Our Endless War

Posted Sept. 21, 2010, at 7:38 p.m.

Hardly any American can be comfortable with the assertion of a senior Pentagon planner, Brig. Gen. Mark O. Schissler, that “We’re in a generational war.”

He predicted in 2006 that American conflicts would last another 50 or 100 years.

Yet no one could be elected president who seriously questioned whether the United States must continue indefinitely to help police Iraq and Afghanistan, keep thousands of U.S. troops in bases strung around the world, and maintain enough nuclear warheads to destroy every major foreign city.

A provocative new book, “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War,” describes an unspoken national consensus that has grown up during the past 60 years. The author, Andrew J. Bascevich, is a retired Army colonel and now a professor at Boston University. He calls it a “sacred trinity: an abiding conviction that the minimum essentials of international peace and order require the United States to maintain a global military presence, to configure its forces for global power projection, and to counter existing or anticipated threats by relying on a policy of global interventionism.”

These Washington rules, he writes, were forged after World War II, when American power and influence were near their heights. He warns that Washington now commands less respect: “Americans can ill afford to indulge any longer in dreams of saving the world, much less remaking it in our own image.”

Bacevich writes that his wake-up call came finally when President George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq under his doctrine of preventive war and “thrust the nation into an ill-defined and open-ended ‘global war on terror’ without the foggiest notion of what victory would look like, how it would be won, what it might cost.”

He blames each president from John Kennedy to Barack Obama for building and maintaining this consensus, promising American global military supremacy. He explains the Vietnam War as a mistaken reading of history and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis as Cuba’s natural response to the Kennedy administration’s obsessive efforts to overthrow Fidel Castro. After the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he accuses the Bush administration of pressing ahead for global leadership instead of concentrating on the protection of American assets.

Mr. Bacevich proposes a substitute for the “sacred trinity.” In his version, the purpose of the U.S. military would be not to combat evil or remake the world but rather to defend the United States and its most vital interests. The U.S. military should not be a global police force or a global occupation force, and the United States should employ force only as a last resort and only in self defense.

His book should cause leaders to step back and rethink where we have been and where we are headed.

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