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BOOK REVIEW: Defense policies, then and now
Politicians and scholars who challenge the conventional thinking on military and foreign policy are often dismissed as out-of-the-mainstream isolationists. Such an attitude often causes articulate advocates of alternative views to not be taken seriously or to be ignored altogether. It would be unfortunate if that is the fate of Boston University history and international relations professor Andrew J. Bacevich. His engaging and insightful book “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War” is a timely analysis and critique of contemporary and historical defense policies. His writing style is anything but wonkish, and he is great at the clever turn of phrase. He contends, for example, that the Department of Defense is misnamed and should be called the “Ministry of Global Policing.”
Mr. Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel whose son was killed in the Iraq War, challenges the approach to military policy that administrations of both parties have pursued since World War II. He argues that these rules have benefited the political, military and business establishments but haven’t done much for the country’s security or domestic prosperity. “Mainstream Republicans and mainstream Democrats are equally devoted to this catechism of American statecraft. Little empirical effort exists to demonstrate its validity, but no matter: When it comes to matters of faith, proof is unnecessary. In American politics, adherence to this creed qualifies as a matter of faith,” he writes.
It’s a valid assessment, to a point. While President Obama took the advice of military leaders in ordering a surge of troops in Afghanistan, he hasn’t brought some key figures in his party with him. Several party leaders, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., were strongly against the approach. Mr. Biden, ever the good administration member, has muted his criticism of the strategy. However, other key party members, including House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey of Wisconsin, haven’t been as bashful and have tried to use the budget process to cut funding for the military operations. Mr. Bacevich finds fault with both parties but is harder on Republicans, especially former President George W. Bush. He finds the Bush administration’s policy of preventive war to be the “ultimate expression of the prerogatives to which Washington lays claim” and a “moral and strategic abomination.”
Among the most interesting parts of the book are the discussions of the development of the post-World War II military machinery. Rather than just recounting events, Mr. Bacevich focuses on key figures that helped shape key institutions. He spends considerable time on the lives and careers of the late CIA Director John Foster Dulles and Strategic Air Command Commander Gen. Curtis LeMay. The profiles of both men, who were prominent from the late 1940s through the 1960s, aren’t flattering. In fact, LeMay comes across as a real-life Dr. Strangelove. However, readers come away with a thorough understanding of how we got where we are now.
When discussing more recent events, Mr. Bacevich criticizes the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but is harder on the one in Iraq. He thinks the war was poorly planned and executed and questions the motives of Mr. Bush and his top advisers, especially Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. His points are well-taken, but occasionally, he can’t resist a cheap shot. In noting that most of the war’s key architects hadn’t served in a war, he fails to note that several wartime chief executives - including President Franklin D. Roosevelt - never served in the military. It’s also an unnecessary dig at Mr. Rumsfeld, who was a U.S. Navy fighter pilot and served between the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Mr. Bacevich contends that the country’s defense policies have caused other countries to resent us and have drained financial resources away from domestic programs, such as education and repairing the infrastructure. Though that seems like a conventional liberal argument, the difference is that, unlike many of his ideological compatriots, Mr. Bacevich understands and respects the military and doesn’t advocate withdrawing from the world. He argues that the country would be better off if its military policy adhered to three principles: Our military’s main goal isn’t to combat evil or remake the world but to defend the country and its interests; the main “duty station” of military personnel is at home; the nation should use force as a last resort and only in self-defense.
Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively about history and politics.
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