Today in 1928, the first 15 of an eventual 61 nations signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, outlawing war. The Senate ratified it 85-1, making it U.S. law.

Even as it was signed, we were planning for war with Japan. For the U.S., war became the rule, not the exception. Or as Andrew Bacevich describes it, Washington Rules.

Washington Rules – Planning for War

This week Morning Feature reviews our summer reading. Yesterday we looked at Max Blumenthal’s Republican Gomorrah. Today we consider Andrew Bacevich’s Washington Rules through the historical lens of Edward Miller’s War Plan Orange. Saturday we conclude with Mario Livio’s Is God a Mathematician?

From our recent history, you would not guess that it’s illegal for the U.S. to wage war except in self-defense. Since the Senate ratified the Kellogg-Briand Pact – giving it the force of law under Article VI of the U.S. Constitution – the U.S. has fought in nine wars and committed troops, ships, and/or aircraft in at least 43 other actions. My count does not include disaster relief efforts, evacuations of U.S. civilians from overseas war zones, or repeat strikes in response to a single incident.

Though U.S. combat troops left Iraq last week, 50,000 support troops remain there, and the war in Afghanistan continues. President Bush described both Afghanistan and Iraq as fronts in the “global war on terror,” or what the Pentagon calls “the Long War.” In 2006, a senior Pentagon planner described it as a “generational conflict” which he projected would last another 50-100 years.

In a nation where making war is illegal – the same law cited in the Nuremberg Trials – making war is no longer exceptional. It has become a central fixture in what Andrew Bacevich calls the Washington Rules.

Credo and Trinity:

What are the Washington Rules? Andrew Bacevich presents them in religious terms, to highlight his conclusion that they are followed as articles of faith, insulated from empirical or philosophical challenge. They require no proof beyond declarations of their self-evident truth, and contrary arguments and experience are dismissed as or revised into irrelevance.

Bacevich’s formulation of the Washington Rules begins with a credo, a statement of belief:

In the simplest terms, the credo summons the United States – and the United States alone – to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world.

Bacevich quotes Henry Luce’s Life magazine article from early 1941, which called on Americans to “accept wholeheartedly our duty to exert upon the world the full impact of our influences for such purposes we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” From that credo arose what Bacevich calls “the sacred trinity” of U.S. foreign policy:

[A]n 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 intervention. [Original emphasis.]

Together, the credo and trinity cast the U.S. in the roles of global legislator, judge, and sheriff. Washington – which Bacevich defines expansively to include not only elected officials but also the security agencies, think tanks, and corporations that shape U.S. foreign policy – assert for themselves the authority and duty to decide the legitimacy of other nations’ governments and interests, and to dispatch our military to enforce those decisions.

Continuity of Devotion.

In Bacevich’s narrative, these rules have been accepted and applied largely without challenge since the end of World War II. He describes their origin in Allen Dulles and Curtis LeMay developing the Central Intelligence Agency and Strategic Air Command, respectively. SAC provided the nuclear threat that deterred overt resistance, while the CIA waged covert actions in an ever-expanding sphere of “vital interests.”

Over time, Bacevich argues, expansion itself became a “vital interest.” He says we fought in Vietnam not to protect the lives or liberty of the South Vietnamese, but to preserve our “prestige” — our authority and capacity to declare and enforce a “vital interest” anywhere in the world. Not for the last time, our policy became that of a poker player trying to bully his way out of an ill-considered bluff: keep raising the bets in the hope the opponents will fold.

But as Edward Miller shows in War Plan Orange, this attitude predated World War II. Miller documents the U.S. Navy’s evolving plans for war with Japan, starting as early as 1906. The reasoning and strategies of Plan Orange were strikingly similar to those Bacevich describes as the Washington Rules: a right to assert declared interests in Asia, especially China, against any would-be rival. The most likely rival was identified as Japan, and from the earliest versions the plans called for building bases to project U.S. power and “compel the Japanese to submit to our will.”

That planning continued even after the Kellogg-Briand Pact was signed. The treaty may have been law, but then as now the Washington Rules were held above the law.

Perhaps the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan will compel our leaders to change the Washington Rules. It didn’t happen after Vietnam, but maybe this time we’ll learn.

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Happy Friday!