Why America Chooses War


Critics intent on assigning blame for the disastrous foreign policy record of the current US Administration usually offer one of three explanations.

The first holds President Bush personally responsible, charging him with combining in his person a rare mix of hubris and recklessness fueled by personal religiosity. The second broadens the charge to include a rogue’s gallery of nefarious lieutenants like Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the President’s former "brain", political strategist Karl Rove. The third explanation broadens the charge further still to include a cabal of neoconservatives said to exercise diabolical influence over the president and his inner circle. Implicit in all three of these views is the assumption that a different chief executive with different advisers open to advice and counsel from a different quarter would have followed a different course and achieved notably better results.

There is a fourth possibility. This explanation begins with the acknowledgment that the Bush Administration did not create the problems that came home to roost on September 11, 2001. It inherited them. Without question, Bush’s actions served to make things worse. Yet even though his response to 9/11 did contain some innovative features — most prominently, the misguided Bush Doctrine of preventive war — the President has for the most part operated within the framework that has defined basic national security policy for decades.

To state the matter directly: observers preoccupied with delineating the differences between this Republican president and that Democratic one may uncover any number of small truths while missing the big ones. Identifying the big truths requires an appreciation for continuity rather than change. It’s not the superficial distinctions that matter but the subterranean similarities.

President Bush’s critics and his dwindling band of loyalists share this conviction: that the 43rd president has broken decisively with the past, setting the United States on a revolutionary new course. Yet this is poppycock. The truth is this: Bush and those around him have reaffirmed the preexisting fundamentals of US policy, above all affirming the ideology of national security to which past administrations have long subscribed. Bush’s main achievement has been to articulate that ideology with such fervor and clarity as to unmask as never before its defects and utter perversity.

Four core convictions inform this ideology of national security. In his second inaugural address, President Bush testified eloquently to each of them.

According to the first of these convictions, history has an identifiable and indisputable purpose. History, the President declared, "has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty". History’s abiding theme is freedom, to which all humanity aspires. Reduced to its essentials, history is an epic struggle, binary in nature, between "oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right".

According to the second conviction, the United States has always embodied, and continues to embody, freedom. America has always been, and remains, freedom’s chief exemplar and advocate.

According to the third conviction, Providence summons America to ensure freedom’s ultimate triumph. This, observed President Bush, "is the mission that created our Nation". The Author of Liberty has anointed the United States as the Agent of Liberty. Unique among great powers, this nation pursues interests larger than itself. When it acts, it does so on freedom’s behalf and at the behest of higher authority. By invading Iraq, the United States reaffirmed and reinvigorated the nation’s "great liberating tradition", as the President put it. In so doing, "we have lit a fire as well — a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world." Only cynics or those disposed toward evil could possibly dissent from this self-evident truth.

According to the final conviction, for the American way of life to endure, freedom must prevail everywhere. Only when the light of freedom’s untamed fire illuminates the world’s darkest corners will America’s own safety and prosperity be assured. Or as the President expressed it, "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." In effect, what the United States offers to the world and what it requires of the world align precisely. Put simply, "America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one." This proposition serves, of course, as an infinitely expansible grant of authority, empowering the United States to assert its influence anywhere it chooses since, by definition, it acts on freedom’s behalf.

This line of thinking comes with a rich and ancient pedigree. Yet only since World War II has this ideology established itself as the fixed backdrop for policy. Indeed, it derives much of its persuasive power from the way that Americans remember that war, converting the events of the 1930s and 1940s into a parable of universal significance. Hence the inclination to portray almost any personality not to Washington’s liking as another Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin, with the failure to confront that adversary as tantamount to "appeasement" and with nothing less than the survival of civilisation itself at stake.

At a time when pundits and policy makers routinely liken the threat of Islamic radicalism to the threat posed by the totalitarianisms of the last century, it is worth recalling that US officials once compared the totalitarians to historic Islam. Today, comparing Islamic extremists to fanatical communists or, even worse, to Nazis accomplishes a similar purpose. The intention is to simplify, clarify, and remove ambiguity. The net effect is to mobilise, discipline, and squelch dissent.

The ideology of national security does not serve as an operational checklist. It imposes no specific obligations. It functions the way ideology so often does — not to divine truth or even to make sense of things, but to provide a highly elastic rationale for action. In the American context, it serves principally to legitimate the exercise of executive power. It removes constraints, conferring upon presidents and their immediate circle of advisors wide prerogatives for deciding when and how to employ that power.

Nothing about this ideology, however, mandates action in support of the ideals it celebrates. It doesn’t, for example, oblige the United States to do anything on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe or Burma, no matter how heavy the yoke of oppression they are obliged to bear. It certainly does not prevent American policy makers from collaborating with debased authoritarian regimes that deny basic freedoms like Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt or Pervez Musharraf’s Pakistan. What it does do is provide policy makers with a moral gloss that can be added to virtually any initiative by insisting that, what ever concrete interests might be at stake, the United States is also acting to advance the cause of freedom and democracy.

Post-war presidents have routinely tapped elements of this ideology as a source of authority. America’s status as a force for good in a world that pits good against evil has provided a rationale for bribing foreign officials, assassinating foreign leaders, overthrowing governments, and undertaking major military interventions. George W Bush did not invent this practice; he merely inherited and expanded upon it.

Through constant repetition, the elements of this ideology have become hardwired into the American psyche. They function as articles of faith, beyond question and beyond scrutiny. Do politicians like Bush, who habitually cite the tenets of this faith, genuinely believe what they are saying? In all likelihood they do, just as Fox News anchors may genuinely believe that they provide "fair and balanced" coverage of world affairs, just as McDonald’s franchisees may genuinely believe that theirs is a business of "serving up smiles". Conviction follows self-interest.

Aspirants to high office likewise testify to the core tenets of this ideology, hoping thereby to demonstrate their essential trustworthiness. Here is the version offered in December 1991 by the then-governor of Arkansas, a liberal Democrat whose foreign policy credentials were non-existent but who had his sights trained on the White House.

"I was born nearly a half-century ago, at the dawn of the Cold War, a time of great change, enormous opportunity, and uncertain peril. … We had to find ways to rebuild the economies of Europe and Asia, encourage a worldwide movement toward independence, and vindicate our nation’s principles in the world against yet another totalitarian challenge to liberal democracy. Thanks to the unstinting courage and sacrifice of the American people, we were able to win that Cold War."

This was a rendering of history with all the details airbrushed away — no allusions to Vietnam, no reference to CIA coups and attempted assassinations, and so on. Clinton understood, quite correctly, that were he to stray too far from that mainstream he would doom his candidacy.

Fast-forward 16 years, and another would-be president with sketchy foreign policy credentials unhesitatingly ripped a page out of the Clinton playbook. "At moments of great peril in the last century," declared Senator Barack Obama, "American leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F Kennedy paired military strength with [economic influence]and helped secure the peace and well-being of nations around the world."

Like Clinton, Obama was intent on identifying himself with the cause that "we stood for and fought for". Like Clinton, in recounting the heroic narrative in which Roosevelt, Truman, and their successors had figured so prominently, he was testifying to that narrative’s essential truth and continuing validity.

Yet almost inescapably he also subscribed to George W Bush’s own interpretation of that narrative. As Obama went on to explain, "The security and wellbeing of each and every American depend on the security and wellbeing of those who live beyond our borders." Like Bush — and like those who had preceded Bush — Obama defined America’s purposes in cosmic terms.

Clinton’s rhetorical sleight of hand, mimicked by Obama, illustrates the role that the ideology of national security plays in shaping electoral politics. That role is chiefly to provide a reductive and insipid, if ultimately reassuring, view of reality. Accept the proposition that America is freedom’s tribune, and it becomes a small step to believing that the "peace process" aims to achieve peace, that Iraq qualifies as a sovereign state, and that Providence has summoned the United States to wage an all-out war against "terrorism".

Indeed, to disagree with these sentiments — as the Washington consensus sees it — is to stray beyond the bounds of permissible opinion.

In this way, ideology serves as a device for sharply narrowing the range of policy debate. Dissent, where it exists, seldom penetrates the centers of power in Washington. Principled dissenters, whether paleoconservatives or libertarians, pacifists or neo-agrarians, remain on the political fringes, dismissed as either mean-spirited (that is, unable to appreciate the lofty motives that inform US.policy) or simply naive (that is, oblivious to the implacable evil that the United States is called upon to confront).

The ideology of national security persists not because it expresses empirically demonstrable truths but because it serves the interests of those who created the national security state and those who still benefit from its continued existence — the very people who are most responsible for the increasingly maladroit character of US policy.

These are the men, along with a few women, who comprise the self-selecting, self-perpetuating camarilla that, since World War II, has shaped (and perverted) national security policy. In a famous book published over a half century ago, the sociologist C Wright Mills took a stab at describing this "power elite". His depiction of an interlocking corporate, political, and military directorate remains valid today, although one might amend it to acknowledge the role played by insider journalists and policy intellectuals who serve as propagandists, gatekeepers, and packagers of the latest conventional wisdom.

Although analysts employed by the RAND Corporation or the Hudson Institute may not themselves qualify as full-fledged members of the national security elite, they facilitate its functioning. Much the same can be said about columnists who write for the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Weekly Standard, the research fellows busily organising study groups at the Council on Foreign Relations or the American Enterprise Institute, and the policy-oriented academics who inhabit institutions like Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government or Princeton’s Wilson School.

To say that a power elite directs the affairs of state is not to suggest the existence of some dark conspiracy. It is simply to acknowledge the way Washington actually works. Especially on matters related to national security, policy making has become oligarchic rather than democratic. The policy-making process is not open but closed, with the voices of privileged insiders carrying unimaginably greater weight than those of the unwashed masses.

According to Mills, the power elite and those trafficking in ideas useful to its core membership share a "cast of mind that defines international reality as basically military". For members of the policy elite, imperfect security is by definition inadequate security.

In consonance with this "military ascendancy", these American hawks can present the United States as already beset by acutely dangerous threats, with even greater perils lurking just around the corner. They are free to play up the putative risks of waiting on events, while discounting the hazards posed by precipitate action.

This perspective found classic expression in September 2002, when Condoleezza Rice rejected a lack of detailed intelligence about Iraq’s nuclear program as a reason to postpone a planned invasion of that country since "we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud". For his part, Vice President Cheney was even more explicit. Even a remotely suspected threat could provide a sufficient rationale for action. "If there’s a 1 per cent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon," Cheney once remarked, "we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response."

From the late 1940s to the present day, members of the power elite have shown an almost pathological tendency to misinterpret reality and inflate threats. The advisers to whom imperial presidents have turned for counsel have specialised not in cool judgment but in frenzied overreaction. Although the hawks have not always prevailed more often than not the proponents of action, whether advocating direct military intervention, relying on covert operations, or working through proxies, have carried the day. The hawks may not always advocate immediate war per se, but they lean forward in the saddle, keeping sabers drawn and at the ready. The mantra of the hawks is the barely veiled threat: "All options remain on the table."

The ideology of national security underwrites a bipartisan consensus that since World War II has lent to foreign policy a remarkable consistency. While it does not prevent criticism of particular policies or policy makers, it robs any debate over policy of real substance.

This is an edited extract from Andrew J. Bacevich’s book, The Limits of Power — The End of American Exceptionalism (2008) published by Black Inc. Melbourne.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.