Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism
Andrew J. Bacevich
Metropolitan Books, 2008
If there is one principle that seems to mark neoconservative
thought, it is that there are no limits to American power. So long as the American
people are united, so long as they exhibit the necessary will, world domination
will come naturally, even effortlessly. Anyone dissenting from this consensus
obviously is a defeatist or traitor, someone who hates America and blames America
first, who hopes to see American forces defeated on the battlefield.
a great story, and it has proved useful in absolving advocates of the new imperialism
of responsibility for the failure of their favored policies. But those who seek
to intervene without limit have worked to ignore reality. Writing in The
Limits of Power, Boston University Professor Andrew J. Bacevich observes:
"To hard-core nationalists and neoconservatives, the acceptance of
limits suggests retrenchment or irreversible decline. In fact, the reverse is
true. Acknowledging the limits of American power is a precondition for stanching
the losses of recent decades and for preserving the hard-won gains of earlier
generations going back to the founding of the Republic. To persist in pretending
that the United States is omnipotent is to exacerbate the problems that we face.
The longer Americans ignore the implications of dependency and the longer policy
makers nurture the pretense that this country can organize the world to its
liking, the more precipitous will be its slide when the bills finally come due."
The pervasive unreality underlying U.S. foreign policy is evident in the Bush
Administration's and especially John McCain's pronouncements regarding Russia
and Georgia. Over the last couple decades the U.S. has bombed, invaded, occupied,
and/or vanquished Grenada, Panama, Haiti (twice), the Bosnian Serbs, Serbia,
Afghanistan, and Iraq (twice), creating the illusion of invulnerability. So
it was only natural when Russia responded with overwhelming force against Georgia's
foray into South Ossetia that Washington attempted to order Moscow about. Indeed,
the U.S., still occupying Iraq and having recently detached Kosovo from Serbia,
proceeded to lecture Russia on its responsibilities to respect state sovereignty
and Georgia's territorial integrity, and not to invade other nations.
But the Russian military continued to move forward, acting as a giant finger
salute in America's direction. The Administration found itself helpless. For
once Washington had little more to say than did Europe. U.S. officials were
left to essentially threaten to hold their breath until Moscow came around.
Bacevich, a retired Army colonel, is one of today's most important foreign
policy thinkers. In The New American Militarism he reflected on how this
nation, supposedly a grand republic with a limited government dedicated to protecting
individual liberty, had come to rely on the military as a universal policy tool.
Sadly, it was not only countries like Wilhelmine Germany that were militaristic.
In The Limits of Power Bacevich reflects on America's coming, or perhaps
ongoing, shipwreck as it finds itself no longer able to avoid let alone surmount
reality. Two decades ago the world looked very different as the Berlin Wall
fell and communism seemed to dissolve. But the U.S. "victory" in the
Cold War yielded neither a peace dividend nor peace, notes Bacevich. Rather,
by 1991 "the United States had already embarked upon a decade of unprecedented
Of course, Americans believe that none of America's wars are their fault. We
are Vestal Virgins at work in a brutal, sinful world, forced to occasionally
turn into Amazon warriors to defend our virtue.
When the wars go wrong, we shift the blame – to President George W. Bush, Vice
President Richard Cheney, and a long list of other people for Iraq, for instance.
But Bacevich won't let the American people off so easily. He writes:
"The impulses that have landed us in a war of no exits and no deadlines
come from within. Foreign policy has, for decades, provided an outward manifestation
of American domestic ambitions, urges, and fears. In our own time, it has increasingly
become an expression of domestic dysfunction – an attempt to manage or defer
coming to terms with contradictions besetting the American way of life. These
contradictions have found their ultimate expression in the perpetual state of
war afflicting the United States today."
Bacevich identifies the first problem as "the crisis of profligacy."
Americans always want an abundance, and then even more. In his critique, Bacevich
spares no one, including conservative idol Ronald Reagan, whom he terms "the
modern prophet of profligacy, the politician who gave moral sanction to the
empire of consumption."
The problem is real, though Bacevich sometimes paints with too broad a brush.
There are limits, of course, but politicians like Jimmy Carter, who complained
of "a crisis of confidence," have no special insight to recognize
those limits and no special authority to enforce them. Americans naturally bridle
when lectured by the likes of Carter, who underestimated the achievements possible
in a free society.
However, what Bacevich sees so well is the refusal of Americans to believe
that they have to pay a price, any price, for economic abundance at home and
geopolitical dominance abroad. Federal red ink flows freely, Wall Street wins
bailouts, Medicare and Social Security are $100 trillion in the red, the housing
industry demands subsidies, and Americans pay more attention to the latest travails
of Paris Hilton than the status of the U.S. Treasury.
In this world the Bush administration unveiled "a breathtakingly ambitious
project of near global domination," writes Bacevich. Preserving American
abundance was the watchword, "yet that way of life, based for at least
two generations on an ethic of self-gratification and excess, drastically reduced
the resources available for such an all-encompassing imperial enterprise,"
he writes. No wonder things have not gone well.
Bacevich next takes on the political crisis. It is dead-on analysis for anyone
who takes constitutional liberties seriously. He writes: "In contemporary
American politics, appearances belie reality. Although the text of the constitution
has changed but little since FDR's day, the actual system of governance conceived
by the framers – a federal republic deriving its authority from the people in
which the central government exercises limited and specified powers – no longer
Constraints on the government, and especially the executive branch, have eroded
badly. Notes Bacevich, "As the chief executive achieved supremacy, the
legislative branch not only lost clout but gradually made itself the object
of ridicule." Contrary to the claims of the Bush administration and its
Greek Chorus of neoconservative followers, increasingly unaccountable and unreviewable
government power has not made Americans safer. Rather, Bacevich considers the
recent shortcomings, and sometimes disasters, of the national security state:
"the failure to anticipate and avert 9/11; the failure to bring to justice
its chief architects; the failure to devise a realistic and strategically coherent
response to the threat posed by Islamic extremism; and above all the egregious
failures associated with the Iraq and Afghan wars."
The military does not escape his scathing review. There is much with which
to find fault. Some of the blame falls on personalities. But the problems go
far deeper in his view. For instance, he cites "three great illusions."
The first is that the Pentagon has reinvented war. Iraq proved otherwise. Afghanistan
is reinforcing that lesson, just in case Americans missed it the first time.
Next came the claim that civilian and military leaders agreed on the principles
guiding the use of force. However, argues Bacevich, "An odd alliance that
combined left-leaning do-gooders with jingoistic politicians and pundits succeeded
in chipping away at constraints on the use of force."
Finally, there was the belief that civilian society and the armed forces had
bridged differences which stood out so sharply during the Vietnam War. In fact,
he writes, "the events of 9/11 reaffirmed a widespread popular preference
for hiring someone else's kid to chase terrorists, spread democracy, and ensure
access to the world's energy reserves."
Bacevich draws his own lessons from the recent conflicts, including the limited
utility of military force – where is the spread of democracy promised by President
Bush, for instance? He also points to the stupidity and failure of preventive
war, "to launch a war today to eliminate a danger that might post
a threat at some future date."
Although many mistakes have been made over many years, Bacevich notes the special
harm resulting from the current administration's hubris. He explains: "No
doubt American economic power and military power are substantial. Yet when considering
the events of the past several years, above all the Iraq War, the president's
‘for us or against us' ultimatum appears foolhardy in the extreme, and his promise
to eliminate evil, manifestly absurd. His policies have done untold damage."
Bacevich is pessimistic, worrying that America is hurtling heedlessly and fecklessly
towards its own "willful self-destruction." The danger is very real.
And, given the two major party choices in November, the U.S. is likely to move
further down this path during the next four or eight years.
Can America change course? It won't be easy. No one is going to save Americans
Bacevich explains what needs to be done: "Rather than insisting that the
world accommodate the United States, Americans need to reassert control over
their own destiny, ending their condition of dependency and abandoning their
imperial delusions. Of perhaps even greater difficulty, the combination of economic,
political, and military crisis summons Americans to reexamine exactly what freedom
entails. Soldiers cannot accomplish these tasks, nor should we expect politicians
to do so. The onus of responsibility falls squarely on citizens."
Are the people of America willing to take on this responsibility? The answer
may determine our nation's future.