Andrew Bacevich, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army and self-avowed conservative, has emerged in recent years as one of the most incisive and far-reaching critics of American foreign policy and the Bush administration. His two previous books American Empire and The New American Militarism argued that the Bush administration has followed a path laid down by earlier US presidential administrations. In short it is not an aberration. In his latest book, The Limits of Power, Bacevich not only holds little hope of foreign policy change from a McCain or Obama administration but also questions whether either would have any intention of changing the broad direction of US foreign policy. In an interview I conducted with Bacevich in Boston last week he described Obama’s foreign policy as “thoroughly conventional”, a description certainly not meant as a compliment.
In American Empire Bacevich attempted to justify his claim that continuity not change predominates recent American foreign policy. He did so by arguing that both the Clinton and Bush administrations have chosen as a central goal an open door policy where American businesses have greater access to foreign markets and where the American military has greater reach and more foreign bases. He presented these policies as thoroughly imperial and thoroughly bi-partisan.
In The New American Militarism he showed how Bush drew on, rather than constructed, a culture that reveres military endeavours and military equipment in a way that profoundly misunderstands the sensible role of a military in a society. More generally Bacevich, in his many recent articles and op-eds, has frequently claimed that like many other American presidents, Bush’s promotion of a “freedom agenda” is a candy-coated justification for US expansionism. Bacevich views this combination of hubris and self-interest backed up by overconfidence in America’s military strength and primacy as disastrous.
In The Limits of Power Bacevich takes up these themes once more, this time in a more direct and less academic manner than in his earlier books.
Bacevich’s early works drew significant inspiration and analytical purchase from the writings of the left-wing scholar William Appleman Williams. In his new book, Bacevich uses the realist Reinhold Niebuhr as a lighthouse to guide the reader to wisdom in these worrying times; many passages begin with a quote from Niebuhr who in the last paragraph is even referred to as “our prophet”.
The wisdom that Bacevich dispenses is often deeply pessimistic about America’s ability to recognise the errors of its ways. At its worst this pessimism echoes the metaphor of the demise of Rome to predict the fate of the American Empire, recently overused by Chalmers Johnson, and others. This is a small criticism, however. When compared to other root and branch critiques of the follies of American Empire this book has much to recommend about it. Although not in the same league as Anatol Lieven’s brilliant America Right or Wrong, The Limits of Power is certainly one of the best critiques of American foreign policy written in recent years. Its sobriety, directness, largely evidence-based attacks, and attempts to offer solutions (even if the author sees little chance that they will be taken up) all make for compelling reading.
The central argument presented in the book is that American culture and American government does not have a healthy respect for limits. As a people, Americans have a “shop-till-they-drop” mentality using credit that is widely available and even more widely abused. “He who has the most toys wins” is the motto of this profligate culture.
Given that responsibility and limits are frequently ignored by many Americans, Bacevich asks why the American government would be any different. As evidence of this shallow culture where consumption is king and sacrifice is someone else’s problem, Bacevich quotes President Bush telling the American people after September 11, 2001 that they faced a long war against Islamo-fascism and that the appropriate response was to “get down to Disney World in Florida” and “go shopping more”. Furthermore, this culture of accumulation has always driven Americans outwards seeking gold and oil which has in turn created an American empire.
Bacevich’s distaste for American mall-culture and his call for personal limits reminded me a lot of an author not mentioned by name, but one certainly respected by Bacevich, the late Christopher Lasch. Although I found Bacevich’s cultural critique at times a little too sweeping, and incomplete in its understanding of the allure of consumer culture, his anti-materialism has much to admire about it.
The later chapters on the political and military crises afflicting America are similarly hard hitting in pointing out the rot at the centre of America’s institutions of state. Evidence was sometimes light on the ground in these chapters and I hope that Bacevich turns his considerable talents to developing these arguments in his future works.
His discussion of the political crisis has many targets: the deficient role of Congress, the imperial presidency, James Forrestal, NSC 68, and Paul Wolfowitz. The central message is that the inflation of threats is one of the unfortunate legacies of the Cold War which continues to be used by ambitious advisers and imperial presidents to mute dissent and pervert American democracy.
Along with the political crisis, Bacevich details a military crisis which he believes has been created by deficient civilian decision-makers and an underwhelming military hierarchy that fails to appreciate that “the utility of armed force remains finite”. Bacevich believes that the American government has yet to realise the fundamental truth, as once colourfully put by Norman Mailer, that “Fighting a war to fix something works about as good as going to a whorehouse to get rid of a clap”.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.
4 posts so far.