civilians in Korea and Vietnam in undeclared wars. They had staged dozens of coups; unilaterally and illegally weaponized and financed brutal regimes worldwide; and bombed Serbia in the face of direct opposition from Congress.

Indeed, to understand fully that history did not begin on 9/11, we must understand that Americas aggressive, unjustifiable warfare did not begin with Bush. While many of Bush’s critics lambasted him, correctly, for his administrations failure to prevent the terrorist attacks, they often forgot that those attacks were retaliation blowback in response to aggressive foreign policies conducted by Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and others before.

Furthermore, only by transcending partisan blame and avoiding the habit of placing all focus on one president or another can we make sense of what has happened since Barack Obama took power in January 2009. Many of the current presidents supporters are mystified by the foreign-policy continuity they see between the presumably horrible George W. Bush and the supposedly admirable Barrack H. Obama. But there should be no confusion. Although there have been some twists and turns, shifts in emphasis, and even changes in strategy in the decades since World War II, the essential U.S. foreign-policy approach has been the same throughout the presidencies, both during the hot wars and during the cold one.

Andrew Bacevich explains that as clearly as anyone can, and his new book, Washington Rules: Americas Path to Permanent War, lays out the formula: In the simplest terms, the [American] credo summons the United States and the United States alone to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world. That credo is coupled with the sacred triad: an abiding conviction that the minimum essentials of international peace and order require the United States to maintain a global military presence, to configure its forces for global power projection, and to counter existing or anticipated threats by relying on a policy of global interventionism.

Although the tactics, weapons, and makeup of the armed forces have changed, this triad has remained the abiding signature of American military power since World War II.

Assured destruction, covert ops, and everything in between

As the Cold War began, Defense Secretary James Forrestal coined the term semiwar to describe, in Bacevich’s words, a condition in which great dangers always threaten the United States and will continue doing so into the indefinite future. The main response to this threat was for the U.S. government to always maintain the superior capacity to unleash mass destruction on enemy nations, while engaging in perennial espionage, coups, and covert operations.

Bacevich tells the history well, largely through the stories of those powerful men who, unlike the presidents they served, are often forgotten for their importance.

Allen Dulles, who ran the CIA during its heyday at the top of the intelligence pyramid from 1953 to 1961 (under the Republican Dwight Eisenhower and the Democrat John Kennedy), embodied the postwar fetish with covert operations. He believed in the cause but it would be naive to ignore that he had everything to gain [personally and professionally] by hyping the Red menace and much to lose should the suspicion take hold that the Russians might not actually pose such a dire threat after all. Under Dulles’s leadership, the CIA placed itself on the very front lines of the Cold War … by undertaking operations from Latin America and the Middle East to Western Europe and Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, who was instrumental in the strategic bombing of World War II, who formed the Strategic Air Command (SAC) after the Berlin Airlift, and whose protg Robert MacNamara became infamous for his engineering of mass casualties in Japan and Vietnam, personified the postwar buildup in nuclear and conventional ordnance:

If obliteration bombing qualifies as an art, then LeMay … had established a well-earned reputation as the worlds foremost practitioner. When it came to delousing civilian populations, the Luftwaffes Hermann Gring and the Royal Air Forces Bomber Harris weren’t even in the same league. When it came to burning cities, William Tecumseh Sherman, who terrorized the citizens of the Confederacy during the Civil War, was a tyro.

LeMay oversaw a huge expansion of SAC, imbued his command with a culture of maximum readiness, and inaugurated a program of continuous modernization of airborne military technology. His successors continued to hone his work in developing nuclear war plans against the Soviets. By 1962, the war plan included 8,400 targets across the communist bloc. By 1970, that number exceeded 10,000.

The original emphasis after World War II had been on intelligence and strategic warfare. Although some see his presidency as a break from the past, Kennedy actually increased spending in these areas. However, starting with Kennedy, a feature of the warfare state that had been relatively neglected the Army got a boost, allowing it to rival SAC and the CIA. Between 1961 and 1962, its budget shot up, as the service added 207,000 more soldiers to its rolls. The number of active-duty divisions increased from eleven to sixteen…. [Kennedy] also more than doubled the army’s Special Forces. The U.S. troop presence in West Germany more than doubled and the U.S. advisors in Vietnam multiplied more than 18-fold.

Henry Kissinger, who would become secretary of state, believed that the U.S. government should be able to counter Soviet aggression at any scale of violence. This became the dominant goal of U.S. foreign policy complete flexibility and control. But it was an illusion, explains Bacevich. For one thing, in the event of nuclear war, [the] very notion of exercising carefully calibrated options to maintain control … was a mirage…. [Humanely] waged nuclear war was an oxymoron.

In terms of covert ops, the U.S. government learned nothing from its repeated failure to oust Cuban dictator Fidel Castro from power: The most immediate result of the Bay of Pigs debacle was to redouble the administrations determination to eliminate Castro. Not only were the anti-Cuba measures morally dubious; they were all disasters:

[The] actions of the United States toward Cuba during the early 1960s bear comparison with Iranian support for proxies engaging in terrorist activities against Israel since the 1980s. The principal difference is that, whereas Hamas and Hezbollah have achieved considerable success, at least in enhancing their political standing, the U.S. attempt to unseat Castro achieved none whatsoever.

As for the Cuban missile crisis, Americans habitually assign responsibility to the Soviets, ignoring the nuclear-tipped Jupiter missiles targeting the USSR from U.S.-controlled launch sites in Turkey and Italy. That the Soviet decision to deploy nuclear-tipped missiles to Cuba might have been in response to that was not something [the Kennedy administration] was prepared to consider. That pattern, writes Bacevich, appears over and over in modern U.S. history:

When some event disrupts the American pursuit of peace the missile crisis of 1962, the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, Saddam Husseins assault on Kuwait in 1990, or the terrorist attacks of 9/11 those exercising power in Washington invariably depict the problem as appearing out of the blue, utterly devoid of historical context.

The triumphant American warfare state, every bit as arrogant and dangerous as weve seen it under Bush and Obama, was erected long ago. Only briefly would it suffer a minor setback, after an embarrassing defeat in Southeast Asia.

War without end

Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s National Security Adviser, McGeorge Bundy, had endorsed escalation in Vietnam in no uncertain terms. In an official memo, Bundy supported using American military power in the Far East and to force a change in Communist policy. In response to the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin incident, Bundy recommended a policy of sustained reprisal, even if it did not succeed in changing the course of the contest in Vietnam, for we can say … that even if it fails, the policy will be worth it. As Bacevich puts it, The very act of bombing the North would demonstrate American will. But that policy failed in more ways than the establishment imagined:

Beginning in 1965, they put their handiwork to the test in Vietnam, the brush-fire war that, in their own minds, loomed large as a test of American global leadership. To their considerable dismay, they soon discovered that efforts to douse the fire produced the opposite effect. In attempting to snuff out a small war they produced instead a massive conflagration. Determined to demonstrate the efficacy of force employed on a limited scale, they created a fiasco over which they were incapable of exercising any control whatsoever.

The war ended in disgrace. Operation Linebacker II, which deposited over twenty thousand tons of high explosives on Hanoi and Hai Phong from December 18 to December 29 in 1972, signified a brief reversion to the Curtis LeMay school of power projection. But as conscription ended and Congress began slightly restraining the executive security state through such measures as the War Powers Act of 1973 and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, the empire appeared to decline slightly. Most important, there was the Vietnam Syndrome phenomenon of public reluctance toward U.S. interventionism Vietnam seemed to have exhausted the nations appetite for liberating the oppressed. Unfortunately, the syndrome did not last long.

The power elite and its kept think tanks, military contractors, and both political parties never gave up on the sacred trinity and sacred credo. Although in 1976 Jimmy Carter won the presidency promising to remove troops from the Korean peninsula, the rest of the establishment stood in the way of even such unambiguously reasonable moves toward restraint. By 1980, both the Reagan and Carter platforms stood with the empire. They bickered over specifics, but when it came to national security policy, Democrats and Republicans occupied the same page.

The Vietnam Syndrome was most decisively overcome by three presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton who collaborated to lift the constraints that Vietnam had seemingly imposed. But it was Carters shift in military posture [that] set in motion the U.S. stance of continual intervention, particularly in the Persian Gulf area, where any attempt of a foreign power to gain regional dominance would, in Carters words, be repelled by any means necessary, including military force. Bacevich notes that with the United States operating in places like Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans have forgotten how recently all of this activity began.

And it was in this region that faith in the U.S. empire would finally be fully revived, during the George H.W. Bush presidency. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the rationale for U.S. interventionism had hardly faded. The Red Menace had disappeared, but humankind more than ever needed the United States to show the way. And it was in the wake of that remarkable event, the end of the Soviet Union, that the United States embarked on a major war with Iraq. For the armed services … Operation Desert Storm came as validation and vindication…. [Gen. Colin] Powell and his fellow Vietnam veterans had reaffirmed the unequaled ability of the United States to reposition massive amounts of combat power just about anywhere on the planet…. The 1991 military establishment felt that it had achieved something approximating the summit of perfection.

Clinton’s interventions in Somalia, the Balkans, and elsewhere, and his continuation of the bombing and sanctions of Iraq, constituted a seamless transition between the two Iraq wars. Madeleine Albright, who became Clinton’s secretary of state, signified this Clintonian continuity of U.S. imperialism between the two Bushes. Her belief in U.S. supremacy and hegemony was firm: My mind-set is Munich. Most of my generations is Vietnam, she said, meaning that the one historical lesson to guide the United States should not be from its massive failure, but from the supposed example of noninter-ventions having led to disaster. We are the indispensable nation, was another of Albright’s utterances, along with Whats the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we cant use it?

By the time George W. Bush became president in 2001, the War Powers Act was a dead letter and U.S. interventionism was again an unquestioned feature of American life. But the post-9/11 years did bring about a final crystallization and revitalization of U.S. warmongering. With Bush’s wars for democracy came Americas own domino effect the forceful liberation of one or two countries in the Islamic world [was] expected to unleash a wave of change eventually rippling across the entire Greater Middle East. The early successes of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars temporarily catapulted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld into the pantheon of transformative figures in the sweep of U.S. military history, for his emphasis on a leaner, faster, more surgical war machine.

Tuning out war

By 2004 the war cause was faltering, but time, a complacent media, bipartisan consensus, and propaganda schemes such as the handover of sovereignty to Iraq and the 2007 surge eventually helped to solidify a new normalcy in U.S. warmaking. Now we have the

Long War, a conflict defined not by purpose, adversary, or location, but by duration, which [would be] indeterminate…. This new normalcy imparted a radical twist to the Washington rules. 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.

In 2006 incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed that my highest priority, immediately, is to stop the war in Iraq. But Democrats wasted little time reneging on that commitment. Although the mission in Iraq continued to change, by 2007 the surge and the personality of Gen. David Petraeus worked in convincing Americans, and the leaders in both parties, that counterinsurgency the tragically calamitous strategy of the Vietnam era was now a viable mainstay of U.S. foreign policy. For his Princeton dissertation in the mid 1980s, Petraeus had written that the failures of the Vietnam counterinsurgency stemmed from domestic unpopularity.

Yet perceptions were not necessarily immutable, the young Petraeus surmised. Changing the way that a war was perceived whether within the inner circle of power or in the eyes of the public could be tantamount to changing reality itself…. This describes the central achievement of General Petraeus in Iraq.

Although the originally pitched reasons for war with Iraq democraticization, terrorism, WMDs fell apart, the war received a makeover whose significance extends to the entire U.S. approach to terrorism after 9/11. Military operations in Pakistan and Yemen, sanctions and threats against Iran, Obama’s escalation of military force in Afghanistan all of that can be blamed largely on the ability of both political parties to whitewash the Iraq war.

Much of the establishments approach toward war no longer has the pretenses of realism and cold pragmatism that once characterized the U.S. empire. FM-324, the Army Field Manual released in 2006, has language approximating a parody of post-modernism:

The central mechanism through which [insurgent] ideologies are expressed and absorbed is the narrative. A narrative is an organizational scheme expressed in story form…. Stories are often the basis for strategies and actions, as well as for interpreting others intentions.

This kind of gobbledygook thinking has assisted the war party in winning the hearts and minds of America. Wars no longer end. Although Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was discredited for having believed that Vietnam’s greatest contribution was that it was teaching the United States to go to war without arousing the public ire, he was off by only a couple generations: By the time he died in 2009, Americans had learned to tune out their wars.

The U.S. empire, albeit in evolving form and with shifting tactics, has existed since World War II. The price is incalculable:

families shattered by loss, veterans bearing the physical or psychological scars of combat; the perpetuation of ponderous bureaucracies subsisting in a climate of secrecy, dissembling, and outright deception; the distortion of national priorities as the military-industrial complex siphons off scarce resources; environmental devastation produced as a by-product of war and the preparation for war; the evisceration of civic culture that results when a small praetorian guard shoulders the burden of waging perpetual war.

And who benefits? Washington itself benefits, along with its allied lobbyists, corporate welfare queens, media, intellectuals in academia and think tanks, and the legions of workers drawing a salary from the Pentagon and its hundreds of connected institutions.

The empire was never going to end with Obama, in large part because it did not begin with Bush. Presidents have been far from the only culprits advisors, generals, civilian leaders are all taken to task in Washington Rules for their contributions in sustaining the U.S. national-security state and perpetual-war policy.

Bacevich’s final plea is to his fellow Americans. Summoning the ghost of Randolph Bourne, who observed that war is the health of the state, the author proposes that America come home, to borrow from Voltaire, to cultivate our own garden.

If change is to come, it must come from the people, Bacevich concludes. [The] need for education … has become especially acute. By exposing the history, folly, and tragedy behind our current climate of permanent war, Washington Rules is a wonderful addition to our educational arsenal.

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Anthony Gregory is research fellow at the Independent Institute, a policy adviser to the Future of Freedom Foundation, author of The Power of Habeas Corpus in America (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and a history graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.