Andrew Bacevich

The lessons of two failed wars

In choosing a title for his final, posthumously published book, the prominent public intellectual Tony Judt turned to a poem by Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village, published in 1770. Judt found his book's title in the first words of this couplet:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay

A poignant sentiment but let me acknowledge that I'm not a big Goldsmith fan. My own preferences in verse run more toward Merle Haggard, whose country music hits include the following lyric from his 1982 song "Are the Good Times Really Over?":

Is the best of the free life behind us now
And are the good times really over for good?

I wonder, though: Is it possible that the insights of an eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish novelist-poet and a twentieth-century American singer-songwriter, each reflecting on a common theme of decadence and each served up with a dollop of nostalgia, just might intersect?

Allow me to try the reader's patience with a bit more of Goldsmith:

O luxury! thou curst by Heaven's decree,
How ill exchanged are things like these for thee!
How do thy potions, with insidious joy,
Diffuse their pleasures only to destroy!
Kingdoms, by thee, to sickly greatness grown,
Boast of a florid vigour not their own;
At every draught more large and large they grow
A bloated mass of rank unwieldy woe.
Down, down they sink, and spread a ruin round.

Powerful stuff, but here's Haggard making a similar point without frills:

I wish a buck was still silver
It was back when the country was strong
Back before Elvis
Before the Vietnam War came along...
Are we rolling down hill
Like a snowball headed for Hell?
With no kind of chance
For the Flag or the Liberty Bell

Let me concede from the outset that these laments emerge directly from the heart of the patriarchy. In our present moment, some will discount the complaints of Messrs. Goldsmith and Haggard as not to be taken seriously. As the second decade of the twenty-first century draws to a close, bellyaching white guys tend not to command a lot of sympathy.

Still, with this abysmal year finally ending, the melancholy notes sounded by Goldsmith and Haggard strike me as apt. The Age of Biden -- or given our preference for faux intimacy, the Age of Joe and Kamala -- beckons. Yet I'm anything but certain that 2021 will inaugurate a happier time.

That said, for those who believe history has its own rhymes and rhythms, the election of Biden and Harris just might herald a turning point of sorts. After all, for more than a century now, presidential elections occurring in even numbered years ending in zero have resulted in big changes.

Don't take my word for it. Check the record.

Thanks to the assassin who prematurely terminated William McKinley's presidency, the election of 1900 inaugurated the reformist Progressive Era. Two decades later, Americans yearning for a return to "normalcy" voted for Warren G. Harding. Instead of normalcy, they got the splashy upheaval of the Twenties and the ensuing Great Depression.

Once the balloting in 1940 handed Franklin Roosevelt an unprecedented third term, hopes entertained by some Americans of staying out of World War II were doomed. Global war vaulted the United States to a position of global primacy -- and soon gave rise to new challenges. John F. Kennedy's election in 1960 empowered a generation "born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace" to address those challenges. Unanticipated complications ensued, as they did again in 1980 and 2000, the former initiating the Reagan Revolution, the latter election of George W. Bush setting the stage for the Global War on Terror and, by extension, Donald Trump.

The challenges awaiting Biden and Harris arguably outweigh those that confronted any of those past administrations, Roosevelt's excepted. In a recent New York Times column, the man who lost that disputed 2000 election, Al Gore, inventoried the most pressing problems that Biden's team will confront. In addition to the coronavirus pandemic, they include:

"40 years of economic stagnation for middle-income families; hyper-inequality of incomes and wealth, with high levels of poverty; horrific structural racism; toxic partisanship; the impending collapse of nuclear arms control agreements; an epistemological crisis undermining the authority of knowledge; recklessly unprincipled behavior by social media companies; and, most dangerous of all, the climate crisis."

That makes for quite a daunting catalog. Yet note this one striking omission: Gore makes no mention of America's seemingly never-ending penchant for war and military adventurism.

Before the Vietnam War Came Along

Surely, though, war has contributed in no small way to "the bloated mass of rank unwieldy woe" besetting our nation today. And were Merle Haggard to update "Are the Good Times Really Over?" he would doubtless include the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq alongside Vietnam as prominent among the factors that have sent this country caroming downward.

In the evening of my life, as I reflect on the events of our time that ended up mattering most, the wars in Vietnam and Iraq top my list. Together, they define the poles around which much of my professional life has revolved, whether as a soldier, teacher, or writer. It would be fair to say that I'm haunted by those two conflicts.

I could write pages and pages on how Vietnam and Iraq differ from each other, beginning with the fact that they are separated in time by nearly a half-century. Locale, the contours of the battlefields, the character of combat, the casualties inflicted and sustained, the sheer quantity of ordnance expended -- when it comes to such measures and others, Vietnam and Iraq differ greatly. Yet while those differences are worth noting, it's the unappreciated similarities between them that are truly instructive.

Seven such similarities stand out:

First, Vietnam and Iraq were both avoidable: For the United States, they were wars of choice. No one pushed us. We dove in headfirst.

Second, both turned out to be superfluous, undertaken in response to threats -- monolithic Communism and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction -- that were figments of fevered imaginations. In both cases, cynicism and moral cowardice played a role in paving the way toward war. Dissenting voices were ignored.

Third, both conflicts proved to be costly distractions. Each devoured on a prodigious scale resources that might have been used so much more productively elsewhere. Each diverted attention from matters of far more immediate importance to Americans. Each, in other words, triggered a massive hemorrhage of blood, treasure, and influence to no purpose whatsoever.

Fourth, in each instance, political leaders in Washington and senior commanders in the field collaborated in committing grievous blunders. War is complicated. All wars see their share of mistakes and misjudgments. But those two featured a level of incompetence unmatched since Custer's Last Stand.

Fifth, thanks to that incompetence, both devolved into self-inflicted quagmires. In Washington, in Saigon, and in Baghdad's "Green Zone," baffled authorities watched as the control of events slipped from their grasp. Meanwhile, in the field, U.S. troops flailed about for years in futile pursuit of a satisfactory outcome.

Sixth, on the home front, both conflicts left behind a poisonous legacy of unrest, rancor, and bitterness. Members of the Baby Boom generation (to which I belong) have chosen to enshrine Vietnam-era protest as high-minded and admirable. Many Americans then held and still hold a different opinion. As for the Iraq War, it contributed mightily to yawning political cleavages that appear unlikely to heal anytime soon.

And finally, with both political and military elites alike preferring simply to move on, neither war has received a proper accounting. Their place in the larger narrative of American history is still unsettled. This may be the most important similarity of all. Both Vietnam and Iraq remain bizarrely undigested, their true meaning yet to be discerned and acknowledged. Too recent to forget, too confounding to ignore, they remain anomalous.

The American wars in Vietnam and Iraq are contradictions that await resolution.

Jaw, Jaw, Not War, War

For that very reason, when politicians (including Joe Biden) talk about war, they talk about others, their all-time favorite being the one fought against Nazi Germany between December 1941 and May 1945. There -- and not in Vietnam or Iraq -- do members of the establishment find the lessons that they have enshrined as permanently relevant.

The first American war against Germany in 1917-1918 doesn't carry much weight at all. Just a couple of years ago, its centennial came and went virtually unnoticed. Likewise, the war against Japan that occurred in tandem with the second war against Germany seldom gets much attention either. We "remember Pearl Harbor" and that's about it.

The war against the Nazis, however, is a gift that never stops giving. It yields a great bounty of lessons: never appease; never hesitate to call evil by its name; never back down; and never flinch from the challenges of leadership, which necessarily implies a willingness to use force. And in moments of distress, channel your inner Winston Churchill circa 1940: "Never surrender!"

The problem with clinging to such ostensibly canonical lessons today is that we are no longer the nation that defeated Nazi Germany. The United States was establishing itself as the dominant industrial power on the planet then, while Washington still had the capacity to mobilize the American people pursuant to what was described at the time as a "Great Crusade." A taken-for-granted tradition of white supremacy underwrote a cultural unity that lent more than a modicum of substance to the claims of e pluribus unum. None of this remains faintly relevant today.

When it comes to present-day policy, the relevant fact is that we are the nation that failed in both Vietnam and Iraq. Along the way, we lost our status as the planet's dominant industrial power. Meanwhile, Washington forfeited its authority to mobilize the American people for war. More recently, cleavages stemming from class, race, religion, gender, and ethnicity, split the country into antagonistic factions. Al Gore was merely premature when, as vice president, he famously mistranslated the nation's motto as "out of one, many."

Now, if you prioritize Vietnam and Iraq over the war against Nazi Germany, you'll come face-to-face with a very different set of lessons. Here are four that the Biden administration might do well to contemplate.

First, situating the United States within a larger entity called the West -- a notion dating from the time when America and Great Britain (with plentiful help from the Soviet Union) rallied to defeat Hitler -- no longer works. The West doesn't exist. These days when the United States opts for war, it must expect to fight alone or with only nominal allied assistance. This was true in Vietnam and again in Iraq. No grand coalition will form.

Second, however gussied up or camouflaged, imperialism no longer retains the slightest legitimacy. Peoples once classified as inferior, usually on the basis of skin color, no longer tolerate outsiders telling them how to govern themselves. Few Americans are willing to acknowledge the imperial motives that have long shaped this country's global policies. The Vietnamese and Iraqis opposing the U.S. military presence in their midst entertained few doubts on that score; hence, the fierceness with which they defended their right to self-determination.

Third, if the United States remains intent on exporting its version of freedom and democracy, it will have to devise far less coercive ways of doing so. Rather than using armed force to alter the political landscape in faraway places, elites should acknowledge the limited utility of military power. Calling on the troops to defend, deter, and contain works far better than charging them to invade, occupy, and transform.

Fourth, dumb wars deplete. Vietnam and Iraq both inflicted untold damage on the American economy. With the U.S. government currently running an annual deficit of some $3 trillion, we can't afford to squander any more money on ill-advised military campaigns. A less known quote attributed to Churchill commends itself in our present situation: "Jaw, jaw, jaw is better than war, war, war."

As it enters the third decade of the twenty-first century, the United States is badly in need of more jaw, jaw and less war, war -- more fix, fix, and less fight, fight.

Over to You, Joe

I am not enamored of presidents. I'm even less of a fan of "presidentialism" -- the belief, firmly held by American elites, that the fate of the planet turns on what the president of the United States says or does (or doesn't do). For that reason, I have learned not to expect much of whoever happens to occupy the Oval Office.

In practice, the Most Powerful Man in the World usually turns out to be not all that powerful. Rather than directing History with a capital H, he (not yet she), like the rest of us, is pretty much just along for the ride. In their own ways, Goldsmith and Haggard implicitly endorsed such a fatalistic perspective.

In political circles, a different view tends to prevail. Today, virtually all Democrats and many in the media ascribe to Donald Trump full blame for the mess in which this country finds itself. Yet Americans would do well to temper their expectations of what supplanting Trumpism with Bidenism is likely to produce.

On January 20, 2021, the "torch" to which John F. Kennedy memorably referred in his inaugural address will once again be passed. Let's hope that, in grasping it, Biden and Harris will heed one of the principal lessons of the Kennedy era: no more Vietnams. To which I would simply add: no more Iraqs (or Afghanistans, or Yemens, or... well, you know the list). Only then might it become possible to undertake the daunting task of repairing our country.

Good luck, Joe. You, too, Kamala. In the coming days, you're both going to need a truckful of it.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory. His new book After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed will be published in 2021.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Centuy: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Andrew Bacevich

Yes — it's time to finally leave Afghanistan

Let's open up and sing, and ring the bells out

Ding-dong! the merry-oh sing it high, sing it low

Let them know the wicked witch is dead!Within establishment circles, Donald Trump's failure to win re-election has prompted merry singing and bell-ringing galore. If you read the New York Times or watch MSNBC, the song featured in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz nicely captures the mood of the moment.

As a consequence, expectations for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to put America back on the path to the Emerald City after a dispiriting four-year detour are sky high. The new administration will defeat Covid-19, restore prosperity, vanquish racism, reform education, expand healthcare coverage, tackle climate change, and provide an effective and humane solution to the problem of undocumented migrants. Oh, and Biden will also return the United States to its accustomed position of global leadership. And save America's soul to boot.

So we are told.

That these expectations are deemed even faintly credible qualifies as passing strange. After all, the outcome of the 2020 presidential election turned less on competing approaches to governance than on the character of the incumbent. It wasn't Joe Biden as principled standard-bearer of enlightened twenty-first-century liberalism who prevailed. It was Joe Biden, a retread centrist pol who emerged as the last line of defense shielding America and the world from four more years of Donald Trump.

So the balloting definitively resolved only a single question: by 80 million to 74 million votes, a margin of six million, Americans signaled their desire to terminate Trump's lease on the White House. Yet even if repudiating the president, voters hardly repudiated Trumpism. Republicans actually gained seats in the House of Representatives and appear likely to retain control of the Senate.

On November 3rd, a twofold transfer of power commenced. A rapt public has fixed its attention on the first of those transfers: Biden's succession to the presidency (and Trump's desperate resistance to the inevitable outcome). But a second, hardly less important transfer of power is also occurring. Once it became clear that Trump was not going to win a second term, control of the Republican Party began reverting from the president to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The implications of that shift are immense, as Biden, himself a longtime member of the Senate, no doubt appreciates.

Consider this telling anecdote from former President Barack Obama's just published memoir. Obama had tasked then-Vice President Biden with cajoling McConnell into supporting a piece of legislation favored by the administration. After Biden made his pitch, the hyper-partisan McConnell dourly replied, "You must be under the mistaken impression that I care." End of negotiation.

Perhaps the Democrats will miraculously win both Senate seats in Georgia's January runoff elections and so consign McConnell to the status of minority leader. If they don't, let us not labor under the mistaken impression that he'll support Biden's efforts to defeat Covid-19, restore prosperity, vanquish racism, reform education, expand healthcare coverage, tackle climate change, or provide an effective and humane solution to the problem of undocumented migrants.

It's a given that McConnell isn't any more interested in saving souls than he is in passing legislation favored by Democrats. That leaves restoring American global leadership as the sole remaining arena where President Biden might elicit from a McConnell-controlled GOP something other than unremitting obstructionism.

And that, in turn, brings us face to face with the issue Democrats and Republicans alike would prefer to ignore: the U.S. penchant for war. Since the end of the Cold War and especially since the terror attacks of 9/11, successive administrations have relied on armed force to assert, affirm, or at least shore up America's claim to global leadership. The results have not been pretty. A series of needless and badly mismanaged wars have contributed appreciably -- more even than Donald Trump's zany ineptitude -- to the growing perception that the United States is now a declining power. That perception is not without validity. Over the past two decades, wars have depleted America's strength and undermined its global influence.

So, as the U.S. embarks on the post-Trump era, what are the prospects that a deeply divided government presiding over a deeply divided polity will come to a more reasoned and prudent attitude toward war? A lot hinges on whether Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell can agree on an answer to that question.

An Unexpected Gift for "Sleepy Joe"

As his inevitable exit from the White House approaches, President Trump himself may be forcing the issue.

One of the distinctive attributes of our 45th president is that he never seemed terribly interested in actually tending to the duties of his office. He does not, in fact, possess a work ethic in any traditional sense. He prefers to swagger and strut rather than deliberate and decide. Once it became clear that he wasn't going to win a second term, he visibly gave up even the pretense of governing. Today, he golfs, tweets, and rails. According to news reports, he no longer even bothers to set aside time for the daily presidential intelligence briefing.

As the clock runs out, however, certain Trumpian impulses remain in play. The war in Afghanistan, now in its 19th year, offers a notable example. In 2001, President George W. Bush ordered U.S. forces to invade the country, but prematurely turned his attention to a bigger and more disastrous misadventure in Iraq. Barack Obama inherited the Afghanistan War, promised to win it, and ordered a large-scale surge in the U.S. troop presence there. Yet the conflict stubbornly dragged on through his two terms. As for candidate Trump, during campaign 2016, he vowed to end it once and for all. In office, however, he never managed to pull the plug -- until now, that is.

Soon after losing the election, the president ousted several senior Pentagon civilians, including Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and replaced them (for a couple of months anyway) with loyalists sharing his oft-stated commitment to "ending endless wars." Within days of taking office, new Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller issued a letter to the troops, signaling his own commitment to that task.

"We are not a people of perpetual war," he wrote, describing endless war as "the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought." The time for accepting the inevitable had now arrived. "All wars must end," he continued, adding that trying harder was not going to produce a better outcome. "We gave it our all," he concluded. "Now, it's time to come home."

Miller avoided using terms like victory or defeat, success or failure, and did not specify an actual timetable for a full-scale withdrawal. Yet Trump had already made his intentions clear: he wanted all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year and preferably by Christmas. Having forgotten or punted on innumerable other promises, Trump appeared determined to make good on this one. It's likely, in fact, that Miller's primary -- perhaps only -- charge during his abbreviated tour of duty as Pentagon chief is to enable Trump to claim success in terminating at least one war.

So during this peculiar betwixt-and-between moment of ours, with one administration packing its bags and the next one trying to get its bearings, a question of immense significance to the future course of American statecraft presents itself: Will the United States at long last ring down the curtain on the most endless of its endless wars? Or, under the guise of seeking a "responsible end," will it pursue the irresponsible course of prolonging a demonstrably futile enterprise through another presidency?

As Miller will soon discover, if he hasn't already, his generals don't concur with the commander-in-chief's determination to "come home." Whether in Afghanistan or Somalia, Iraq, Syria, or Europe, they have demonstrated great skill in foiling his occasional gestures aimed at reducing the U.S. military's overseas profile.

The available evidence suggests that Joe Biden's views align with those of the generals. True, the conduct and legacy of recent wars played next to no role in deciding the outcome of the 2020 presidential election (suggesting that many Americans have made their peace with endless war). Still, given expectations that anyone aspiring to high office these days must stake out a position on every conceivable issue and promise something for everyone, candidate Biden spelled out his intentions regarding Afghanistan.

Basically, he wants to have it both ways. So he is on record insisting that "these 'forever wars' have to end," while simultaneously proposing to maintain a contingent of American troops in Afghanistan to "take out terrorist groups who are going to continue to emerge." In other words, Biden proposes to declare that the longest war in U.S. history has ended, while simultaneously underwriting its perpetuation.

Such a prospect will find favor with the generals, members of the foreign policy establishment, and media hawks. Yet hanging on in Afghanistan (or other active theaters of war) will contribute nothing to Biden's larger promise to "build back better." Indeed, the staggering expenses that accompany protracted wars will undermine his prospects of making good on his domestic reform agenda. It's the dilemma that Lyndon Johnson faced in the mid-1960s: You can have your Great Society, Mr. President, or you can have your war in Vietnam, but you can't have both.

Biden will face an analogous problem. Put simply, his stated position on Afghanistan is at odds with the larger aspirations of his presidency.

At Long Last an Exit Strategy?

As a practical matter, the odds of Trump actually ending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan between now and his departure from office are nil. The logistical challenges are daunting, especially given that the pick-up team now running the Pentagon is made up of something other than all-stars. And the generals will surely drag their feet, while mobilizing allies not just in the punditocracy but in the Republican Party itself.

As a practical matter, Acting Secretary Miller has already bowed to reality. The definition of success now is, it seems, to cut the force there roughly in half, from 4,500 to 2,500, by Inauguration Day, with the remainder of U.S. troops supposedly coming out of Afghanistan by May 2021 (months after both Trump and Miller will be out of a job).

So call it Operation Half a Loaf. But half is better than none. Even if Trump won't succeed in reducing U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan to zero, I'm rooting for him anyway. As, indeed, Joe Biden should be -- because if Trump makes headway in shutting down America's war there, Biden will be among the principal beneficiaries.

Whatever his actual motives, Trump has cracked open a previously shut door to an exit strategy. Through that door lies the opportunity of turning the page on a disastrous era of American statecraft dominated by a misplaced obsession with events in the Greater Middle East.

Twin convictions shaped basic U.S. policy during this period: the first was that the United States has vital interests at stake in this region, even in utterly remote parts of it like Afghanistan; the second, that the United States can best advance those interests by amassing and employing military power. The first of those convictions turned out to be wildly misplaced, the second tragically wrong-headed. Yet pursuant to those very mistaken beliefs, successive administrations have flung away lives, treasure, and influence with complete abandon. The American people have gained less than nothing in return. In fact, in terms of where taxpayer dollars were invested, they've lost their shirts.

Acting Secretary Miller's charge to the troops plainly acknowledges a bitter truth to which too few members of the Washington establishment have been willing to admit: the time to move on from this misguided project is now. To the extent that Donald Trump's lame-duck administration begins the process of extricating the United States from Afghanistan, he will demonstrate the feasibility of doing so elsewhere as well. Tired arguments for staying the course could then lose their persuasive power.

Doubtless, after all these disastrous years, there will be negative consequences to leaving Afghanistan. Ill-considered and mismanaged wars inevitably yield poisonous fruit. There will be further bills to pay. Still, ending the U.S. war there will establish a precedent for ending our military involvement in Iraq, Syria, and Somalia as well. Terminating direct U.S. military involvement across the Greater Middle East and much of Africa will create an opportunity to reconfigure U.S. policy in a world that has changed dramatically since the United States recklessly embarked upon its crusade to transform great swathes of the Islamic world.

Biden himself should welcome such an opportunity. Admittedly, Mitch McConnell, no longer fully subservient to President Trump, predicts that withdrawing from Afghanistan will produce an outcome "reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975." In reality, of course, failure in Vietnam stemmed not from the decision to leave, but from an erroneous conviction that it was incumbent upon Americans to decide the destiny of the Vietnamese people. The big mistake occurred not in 1975 when American troops finally departed, but a decade earlier when President Johnson decided that it was incumbent upon the United States to Americanize the war.

As Americans learned in Vietnam, the only way to end a war gone wrong is to leave the field of battle. If that describes Trump's intentions in Afghanistan, then we may finally have some reason to be grateful for his service to our nation. With time, Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell might even come to see the wisdom of doing so.

And then, of course, they can bicker about the shortest path to the Emerald City.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Andrew Bacevich

The birth of American supremacy — and the carefully constructed myth of 'isolationism'

The so-called Age of Trump is also an age of instantly forgotten bestselling books, especially ones purporting to provide the inside scoop on what goes on within Donald Trump's haphazard and continuously shifting orbit. With metronomic regularity, such gossipy volumes appear, make a splash, and almost as quickly vanish, leaving a mark no more lasting than a trout breaking the surface in a pond.

Remember when Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House was all the rage? It's now available in hardcover for $0.99 from online used booksellers. James Comey's Higher Loyalty also sells for a penny less than a buck.

An additional forty-six cents will get you Omarosa Manigault Newman's "insider's account" of her short-lived tenure in that very White House. For the same price, you can acquire Sean Spicer's memoir as Trump's press secretary, Anthony Scaramucci's rendering of his tumultuous 11-day stint as White House communications director, and Corey Lewandowski's "inside story" of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Bibliophiles intent on assembling a complete library of Trumpiana will not have long to wait before the tell-all accounts of John Bolton, Michael Cohen, Mary Trump, and that journalistic amaneusis Bob Woodward will surely be available at similar bargain basement prices.

All that said, even in these dismal times genuinely important books do occasionally make their appearance. My friend and colleague Stephen Wertheim is about to publish one. It's called Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy and if you'll forgive me for being direct, you really ought to read it. Let me explain why.

The "Turn"

Wertheim and I are co-founders of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a small Washington, D.C.-based think tank. That Quincy refers to John Quincy Adams who, as secretary of state nearly two centuries ago, warned his fellow citizens against venturing abroad "in search of monsters to destroy." Were the United States to do so, Adams predicted, its defining trait -- its very essence -- "would insensibly change from liberty to force." By resorting to force, America "might become the dictatress of the world," he wrote, but "she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit." While his gendered punchline might rankle contemporary sensibilities, it remains apt.

A privileged man of his times, Adams took it for granted that a WASP male elite was meant to run the country. Women were to occupy their own separate sphere. And while he would eventually become an ardent opponent of slavery, in 1821 race did not rank high on his agenda either. His immediate priority as secretary of state was to situate the young republic globally so that Americans might enjoy both safety and prosperity. That meant avoiding unnecessary trouble. We had already had our revolution. In his view, it wasn't this country's purpose to promote revolution elsewhere or to dictate history's future course.

Adams was to secretaries of state what Tom Brady is to NFL quarterbacks: the Greatest Of All Time. As the consensus GOAT in the estimation of diplomatic historians, he brought to maturity a pragmatic tradition of statecraft originated by a prior generation of New Englanders and various slaveholding Virginians with names like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. That tradition emphasized opportunistically ruthless expansionism on this continent, avid commercial engagement, and the avoidance of great power rivalries abroad. Adhering to such a template, the United States had, by the beginning of the twentieth century, become the wealthiest, most secure nation on the planet -- at which point Europeans spoiled the party.

The disastrous consequences of one European world war fought between 1914 and 1918 and the onset of a second in 1939 rendered that pragmatic tradition untenable -- so at least a subsequent generation of WASPs concluded. This is where Wertheim takes up the story. Prompted by the German army's lightning victory in the battle of France in May and June 1940, members of that WASP elite set about creating -- and promoting -- an alternative policy paradigm, one he describes as pursuing "dominance in the name of internationalism," with U.S. military supremacy deemed "the prerequisite of a decent world."

The new elite that devised this paradigm did not consist of lawyers from Massachusetts or planters from Virginia. Its key members held tenured positions at Yale and Princeton, wrote columns for leading New York newspapers, staffed Henry Luce's Time-Life press empire, and distributed philanthropic largesse to fund worthy causes (grasping the baton of global primacy being anything but least among them). Most importantly, just about every member of this Eastern establishment cadre was also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). As such, they had a direct line to the State Department, which in those days actually played a large role in formulating basic foreign policy.

While Tomorrow, The World is not a long book -- fewer than 200 pages of text -- it is a tour de force. In it, Wertheim describes the new narrative framework that the foreign-policy elite formulated in the months following the fall of France. He shows how Americans with an antipathy for war now found themselves castigated as "isolationists," a derogatory term created to suggest provincialism or selfishness. Those favoring armed intervention, meanwhile, became "internationalists," a term connoting enlightenment and generosity. Even today, members of the foreign-policy establishment pledge undying fealty to the same narrative framework, which still warns against the bugaboo of "isolationism" that threatens to prevent high-minded policymakers from exercising "global leadership."

Wertheim persuasively describes the "turn" toward militarized globalism engineered from above by that self-selected, unelected crew. Crucially, their efforts achieved success prior to Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attack of December 7, 1941, may have thrust the United States into the ongoing world war, but the essential transformation of policy had already occurred, even if ordinary Americans had yet to be notified as to what it meant. Its future implications -- permanently high levels of military spending, a vast network of foreign bases stretching across the globe, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling "national security" apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry -- would only become apparent in the years ahead.

While Wertheim is not the first to expose isolationism as a carefully constructed myth, he does so with devastating effect. Most of all, he helps his readers understand that "so long as the phantom of isolationism is held to be the most grievous sin, all is permitted."

Contained within that all is a cavalcade of forceful actions and grotesque miscalculations, successes and failures, notable achievements and immense tragedies both during World War II and in the decades that followed. While beyond the scope of Wertheim's book, casting the Cold War as a de facto extension of the war against Nazi Germany, with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as a stand-in for Adolf Hitler, represented an equally significant triumph for the foreign policy establishment.

At the outset of World War II, ominous changes in the global distribution of power prompted a basic reorientation of U.S. policy. Today, fundamental alterations in the global distribution of power -- did someone say "the rise of China"? -- are once again occurring right before our eyes. Yet the foreign-policy establishment's response is simply to double down.

So, even now, staggering levels of military spending, a vast network of foreign bases, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling "national security" apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry remain the taken-for-granted signatures of U.S. policy. And even now, the establishment employs the specter of isolationism as a convenient mechanism for self-forgiveness and expedient amnesia, as well as a means to enforce discipline.

Frozen Compass

The fall of France was indeed an epic disaster. Yet implicit in Tomorrow, The World is this question: If the disaster that befell Europe in 1940 could prompt the United States to abandon a hitherto successful policy paradigm, then why have the serial disasters befalling the nation in the present century not produced a comparable willingness to reexamine an approach to policy that is obviously failing today?

To pose that question is to posit an equivalence between the French army's sudden collapse in the face of the Wehrmacht's assault and the accumulation of U.S. military disappointments dating from 9/11. From a tactical or operational perspective, many will find such a comparison unpersuasive. After all, the present-day armed forces of the United States have not succumbed to outright defeat, nor is the government of the United States petitioning for a cessation of hostilities as the French authorities did in 1940.

Yet what matters in war are political outcomes. Time and again since 9/11, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or lesser theaters of conflict, the United States has failed to achieve the political purposes for which it went to war. From a strategic and political perspective, therefore, the comparison with France is instructive, even if failure need not entail abject surrender.

The French people and other supporters of the 1930s European status quo (including Americans who bothered to pay attention) were counting on that country's soldiers to thwart further Nazi aggression once and for all. Defeat came as a profound shock. Similarly, after the Cold War, most Americans (and various beneficiaries of a supposed Pax Americana) counted on U.S. troops to maintain an agreeable and orderly global status quo. Instead, the profound shock of 9/11 induced Washington to embark upon what became a series of "endless wars" that U.S. forces proved incapable of bringing to a successful conclusion.

Crucially, however, no reevaluation of U.S. policy comparable to the "turn" that Wertheim describes has occurred. An exceedingly generous reading of President Trump's promise to put "America First" might credit him with attempting such a turn. In practice, however, his incompetence and inconsistency, not to mention his naked dishonesty, produced a series of bizarre and random zigzags. Threats of "fire and fury" alternated with expressions of high regard for dictators ("we fell in love"). Troop withdrawals were announced and then modified or forgotten. Trump abandoned a global environmental agreement, massively rolled back environmental regulations domestically, and then took credit for providing Americans with "the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet." Little of this was to be taken seriously.

Trump's legacy as a statesman will undoubtedly amount to the diplomatic equivalent of Mulligan stew. Examine the contents closely enough and you'll be able to find just about anything. Yet taken as a whole, the concoction falls well short of being nutritious, much less appetizing.

On the eve of the upcoming presidential election, the entire national security apparatus and its supporters assume that Trump's departure from office will restore some version of normalcy. Every component of that apparatus from the Pentagon and the State Department to the CIA and the Council on Foreign Relations to the editorial boards of the New York Times and Washington Post yearns for that moment.

To a very considerable degree, a Biden presidency will satisfy that yearning. Nothing if not a creature of the establishment, Biden himself will conform to its requirements. For proof, look no further than his vote in favor of invading Iraq in 2003. (No isolationist he.) Count on a Biden administration, therefore, to perpetuate the entire obsolete retinue of standard practices.

As Peter Beinart puts it, "When it comes to defense, a Biden presidency is likely to look very much like an Obama presidency, and that's going to look not so different from a Trump presidency when you really look at the numbers." Biden will increase the Pentagon budget, keep U.S. troops in the Middle East, and get tough with China. The United States will remain the world's number-one arms merchant, accelerate efforts to militarize outer space, and continue the ongoing modernization of the entire U.S. nuclear strike force. Biden will stack his team with CFR notables looking for jobs on the "inside."

Above all, Biden will recite with practiced sincerity the mantras of American exceptionalism as a summons to exercise global leadership. "The triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy created the free world. But this contest does not just define our past. It will define our future, as well." Those uplifting sentiments are, of course, his from a recent Foreign Affairs essay.

So if you liked U.S. national security policy before Trump mucked things up, then Biden is probably your kind of guy. Install him in the Oval Office and the mindless pursuit of "dominance in the name of internationalism" will resume. And the United States will revert to the policies that prevailed during the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama -- policies, we should note, that paved the way for Donald Trump to win the White House.

The Voices That Count

What explains the persistence of this pattern despite an abundance of evidence showing that it's not working to the benefit of the American people? Why is it so difficult to shed a policy paradigm that dates from Hitler's assault on France, now a full 80 years in the past?

I hope that in a subsequent book Stephen Wertheim will address that essential question. In the meantime, however, allow me to make a stab at offering the most preliminary of answers.

Setting aside factors like bureaucratic inertia and the machinations of the military-industrial complex -- the Pentagon, arms manufacturers, and their advocates in Congress share an obvious interest in discovering new "threats" -- one likely explanation relates to a policy elite increasingly unable to distinguish between self-interest and the national interest. As secretary of state, John Quincy Adams never confused the two. His latter-day successors have done far less well.

As an actual basis for policy, the turn that Stephen Wertheim describes in Tomorrow, The World has proven to be nowhere near as enlightened or farseeing as its architects imagined or its latter day proponents still purport to believe it to be. The paradigm produced in 1940-1941 was, at best, merely serviceable. It responded to the nightmarish needs of that moment. It justified U.S. participation in efforts to defeat Nazi Germany, a necessary undertaking.

After 1945, except as a device for affirming the authority of foreign-policy elites, the pursuit of "dominance in the name of internationalism" proved to be problematic. Yet even as conditions changed, basic U.S. policy stayed the same: high levels of military spending, a network of foreign bases, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling "national security" apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry. Even after the Cold War and 9/11, these remain remarkably sacrosanct.

My own retrospective judgment of the Cold War tends toward an attitude of: well, I guess it could have been worse. When it comes to the U.S. response to 9/11, however, it's difficult to imagine what worse could have been.

Within the present-day foreign-policy establishment, however, a different interpretation prevails: the long, twilight struggle of the Cold War ended in a world historic victory, unsullied by any unfortunate post-9/11 missteps. The effect of this perspective is to affirm the wisdom of American statecraft now eight decades old and therefore justify its perpetuation long after both Hitler and Stalin, not to mention Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, are dead and gone.

This paradigm persists for one reason only: it ensures that statecraft will remain a realm that resolutely excludes the popular will. Elites decide, while the job of ordinary Americans is to foot the bill. In that regard, the allocation of privileges and obligations now 80 years old still prevails today.

Only by genuinely democratizing the formulation of foreign policy will real change become possible. The turn in U.S. policy described in Tomorrow, The World came from the top. The turn needed today will have to come from below and will require Americans to rid themselves of their habit of deference when it comes to determining what this nation's role in the world will be. Those on top will do all in their power to avert any such loss of status.

The United States today suffers from illnesses both literal and metaphorical. Restoring the nation to good health and repairing our democracy must necessarily rate as paramount concerns. While Americans cannot ignore the world beyond their borders, the last thing they need is to embark upon a fresh round of searching for distant monsters to destroy. Heeding the counsel of John Quincy Adams might just offer an essential first step toward recovery.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Andrew Bacevic

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