Bacevich, J. The Limits of power

The Limits of Power – The End of American Exceptionalism, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2008

It has been clear for some years that the USA is a nation in denial. It neither recognises the internal dilemmas this creates nor takes any responsibility for the growing global consequences. Moreover, those who try to diagnose the implications from overseas run the risk of being dubbed ‘anti-American’ and therefore marginalised. This book, however, was written by a former colonel in the US military and therefore cannot be so readily dismissed. The author is clearly a patriot who is deeply disturbed by the dysfunctions he sees around him. Nor does he blame external forces for this. At the outset he notes that:

The impulses that have landed us in a war with 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. Those contradictions have found their ultimate expression in the perpetual state of war afflicting the United States today (p. 5).

He then adds that ‘the United States today finds itself threatened by three interlocking crises. The first of these is economic and cultural, the second political, and the third military. All three share this characteristic: they are of our own making’ (p. 6). In his view the ‘central paradox of our time’ is that:

While the defence of American freedom seems to demand that U.S. troops fight in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the exercise of that freedom at home undermines the nation’s capacity to fight. A grand bazaar provides an inadequate basis upon which to erect a vast empire (p. 11).

The tenor of his conclusions are clear at the outset: ‘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’ (p. 13).

Bacevich reviews the ‘crisis of profligacy’ with a clarity that is rare for a US based observer. For example, he writes: ‘the restless search for a buck and the ruthless elimination of anyone – or anything – standing in the way of so doing have long been central to the American character’ (p. 17). Furthermore, ‘

crediting the United States with “a great liberating tradition” distorts the past and obscures the actual motive force behind American politics and U.S. foreign policy. It transforms history into a morality tale, thereby providing a rationale for dodging serious moral analysis (p. 19).

He also identifies a number of points in recent history when the American public was presented with clear choices and yet failed to take those that acknowledged and led away from dependency. One was the point during 1973-5 when U.S. oil imports exceeded exports. Another was the choice posed in 1979 by then President Carter who argued that the U.S. should live within its means and, in so doing, lost the subsequent election to Reagan. Carter’s foresight was not what the people wanted whereas ‘Reagan understood what made Americans tick: they wanted self-gratification, not self-denial (p. 40). The consequences were deadly:

American habits of conspicuous consumption, encouraged by Reagan, drew the United States ever more deeply into the vortex of the Islamic world, saddling an increasingly debt-ridden and energy-dependent nation with commitments that it could neither shed nor sustain (p. 44).

This helps to explain why what the author calls ‘reflexive expansionism’ continued ‘long after it made sense’. The consequences have become all-too-familiar. Bacevich goes on to outline a frank view of Congress (‘a haven for narcissistic hacks’) and how what has become known as the ‘national security state’, in his view, undermines the very society it was designed to protect. He writes with great clarity about some of the underlying assumptions that he considers to have become ‘hardwired into the national psyche’. Why are these assumptions so durable? In part, he says, because ‘conviction follows self-interest’ (p. 78). Similarly, the role that ideology plays in national security is, in his view, to provide ‘a reductive and insipid, if ultimately reassuring view of reality’ (p. 90).

The above is, of course, summarised from a much more detailed account. But it is worth noting his suggestions about the key lessons of the Iraq war. They are:

  • the ideology of national security, American exceptionalism in its most baleful form, poses and insurmountable obstacle to sound policy;
  • Americans can no longer underwrite a government that does not work; (and),
  • What today’s Wise Men (ie, the political elite) have on offer represents the inverse of wisdom (p. 121-2).

To this reader the final section of the book that presents an insider’s critique of military doctrine and strategy is perhaps the weakest, despite the author’s knowledge of the area. The reason for this, perhaps, is that it is, after all, the view of an ex-military man and I found myself parting company with him here to some extent. That’s not to say that his views on the lessons of Afghanistan should be overlooked. They are:

  • events have exposed as illusory American pretensions to having mastered war;
  • the presumption of U.S. military supremacy that achieve such broad currency following the Cold War is completely spurious; and,
  • American doesn’t need a bigger army. It needs a smaller foreign policy (p. 168-9).

Drawing extensively on US philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, Bacevich concludes the section with observations on ‘the enduring nature of war’, the ‘folly of preventive war’ and what he calls the ‘lost art of strategy’. These all make a good deal of sense but I remained uncomfortable with the unspoken assumption that in a world heading rapidly toward an ‘overshoot and collapse’ future there is indeed any legitimate role for standing armies, conventional forces, as they have developed over human history during what might be called ‘humankind’s long summer’ (ie, the time when the global climate supported the emergence of the species to its present level of climate-changing impacts). This, I think, is based on the kind of conventional thinking that reflects those easier times, now past. Yet despite this the main conclusions of the book certainly hold up. He writes:

For the United States the pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence – on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit. The chief desire of the American people, whether they admit it or not, is that nothing should disrupt their access to those goods, that oil, and that credit. The chief aim of the U.S. government is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part through the distribution of largesse at home (with Congress taking a leading role) and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad (largely through the business of the executive branch)…. So, rather than addressing the problem of dependence, members of our political class seem hell-bent on exacerbating the problem (pp 173-4).

To his credit the author briefly flags a number of ‘ways out’ of the situation he has described. One relates to the ‘realistic appreciation of limits’ and the opportunities it brings. Another relates to shifts in foreign policy such as a new policy of containment (rather than direct aggression) and a willingness to ‘let Islam be Islam’. Overall, therefore, while I have some quibbles about the book in relation to the role of the military, it is a brave and unusually honest work from within the world’s most (currently) dominant and challenging nation.

On a final note: the author’s 28-year-old son, a lieutenant in the U.S. army, was killed in Iraq in 2007.

© Richard A Slaughter, 2008