Is the Sun Setting on US Empire?

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.

But 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.

Author: Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban writes for Inter Press Service.