Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel and professor of international relations, writing in January 2009 as Barack Obama took office as president, made the following cogent observation about the need for true “change” in Washington:
When it comes to national security, the standard navigational charts used to guide the ship of state are obsolete. The assumptions, doctrines, habits, and routines falling under the rubric of “national security policy” have outlived their usefulness. The antidote to the disappointments and failures of the Bush years, illustrated most vividly in the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not to try harder, but to think differently. Only then will it become possible to avoid the patently self-destructive behavior that today finds Americans facing the prospect of perpetual conflict that neither our army nor our economy can sustain.
Of course, Obama promised “change,” but with respect to national security policy, the sum total of the last five years of his watch has simply been more of the same.
Admittedly, the war in Iraq finally ended (for U.S. troops, not for the Iraqi people), but that was only because the Iraqis themselves refused to countenance the eternal presence of our troops there (of course, our boondoggle of an embassy in Baghdad survives). Obama didn’t get us out of Iraq; he acquiesced to a deal Bush had already struck with the Iraqis.
Meanwhile, the U.S. remains ensnared in Afghanistan, squandering lives and resources to the tune of $100 billion a year. Vague promises are made of an American withdrawal in 2014, but with an “enduring presence” (God help us) for another ten years after that. Under Obama, drone strikes have expanded and continue; the national security state remains fat as it ever was, garrisoning the globe and spying on the world (including, as we recently learned, American citizens); and various tough-talking “experts” in Congress continue to call for new military interventions in places like Iran and Syria.
Why has this happened? One reason is that Obama and his team wanted to be reelected in 2012, so they embraced the Bush neo-conservative approach of a hyper-kinetic, interventionist, foreign policy. Fresh thinking was nowhere to be found, since any downsizing of American military commitments or its national security apparatus would have exposed Obama to charges of being “soft” on (Muslim) terror.
With respect to a bloated national security apparatus and wasteful military interventions, change didn’t come in 2008. It was a case, as The Who song says, of “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” Nor is change coming, seemingly, in the future. Americans remain wedded to a colossal national security state that neither the president nor the Congress appears willing to challenge, let alone change.
Fresh thinking is the one thing you can’t buy in Washington because it’s priceless. And for the lack of it, we’re paying a very high price indeed.
Next Article: Some fresh thinking on where we should be headed.