Presidents may come and go, but national security stays the same, according to Andrew Bacevich, a former U.S. Army colonel and professor of history and international relations at Boston University. “I have become increasingly skeptical,” Bacevich said, “about the tendency toward overmilitarization.” Continuing the study he began in his previous two books, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War and The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Bacevich argues in Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War that the U.S. is always at war, and we can no longer afford it. Below, he chats about why U.S. policy needs to change, and why Barack Obama missed his chance to do it.
Q. When did the U.S. become a global military presence, and what were the initial reasons for it?
A. U.S. military history really offers a complex and colorful story. Up until about 1945, you could make the case that we were both a highly belligerent nation and also a nation that maintained a deep-seated skepticism about military institutions. With the end of World War II – after which we were vaulted to the summit of global power, and found ourselves confronting a Soviet rival – that skepticism about military power was gradually swept aside. The post-World War II strategy of containment, designed as a response to the perceived Soviet threat, took a highly militarized form. That led the U.S. to maintain larger peacetime military forces than it had ever done, to configure those as an instrument of power projection, and also to position U.S. forces in large numbers outside the confines of the country. This is a practice that the Cold War seemingly made necessary. But it was a practice that had become so deeply ingrained in how Washington works and how Washington sees the world that when the Cold War ended, and the justification for these habits went away, nonetheless the habit remained. It’s taken for granted and barely questioned.
Q. Why didn’t the Vietnam War return us to that feeling of skepticism about the military?
A. That’s a good question. The Vietnam War did for a time call into question these habits. If we could imagine American opinion back in, let’s say, 1972 or 1975, that skepticism of military power had been renewed. And your question is, why didn’t the war have a lasting effect? In Washington Rules, what I argue is that the reason Vietnam didn’t have a lasting effect on the way we viewed or configured military power is that people were devoted to what I call the Washington Rules, devoted to that set of habits that developed in the wake of World War II. They were really quite determined to ensure that the so-called lessons of Vietnam would not be long-lasting. They were quite determined in that sense to reverse the verdict that Vietnam had seemingly rendered about U.S. national security policy.
What I found was that they could be remarkably successful in that effort, and in a remarkably short period of time. Five years after the fall of Saigon we elected Ronald Reagan, who for all practical purposes offered a revisionist take on the war that said it was an honorable cause, and one in which the only reason we lost is because American military was denied the opportunity to increase troops. This is a completely fallacious interpretation, but it was one that found favor with large numbers of American people. If you fast-forward another decade to 1991, to the time of Operation Desert Storm, that war occurs almost coincidentally at the end of the Cold War, at the particular moment that the U.S. had triumphed, in an ideological or political sense. With this small war against Saddam Hussein, the perception was – and it was a false perception – that the U.S. demonstrated that it had really achieved the summit of military perfection. By the time we’re in the 1990s, the conventional wisdom is that the U.S. possessed an unstoppable military machine. This very much opens the door to a pattern of more frequent intervention in the years following the Cold War.
Q. Can you give me an overview of the U.S. military presence abroad today?
A. There is only one country in the world that, as a matter of policy, maintains a global military presence and that is the U.S. We have literally hundreds of facilities abroad, not all of them large, but literally hundreds of facilities – bases, pieces of property – that in one way or another are owned and operated by the Pentagon. None are unimportant. After the Cold War, our global military presence began to shift in response to what we perceived to be new threats. If we mapped the U.S. military presence in the 1950s and the 1960s and the 1970s, the map would show that the two top priorities, as far as the Pentagon was concerned, were Western Europe and East Asia. If we look at that map today, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, there’s still a substantial presence in Europe and East Asia, but certainly it’s shifted to the region some call the greater Middle East, or others call the Islamic world, so that the center of gravity of our actions overseas happens in that large swath of territory from the Persian Gulf over to Central Asia.
Q. Is this a symptom of the condition you call semiwar? What does that mean?
A. It’s a term coined by James Forrestal, a fascinating figure who’s now mostly forgotten, who served as the Secretary of the Navy during World War II. After the war he became the first Secretary of Defense. In the immediate wake of World War II, Forrestal was in the front ranks of senior officials in Washington who were warning that the end of World War II and the defeat of Germany and Japan did not open the doors to peace, but rather, we faced a new great threat in the form of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Empire. What Forrestal argued was that the threat – the danger it posed to U.S. security and interests – was such that we faced a period of quasi-permanent danger. In effect, he said, this would require us to be permanently mobilized for war. Semiwar was the term he used for this.
One of the things that’s interesting here is how this notion of permanent military crisis survived the end of the Cold War itself. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I more or less assumed that the Cold War would go on forever. I understood it to be a great national security crisis. What astonished me when the Cold War ended, when I was middle-aged, was that even though this ostensibly great threat had now disappeared, the conviction that we still faced a permanent national security crisis remained very much alive in the national security establishment and more broadly in Washington, D.C.
So the end of the Cold War didn’t bring semiwar to an end. Rather, the conditions of semiwar simply continued. And in the wake of 9/11, people in the Bush administration, or other proponents of the so-called global war on terror, began to speak of a national security crisis that, as far as they were concerned, was destined to go on for decades. That crisis once again provided renewed justification for the kind of national security policy we had pursued during the Cold War.
Q. Given that terrorism does seem like a worldwide threat, why isn’t a global military presence the answer?
A. There has been a tendency, whether conscious or inadvertent, to misconstrue and to inflate the threats we face. I would want to be clear that I do believe we face threats. I don’t deny that there is a phenomenon we might call violent Islamic radicalism that poses a threat. 9/11 did indeed happen. But I don’t believe that the threat is an existential one. I think it’s serious, but it doesn’t threaten the existence of our country. I’m quite certain that launching an open-ended global war – occupying countries with the declared intention of transforming them – doesn’t provide the basis for a sound strategy to address this threat. Moreover, it’s not simply that the policies we’ve followed since 9/11 have not reduced the threat- they’ve probably increased the threat – but they’re also unaffordable. We’ve spent easily a trillion dollars in pursuit of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention in the lesser theaters, like Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines. And that’s money that we can’t really afford to spend. One of the many differences between our current circumstances and the early days of the Cold War is that in those days, we were indeed the richest country in the world. We had the money. We had the stuff. The rest of the world wanted to buy the stuff. That’s no longer the case. We don’t have the money. We’re spending money we don’t have hand-over-fist in order to sustain an American way of life that is based on conspicuous consumption. The strategy we’ve pursued not only doesn’t work, it is also fiscally irresponsible.
Q. How has Obama’s presidency transformed our military presence, if at all, and how do you think he’s doing?
A. I certainly voted for President Obama, and I very much want to see him be a successful president. I think he’s done some things that are important. That said, I see no evidence that he intends to undertake any large-scale changes in what I have called the Washington Rules. I think his opportunity to both signal his intention to bring about change and to start that process was the Afghanistan decision. In escalating the war in Afghanistan, in committing himself to his own so-called surge, he made a decision that is for all practical purposes identical to the decision that John McCain would have made had we elected him president. I think the Afghanistan decision unfortunately really was one of those crossing the Rubicon moments. The president committed himself to an approach to national security that has implications that go well beyond the question of Afghanistan. Afghanistan was the chance to begin the process of bringing about fundamental changes in national security policy, and the president I think blew that chance.
Q. Do you think there will be another opportunity for him, or any president, to make that change in the future?
A. I fear there won’t be another chance. When the president made this decision, he promised to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan beginning in July of next year. There’s still a great amount of debate about what he meant by that, and a great deal of debate about how, if at all, he will fulfill that commitment. My belief is by the time we get to the summer of 2011, domestic political considerations will very much be influencing decisions in the White House, as they always do. But we’ll be approaching the 2012 presidential election. I think it will be very difficult for the president at that point to do anything that signals he’s pulling out of Afghanistan. The war today in Afghanistan is not going well. It’s not likely to be going well next summer. The president won’t want to run for reelection with what appears to be the failure of Obama’s war. My bet would be that the White House will look for some way to finesse that withdrawal deadline, to argue that things are heading in the right direction, which will end up with Obama’s running for reelection with the war still underway.
It is very difficult for this president or any president to change course. One of the things I argue is that the durability of the Washington Rules, even in a changing global environment, stems in part from the fact that Washington benefits from those rules. The national security consensus may not provide for effective policies at a reasonable cost to the American people, but it does support the military-industrial complex. It does sustain large budgets and considerable status for the institutions comprising the national security state. It helps provide a source of campaign funds for members of Congress to get reelected. It provides opportunities for ambitious officials to imagine that they are at the center of great historical events. Washington is deeply invested in the Washington rules. For that reason it becomes quite difficult. Any president who wants to bring about change to or jettison those rules is going to find tremendous opposition. I believe when President Obama came to office, at that particular moment, he enjoyed such enormous cult stature that had he wanted to make the change, he could have. But that moment has passed. I think the institutional barriers to change are now just about insurmountable.
*Photo of Andrew Bacevich by Kalman Zabarsky. Photo of soldiers in Afghanistan courtesy The U.S. Army.