I finished Andrew Bacevich’s Washington Rules last night, and it’s a worthy successor to his New American Imperialism and Limits of Power. Bacevich tells the story of how the “rules” that govern the U.S. foreign policy consensus–in brief, the imperative to maintain American military hegemony and capability for “power projection” at all costs–have been maintained and enforced, even when events threatened to overturn them (e.g., Vietnam). He reviews the emergence of the post-World War II national security state, the development of American nuclear policy under Gen. Curtis LeMay, the Cold War chicanery of the CIA, the futility of Vietnam, and the short-lived post-Cold War and post-Gulf War euphoria about the U.S.’s supposedly unrivalled military prowess. In each case, the hubris of the “best and brightest” led to unintended consequences and, in more than a few cases, unmitigated disasters.
Bacevich brings us up to date with a recounting of the so-called revolution in military affairs and its culmination in the second Iraq war (including a demolition of the supposed success of the “surge” and a pointed critique of the war as a total strategic failure judged by the criteria of its own architects), as well as the newly recovered fashion for counterinsurgency (COIN) wars. Unfortunately, as Bacevich makes clear, the Obama administration, and its policy of doubling down in Afghanistan, represents far less of a break with the existing foreign policy consensus than some of its supporters (and critics) would have us believe. We are, he thinks, headed for some kind of disaster as we try to maintain an increasingly far-flung and unsustainable global empire. Bacevich would have us “tend our own garden” and address the very real problems facing the United States–recalling the George Washington/John Quincy Adams tradition of America primarly as an exemplar of liberty and democracy instead of a global policeman. A disillusioned conservative, Bacevich also points to an eclectic array of home-grown social critics (including George Kennan, William J. Fulbright, Christopher Lasch, and Martin Luther King) who can help point the way for America to “come home” and focus on fashioning a polity that secures liberty and justice for all, rather than going abroad seeking monsters to destroy. Highly recommended.