Some Thoughts on Washington Rules

John Quincy Adams

Some Thoughts on Washington Rules

[America] is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only to her own.

–President John Quincy Adam (232)

The Muslim masses just need to be shown that it’s possible to set themselves free.

–President George W. Bush Max Boot(184)

We did not choose to be the guardians at the gate, but there is no one else.

–President Lyndon Baines Johnson (247)

What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?

–Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to General Colin Powell (142)

We have to be forward deployed in Europe and in Asia in order to shape people’s opinions about us in ways that are favorable to us. To shape events that will affect our livelihood and our security. And we can do that when people see us, they see our power, they see our professionalism, they see our patriotism, and they say that’s a country we want to be with. So we are shaping events on a daily basis in ways that are favorable to our interests. You can only do that if you’re forward deployed.

–Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen (148)

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

–President Dwight David Eisenhower (225)

Power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is peculiarly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God’s favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations–to make them richer and happier and wiser, to make them, that is, in its own shining image.

–Senator J. William Fulbright (111)

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

–Soldier and Historian Andrew J. Bacevich (16)

In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, the few thinking Americans who refused to submit to War Fever were prone to feeling the effects of Marilyn Munster Syndrome (MMS). Everyone around us was acting weird, yet we were the ones who were generally regarded as freaks. People who should have known better were saying all kinds of ridiculous things on television. For example, the absurd proposition that Saddam Hussein (or anyone else, for that matter) would go to all of the trouble of developing nuclear weapons and then just give them away to people who thought he was a heretic (thereby relinquishing all the advantages of having such weapons while receiving no strategic advantage) was rarely challenged in world of Serious Washington Punditry.

Enter Andrew Bacevich, paleoconservative soldier and historian who had the wit, wherewithal and wisdom to see through George W. Bush’s harebrained scheme designed to usher in a NeoWilsonian age of perpetual paradise on earth.

Unlike so many commenters, however, Bacevich refuses to pretend that the belligerent foreign policy conducted by the Bush administration represents a substantial departure from policies of every president since Truman. Yes, Bush’s absurdly named and pitifully executed Global War on Terror has become a punchline, “redolent with deception, stupidity, and monumental waste,” but the predilection to seek simple military fixes to complex diplomatic problems has been a feature of every postwar administration (166). (Ford had the Mayaguez Incident and Carter had the failed hostage rescue mission.)

According to Bacevich, America finds herself caught up in two wars without any palatable exit strategy not simply because “the Bush administration had blundered into an immense cul-de-sac, from which it could not extricate itself” (180-181). Rather, a postwar political consensus (which Bacevich dubs the Washington Rules) has created a climate wherein the use of force is our first and favored response to conducting international relations. Thus we find ourselves in a situation where our

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 (17).

Although the “standard story line, promulgated by journalists and indulged by scholars, depicts that history as a succession of presidential administrations,” Bacevich believes that “when it comes to assessing reality, slicing the past into neat four- or eight- year-long intervals conceals and distorts at least as much as it illuminates” (30, 31). The colossal stupidity and incompetence of the most recent Bush administration notwithstanding, there is overwhelming continuity in the conduct of American foreign policy. Bacevich’s Washington Rules represent a “consensus [which] has remained in tact” for almost the entire postwar era, spanning “[f]rom the era of Harry Truman to the age of Barack Obama” (15).

For most of our history, America has validated our founders’ distrust of Standing Armies by quickly demobilizing after war. But since Harry Truman decided that he needed to “scare hell out of the American people” in order to justify the creation of a permanent military establishment which would be large enough to challenge the Soviet Union for global domination, presidents have demanded a greater and greater arsenal in order to project American power. (Alleged doves like Carter and Kennedy actually expanded military budgets. Kennedy’s military outlays rose 15 during his first year in office (63). This departure from the sensible American tendency to eschew excessive foreign entanglements does not bode well for the future of the American Experiment. This new American ethos is a tradition which

has emphasized activism over example, hard power over soft, and coercion (often styled “negotiation from a place 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 WWII, Americans by and large viewed military power and institutions with skepticism, if not outright hostility. In the wake of WWII, that changed. An affinity for military might emerged as central to the American identity (13).

Today America finds herself in a truly distressing situation. Embroiled in two major wars, our soldiers are pursuing a “pipe dream” as they are forced to attempt “social work with guns,” a misbegotten undertaking under any circumstances (204, 201). In Iraq our senseless quest for security has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of noncombatants and the displacement of millions more. And we continue to charge headlong into a quagmire in Afghanistan, ten years of war in search of a justification. Yet,

Whether or not Afghans wished to be saved and exactly how they viewed salvation were matters that attracted scant attention (183).

The greatest and most enduring culprit in this sad, sad, sordid tale is the American defense establishment, a suppurating wound on the body politic which has already spewed trillions of corrupt dollars like so much pus.

This money lubricates American politics, filling campaign coffers and providing a source of largess–jobs and contracts–for distribution to constituents (228).

Sadly, there is little hope that America is prepared confront reality any time soon. Despite promising hope and change, President Obama “forfeited his opportunity to undertake a serious reassessment of the basic approach to national security formulated of the course of the preceding six decades” (220).

America is going down the tubes yet no one has been able to explain “why fixing Helmand Province should take precedence over fixing Cleveland and Detroit” (220).

by Richard W. Bray

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