Neither party willing to take on 'Washington rules'

U.S. military domination is a sacred cow the politicians won't touch

December 02, 2010|By Ron Smith

In this week of WikiLeaks, "Slurpee Summits" and lame ducks quacking in the halls of Congress, an underlying and most disturbing reality remains intact and in charge, leading some of us to question whether the recently conducted midterm elections really matter much at all.

One must understand that any number of newly minted elected officials, presidents, senators and congressional representatives have promised to change Washington upon taking office. The results so far have Washington and its culture undefeated. Most often, the system co-opts the reformers — and those it does not usually beat a hasty retreat, bowing to what Andrew J. Bacevich identifies as "Washington Rules," the title of his latest book.

Under these long-standing rules, the establishment of both political parties has colluded with the interests that benefit from our military domination of the world to put us into a permanent war, one we have no hope of winning and no inclination to end.

Mr. Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and now a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, describes himself as a man who until middle-age and the end of his military career was a conformer. He believed in American exceptionalism and in the good intentions we are all told lie behind our military occupation of the world. This belief system was necessary for a career officer. It wasn't until the fall of the Soviet Union, during which time he was stationed in Germany, that he began to question these assumptions.

He likens that time to the beginning of his true education. He became an outspoken opponent of the invasion of Iraq, outraged that President George W. Bush had announced and acted upon the idea of "preventive war," a fancified phrase for a war of aggression. His son, also an army officer, was killed in Iraq.

One of the things Colonel Bacevich learned was: "… more often than not, what passes for conventional wisdom is simply wrong." He sees the era of American dominance — the so-called American Century — drawing to a close. We will no longer be able to police the world. We will have to redefine what the term national security really means.

His book should be read and understood and acted upon by the people who tell us they will bring about change in Washington. But that's as likely as me suiting up to play left tackle for the Ravens on Sunday night. Or, come to think of it, having meaningful debt and deficit reduction measures adopted in 2011.

The major federal government expenditures are sacrosanct. Even tea partiers won't be pinned down on cutting Medicare or Social Security or defense spending. These are the things pushing us down the road to bankruptcy, and if they can't be trimmed, over the cliff we will go, still convinced we're somehow so special we're immune to catastrophic consequences from doing stupid things.

In his column "Did the Midterms Matter?" Reason Magazine's Nick Gillespie laid out his suspicions, which I believe to be grounded in reality, saying: "There's a lot of stuff to plow through in the post-Thanksgiving lame-duck session and there's every reason to expect Democrats and Republicans to kick tough votes down the road as far as possible. After all, if these folks had any backbone, convictions, or leadership skills, there wouldn't be so much stuff to plow through."

The foreign policy consensus is unchallenged. The entitlement Ponzi schemes are the third rail of American politics, and no politician wants to be electrocuted by touching it. We have to keep pretending that the present course is sustainable if only some small, marginal changes are made in our national spendthrift ways.

The Simpson-Bowles National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform postponed its report, which had been due this past Tuesday, to sometime today. Fourteen of the 18 members of the commission must agree on any reform recommendation. Special interests of all sorts are fighting mightily to avoid feeling the pain from cuts in spending.

There's no doubt that at some time in the not-so-distant future, significant changes will come to our political system, and the Washington Rules will be altered. But this is not likely to happen absent calamity. Bet on calamity.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 9 a.m. to noon, on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL.com. His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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