Retired Army colonel Council of Foreign Relations member Bacevich (History and International Relations/Boston Univ.; The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, 2008, etc.) discards long-held “habits of conformity,” rethinking America’s mission abroad.
Despite some platitudinous slogans, the author makes a valiant attempt to rewrite some wrongful convictions held by American governments since World War II—namely, that the United States, by virtue of its democratic ideals, is summoned “to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world.” Bacevich’s point of departure is President Obama’s startling embrace of what the author sees as the long-standing, pernicious “trinity” that constitutes national-security policy: global military presence, global power projection and global interventionism. This trinity has kept America in a permanent state of military preparedness, now so entrenched that citizens can’t see the folly, and costly waste, of the policy. The author briefly considers those who set the trinity firmly in place—Allen Dulles, Curtis LeMay, Maxwell Taylor, Robert McNamara et al.—then traces the impact of the Vietnam War. For years that debacle threatened to discredit the “credo,” provoking public protests and prominent naysayers such as Sen. J. William Fulbright and former Marine David Shoup. But the status quo was reestablished by neo-conservatives, Bacevich writes. The defeatism of the war was repudiated, and Ronald Reagan was elected to reassert “America’s calling.” The lack of deep reflection on America’s failure in Vietnam invited continued military interventions throughout the Reagan, Bush I and II and Clinton administrations, while Gen. David Petraeus has used the Vietnam lesson to mastermind the counterinsurgency “surge” in Afghanistan. Bacevich wisely urges the adoption of a new trinity. The U.S. military’s purpose is to defend the vital interests of America, restrict itself to the United States and employ force only in self-defense. This would help the country avoid the looming danger of “insolvency and perpetual war.” Good ideas, though the book needs another chapter on how to implement them.
Welcome rethinking by a former military man who has seen the light.