Defense Policies, Then and Now

Article excerpt


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. …