Why the National Security Establishment Is Outdated

We ought to be far more cautious in using force, argues author Andrew Bacevich.


Andrew Bacevich, who teaches history at Boston University, is a rare breed, a soldier turned academic. In his latest book, Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War, the retired Army colonel turns his rhetorical guns on one of the country's most sacred cows: the national security establishment. He argues that the national consensus that supports projecting power through a worldwide military presence is outdated, costly in money and lives, and even counterproductive to national security over the long term. He spoke with U.S. News recently about why this consensus persists and about one question that no one in Washington wants to address: Is the nation in decline? Excerpts:

What are the "Washington Rules"?

For the last 50 years, the U.S. national security establishment has remained essentially unchanged. It is a worldwide military presence configured not to defend the nation but to project power around the globe. That standing force fosters a penchant for interventionism, whether overt or covert. I have reached the conclusion that appearances of a debate with regard to national security policy are false. National security is done on the basis of a long-standing consensus.

What about differences between Democrats and Republicans?

Both parties subscribe to the consensus. For all the attention that people pay to making distinctions between liberals and conservatives, it's really the similarities and continuities that are most important.

How did we get to this point?

The consensus emerged in the wake of World War II, in response to a set of very specific historical circumstances. The most important elements were the collapse of the pre-existing great-powers system that left the United States alone at the pinnacle of power. That, combined with the real or perceived ideological competition with Marxism-Leninism between 1946 and 1950, caused the consensus to form. But circumstances have changed in all sorts of ways. The consensus no longer makes sense, yet it persists—not because it produces effective policies but because of deeply ingrained habits, and because it serves a variety of purposes.

What purposes?

It produces profit for companies. It provides status prerogatives for the military. It justifies the budgets of the Defense Department and the intelligence community. It provides a sustainable source of funding for congressional campaigns. And it provides people with opportunities to participate in what they think are great historical events.

Is defense budget-cutting the answer?

The national security consensus is not entirely responsible for the trillion-dollar deficit, but it does contribute in a major way. Because of our policies, we are depriving our children and grandchildren from living better lives. That realization alone should prompt us to re-examine the things that we have done.

One of the chapters in your book is called "counterfeit COIN," a reference to the counterinsurgency.

I deride the proponents of counterinsurgency who basically claim that we should embark on a global counterinsurgency effort to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. Many people are now seeing how preposterous the idea is that we could apply counterinsurgency in places like Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, and God-knows-what-other places. Hovering in the background of the discussion of our wars and our role in the world is this question: Are we in decline?

So, are we?

Many people in Washington view even asking the question as anathema. Their effort to prevent the question from being asked takes many forms. They insist that the United States cannot be beaten in wars, that whatever the situation, there is a way that we can win. It ends up producing all sorts of rhetorical contortions. There are people who contend that we have prevailed in Iraq. But if you think of what victory meant in 2003, the reality is that it's not a victory. But the claim is made as a way of asserting that we are not in decline.

What's your prescription?

The existing arrangement in which 0.5 percent of the American people serve in the military and sacrifice, while the rest sit on the sidelines and applaud, makes bringing about change all the more difficult. I have argued that the reliance on our all-volunteer force is not just ill-advised, but immoral if the country is committed to a policy of de facto permanent war.