The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism

The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism
Andrew J. Bacevich
Metropolitan Books, 2008
206 pp.

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.

It’s 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 interventionism.”

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 pertains.”

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 from themselves.

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.