Speaking on presidential power

Historian explains how we should look at presidency and politics

October 15, 2009

Historian Andrew Bacevich gave the 2009 Caterpillar Distinguished Lecture in Global Affairs titled “Presidency and the Limits of Power” during the first day of Family and Friends Weekend. The lecture was sponsored by the Knox College Center for Global Studies through support from the Caterpillar Foundation.

Bacevich said to understand the central truths of contemporary American politics, people had to look at the continuities that “had defined and continue to define the post-war tradition of the U.S. national securities strategy,” called “the Washington rules.”

Bacevich said, “What really matters is not when the change is when Republicans give way to Democrats or when President Obama succeeds President Bush. What really matters are the things that stay the same.”

The “Washington rules” combined two elements. The first outlined why the U.S. influences the international order so that it works as the U.S. intends, called the “credo.”

“The credo summons the United States — and the U.S. alone — to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world, bringing history to its intended destination, namely the universal triumph of freedom,” said Bacevich.

The “credo” stems from four convictions: the world must be organized or shaped, only the U.S. possesses the capacity to perform that function, everyone understands and accepts this reality; the world wants the U.S. to serve as global leader, and finally, others are expected to conform to American principles which enforce what defines the international order as they represent universal validity.

He criticized that since taking office, President Obama and the administration have not changed as the “credo” continues, despite adjusting how the U.S. exercises leadership.

The second element of the “Washington rules” includes the means for which the U.S. brings its influence to the world.

The U.S. has chosen “activism over example, hard power over soft, and coercion often styled as negotiating from a position of strength over persuasion.” The U.S. exercising global leadership as a military enterprise is the “hard, inner core of the ‘Washington rules’” and compels the U.S. to maintain prodigious military power.

“Since leadership implies something more than simply waiting on events, adherence to this view also favors an activist posture. And for all, their aim is not simply to defend, or to preserve, but where necessary, to arrange or reorganize.

Americans take for granted the existence of this approach to global leadership and are therefore blind to its significance. They also take for granted the triad of military principles to which Washington adheres when translating intent into action.”

Before World War II, Americans viewed military power with skepticism but afterwards, an “affinity of military power” was “central to American identity.” Bacevich gave the example of the Pentagon being not only a building but as having “full spectrum dominance.”

People accepted the power of the Pentagon “as benign” and most judged this military ascendency as “necessary and reassuring.”

Past years of military practice have revealed significant points of continuity called “the sacred trinity”: the U.S. maintains global military presence, configures forces for global power projection, and has a penchant for global intervention.

The purpose of global military presence is not to defend one place but for decision-makers to be able to deploy U.S. military power anywhere.

However, a huge flaw of configuring forces for global power projection is that while military presence is abroad, it is absent domestically. “Full spectrum dominance” did not defend the U.S. from terrorist attacks on 9/11 and needed to create the Department of Homeland Security because the Defense Department was technically fighting elsewhere.

As the lecture coincided with the day President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a parent in the audience asked if awarding President Obama the Nobel Peace Prize as a kind of “wish gift for peace” will “affect the current policies regarding [the Washington] rules in Afghanistan.”

Bacevich replied, “It’s hard for me to believe that the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize, as much as I think it’s a wonderful thing, will matter an iota […] I have come to believe that, yes, this is a pivotal moment in his presidency […] The decision either to endorse the proposal of General McChrystal or rejecting the McChrystal approach, to choose a significantly different course, is a matter of monumental importance and presents the President to make real change […] [If he follows the McChrystal plan], the President in effect will be endorsing the notion that war is the proper antidote to violent Islamic radicalism […] [If he says no to the McChrystal plan] he will repudiate the notion that military power is the primary expression of American global leadership.”

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