September 06, 2010

On Bacevich, Part I

The last time I saw Andrew Bacevich was a month or so ago, and he chastised me for not responding to this piece he wrote on the New Republic's website. I explained that I had been busy finishing a draft of my dissertation but that I would give it some thought and would respond. I have been thinking a lot about morality and foreign policy since, so Part II of this will be a response to what Prof. Bacevich wrote.

This post, though, is a brief review of Bacevich's new book, Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War. Overall, I enjoyed the book -- though not as much as his earlier one, The Limits of Powerir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0805090169 -- and recommend it. Let me divide up my comments, though, into the good, the bad and the ugly:

The Good:

1. The strongest sections of this book were the beginning and the end, where Bacevich diagnoses what he sees as the central delusion ailing U.S. foreign policy and then provides an alternative. As he sees it, we Americans are bound by a foolish and sacred trinity: "an abiding conviction that the minimum essentials of international peace and order require the United States to maintain a global military presence, the configure its forces for global power projection, and to counter existing or anticipated threats by relying on a policy of global interventionalism."

Bacevich suggests, by way of an alternative, that we should replace this trinity with another: "First, the purpose of the U.S. military is not to combat evil or remake the world, but to defend the United States and its most vital interests. ... Second, the primary duty station of the American soldier is in America. ... Third, consistent with Just War tradition, the United States should employ force only as a last resort and only in self-defense."

Bacevich complains loudly and frequently in Washington Rules that people who suggest things such as this are often denounced with the inevitably pejorative term "isolationist", but if I comb back through the political science literature on what some called "Middle Western Isolationism" or "Midwestern Isolationism" (Billington, 1945; Smuckler, 1953; Rieselbach and Russett, 1960), it's possible to see in Bacevich, a Midwesterner, an inheritor of this tradition -- at least in terms of his preferences for how big the U.S. military should be and where it should be based and employed. If I were him, I would just own the term "isolationist" and let the haters hate. Instead of preemptively denouncing those who would accuse him of isolationism, it might have born more fruit had Bacevich instead asked his readers, in light of what you have seen in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan ... why is isolationism so bad?

2. The sections on Allen Dulles and Curtis LeMay make for fun, revisionist history. And again, I mean that word revisionist in a non-pejorative way.

3. I linked to these clownish anti-war demontrators on my Twitter account the other day and bemoaned what passes for the anti-war left in America these days. I spoke too soon. On the one hand, although you're more likely to see Bacevich on Democracy Now! these days than in the pages of the National Review, Bacevich's criticisms of U.S. foreign and defense policy are more rooted in his conservativism than in any common cause with the Left. On the other hand, I still think Andrew Bacevich is the most eloquent anti-war voice in America these days on either the Left or the Right. This book is a very positive contribution to the national conversation about how we maintain and use our military.

The Bad:

1. The sections on counterinsurgency, Iraq and Afghanistan are sloppy. Bacevich sometimes engages with those with whom he disagrees with an impressive degree of seriousness -- combing through David Petraeus's doctoral dissertation, for example, and carefully studying the speeches of Clinton Era officials. Other times he picks out individual voices and holds them up to be emblematic of larger trends. My boss, for example, has written about “global counterinsurgency”, a concept for which few other counterinsurgency theorists have much enthusiasm but Bacevich uses like the bogey man to scare his readers about the future of U.S. policy. In Bacevich’s book, counterinsurgency theorists are like the Borg: we all think the same, and none of us is trying to devise pragmatic operational solutions to disastrous situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather, we are part of some larger project, trying to protect a foolish concept of American power and power projection because we are rewarded with the glittering riches that come with think tank fellowships.

Elsewhere, Bacevich makes assertions without backing them up in facts. He says, for example, that counterinsurgency theorists and military analysts are loathe to acknowledge factors other than U.S. military operations might have led to the drop in violence in Iraq in 2007. But I heard Steve Biddle give a public lecture about the variety of factors he felt led to the drop in violence as early as the summer of 2008, and I have heard and read many other counterinsurgency theorists say and write as much since.

This third fourth of the book was maddening to read because it struck me as disingenuous. Bacevich was not trying to preach to the unconverted or admit that some of those with whom he disagrees might be onto something. He was simply presenting his own simplistic versions of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to counter other, earlier simplistic readings of the wars.

2. For Bacevich, "Washington" is not just the 202 area code or the federal government, but "think tanks ... interest groups ... lawyers, lobbyists, fixers, former officials ... retired military officers ... big banks and other financial institutions, defense contractors and major corporations, television networks ... The New York Times ... the Council on Foreign Relations and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government."

This is all so similar to one of the mistakes John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt made with their book about "The Israel Lobbyir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0374531501." Had they confined their field of inquiry to the activities and effects of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, they might have written an interesting and probably dull article. Instead, they constructed a massive conspiracy "lobby" including everyone from think tanks to professors to -- you guess it! -- the New York Times. I do not think casting such a wide net helped their cause, and I do not think it helps that of Bacevich either.

3. I also feel Bacevich has traded in one set of assumptions -- the challenges to which he says he resisted for years -- for another set. I fear Bacevich is on some kind of crusade at this point that is less about engaging with the other side in reasoned debate or considering the political realities facing policy-makers and more about scoring polemical points. "A young man in a hurry is nearly uneducable," he writes. This is certainly true. Equally true is that "better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice." I worry Bacevich has not become more open minded through his "education" but rather just as close minded as before -- but on another end of the ideological spectrum.

The Ugly:

1. The thing I dislike most about Bacevich’s writing is when he talks about the personal failings of his antagonists as if they somehow lend extra ammunition to Bacevich’s arguments concerning the policies those antagonists promoted. So Allen Dulles's alleged womanizing is brought up in this book, as was James Forrestal's personal failings in Bacevich's last book. (Although you will note the policies of neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama get any added credit for the principals being devoted family men and good parents.) For a guy who writes about "the intractability of the human condition," you would think Bacevich would understand that all of the actors in U.S. foreign policy -- "good" and "bad" -- are as sinful and broken as the rest of us. Have a little mercy on them, eh?