As part of its annual 9/11 observance, UMass Lowell today presented a lecture by Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations and history at Boston University. Bacevich, a retired Army officer with a PhD from Princeton, has been a frequent critic of recent American foreign policy, especially our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today’s speech was excellent, both informative and provocative. It certainly got me thinking.
Professor Bacevich began by identifying two “continuities” that define post World War Two national security policy, what he calls “Washington Rules” (the title of his recent book) that are followed by the nation’s foreign policy elite regardless of which political party is in power. The first he called “The Credo” – that belief that America’s values should be projected around the world whether the world desires those values or not. The second rule is that America has a willingness to use coercive power to try to impose those values on others.
Bacevich contends that the American foreign policy establishment almost universally accepts these precepts despite scant evidence that they are accurate or that they are in the country’s best interests. He also said that these foreign policy beliefs reinforce what he called the military’s “sacred trinity” that (1) America must maintain a global military presence through active bases spread across the world; (2) that the military must be configured for global power protection, not for US defense; and (3) that 1 and 2 are combined to support global interventionism.
This policy of global interventionism is ironic given America’s isolationism before World War Two. Bacevich, a Vietnam combat veteran, suggests that our defeat in that war should have brought this interventionist impulse to an end. But it did not. The professor made the fascinating comparison of Germany’s reaction after World War One and America’s after Vietnam. Within fifteen years of the Treaty of Versailles, the German officer corps had succeeded in rewriting the history of the war, convincing everyone that the German army was not defeated on the battlefield, but was “stabbed in the back” by Jews and Leftists. Bacevich maintains that America’s “Vietnam Syndrome” – the understanding that we should only use military power as a last resort – lasted just fifteen years, as well, having been wiped away by a revisionism promoted by US military and foreign policy elites that America lost in Vietnam because it had been “stabbed in the back” by liberals, academics and the media. Fifteen years after the treaty of Versailles, Germany was fully rearmed and ready for a new war. Fifteen years after the fall of Saigon, America was fully rearmed and ready for a new war – a war which came with the invasion of Iraq. In both cases, the objective of the elite was to restore things to the way they were before the war (World War One and Vietnam) and to ignore the lessons of history.
Bacevich closed by saying that “Washington Rules” are now obsolete. They were devised at a time when America’s capabilities were at their peak and today, America doesn’t have the resources to support this strategy. It’s supposed to bring peace but instead it’s brought perpetual war. He said that our confidence in American military power reinforces American provincialism. With this approach, we don’t have to worry about what others think or desire and it allows us to ignore our own problems at home – like our dependence on cheap oil, cheap credit and cheap consumer goods. He was particularly critical of the Bush Administration’s policy of fighting two wars while granting massive tax cuts: Most American’s don’t have any connection with the service members who are fighting these wars; with the Bush tax cuts, we don’t even have a financial stake in the venture – that bill has been pushed down the road for future generations. What America needs now is the courage to engage seriously about these challenges with others and with each other.