Washington Rules: The Advent of Semiwar

This is the first in a chapter-by-chapter review of Andrew J. Bacevich’s, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. For my money, this is the most important book I’ve read since Crenson and Ginsberg’s Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced. Bacevisc is a retired colonel in the U.S. Army and a political science professor at Boston University. He combines both the real-world experience of someone who’s participated directly, at length, and as a firm believer, in the U.S.’s military imperialism and the intellectual analysis and reflection of a highly educated person who’s come to recognize the deeply flawed bases of that imperial project.

In this first chapter, Bacevich introduces the concept of “the Washington Consensus,” and the four assertions that are its foundation.

  1. “[T]he world must be organized (or shaped). In the absence of organization, chaos will surely reign.
  2. “[O]nly the United States possesses the capacity to prescribe and enforce such a global order. No other nation has the vision, will, and wisdom required to lead [and] no other nation or group of nations (and certainly no supra-national institution) can be entrusted with that role.”
  3. “America’s writ includes the charge of articulating the principles that should define the international order. Those principles are necessarily American principles, which possess universal validity.”
  4. “[A] few rogues and recalcitrants aside, everyone understands and accepts this reality. Despite pro forma grumbling, the world wants the United States to lead.”

Really this is a sort of messiah complex, and the U.S. ostensibly takes on this role as reluctantly as Jesus took on the burden of crucifixion. “Oh, if only this cup could pass from us, but (heavy sigh), not our will, but thine, oh, Lord.” In reality it’s a role that nearly everyone in the U.S. foreign policy establishment takes on eagerly, with devout belief in each of its underlying assumptions.

To be fair, those assumptions are compelling, at least to those of us who live in the U.S. and have been inculcated, however subtly and indirectly, into the cult of the Consensus. We’ve seen what happens when the world is disordered, in the Balkans, in Somalia, in WWII, etc. And if any country does possess the capacity to prescribe and enforce a global order, it must be the U.S.–no other state comes close to our capacities at this time, or at any time since WWII. The Balkans are a great case study here. We tried to allow Europeans to take the lead in solving what was, as we initially defined it, a European problem. But that effort failed, at times spectacularly, while the subsequent U.S. dominated effort succeeded, to the extent that the Balkans are, it appears, politically stable despite their continuing ethnic and boundary-definition tensions. (The EU role in that stability is conveniently overlooked by we Yanks, of course.) However to recognize that the U.S.’s capacity is greater than that of any other country doesn’t really answer the question of whether our capacity is great enough for that all-encompassing goal. I may have greater capacity for playing basketball than a group of legless children, but I can’t dunk, have a spotty jump-shot at best, and only average court-vision. In other words, comparative capacity is not at all the same thing as absolute capacity, a distinction the adherents to the Washington Consensus ignore.

The third assumption, that American principles are universal, is perhaps uniquely tempting. After all, the principles we publicly espouse (which are distinct from the principles we often practice) are the principles of the enlightenment tradition, of the republican revolt against royal prerogative and creation of purposefully constrained government, of equality of all individuals before the law and in the political arena. But these ostensibly universal principles are in fact uniquely western–they derive almost wholly and uniquely from the western political and philosophical tradition. They are distinctly western, not universal, principles. Yet despite that, I remain persuaded that they are universalizable principles. George W. Bush was wrong to believe that all people want democracy, yet despite the dangers of hubris, I will hold to the idea that in time perhaps all people will want democracy, and that this would be a good thing. But that truth–as I see it to be–can tempt us to think that we can and should hurry that process along in whatever way is necessary (and, of course, only we–the U.S.–have the authority to define what ways are necessary).

And as much as it may rankle non-Americans, Bacevich is absolutely right that there is a widespread belief in the U.S. that the rest of the world wants U.S. leadership. Didn’t WWII prove the value of our leadership? Didn’t our leadership of NATO forestall the worldwide advance of communism? Didn’t our leadership prove crucial in resolving the civil war in the Balkans, and in creating stability in the Middle East by containing, and ultimately eliminating, Saddam Hussein? This belief is not held just by those in the foreign policy establishment, but by the average American. It is unquestionable street wisdom, and to the extent it is questioned, the response is that some countries just don’t know what’s good for them, and if they did, they would welcome U.S. leadership. This is hubris of the most dangerous sort–once you convince yourself that what you’re doing is just, and that everyone else recognizes and welcomes your just actions, there is no readily definable limit to your actions, no clear and discrete stopping point. You lose the ability to properly judge the propriety of your own actions, and how far is too far.

The consequence of this consensus, Bacevich argues, is “a condition of permanent national security crisis.” This is an idea that has slowly dawned on me over the last decade or so. I’m not sure when I began to realize that the U.S. had become a national security state in the Cold War and had remained one ever since, but a slow accumulation of facts and ideas slowly resolved itself into this realization, which became a full-blown political awakening during the Bush administration. There are many political events that are indications of the national security state, from Truman’s seizure of the steel mills during the Korean conflict to Johnson’s explicit lie about the events in the Gulf of Tonkin (Daniel Ellsberg’s Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers was a real eye-opener), to Watergate (justified by Nixon to himself on the grounds that his re-election was crucial to national security) to Iran-Contra to the Persian Gulf War to Clinton’s decision to bomb the Balkans without seeking any authority from Congress to the Bush administration’s lying about Iraq’s possession of WMD and involvement in 9/11 and its claim of authority to wiretap Americans without warrants and to imprison Americans without habeus corpus, to the Obama administration’s blithe continuation of Bush’s policies. What passes for scandal now is a president receiving oral sex from a willing intern and wholly false concerns about whether a president’s birth certificate is real–the wholesale shift of authority to an unchecked legislative branch, which has claimed authority to nationalize property, deceive the public, rig elections, ignore laws bearing its signature, entirely ignore the constitutional rights of American citizens, and be unquestioned and unchallengeable in court…all that is blindly accepted without significant concern. “The Constitution is not a suicide pact,” Justice Jackson said, and we have taken that so to heart that the security of our nation has become the bedrock principle of our country, not the Constitution, and not our alleged ideals. We will restore the Constitution when the threat subsides, we think, and yet there is always a new threat on the horizon, so there is never a demand to restore the Constitution.

Perhaps it is too late, and perhaps we are lost. Benjamin Franklin allegedly said that during the constitutional convention there was a painting of a sun on the back of the chair occupied by George Washington, and that he could not tell whether it was a rising or a setting sun, but at length, with the successful completion of their work, “I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.” Today it is very likely that the sun is setting on the American republic. Not on the country we call the United States, but on the republic of free citizens the founders created.

The consensus convenes within its cultlike atmosphere both left and right in American politics, both Democrats and Republicans. Very few stand outside it, and very few of those outside it have anything resembling real influence. Elections occur and we watch as office-holders who are nominally of different parties bass the baton back and forth to each other, and marvel in the peaceful relinquishing of power. Yet there is no real change, because no one who stands outside that consensus ever receives that baton. Not Obama, certainly not Clinton, and not even Carter, who perhaps comes closest of modern presidents. Very few members of Congress, and many of those certifiably loony on other grounds, such as Kucinich and Paul. A sincere, thoughtful, critic of the consensus can operate only from outside the system, safely secure from any actual influence on those with decision-making authority.

Perhaps I sound overly pessimistic, even Cassandraish. I am pessimistic, deeply so. I think the national security state is creeping into our domestic policy now in ways that clearly foretell the end of anything resembling true liberty. If you want a more visceral and blunt expression of exactly how I feel, see here, and all the posts adjacent to it. We no longer have inalienable rights, as the Declaration claimed. We only have those rights the national security state is willing to forego, for the moment, abrogating. And we are told that these violations of liberty are all in the name of ensuring freedom. The Big Lie is part and parcel of the Washington Consensus.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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2 Responses to Washington Rules: The Advent of Semiwar

  1. D. C. Sessions says:

    [2] derives from [1] by way of the unstated principle that the USA would never accept any order that we didn’t control, and we have the power to refuse. It follows that any order must originate with us.

    This insistence on a sort of international autocracy directly contradicts [3] as long as [3] contains anything remotely like self-determination. Not that inconsistency is all that much of a problem, but ultimately (as you note) it runs the other way: a requirement for international autocracy, the core logic of empire, will inevitably lead to autocracy and loss of self-determination at home.

  2. D. C. Sessions says:

    BTW: the implicit blindness to the inevitability of regime change (as with the Bush Administration leaving unchecked executive power to the next Democrat in the White House) also means that when the balance of international power shifts, we will have built the mechanisms of our own domination by whoever acquires the whip hand.

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