Playing by the Washington Rules

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday August 17, 2010 - 10:12:00 AM

Carthago delenda est.” Carthage must be destroyed. Generations of students of Latin used to learn that phrase as the example of the passive periphrastic construction, used to indicated that an action is an obligation. It’s attributed to a Roman senator,Cato, who is supposed to have used it as a tag line in all of his speeches before the 3rd Punic War, a century and a half B.C.E. (Before the Common Era.) 

In those days, as now, wars and enmities over what’s now called the Middle East went on seemingly forever. Carthage was what is now Tunisia, then as now a hot property situated near other hot properties. 

These days the same kind of relentless refrain is coming out of Israel: “Iran delenda est.” (Or is Iran a masculine noun?) Iran must be destroyed. 

And this dictum is starting to echo in the United States. Yesterday a friend forwarded the Weekly Update from a curious organization called Christians United for Israel. 

Main message: “CUFI holds hundreds of pro-Israel events every year. We pray that you will join us at one in your city.” 

“Scripture of the Week:” Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered…”(Psalm 68:1). 

Why? Because “Russia made a bone-chilling announcement on Friday, informing the world that on August 21st they are going to load nuclear fuel rods into an Iranian reactor.” 

And even though Russia says that Iran will send the spent rods from this power plant back to Russia so they can’t be made into plutonium “the empty promises of Israel’s enemies echo throughout history as they bounce off the ruins of every nation that has ever lifted its hand against ‘the apple of God’s eye.” “. So don’t try anything. 

The letter lists “Immediate Action Items:” 

· “Pray for these two enemies of Israel, Iran and Russia. Pray God’s hand to be strong upon them, and that any wicked plan formed against Israel will fall upon those who devise it. “ 

· “Intercede on behalf of our nation and current administration. Pray that godly counselors are brought to our president and nation’s leaders and that the United States continues to stand with Israel. Pray wisdom, strength, and courage for the leaders of Israel.” 

Et Russia delenda est? Russia must be destroyed too? 

One may well ask, if God, CUFI and Israel are on the case, why did the United States have to get sucked into this conflict? 

Concerned Berkeleyans got some answers at the Hillside Club on Friday from a compelling book talk by Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate and retired Army colonel who has devoted the last few years to exposing the dogmatic ideas which he thinks drive American foreign policy and the Washington establishment which controls it. His motivation has become a compulsion since the 2007 death of his army officer son in a war in Iraq which he himself opposed. 

Bacevich’s latest book, Washington Rules, identifies a belief structure among those Americans both Democrat and Republican who control foreign policy which he describes as a credo and a trinity. He managed to capture the essence of the book in forty minutes enlivened by a good bit of self-deprecating humor. 

The credo, the central element in the system, was first articulated in Bacevich’s opinion by Henry R. Luce:
“Writing in Life magazine in early 1941, the influential publisher exhorted his fellow citizens 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.” Luce thereby captured what remains even today the credo’s essence.’ 

Ends and means, two parts joined in one neat package. 

Bacevich admitted with a smile during his talk that the form of his analysis was influenced by his Catholic upbringing and current faith. Early experience with doctrinaire beliefs trains you to recognize them when you see them. 

(Even before this admission, I marked him as the cultural product of the Church of Rome—his tight, structured argument reminds me of the smart boys from the Jesuit high school whom I debated in Los Angeles long ago, who excelled at organizing ideas into a persuasive package. They won all the debate tournaments that year, and one of them went on to be the Democratic leader of the state senate.) 

Here’s how Bacevich summarizes the three main Washington Rules he identifies: 

“Call them the 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.” 

In Bacevich’s view, that’s been the structure of U.S. policy ever since the end of World War II, and it’s had terrible consequences both for the rest of the world and for what should be domestic priorities. And following the Washington Rules is what’s gotten us recently into two disastrous wars in the Middle East that had little to do with the needs and aspirations of the American people. 

Now we’re stuck in a dead end in Afghanistan and threatened with being sucked on Israel’s behalf into something even worse in Iran, all because of a misbegotten ideology that says Americans are destined and even compelled to rule the world. Bacevich likes to describe himself as a “traditional conservative”, and does an almost convincing job of playing that role, but his admonitions went down well with an audience of whom at least half seemed to be KPFA listeners. 

We’re at a point when some self-defined conservatives and most self-styled progressives are aware that running the world might not be such a hot idea after all. But the bi-partisan or really non-partisan consensus which dominates official Washington hasn’t gotten the word. 

That point was well illustrated by a World Affairs Council talk by Defense Secretary Robert Gates broadcast on KQED radio on Monday night. Gates made it clear that in his view U.S. military spending should never go down, only up, and that the U.S. role in Afghanistan and Pakistan and neighboring areas would never end. 

His online bio says that he “is the only Secretary of Defense in history to be asked to remain in that office by a newly elected President. President Barack Obama is the eighth president Dr. Gates has served.” In other words, elections come and go, but players like Gates stay the same, following the Washington Rules, and electing Obama made no difference. 

Is there any way to change the game? Gates spoke scornfully of failed attempts to rein in the military establishment after each of the major international conflicts in which the U.S. was involved during the second half of the 20th century. Each time, in his view, proponents of a big strong military force eventually won out, and not a moment too soon. 

As long as Americans are persuaded by the academic-military-industrial complex which has run our government since the end of World War II that it’s our job to police the world, that there’s always some country or culture out there that “must be destroyed,” wars will never end, and the genuine major threats (climate change, poverty, disease and more) which now confront the people of the world will never be addressed. Unfortunately, it looks like Barack Obama has been sucked into the dominant Washington culture. 

The subtitle of Andrew Bacevich’s latest book is “America’s Path to Permanent War.” He closes with a somber exhortation: “If change is to come, it must come from the people. Yet unless Americans finally awaken to the fact that they’ve been had, Washington will continue to have its way.” 

He ends this way: “To willfully ignore the danger is to become complicit in the destruction of what most Americans profess to hold dear. We, too, must choose.” 

Can we, will we? And how should we act on our choice? Read the book for more questions and some possible answers, but no guarantees.