Andrew J. Bacevich, The Limits of Power (Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2008)
A review by Gilbert S. Doctorow
Published earlier this year when the eventual electoral victory of Barack Obama was still fairly remote and unknowable, Andrew Bacevich’s book was addressed not so much to the future occupant of the White House as it was to the American people at large: warning us that ‘change we can believe in’ will require a lot more than any new Chief Executive can deliver on his own, namely new and realistic objectives for American foreign policy in which use of military power is restored to its place as last resort, preemptive war is abjured, and the ‘freedom agenda,’ the ideology that has justified American hegemonic behavior and interventionism everywhere to create a Pax Americana, is replaced by narrower pursuit of national interest. All of this can come about by nothing less than overturning the prevailing elites in Washington, beginning with the bipartisan foreign policy establishment on Capitol Hill which is closed to all outside thinking and which reaches down from Congress into the universities, the think tanks and journalists.
The book is a wide-ranging political essay about US expansionism since the time of De Toqueville’s observations in the 1830s, with particular attention to the exercise of US military power since the end of the Cold War. The author, a graduate of West Point and former military officer who retired with the rank of colonel, has full authority to speak on these issues. He proceeds in quick order to demolish conventional wisdom surrounding the Bush Administration’s policies. These include the illusion that the superb US army can use its speed and agility to more than compensate for its relatively small numbers on the ground, that meddling civilians in the Defense Department hindered the war effort in Iraq and so drew out the conflict, and that either a large increase in forces or introduction of a draft can bring the military into line with what foreign policy expects of it.
Instead, he gives us four lessons from his analysis of what has gone wrong in George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. First, that war remains what it always was: costly, difficult to control and sure to give rise to surprises. Second, and a corollary of the first point, that the utility of armed force remains finite and that it is a poor vehicle to spread democracy and human rights. Third, that preventive war is folly. Fourth, that America does not need a larger army; it needs a smaller, that is, more modest, foreign policy.
In between he deals with many related issues that have broad resonance in the political sphere. We read the quiet irony in his analysis of what made possible the devastating attack on the Twin Towers: “A political elite preoccupied with the governance of empire paid little attention to protecting the United States itself. In practical terms, prior to 9/11 the mission of homeland defense was unassigned. The institution nominally referred to as the Department of Defense didn’t actually do defense; it specialized in power projection….Manhattan was left to fend for itself.”
He takes up the issue of the draft, arguing that the volunteer professional army introduced by Richard Nixon effectively removes the American people from the conduct of war and that the professional military has become an extension of the imperial presidency. : “…a draft could reinvigorate American democracy, restore the governmental system of checks and balances, and constrain warmongers inhabiting the executive branch.” But while reintroduction of the draft would re-politicize war, as should be done, and restore the concept of civic duty, he believes this is unacceptable to the public at large, to its representatives in Congress and to the military command itself, who have low regard for citizen-soldiers.
..The author today is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He emerges from these pages as the kind of politically engaged thinker that undergraduates swoon over. And he takes the high road of philosophy, quoting extensively from Reinhold Niebuhr to explain the quagmire we are in and find the North Star to plot our way out..
Particularly in the first half of the book, Bacevich engages in philosophical musings and in moralizing, criticizing his countrymen for self-indulgence: living above their means and profligacy. Given the financial and economic collapse that has overtaken us since August, these remarks published in the spring will now find great resonance among the many critics of unbridled free market capitalism. But speaking of a breakdown in moral values is no less subjective an analysis, no more convincing as a prescription for what can and should be fixed going forward. There are relatively few people anywhere, not just in the USA, who will willingly don sack cloth and repent.
Being so far from the mainstream of the foreign policy establishment, Bacevich possibly does not enjoy the level of regular critiquing that would tighten up the logic of his work. Indeed, the book is strong in detailing what is wrong with separate issues of US foreign and military policies;. its great weakness is the identification of the underlying causality. Ultimately, the author attributes the mess we are in to America’s dependency on cheap money and cheap imported oil. They underpin prosperity, which underpins the American way of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that the President and Congress are bound by the Constitution to support.
But is all of US foreign policy about cheap oil? Outside the community of the conspiracy-minded, that proposition hardly stands up to even casual inspection. Has the US genuinely abandoned containment of potential adversaries like China and Russia? Does US engagement with its greatest Allies and trading partners in Europe have anything to do with oil?
What is also missing is a comparative sense, and this is most surprising in a work that aims to deflate American exceptionalism. Bacevich criticizes the US presidency for dominating foreign policy, but foreign affairs are the privileged domain of the executive in most other countries as well. American elites may be corrupt in the sense of being self-perpetuating, but that is a commonplace worldwide. Quoting De Toqueville’s remarks on US expansionism may go over well in the lecture hall, but it is less convincing in a serious political analysis of the present time. We may take as a given that a great many human societies tend to be opportunistic and fill all the space available to them, not just the USA. Moreover, Bacevich fails to comment on the scramble of all world powers today for direct proprietary control of natural resources, a perverse denial of the free trade that is trumpeted from the WTO and enshrined in the ideology of free markets that the Anglo-Saxon nations have promoted for decades.
In making his point about the long duration of the present foreign policy course, dating at least since the end of the Cold War, Bacevich, the Republican, exculpates George W. Bush, whom he claims operated ‘within the framework that has defined basic national security policy for decades.” Yet, spread throughout the book are remarks that show how qualitatively different the Bush years have been. These changes include the swagger and unilateralism of the Bush Diktat intended to force Allies to choose between being with the US or against it in waging preemptive war and meddling in many of the world’s hot spots. At the same time there was the introduction of torture in US interrogation methods, the outsourcing of a large part of US intelligence operations and the outsourcing of a large part of military operations to privateers. These innovations of the Bush years essentially changed the reality of US power overseas. They complemented the assault on basic liberties at home through the Patriot Act and related security legislation, all of which contributed to the loss of the country’s moral prestige abroad, the compromise of what it is fashionable to call ‘soft power.’
Looking to the future, Bacevich urges that the US abolish nuclear weapons by cutting its own arsenal as well as by promoting non-proliferation. He says it could also better ensure home defense by curbing dependence on imported oil, namely by spending money to build a post-carbon fuel economy and so stop giving its wealth to countries that are home to Islamic extremists.
From the post-electoral statements of Barack Obama, it is clear that he supports the latter policy in his green agenda that may very well be part of his economic relief package put to Congress early in the new year. It now appears that arms reduction talks also will be back on the agenda in the new administration.
Bacevich’s other key recommendation, that US foreign policy turn from idealism and do-gooders to self-interest, setting more modest objectives for its armed forces, seems much less likely to win friends in the Obama administration. The President-elect has shown a strong penchant for defending human rights and an interventionist mentality. He will have to exercise great self-restraint if there is to be a genuinely pragmatic as opposed to ideological cast to US foreign policy in the coming four years..
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2008