on 3 November 2010
Washington Rules is the book that you'd hope that everyone in power would read, especially in the western democracies, and of course in the USA. But they won't, and if they did, they'd ignore it. Especially in the USA. Andrew Bacevich is in no two minds about this, indeed his book even underlines the fact.
Written by a Boston history professor who in a previous existence was a professional American soldier with the rank of colonel, the book examines clearly and succinctly just what the US is up to as it performs its self-appointed role of global policeman and why it feels it necessary to perform this task at all.
Bacevich experienced an epiphany when, still in the army, he visited East Germany when the Wall came down. So this was the mighty foe he had spent his professional existence combating - a nation of run-down factories, crumbling infrastructure and antiquated cars. It dawned on him that the image he had been given of an all-powerful menace which might leap into aggressive action at any given moment, was something less than the truth. It sparked his own education, a desire to understand what were the mechanics behind US actions.
What he came up with, and what the book examines, was that the US has been acting for the entire post-war period under a credo which states that the US, and the US alone, should lead, save, liberate and ultimately transform the world, for such purposes as it sees fit, and in any way that it sees fit. This problematic credo - problematic for the rest of the globe, which hasn't much asked to be led, saved, liberated or transformed - is enacted through what Bacevich describes as a sacred trinity of global military presence, global power projection, and global interventionism. Suddenly, America's actions since WW2 all start to make sense. Taken together, the credo and the trinity make up what Bacevich terms the Washington Rules, which are so sacrosanct that changes of presidents and alternating parties in power have absolutely no effect on them - or how the US conducts itself abroad.
Bacevich must have been wasted in the army. His prose is clear, highly readable and written stylishly. His thesis is similarly well exposed, and easy to follow. As you accompany him through his synopsis of America's involvement in wars from Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf and Afghanistan, all the elements of the jigsaw fall into place. His straw man imaginings of how we would all feel if China decided to act exactly as the US has done - military bases and personnel all around the globe, more military spending than the rest of the world put together, a stockpile of nuclear weapons that vastly exceeds anything that it could reasonably ever find a use for - are chilling. Could this not be how many of the world's inhabitants feel about US intentions?
The fact that the author has devoted a fair chunk of his adult life to toiling in the service of the Washington Rules only makes his narrative more credible.
So where will it all end? Bacevich implies, in bankruptcy. The level of US debt and the cost of servicing that debt, will mean that the prodigious amounts spent on "defence" are unsustainable over time. But the Washington Rules are so ingrained, and benefit the cabal of the powerful to such a degree, that they are unlikely to be abandoned until American society finally implodes and is sucked into a financial maelstrom. The author makes the point that if the Americans only spent their considerable wealth and resources on themselves and fixing their own society and leaving everyone else alone, they would all be a lot richer and happier. It is ironic that a country so increasingly obsessed with God and religion, who feel themselves to be the chosen ones, should be so impervious to the admonition to "remove the plank from your own eye before you attempt to remove the mote of dust from your neighbour's". But they just can't see it.
Does this book tell us what we didn't already know or at least strongly suspect? Not really, if you have any interest in this sort of thing. But Bacevich's contribution is in the clarity of his exposition. It is so limpid, you wonder just how the western world - with the British establishment foremost among it - can be so duped. As for the population of the US itself, with its Tea Parties, it's fundamentalism and its increasing drift to the right, it increasingly looks as if it is in some propaganda-injected stupor from which it might never awake. Don't expect global peace anytime soon.