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America Under the Caesars

Review of Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War by Andrew J. Bacevich
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Andrew J. Bacevich, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010), 304 pp., $25.00.

IN THE waning years of the Vietnam War, leftist and liberal opponents of the Cold War discovered that they shared much in common with the critics of these policies on the libertarian or traditionalist right. The result was a rebirth of a current of thinking about American foreign policy that is usually labeled isolationism but which, out of deference to members of this school who reject such a term as perhaps far too loaded, I shall instead describe as “anti-interventionism.”

This is a tradition that has long dominated American politics, and one that can find its heartland in the small-town America of the Midwest. In fact, its political eclipse lasted for a very short period of time indeed—from the selection of Dwight D. Eisenhower over Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft for president by the Republican Party in 1952 to the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1972 of George McGovern, with his slogan “Come Home, America.” Taft and McGovern were both products of the Midwest, which along with much of New England had been the center of opposition to U.S. participation in both world wars and the battle with the Soviet Union. The supporters of these conflicts were disproportionately found in the South and Southwest and among the Atlanticist financial and commercial elites of the northeastern cities. During the Cold War, the former diplomat George Kennan and the scholar William Appleman Williams argued for drastically reducing America’s military interventions and foreign commitments, as the influential historian and Indiana native Charles Beard had done in the 1930s and 1940s. Kennan and Williams, too, were products of the Midwest. Williams was an Iowan; Kennan hailed from Wisconsin and wrote elegantly about his pioneer roots. Whether they were on the left or right, all of these thinkers lamented the passing of pastoral, small-town Middle America and blamed social change in part on the effects of what they saw as American imperialism.

According to these men, the United States was once a country with a public-spirited, frugal citizenry and a limited government that abstained from aggression abroad. Then, at some point, the Republic was betrayed by elites who steered the United States on the course to perpetual empire and war. It is a narrative whose origins lie in a parallel between the United States and ancient Rome, which lost its republican government and became an autocratic empire under the Caesars.

Anti-interventionists do not agree on the exact moment when the American Republic gave way to the American empire. For some, the transition came with the rise of the Cold War “national-security state” during the administration of Harry Truman. For others, it was William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt’s “splendid little war” against Spain in 1898.

Nor is there universal agreement among anti-interventionists as to the motives of those who turned the Republic into an empire. For Williams, it was the desire of American mass-production industries to obtain foreign markets through a global Open Door economic policy. For Beard, it was the lust for power on the part of politicians like Franklin Roosevelt, whom Beard detested and accused of knowing about Pearl Harbor in advance (an accusation only slightly less deranged than the claim of “truthers” that 9/11 was staged by the U.S. government).

Yet whatever their differences, members of this school share the hope that a repudiation of most or all U.S. foreign-policy commitments and a dramatic reduction in armed forces can make possible a restoration of something like the idealized, small-town America of the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Midwest.

IN RECENT years, this venerable American tradition has found its most eloquent and influential champion in Andrew Bacevich. Now a professor of international relations and history at Boston University, Bacevich served in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, retiring from the army with the rank of colonel. Although he is a traditionalist conservative, or “paleoconservative,” Bacevich has found his audience chiefly on the liberal left, where he has filled the role of Kennan, another conservative and former insider whose views seemed to validate the Left’s critique of U.S. foreign policy.

In a number of books and articles, Bacevich has sought to revive the anti-interventionist approach. He has written sympathetically about Beard and wrote an introduction to a reprint of a book by Williams. He has also authored a series of polemics criticizing contemporary U.S. foreign policy, including The New American Militarism (Oxford University Press, 2006) and The Limits of Power (Metropolitan Books, 2008). Washington Rules is the latest salvo in this campaign.

Bacevich claims that the foreign policy of both parties is determined by four “Washington rules.” According to him, “Every president since Harry Truman has faithfully subscribed to these four assertions and Obama is no exception.”

The rules are as follows:

First, the world must be organized (or shaped). . . . Second, only the United States possesses the capacity to prescribe and enforce such a global order. . . . Third, America’s writ includes the charge of articulating the principles that should define the international order. . . . Finally, a few rogues and recalcitrants aside, everyone understands and accepts this reality.

Bacevich declares:

Mainstream Republicans and mainstream Democrats are equally devoted to this catechism of American statecraft. Little empirical evidence exists to demonstrate its validity, but no matter: When it comes to matters of faith, proof is unnecessary.

The Washington rules have condemned imperial America to perpetual “semiwar.”

This new offering portrays Bacevich’s increasing alienation from the U.S. foreign-policy consensus in terms of a narrative of awakening and repentance: “In measured doses, mortification cleanses the soul. It’s the perfect antidote for excessive self-regard.” His doubts about U.S. foreign policy began, he writes, when he visited the former Communist state of East Germany and discovered it to be run-down and impoverished. He took this, not as proof that the West’s superior system had prevailed over that of the Soviets, but as evidence that the Cold War threat had been exaggerated or nonexistent.

Like others in the tradition in which he writes, Bacevich views disasters like Vietnam and Iraq as the all-but-inevitable results of the hubris of America’s postrepublican empire builders. “George W. Bush’s decision to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 pushed [Bacevich] fully into opposition” to what he saw as a growing American willingness to adopt an aggressive posture across the world. Bacevich’s son Andrew, an army first lieutenant, was killed in Iraq.

IN THE same vein as Bacevich’s other recent books, Washington Rules is a polemic, not a dissertation, and should be judged by the standards of its genre. But even as such, Washington Rules will not persuade those who do not belong to the choir to whom Bacevich is preaching.

Bacevich recycles many of the references used by other anti-interventionist authors. Once again, we read that publishing magnate Henry Luce proclaimed the American Century. Once again, Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American is cited as evidence of the folly of American diplomacy in Vietnam, or elsewhere.

Bacevich also parades the familiar anti-interventionist pantheon, ranging from John Quincy Adams’s opposition to the Mexican-American War, through Dwight D. Eisenhower with his warning about the “military-industrial complex,” all the way to Vietnam War critics Martin Luther King Jr., William Fulbright and Mike Mansfield. Other than providing quotes that could be taken out of context and used as proof texts by later generations of anti-interventionist polemics, these figures have little in common—Adams, for example, may have opposed the Mexican War, but he favored the American acquisition of Cuba and the Pacific Northwest, and Fulbright was a reactionary segregationist, unlike his fellow Vietnam War critic King. Eisenhower supported the Johnson administration’s escalation of the war in Vietnam, a point never mentioned by the anti-interventionists who quote him about the military-industrial complex.

Like the isolationists of the 1930s and early 1940s who quoted George Washington’s warning against “entangling alliances” in his Farewell Address, Bacevich tries to enlist Washington as a patron saint of the anti-interventionist school:

Americans once believed—or at least purported to believe—that citizenship carried with it a responsibility to contribute to the country’s defense. In his “Sentiments on a Peace Establishment,” written in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution, George Washington offered the classic formulation of this proposition. “It may be laid down, as a primary position, and the basis of our system,” the general wrote, “that every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government, owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services to the defense of it.” Out of this proposal came the tradition of the citizen-soldier, the warrior who filled the ranks of citizen armies raised for every major war fought by the United States until that system foundered in Vietnam.

Turning George Washington, rather than Thomas Jefferson, into the champion of citizen militias does violence to history. In reality, Washington, like his wartime aide and later political ally Alexander Hamilton, was so appalled by the performance of state militias during the War of Independence that he supported a large and well-equipped standing army. At the Constitutional Convention, George Washington allegedly inspired Charles Cotesworth Pinckney to mock a proposal that the constitution limit the regular army to several thousand men by asking whether invading foreign armies would agree to the same limitation. And Washington was far from a Middle American populist. He ruthlessly kicked squatters off the vast acreage that he owned as a speculator in the future Midwest, and when frontier farmers rose up against excise taxes in the Whiskey Rebellion, the wealthy, slave-owning president mounted the saddle and led the U.S. Army to intimidate them into submission. Indeed, late in life, William Appleman Williams, one of the predecessors whom Bacevich so admires, came to believe that the adoption of the Constitution had set the United States on the course to imperial aggrandizement. Washington was as much a power-mongering imperialist for Williams as FDR was for Beard.

BACEVICH’S RHETORICAL technique here resembles that found in similar works by linguist Noam Chomsky, the late historian Howard Zinn, and their imitators on the anti-military left and the anti-interventionist right. The heroes in Bacevich’s narrative include Midwesterners who see through the pretensions of the conceited East Coast elite. For example, Bacevich writes the following about former–Marine Corps Commandant David Shoup, who criticized the Vietnam War:

Like Fulbright, David Shoup was a son of the Middle Border, born and raised in Indiana and carrying to Washington a wariness of East Coast elites. . . . In a speech to a gathering of students in Los Angeles on May 14, 1966, the former marine revealed his own populist inclinations, targeting what he saw as the bogus rendering of U.S. history that Americans had been conditioned to accept. In surveying the landscape of the past, Shoup saw mostly lies.

One senses a self-portrait in this description.

When it comes to those with whom he disagrees, the mocking of major figures in U.S. foreign policy following World War II, whether liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican, that goes on in Washington Rules seems mean-spirited after a while.

A few examples will have to stand in for many others. CIA Director Allen Dulles was “the great white case officer.” One imagines Bacevich’s audience of populists and leftists hissing at his frequent cues: “A cool, urbane, Princeton-educated patrician. . . . Breeding and education seemingly fitted Dulles for his sensitive post. If the United States was going to dirty its hands in the spy business, at least there was a gentleman in charge.” One American policy maker after another suffers from denigration-by-description. General David Petraeus:

Petraeus was a gifted officer, identified early in his career as someone meant for big things. Among his most prominent gifts were those of a courtier: The young Petraeus displayed a considerable talent for cultivating influential figures, both in and out of uniform, who might prove useful in advancing his own prospects. And he was nothing if not smart.

Now and then Bacevich uses the cartoonist’s art to draw caricatures of U.S. foreign-policy makers as a group. “Beginning with Franklin Roosevelt, every U.S. president had insisted that at the far side of America’s resistance to totalitarianism world peace awaited. The reward for exertions today was to be a reduced need for exertions on the morrow.” Bacevich expects his audience to nod in agreement at the folly of Roosevelt and his successors, but a critical reader might ask: if that was really their belief, weren’t they correct? After all, the defeat of Nazi Germany allowed the United States to rapidly demobilize up until the Korean War, and the defeat and collapse of the Soviet Union allowed Washington and its allies to dramatically draw down their troop numbers and military spending. Indeed, Bacevich’s constant editorializing and sarcasm are used to point the reader to a conclusion that the factual narrative itself does not necessarily support.

NOWHERE IS this more true than in Bacevich’s treatment of the Cold War, which echoes the polemical literature of the anti-interventionist Left between the 1960s and the 1980s. Those works sought to make U.S. policy toward Korea, Indochina, Cuba and Latin America appear ludicrous and irrational, by insisting that these conflicts were not what they in fact were—proxy wars in great-power struggles—but unprovoked attacks by a bullying superpower on small countries whose regimes were really independent of Moscow and Beijing. Much of that writing has been discredited since the end of the Cold War, by the partial publication of Soviet archives, which shed light on the workings of other regimes, and the controlled releases of material by China, North Korea and Vietnam. All tell a far more complicated story than the simple tale of unprovoked American aggression.

Scholars are still sorting through the reams of new information, but already the material has transformed our understanding of the Cold War. For example, during that struggle many American historians claimed that North Korea’s invasion of the South caught Stalin and Mao by surprise. We now know that Stalin and Kim Il Sung arranged the attack and consulted with Mao in advance. We have learned that Soviet pilots took part in air combat with their American counterparts in the skies above Korea, while hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops were stationed in North Vietnam during the mid-1960s, running the North’s infrastructure, manning antiaircraft defenses and enabling North Vietnamese regulars to infiltrate South Vietnam.

One could still make an argument against the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as America’s anti-Castro policy. But even a critic of American foreign policy, in a book on the subject published in 2010, ought to cite some of the voluminous scholarship about the Cold War from the other side that has been published since 1989. Instead, there is not a single reference in Bacevich’s book to this growing body of work.

THIS DEMONSTRATES one of the fundamental weaknesses of the type of foreign-policy thinking which Bacevich has embraced and seeks to revitalize. Its basic article of faith is that since the 1940s or the 1890s (if not the 1790s), U.S. policy makers have invented nonexistent threats or exaggerated real threats in order to justify military buildups and military interventions which, in fact, serve other purposes: opening foreign markets, winning elections for hawkish politicians, or padding the resumes of careerist diplomats and soldiers. In order to make that case, however, an anti-interventionist historian must demonstrate—using evidence from the other side, not just from the United States—that Washington’s enemies were never threats at all, except in the imaginations of American policy makers. Simple assertion is not enough.

In the great-power struggles of the twentieth century, America was joined by other great-power allies. Russia, Britain and France fought with the United States against Germany twice, and when the Cold War ended, Washington was formally allied with the major European powers and Japan, and informally with the People’s Republic of China. French President François Mitterrand, a socialist, flew to Bonn to persuade the West German Bundestag to allow the installation of U.S. missiles. If leaders in Washington invented or exaggerated the threats from Germany and the Soviet Union, were leaders in London, Paris, Moscow, Bonn, Tokyo and Beijing equally foolish or equally hypocritical, all at the same time? Were America’s allies colluding with Washington to pretend that there were threats to their shared interests when none in fact existed? An older generation of anti-interventionists proposed a solution to this problem: gullible Americans were tricked into fighting on behalf of the British Empire in two world wars and the Cold War, with the help of Anglophiles (and, in some versions, Jews) on the East Coast. Bacevich does not propound such conspiracy theories, but absent some sort of international elite collusion, it is difficult to understand why a number of great powers would engage in hot or cold war together against another great power or great powers. Unless, of course, the threats were real.


A DIFFERENT problem weakens Bacevich’s arguments against our most recent forays into Iraq and Afghanistan. Anti-interventionists always proclaim that not only are the threats themselves ephemeral but also the military spending required to fight them will inevitably lead to our downfall. It is one thing to oppose the Iraq War and the escalation of the Afghan war because they are unnecessary conflicts that have inflicted needless suffering on the people of those countries, as well as American soldiers and their families—a view I share. It is quite another to claim that the United States cannot afford them. Bacevich argues that America’s perpetual “semiwar” policy is on the verge of bankrupting the country. According to Bacevich, “Promising prosperity and peace, the Washington rules are propelling the United States toward insolvency and perpetual war.” He points to the national debt and deficits:

A study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office forecast trillion-dollar deficits for the next decade. Based on that analysis, by 2019 the total size of the national debt is likely to surpass $21 trillion, an amount substantially greater than the nation’s GDP.

But relatively little of that red ink is the result of military spending, even on two simultaneous wars. The chief short-term cause is the collapse of government revenues, as a result of the global economic crisis. Long-term budget shortfalls are caused partly by the Bush tax cuts and partly by the escalating costs of Medicare, which are driven by industry-wide medical-cost inflation in the United States. If America were to adopt measures to ensure that its citizens pay no more for doctors, hospitals or drugs than those in other industrial democracies, then projected deficits will shrink dramatically. Certainly, if medical costs are not contained, the U.S. economy will be wrecked, even if the United States radically downsizes the military.

AS A passionate and articulate exponent of the American anti-interventionist tradition, Bacevich is a worthy successor to Kennan, Williams and Beard. But that tradition is not convincing, either in its portrayal of American foreign policy as an avoidable decline from republic to empire, or its assumption that America’s economic and social problems would be significantly different if the United States adopted a minimalist defense strategy. It is not enough to offer an alternative to America’s foreign-policy orthodoxy. The alternative must be plausible.