The unlikely political journey of Andrew J. Bacevich
has been one of the most potent symbols of the transformation in foreign policy
debates wrought by the George W. Bush years.
A Vietnam veteran, retired US Army colonel, and Boston University professor,
Bacevich came into the public eye in the 1990s as a commentator on military
affairs for conservative flagships like the National Review and the Weekly
Standard. If Bacevich already seemed less sanguine about the US's supposed
"unipolar moment" than many of his colleagues, there was nonetheless
little to mark him as a future pillar of opposition to the status quo.
as a result of his vocal criticism of the Iraq War a war which claimed
the life of his son and of the post-World War II political and military
establishment in general, Bacevich has come to occupy a unique role in contemporary
foreign policy debates. In books like The
New American Militarism and articles for publications ranging from the
left-wing Nation to the paleoconservative American Conservative,
he has warned against the militarization of US foreign policy and the messianic
ambitions of neoconservative hardliners.
Bacevich's new book The
Limits of Power (Metropolitan, 2008) attempts a deeper historical and
theoretical examination of the US's current woes, suggesting that the excesses
of recent foreign policy are far more deeply rooted in the US character than
its critics have been willing to acknowledge.
His largely convincing and deeply pessimistic portrayal should
help curtail any tendency to pin all blame on the blundering and bad intentions
of the Bush administration, and dampen undue enthusiasm that a simple change
of administrations will alleviate the structural problems facing the US.
Bacevich begins with a brief historical recap of the US's rise and expansion
across the continent. He resists the urge to see current policy as the betrayal
of a mythical golden age in US history, in which Washington's motives were
benign and its aspirations humble, instead detailing the interest-driven process
by which the US expropriated its natives and rose to the status of world power.
At the same time, however, this often-ruthless expansionism correlated with
increasing abundance and the extension of democratic freedoms among US citizens.
A critical part of Bacevich's argument is that this correlation between expansion,
abundance and freedom is no longer operative. Against those who would take the
US's expansionist past as a vindication of its present ambitions Robert
Kagan's "Dangerous Nation" seems to be an implicit target he claims
that the correlation broke down in the Vietnam era; now expansionism "squanders
American wealth and power, while putting freedom at risk."
This situation, Bacevich argues, is rooted in three interlocking crises
one socioeconomic, one political, and one military. His account of the first,
which he calls "the crisis of profligacy", constitutes his most radical
challenge to the mainstream US political consensus, and forms the analytical
heart of the book.
The problems of US foreign policy, he claims, are at root a manifestation
of the problems of US identity of a notion of freedom defined as ever-increasing
consumption and the unlimited satisfaction of desires. This "empire of
consumption" both necessitates and undermines an imperial foreign policy.
It necessitates this foreign policy, because the insatiable need for resources
requires effective control of the areas that produce them. Hence the Carter
Doctrine, which takes US dependence on oil as the basis for a policy of intervention
in the Middle East.
At the same time, it undermines this foreign policy, because a population preoccupied
with consumption becomes less willing and less able to defend these new national
security interests. As Bacevich puts it, a "grand bazaar provides an inadequate
basis on which to erect a vast empire."
Bacevich's critique therefore extends all the way to the very meaning of the
US ideal of freedom in a consumer society quite a bit farther than most
critics of US foreign policy, left or right, have been willing to go.
And his story features an unlikely hero and villain the former being Jimmy
Carter, who warned futilely that the US must learn to live within its means,
the latter being Ronald Reagan, who reassured the US citizenry that they could
have their cake and eat it too. Far from being the epitome of conservatism,
Reagan stands in Bacevich's account as "the modern prophet of profligacy."
Related to this crisis of profligacy are two other crises, one political and
one military. Here, Bacevich retreads some old ground much of the material
will seem familiar to readers of "The New American Militarism"
but his arguments are valuable and incisive nonetheless.
The chapter on "the political crisis" reviews the militarization
of US foreign policy and the growth of the natural security apparatus in the
wake of World War II, centering on a fundamental shift in the way that the US
conceived of its security.
Leaving behind the traditional view that the US military existed to respond
to specific threats, and should expand and contract according to the scope of
these threats, Cold War policymakers began to see imperfect security as by definition
inadequate security, and concluded that the US could only be safe when it
exercised permanent global military supremacy.
Bacevich identifies Eisenhower-era strategist Paul Nitze as the key architect
of this shift, but correctly sees the militarization of US foreign policy as
a constant drive that transcended individuals, administrations, and parties.
While the Bush Doctrine of preventive war may have been the most extreme manifestation
of these tendencies, they were equally visible in the administrations of supposedly
more dovish presidents such as Carter and Clinton.
This growing "ideology of national security" led to a fundamental
overestimation of what military power was capable of achieving. Entranced by
illusions of permanent supremacy, policymakers forgot about the inherent unpredictability
of war and the limited utility of force as a tool for social and political transformation.
When faced with recent disappointments in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bacevich argues,
they have fallen back on glib and superficial lessons (empower the generals
over the civilians, reinstate the draft) that have failed to reckon with the
real nature of the problem.
Bacevich is particularly good on the current fad towards viewing counterinsurgency
doctrine as universal panacea for the US military's woes. Without disparaging
the successes of counterinsurgency as developed by strategists such as David
Petraeus, he argues persuasively that "small war" techniques cannot
take the place of a serious assessment of what the US's strategic interests
are, and what its military should do.
Historically, he notes, "'small wars' are imperial wars." To take
counterinsurgency as the solution to the military crisis is to take for granted
that the primary role of the US military should be the long-term occupation
of foreign countries and the subduing of their native populations. The newly
popular embrace of counterinsurgency sweeps the most important strategic questions
under the table.
The Limits of Power is short and briskly argued sometimes too
briskly. The book is ambitious enough that it would have been nice to see its
more contentious points argued in greater depth.
Still, Bacevich's central arguments are too important to pass over, and his
book provides a much-needed challenge to what has become an ideologically rigid
and historically ignorant foreign policy consensus.
(Inter Press Service)