Credo and Trinity
What should stand in the place of such discarded convictions? Simply inverting the conventional wisdom, substituting a new Manichean paradigm for the old discredited version—the United States taking the place of the Soviet Union as the source of the world's evil—would not suffice. Yet arriving at even an approximation of truth would entail subjecting conventional wisdom, both present and past, to sustained and searching scrutiny. Cautiously at first but with growing confidence, this I vowed to do.
Doing so meant shedding habits of conformity acquired over decades. All of my adult life I had been a company man, only dimly aware of the extent to which institutional loyalties induce myopia. Asserting independence required first recognizing the extent to which I had been socialized to accept certain things as unimpeachable. Here then were the preliminary steps essential to making education accessible. Over a period of years, a considerable store of debris had piled up. Now, it all had to go. Belatedly, I learned that more often than not what passes for conventional wisdom is simply wrong. Adopting fashionable attitudes to demonstrate one's trustworthiness—the world of politics is flush with such people hoping thereby to qualify for inclusion in some inner circle—is akin to engaging in prostitution in exchange for promissory notes. It's not only demeaning but downright foolhardy.
Washington Rules aims to take stock of conventional wisdom in its most influential and enduring form, namely the package of assumptions, habits, and precepts that have defined the tradition of statecraft to which the United States has adhered since the end of World War II—the era of global dominance now drawing to a close. This postwar tradition combines two components, each one so deeply embedded in the American collective consciousness as to have all but disappeared from view.
The first component specifies norms according to which the international order ought to work and charges the United States with responsibility for enforcing those norms. Call this the American credo. In the simplest terms, the credo summons the United States—and the United States alone—to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world. In a celebrated manifesto issued at the dawn of what he termed "The American Century," Henry R. Luce made the case for this spacious conception of global leadership. Writing in Life magazine in early 1941, the influential publisher exhorted his fellow citizens to "accept wholeheartedly our duty to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit." Luce thereby captured what remains even today the credo's essence.
Luce's concept of an American Century, an age of unquestioned American global primacy, resonated, especially in Washington. His evocative phrase found a permanent place in the lexicon of national politics. (Recall that the neoconservatives who, in the 1990s, lobbied for more militant US policies named their enterprise the Project for a New American Century.) So, too, did Luce's expansive claim of prerogatives to be exercised by the United States. Even today, whenever public figures allude to America's responsibility to lead, they signal their fidelity to this creed. Along with respectful allusions to God and "the troops," adherence to Luce's credo has become a de facto prerequisite for high office. Question its claims and your prospects of being heard in the hubbub of national politics become nil.
Note, however, that the duty Luce ascribed to Americans has two components. It is not only up to Americans, he wrote, to choose the purposes for which they would bring their influence to bear, but to choose the means as well. Here we confront the second component of the postwar tradition of American statecraft.
With regard to means, that tradition has emphasized activism over example, hard power over soft, and coercion (often styled "negotiating from a position of strength") over suasion. Above all, the exercise of global leadership as prescribed by the credo obliges the United States to maintain military capabilities staggeringly in excess of those required for self-defense. 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.
By the midpoint of the twentieth century, "the Pentagon" had ceased to be merely a gigantic five-sided building. Like "Wall Street" at the end of the nineteenth century, it had become Leviathan, its actions veiled in secrecy, its reach extending around the world. Yet while the concentration of power in Wall Street had once evoked deep fear and suspicion, Americans by and large saw the concentration of power in the Pentagon as benign. Most found it reassuring.
A people who had long seen standing armies as a threat to liberty now came to believe that the preservation of liberty required them to lavish resources on the armed forces. During the Cold War, Americans worried ceaselessly about falling behind the Russians, even though the Pentagon consistently maintained a position of overall primacy. Once the Soviet threat disappeared, mere primacy no longer sufficed. With barely a whisper of national debate, unambiguous and perpetual global military supremacy emerged as an essential predicate to global leadership.
Every great military power has its distinctive signature. For Napoleonic France, it was the levée en masse—the people in arms animated by the ideals of the Revolution. For Great Britain in the heyday of empire, it was command of the seas, sustained by a dominant fleet and a network of far-flung outposts from Gibraltar and the Cape of Good Hope to Singapore and Hong Kong. Germany from the 1860s to the 1940s (and Israel from 1948 to 1973) took another approach, relying on a potent blend of tactical flexibility and operational audacity to achieve battlefield superiority.
The abiding signature of American military power since World War II has been of a different order altogether. The United States has not specialized in any particular type of war. It has not adhered to a fixed tactical style. No single service or weapon has enjoyed consistent favor. At times, the armed forces have relied on citizen-soldiers to fill their ranks; at other times, long-service professionals. Yet an examination of the past 60 years of US military policy and practice does reveal important elements of continuity. Call them the sacred trinity: 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.
Together, credo and trinity—the one defining purpose, the other practice—constitute the essence of the way that Washington has attempted to govern and police the American Century. The relationship between the two is symbiotic. The trinity lends plausibility to the credo's vast claims. For its part, the credo justifies the trinity's vast requirements and exertions. Together they provide the basis for an enduring consensus that imparts a consistency to US policy regardless of which political party may hold the upper hand or who may be occupying the White House. From the era of Harry Truman to the age of Barack Obama, that consensus has remained intact. It defines the rules to which Washington adheres; it determines the precepts by which Washington rules.
As used here, Washington is less a geographic expression than a set of interlocking institutions headed by people who, whether acting officially or unofficially, are able to put a thumb on the helm of state. Washington, in this sense, includes the upper echelons of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government. It encompasses the principal components of the national security state—the departments of Defense, State, and, more recently, Homeland Security, along with various agencies comprising the intelligence and federal law enforcement communities. Its ranks extend to select think tanks and interest groups. Lawyers, lobbyists, fixers, former officials, and retired military officers who still enjoy access are members in good standing. Yet Washington also reaches beyond the Beltway to include big banks and other financial institutions, defense contractors and major corporations, television networks and elite publications like the New York Times, even quasi-academic entities like the Council on Foreign Relations and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. With rare exceptions, acceptance of the Washington rules forms a prerequisite for entry into this world.
My purpose in writing Washiington Rules is fivefold: first, to trace the origins and evolution of the Washington rules—both the credo that inspires consensus and the trinity in which it finds expression; second, to subject the resulting consensus to critical inspection, showing who wins and who loses and also who foots the bill; third, to explain how the Washington rules are perpetuated, with certain views privileged while others are declared disreputable; fourth, to demonstrate that the rules themselves have lost what ever utility they may once have possessed, with their implications increasingly pernicious and their costs increasingly unaffordable; and finally, to argue for readmitting disreputable (or "radical") views to our national security debate, in effect legitimating alternatives to the status quo. In effect, my aim is to invite readers to share in the process of education on which I embarked two decades ago in Berlin.
The Washington rules were forged at a moment when American influence and power were approaching their acme. That moment has now passed. The United States has drawn down the stores of authority and goodwill it had acquired by 1945. Words uttered in Washington command less respect than once was the case. Americans can ill afford to indulge any longer in dreams of saving the world, much less remaking it in our own image. The curtain is now falling on the American Century.
Similarly, the United States no longer possesses sufficient wherewithal to sustain a national security strategy that relies on global military presence and global power projection to underwrite a policy of global interventionism. Touted as essential to peace, adherence to that strategy has propelled the United States into a condition approximating perpetual war, as the military misadventures of the past decade have demonstrated.
To anyone with eyes to see, the shortcomings inherent in the Washington rules have become plainly evident. Although those most deeply invested in perpetuating its conventions will insist otherwise, the tradition to which Washington remains devoted has begun to unravel. Attempting to prolong its existence might serve Washington's interests, but it will not serve the interests of the American people.
Devising an alternative to the reigning national security paradigm will pose a daunting challenge—especially if Americans look to "Washington" for fresh thinking. Yet doing so has become essential.
In one sense, the national security policies to which Washington so insistently adheres express what has long been the preferred American approach to engaging the world beyond our borders. That approach plays to America's presumed strong suit—since World War II, and especially since the end of the Cold War, thought to be military power. In another sense, this reliance on military might creates excuses for the United States to avoid serious engagement: confidence in American arms has made it unnecessary to attend to what others might think or to consider how their aspirations might differ from our own. In this way, the Washington rules reinforce American provincialism—a national trait for which the United States continues to pay dearly.
The persistence of these rules has also provided an excuse to avoid serious self-engagement. From this perspective, confidence that the credo and the trinity will oblige others to accommodate themselves to America's needs or desires—whether for cheap oil, cheap credit, or cheap consumer goods—has allowed Washington to postpone or ignore problems demanding attention here at home. Fixing Iraq or Afghanistan ends up taking precedence over fixing Cleveland and Detroit. Purporting to support the troops in their crusade to free the world obviates any obligation to assess the implications of how Americans themselves choose to exercise freedom.
When Americans demonstrate a willingness to engage seriously with others, combined with the courage to engage seriously with themselves, then real education just might begin.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book, Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War (Metropolitan Books)
has just been published. This essay is its introduction. Listen to a TomCast audio interview in which he discusses the book by clicking here, or to download to an iPod, here.