Andrew J. Bacevich, The Limits of Power; The End of American Exceptionalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008), 210pp.
I discovered Andrew Bacevich by reading The New American Militarism; How Americans Are Seduced By War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), a book in which he describes how our culture's normalization and even romanticization of war "pervades our national consciousness and perverts our national policies." A veteran of Vietnam and subsequently a career officer, a graduate of West Point and later Princeton where he earned a PhD in history, director of Boston University's Center for International Relations, Bacevich has described himself as a cultural conservative who views mainstream liberalism with skepticism, but who also is a person whose "disenchantment with what passes for mainstream conservatism, embodied in the present Bush administration and its groupies, is just about absolute." He's also identified himself as a "conservative Catholic."
His newest book is an unapologetic polemic that laments how badly broken America is today. Its prophetic ire finds some vindication in that it was published just a few months before Wall Street imploded. You might argue that he doesn't say much that's new, but you'd be hard pressed to find someone who says it with such passion, erudition, eloquence and, sometimes, sarcasm. The end of the Cold War was thought to have ushered in a Long Peace, with the sole superpower arrogating itself to the task of reshaping the world in its own image. In reality, in the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration initiated a Long War against global terrorism that is a "permanent condition." This is a war, says Bacevich, "of no exits and no deadlines." This Long War in general, and the Iraq War in particular, have laid bare deep contradictions and dysfunctions in America.
The root of this crisis rests in a facile notion of freedom, defined as the sacred right to consume, and manifested in "three interlocking crises" — economic and cultural, political, and military. After a brief introduction, Bacevich devotes a chapter to each crisis. The cultural-economic crisis expresses itself in wholesale profligacy, "a relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors." Our profound addiction to cheap oil, easy personal credit, massive trade imbalances between what we export and import, and the runaway federal debt characterize this profound profligacy. In politics, we've witnessed the concentration of power in the executive branch, the deterioration of meaningful checks and balances, a feckless and dysfunctional congress, and appalling incompetence in overall government (cf. Katrina, health care, social security, immigration). Aggravating this political crisis is an overall "national security ideology" which specializes in disinformation and marginalizing dissent. Bush, says Bacevich, is not to blame; he merely inherited and expanded this tendency, and it's a tendency that successive presidents will surely follow. In his analysis of our military crisis, Bacevich details our illusions about war mongering and the lessons, real and imagined, that we ought to learn from Afghanistan and Iraq (where "we are playing a losing hand").
Will a new president or congress make a difference? Wipe the slate clean and put the nation back on track? Bacevich dismisses this as "the grandest delusion of all," for it turns a blind eye to decades of dysfunction, whether under Reagan and Bush or Carter and Clinton. "There is something touching about these expectations," says Bacevich, "but also something pathetic, like the battered wife who expects that this time her husband will actually keep his oft-repeated vow never again to raise his hand against her" (172–173). The abused wife, of course, is co-dependent, and only when she assumes control of her own life will conditions change. "Something of the same can be said of the American people." As I write, The Limits of Power sits at #10 on the New York Times best seller list.