Campaigning for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008, Senator Barack Obama said: “I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.”
But as Andrew Bacevich notes in his new book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, as President, Barack Obama has done the opposite: he has promoted and acted on behalf of the mindset that leads to war.
Most prominently, President Obama has so far missed every major exit ramp for starting to get out of Afghanistan, instead escalating militarily and “doubling down” on “counterinsurgency” in Afghanistan — Vietnam 2.0 — even as the war has become increasingly unpopular in the United States — as it has been in Afghanistan and in the rest of the world. The majority of Americans, three-quarters of Democrats, and three-fifths of House Democrats want President Obama to establish a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. But the White House so far refuses to even publicly discuss such a move, even as it claims to support “Afghan-led reconciliation” with leaders of the Afghan Taliban, which, if real, almost certainly would require a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces, a key demand of Afghan insurgents.
This is all the more striking as the Administration celebrates the drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq, because the centerpiece of the present relationship between the U.S. government and the Iraqi government is an agreement stipulating the total withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country by the end of 2011. That which is now the centerpiece of U.S. relations with Iraq is still mostly taboo for discussion among the “national security elite” regarding Afghanistan: a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces.
Bacevich puts President Obama’s stunning reversal in historical context: since Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, there has been a “Washington consensus” among the national security and foreign policy establishment for a policy of permanent war and for “power projection” around the globe to prepare for aggressive war. To follow through on his campaign promise to “end the mindset that got us into war” would compel President Obama to confront this establishment, something he obviously was not prepared to do. Instead, President Obama signaled to the national security establishment that they should ignore his campaign rhetoric, and that he would act instead on the broad imperial commitments of every President since Truman and Eisenhower, not only doubling down in Afghanistan but trying to declare the military budget off limits for cuts, escalating military attacks in Pakistan that have never been authorized by Congress, establishing political ground for a future war against Iran by pretending that Iran’s enrichment of uranium constitutes a threat to the personal security of Americans, helping to bring down the Japanese Prime Minister rather than submit to the popular Japanese demand to withdraw U.S. marines from Okinawa, supporting in deed if not initially in word the military coup in Honduras, establishing a new military basing agreement with Colombia, and replacing President Bush’s European “missile defense” with “missile defense lite,” just to name a few examples.
But Bacevich is an academic, so unlike President Obama he has no reason to worship at the altar of the national security establishment. Indeed, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War is a call for Americans to reject the Washington consensus for permanent war, global counterinsurgency, and global military power projection, and to demand instead that America “come home,” as Martin Luther King called for in 1967, and focus on resolving its own domestic problems rather than act as a self-appointed global police and occupation force.
Bacevich notes that a key feature of the permanent war intellectual, political, and media culture is that foreign policy fiascoes can’t be allowed to provoke fundamental questions about the direction of U.S. policy. Any “mistakes,” if they are acknowledged at all, are mistakes of execution. Vietnam was an aberration — no lessons that would fundamentally change policy are to be drawn. Indeed, the challenge of Vietnam is always to remove it from national discussion: to end the “Vietnam syndrome” that made Americans rightly skeptical about claims that the use of military force is morally justified and in Americans’ interest. The only historical analogy the Washington consensus establishment likes is Munich 1938. Our enemies are always the next Hitler, and any American who opposes the U.S. use of military force is always Neville Chamberlain. Our leaders’ intentions are always good, and anyone who doubts their inherent nobility is by definition an extremist.
Just as a previous generation of national security establishment leaders worked to rid America of the “Vietnam Syndrome” that made us rightly skeptical of claims for the morality and utility of war, so now we can expect leaders of the national security establishment to work to ensure that we don’t develop an “Iraq Syndrome” or “Afghanistan Syndrome” that would make us rightly skeptical, for example, of arguments for military confrontation with Iran. Bacevich’s book, one hopes, will help Americans develop and sustain this virtuous and noble Syndrome.
Bacevich’s story is compelling in part because of his personal history. As he recounts in the introduction, he was a “late bloomer” in his understanding and critique of the American empire. Bacevich was an officer for many years in the U.S. Army, and has described himself as a “Catholic conservative.”
This is important, because an important buttress in support of the permanent war and global military power projection policy of the Washington consensus is the current near-monolithic support for permanent war and global military power projection in the dominant institutions of the Republican Party. While polls show the majority of Republican voters tend to support the war in Afghanistan, for example, that support is not monolithic: a substantial minority of Republicans — 32%, according to a recent CBS poll — agrees with the super-majority of Democrats who think the U.S. should establish a timetable for military withdrawal from Afghanistan. But this substantial minority of Republicans who favor a timetable for withdrawal is virtually unrepresented in Washington. On July 1, when the House considered the McGovern-Obey-Jones amendment which would have required the President to establish a timetable for withdrawal, it was supported by 153 Democrats and 9 Republicans — 61% of the Democrats voting and 5% of the Republicans voting. Democratic voters who want to end the war were underrepresented, since 73% of Democratic voters support a timetable for withdrawal, as opposed to 61% of House Democrats. But Republican voters who want to end the war were far more spectacularly underrepresented, since 32% of Republican voters support a timetable for withdrawal, as opposed to 5% of House Republicans. Crucially, even if antiwar Democratic voters were fully represented in the House — if 73% of House Democrats had voted for a withdrawal timetable, instead of 61% — the amendment would still have failed, if only 5% of House Republicans supported it.
So a key task for ending the war — and preventing future wars, such as a future war with Iran for which the political groundwork is now being laid — is breaking the Republican political monolith in support of war. But this is a task for which the U.S. “peace movement,” as it presently exists, is ill-suited, since it largely consists of “progressives” without much institutional ability to appeal to or mobilize potentially anti-war Republicans.
Yet, the current state of affairs is by no means set in stone. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a key supporter of the war, recently told CNN his biggest fear is an “unholy alliance” of conservatives and liberals that could join forces to try to end the war.
This is why Bacevich’s new book is potentially important for the U.S. peace movement. Get the book, read it, give it to a Republican friend, and talk to them about it. Join Just Foreign Policy on September 24th for a “Virtual Brown Bag” with Andrew Bacevich, and try to virtually bring your Republican friend.
If every American who wants to live in peace with the world rather than constantly bombing, invading, and occupying it could just recruit one Republican to oppose the permanent war, Martin Luther King’s other dream could be fulfilled: America could “come home.”
Robert Naiman is National Coordinator of Just Foreign Policy. Naiman also edits the daily Just Foreign Policy news summary and blogs at the Web site of Just Foreign Policy. This article was first published in the Just Foreign Policy blog on 3 August 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.