The death of Andrew Bacevich’s son on May 13 in Iraq was heartbreaking news for anyone who’s read his work, heard him speak, or (I’m sure) known him. That he would be capable of writing a check for a phone bill two weeks later, much less an essay for the Post, is remarkable. The piece is an elegy for his kid, but it also reiterates important arguments he’s raised in less difficult moments.
Bacevich’s two major works, American Empire and The New American Militarism are provocative and compelling; among other things, he draws on earlier generations of diplomatic and political historians — particularly Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams — to argue that “open door” imperialism has guided US foreign policy since the start of the 20th century. For those who haven’t encountered the term before, the “open door” refers to the traditional ideological consensus among diplomats and policymakers who view free markets as central to US national interests and, moreover, as the ideal venues for the expansion of democratic forms of sovereignty. The widening of the “open door,” as Bacevich sees it, takes place concurrently with the extension of US military and political power. This is a critical argument, because it flies in the face of the Bush administration’s nonsensical claim that “everything changed” on September 11. As Bacevich sees it, the Bush administration has been giving its own perverse stamp to various tendencies in US foreign policy that are at least a century old. (His argument, for what it’s worth, isn’t nearly as reductive as my description suggests.)
In any case, this aspect of Bacevich’s work is relevant because it feeds today’s editorial. In his scholarship, he contends that the open door consensus provides a messianic vision of US history that enables one disaster after another. Today, he argues, it
confines the debate over U.S. policy to well-hewn channels. It preserves intact the cliches of 1933-45 about isolationism, appeasement and the nation’s call to “global leadership.” It inhibits any serious accounting of exactly how much our misadventure in Iraq is costing. It ignores completely the question of who actually pays. It negates democracy, rendering free speech little more than a means of recording dissent.
This is not some great conspiracy. It’s the way our system works.