Mises Daily December 21, 2010

December 21, 2010

Mises Daily

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Playing by the Rules
by Anders Mikkelsen on December 21, 2010

Andrew Bacevich’s new book, Washington Rules, illuminates the post–World War II Washington foreign-policy consensus and gives a history of its evolution. This is a key piece of history, and it can also provide larger lessons about the operations of the state. In order to be a player in foreign policy in Washington, one must accept the rules, which consist of a “credo that inspires consensus and the trinity in which it finds expression” (p. 16). The consensus defines the terms of debate and the limits of acceptable opinion, privileging those who agree with it and banishing any other arguments. Players (institutions and their leaders) must play by the rules and stay relevant to the consensus. The consensus also allows change, so long as the change is relevant to supporting the consensus or defending against threats to it. Bacevich shows that the Washington rules may benefit the elite, but they are failing the country in the long term by harming the country’s power and prestige as well as hurting it economically and morally.

What Are the Washington Rules?

The rules are hidden and not consciously discussed, because they are the basic assumptions for foreign-policy discussions: “This postwar tradition combines two components, each one so deeply embedded in the American collective consciousness as to have all but disappeared from view” (p. 12). These two components are the credo and the trinity, which taken together mean that it is up to America to change the world, whether it likes it or not.

The Credo

The credo is global leadership.

The United States and the United States alone must “lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world” (p. 12). Under the Washington rules, in order to be considered for high office you must respectfully allude to “America’s responsibility to lead,” (as well as to God and “the troops.”) There must be “engagement” by the United States. This is what “The American Century” — as Henry R. Luce called it — is all about. Luce called on Americans to “accept wholeheartedly our duty to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit” (p. 12). The United States cannot be “isolated.”

There are four subrules of US “responsibility” for global leadership:

  1. The world must be organized, or “chaos will surely reign” (p. 20).

  2. The United States does the organizing. Only the United States is able to “prescribe and enforce such a global order” (p. 20). No one else can be trusted, and the United States must constantly shoulder new obligations.

  3. The United States defines the principles of the global order. These principles are American and also universal. Evolving American principles on anything, be it nuclear weapons, noncombatant casualties, or women’s rights, are always universal. The world must adopt the latest American attitudes.

  4. World leaders want the United States to lead the global order, and they stay up at night worrying that the United States may abdicate its responsibility to do so.

The Trinity

America chooses the means, not just the ends, of global leadership. There are three fundamental assumptions about the means:

  • global military presence
  • global power projection
  • global interventionism

While much has changed in the US military in the last 60 years, this trinity apparently remains too holy to be questioned (p. 14). In line with this, the term “full spectrum dominance” means that the United States should be globally dominant in all areas: space, nuclear, naval, air, army, covert operations, etc.

Note the emphasis on “global.” The United States must have a forward presence everywhere. It must be set up to project its power globally, whether that means boots on the ground, bombs from the sky, or knives in the dark. Able to intervene anywhere on the globe, the United States must have a policy of doing so.

The corollary of this is that the United States exempts itself from norms that it expects others to comply with. Bacevich gives the example of how outraged Americans and the world would be if China had a defense budget that matched all the great powers’ except the United States’, created garrisons around the world including in Latin America, appointed People’s Liberation Army generals responsible for different parts of the globe (including one for North America and one for Europe), conducted war games globally, and created a global strike force (pp. 23–24). In reality, American policy is far more expansive than the hypothetical Chinese example. Because Americans are the good guys, they are surprised when others are outraged.

Failure to accept the Washington rules means relegation to outside Washington. Even if you’re important on domestic questions, you won’t be taken seriously among the players dominating foreign policy, i.e., the upper echelons of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and the leaders of the State Department, Homeland Security, and Defense Department, not to mention the law-enforcement and intelligence communities. These institutions include think tanks and interest groups, lobbyists, lawyers, retired officers, and former officials in good standing. Beyond the beltway, they include big banks, defense contractors, elite media such as the New York Times, and such institutions as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Kennedy School of Government (p. 15).

The Rules Mean Change

The implications of this are fascinating. America has the ability, right, and duty to change the world however it wants and by whatever means. The use of the term “engagement” is revealing. For example, according to the State Department, a large power grid failure in Brazil on November 10, 2009, created “opportunities for engagement … including DOD, DHS, FCC, TDA.”[1]

Bacevich can discern no particular objective for this duty to change the world or standard by which change can be measured. In fact, he particularly mentions that the rest of the world must fall in line every time the United States changes its mind (p. 21). Presumably, what unites members of the consensus is either a vague neoliberal idea of state capitalism, or, more likely, the idea that American leadership can help bring about whatever fantasy world each member may hold in his heart. As long as everyone who counts agrees to the necessity of the system, it doesn’t matter if what the system actually does is incoherent. Again, Bacevich seems to find no consistent principle for all this intervention, only the belief that chaos would reign without American leadership.

If the core rule is simply that the United States can change the rules, and the corollary of the Washington rules is that the United States exempts itself from norms that it expects others to comply with, other countries will logically see US leadership as the exercise of power. If there is no particular standard at the end of the day that anyone can be expected to comply with, there is no rule of law. Foreigners might understandably be concerned that change is coming for them. Especially as change always seems to involve the use of guns and bombs on their soil.

Obama talked about “change” coming to America. While some things may change, Bacevich shows throughout that the principle of US global leadership or dominance still remains the same in 2010. That doesn’t change. Power remains, and power corrupts everything else and slowly destroys itself from within.

Evolution within the Washington Rules — 1948 to 2010

Bacevich shows how foreign policy and the US military have operated and evolved within the fixed framework of the Washington rules from World War II to the present Obama administration in 2010. Important players try to demonstrate to other players that the public (or private) institution or subinstitution they represent is relevant and therefore deserving of funding and power. Those exercising “soft power” make their claims; and those exercising the various forms of “hard power” make their claims.

“The United States must have a forward presence everywhere. It must be set up to project its power globally, whether that means boots on the ground, bombs from the sky, or knives in the dark.”

Bacevich starts off by showing that when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton took office in 2009 their rhetoric was within the Washington rules of American global leadership (p. 19). Similarly, their policy choices were constrained. As Bacevich has pointed out, the Obama administration was presented with limited choices: to either send more troops to Afghanistan or publicly take responsibility for a US defeat. Not surprisingly, Obama sent more troops. There was no time to first ask questions about why the United States was there, what it hoped to accomplish, what victory would look like, or if it was likely to be achieved (pp. 214–20). The consensus was preserved. The cost was that Obama wasn’t allowed to talk about what the grand strategy was.

Bacevich’s story really begins about 1948, but it seems like there is room for a further book to explain the origin of the Washington rules prior to World War II, and certainly Bacevich is aware of US intervention and power structures prior to the scope of his book. He mentions that Truman was constrained in his choices about the atomic bomb (p. 31). Certainly the “credo” of American global leaderships goes back to at least the Progressive era. President Wilson, never one to let facts get in the way of romantic ideas, once proclaimed that the United States should “serve” and “show mankind the way to liberty,” and with other nations “guarantee peace and justice throughout the world.”

“American principles,” Wilson concluded, “are the principles of mankind and must prevail.”

Chapter 1

In charting the evolution of institutions, Bacevich starts with 1948 to 1960 in chapter 1, which is about the “semiwarriors” who run the military-industrial complex of perpetual semiwar. The two key players are powerful examples of the institutional gains for following Washington rules. In this period, Allen Dulles expanded the CIA’s covert operations, and General Curtis LeMay expanded the Strategic Air Command’s nuclear bomber force. Both institutions came from essentially nothing and symbiotically provided global reach for US power. In return, Congress gave them control of huge budgets and authority. They were at the height of their power and were perceived as the only two players with global capabilities. Although they technically reported to the executive branch, they were very independent and very relevant.

In this period, there was little resistance to the Washington rules. While Eisenhower understood the dangers of the military-industrial complex and gave a fantastic speech on it, he basically permitted its growth under his watch, and he never explained why he waited till the end to protest (p. 33).

Chapter 2

At the end of the Eisenhower administration, the army’s General Maxwell Taylor started a drive to make the army more relevant. The army would fill the part of the spectrum between nuclear war and covert operations, giving the United States a “flexible response.”

Nuclear war was now increasingly perceived to be obviously futile almost by definition. The limited ability of the CIA was increasingly evidenced in the early ’60s in Cuba and Vietnam. In this gap the army was able to claim relevance for conventional forces for “flexible-response” intervention around the world. Somebody new had to step up to the plate if everyone else was striking out.

But the US debacle in Vietnam showed that this flexible response of the army (supported by the Navy’s and Air Force’s airpower) didn’t work very well either, and led to serious degradation of the army as an organization. A similar failure of intervention was eliminating South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. Taylor believed that in killing Diem, the United States turned out to have eliminated a key player who was probably the only person holding South Vietnam together (p. 94–95).

Taylor establishing the relevance of the army was not unique. Relevance is something all of the bureaucracies wanted. The US Navy over time evolved from carrier battle groups to a strike force. There were no real navies to fight, so the Navy became more floating airbases for ground-attack aircraft. There was a rise in the last few decades of the importance of the field commanders and four-star generals who head the six regional theater commands (pp. 206–7). The Joint Chiefs of Staff became less relevant. Interestingly, special operations in 1987 was given its own four-star special operations command, joining the six other commands at the table (p. 157). This is a good example of the development of a powerful subinstitution. By contrast, the Strategic Air Command no longer exists.

Bacevich devotes a lot of detail to Kennedy, in part because of the many people who speculate as to what would have happened if he’d lived. Bacevich sees Kennedy as a cold warrior who never fundamentally changed, and he gives plenty of evidence of this up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bacevich states that after the crisis, Kennedy then suspended the Washington rules, but only temporarily. American involvement in Vietnam still increased under Kennedy’s watch (p. 90). Bacevich points out that Kennedy’s allies McNamara, Bundy, and Taylor all went along with Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War. Certainly the administration as a whole was following the Washington rules. The other implication of all this of course is that if Kennedy really had changed his mind, then he would have been totally outside the Washington rules. His close allies would all have deserted him, and he would have lost relevance.

Chapter 3

The Foreign-Policy Elite React

After Vietnam, there was the brief possibility that the Washington rules might be reevaluated. This was not to be. Some in the American elite reacted like the elite of World War I Germany — employing a “stabbed-in-the-back theory” that blamed treachery at home for failure abroad. Others simply tried to move on. Kissinger, for instance, said there was remarkably little to be learned from Vietnam (p. 137). It was just a unique event. There were no systemic problems or defective principles — no need to ask serious questions.

But some elites seemed to be questioning the consensus, and the people were undermining the authority of institutions. This simply would not do. It might lead to irresponsible behavior defined as “isolationist,” or what others term noninterventionist. Anthony Lake feared that the United States might turn to “a mean-spirited foreign policy” and that the prointervention Munich analogy would be replaced by the anti-intervention Vietnam analogy (p. 132–33).

So in 1976, Lake assembled a CFR publication The Vietnam Legacy, a book of essays by 24 foreign-policy observers evaluating Vietnam. To Bacevich, the writers and their views seem “clubby” and “homogenous.” They could be counted on to avoid rocking the boat. They had a common analytical framework that viewed Vietnam as an anomaly and the problem as one of a loss of “consensus, control, and legitimacy” (p. 131). While there was no evidence US policy had nipped any problems in the bud or kept the peace, Lake was a true believer in the Washington rules (p. 133). The Vietnam Legacy quite intentionally reenforced the shaky consensus of US leadership and intervention.

In general the foreign-policy establishment fully reentrenched itself and imposed the Washington rules as a form of political correctness; in fact “the range of acceptable opinion” is an “order of magnitude larger” in the faculty lounges of “tenured radicals” in academia. One could not discuss the idea that Vietnam was, as Martin Luther King said, “but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit” (pp. 133–34).

Madeline Albright

Madeline Albright is mentioned at the end of chapter 3 as a key figure who encapsulated the consensus in rhetoric without adding anything particularly new. Bacevich gives four key examples, all of which are very interventionist (pp. 140–43):

  1. “My mind-set is Munich. Most of my generation’s is Vietnam.” Translation — Albright sees the dangers of appeasement where others see the dangers of intervention. Certainly, Bacevich claims that the foreign-policy establishment’s mindset in Albright’s generation was Munich.

  2. “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further … into the future.” This is how the elite really see themselves.

  3. “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Said to Colin Powell, this question summed up the foreign-policy elite’s problem with how the army was rebuilt.

  4. When asked about the death of 500,000 Iraqi children, Albright replied, “I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it.” She did not dispute the question.

Chapters 4 and 5

The Army Elite React

The army learned from Vietnam that it should rebuild itself according to the Powell Doctrine: it should fight wars it could win, i.e., the first Gulf War. However the problem was that these wars didn’t create substantive change. Gulf War I changed nothing, it kept the status quo. People in the foreign-policy establishment questioned the relevance of an army with the Powell Doctrine. Both sides were correct, and the army ended up being put in a war it couldn’t win.

The RMA and COIN

In a quest to stay relevant and support the Washington rules, the army then changed again — twice in fact in the 2000s.

First was the Revolution in Military Affairs, or RMA. Rumsfeld did want radical change. Speed, visibility, and precision targeting on the battlefield would allow the army to dominate and to inflict less civilian damage and casualties. Wars would be over quickly, and the United States could intervene everywhere, liberating the natives. This naturally failed as soon as the natives decided they needed liberating from the US Army, and the army had no idea what the targets were.

The RMA failed, so to keep relevance the army needed a new idea.

As long as one stays within the Washington rules, all kinds of changes are possible. No one had ever really sold the United States on the idea of a long war. Yet now the idea was cropping up that the United States was in just such a war (p. 183). (Similarly the Democrats criticizing Bush objected to, not the Washington rules, but bad execution and the use of “hard power” at the expense of “soft.”)

With the end of the Bush administration and the takeover by the Democrats, there were several developments. One was that the United States was adrift. The second was that military activity seemed purposeless. To mask this, the idea of Counter-Insurgency or COIN was taken off the shelf to replace “Shock and Awe.” Though irrelevant for solving the ostensible problem of anti-Western jihad, COIN created the “appearance of purposefulness,” and it solved a very real problem of relevance (p. 186). The Washington rules survived despite the aimlessness of the long war.

Ironically, counterinsurgency previously had been seen as exactly the type of ill-fated liberal Democratic social engineering idea that conservative Republican’s didn’t believe in. The officer corps as well had no interest, being busy with creating a finely tuned force to fight other armies. They wanted to fight short wars they could win. As the army was bogged down fighting nonarmies this wasn’t a very relevant viewpoint anymore.

Petraeus spearheaded the counterinsurgency idea as a replacement. Petraeus wrote his Princeton PhD dissertation on Vietnam. He agreed with the officer consensus that counterinsurgency was a bad idea, because public perception of long involvement was negative. But he also got from Vietnam the corollary idea that one could and should manage public perceptions (pp. 193–94). Changing perception meant changing reality.[2]

Bacevich sees COIN as a repackaging of the failed Vietnam idea of “flexible response.” The perception problem was that “Victory had essentially become indefinable and the benefits accruing to Americans were at best obscure” (p. 189). While the 2003 Iraq invasion was part of a strategy, however misguided, there was no real strategy after that. To solve the problem, Petraeus’s key achievement was managing the public’s perceptions so that they didn’t view the long involvement, the long war, as failure. COIN and later GCOIN or Global COIN became how the United States shows leadership and helps other countries. This involved demolishing the idea of the army as something that fought and won wars. “Petraeus’s purpose in revising U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine was not to evaluate COIN but to sell it” (p. 197). Petraeus seemed to have achieved perpetual public support and perpetual funding for perpetual war (p. 209).


The Washington rules still seem clearly in place. Evolution has taken place within a fixed boundary, leading to the rise and fall of different institutions and subinstitutions that meet the system’s needs. The system appears to have temporarily achieved perpetual lavish funding.

Bacevich and others can see clear problems ahead. The United States, like other Western states, is running out of money and cannot meet all its future obligations. Even the Council on Foreign Relations admits that US spending is unsustainable.[3] Eventually the public support and funding will break down. Prolonged combat occupation slowly degrades armies. But since World War II, the leaders’ failure and recklessness so far haven’t really cost them anything, in the way failure cost Germany for example, so there isn’t yet any real incentive to change a system that they believe benefits them.

Bacevich suggests that we tend our garden before it is too late. His vision is an America that leads by example. A republic that solves its own problems will once again be an inspiration to the rest of the world. Troops should be immediately withdrawn from abroad, especially where the cost is high and the potential gain is invisible, i.e., in the Muslim world. Bacevich says that unfortunately it is easy to simply blame our leaders, but it is also the American people who let them get away with it, because too many Americans believe in the credo and trinity of Washington rules.

Anders Mikkelsen is a cost-management consultant in New York City. Send him mail. See Anders Mikkelsen’s article archives.

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[1] This quotation was found not by research but by reading a random cable in Wikileaks. Little globally is outside the purview of the United States — or even of US domestic agencies.

[2] In this vein, Petraeus did well in Iraq partly by appeasement, buying off insurgents, and subtly proclaiming victory.

[3] “It is fiscal, economic, and political failures at home that are threatening the ability of the United States to exert the global influence that it could and should. In other words, it is not reckless American activity in the world that jeopardizes American solvency but American profligacy at home that threatens American power and security.” Roger C. Altman and Richard N. Haas, “American Profligacy and American Power,” Foreign Affairs, 2010.