If I could put one recent political book in the hands of conservatives trying to rebuild their movement and liberals irrationally exuberant about all the “change” that’s about to take place, it’d be Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power. Heck, as long as I’m wishing, I’d like to get it in President-elect Obama’s hands too.
In under 200 pages Bacevich dissects our interrelated economic, political, and military woes. In short, Bacevich’s diagnosis is that we are living on credit in the broadest sense, and the bills are coming due. This is literally true in our economic dependence on cheap goods, cheap oil, and cheap credit–the pillars of what Bacevich calls our “empire of consumption.” Instead of learning to live within our means, Americans have been living as though we could have it all.
Interestingly, considering that Bacevich–a West Point grad, career military man, and Catholic–is an avowed conservative, the villain of the piece turns out in large part to be Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan who convinced us that it was morning in America and that there was no need–contra that killjoy Jimmy Carter–for us to learn to live within limits. At the moment when America might have tamed its dependence on foreign oil, for example, Reagan helped open the gates to a flood of consumerism.
Maintaining this empire of consumption, Bacevich argues, drives our foreign policy: globalization and its attendant military hegemony. The more dependent the US is on other countries for goods and resources, the more incentive there is for us to try and control those countries through the application of military force. In Bacevich’s telling, the imperial presidency and the swollen and dysfunctional national security state are part of the bargain we’ve struck: we have exchanged our constitutional republic for a (seemingly) endless supply of cheap consumer goods. Liberty has been defined down as the freedom to get and have.
One of the more striking parts of the book is Bacevich’s recounting of the way that defense intellectuals–the “Wise Men” who’ve advised presidents since the Kennedy era–have preempted democratic deliberation about the contours of our foreign policy. Bacevich traces a lineage from little-remembered figures like Henry Stimson, James Forrestal, and Paul Nitze to the likes of Paul Wolfowitz. The connecting thread between Nitze, who devised the rationale for much of our Cold War military buildup, and Wolfowitz, one of the leading architects of the Iraq war, is a tendency to exaggerate threats, a penchant for secrecy, and an aversion to democratic accountability. The result is a lopsided foreign policy too prone to using military power as one tool among others, rather than a last resort to be employed under carefully specified circumstances (as in traditional Just War thinking).
The fly in the ointment, however, is that this arrangement isn’t working. Our exercises in military policing are becoming quagmires; cheap credit and cheap oil are both drying up; and our political system serves entrenched special interests rather than citizens. One reason is that our faith in military power suffers from a historical naivete that Bacevich eviscerates with Niebuhrian precision. (Indeed, Niebuhr, who Bacevich invokes repeatedly, is the patron saint of this book.) Only fools imagine they can manage history, or guarantee a final victory of good versus evil, or, for that matter, that evil resides only in “the other” and never in ourselves.
Instead of a crusade to rid the world of evil, Bacevich says, the US should pursue a similar policy to the one we used against the Soviets. Containment, he contends, is a more realistic–and ultimately more moral–policy than the doctrine of global hegemony and the Bushian corollary of preventive war. In addition, he says, focusing on attainable goals like curtailing nuclear proliferation and tackling the effects of global warming holds the promise of addressing some of the root causes of our predicament.
I wonder here if Bacevich’s proposed solutions are actually proportionate to the problem as he’s diagnosed it. If our democracy is so dysfunctional and captive to a thirst for cheap oil and special interests, then why, for instance, has Barack Obama made combating climate change and developing alternative sources of energy such a centerpiece of his transition? If Bacevich is right, then it seems either his solutions are too timid, or our democracy isn’t as bad off as he thinks. It’s too early, of course, to know if Obama’s promised policies will materialize, and Obama has given little indication that he dissents in any radical way from the US consensus on foreign policy. But it might also be that there’s a greater difference between the parties than Bacevich seems to want to admit.
Nevertheless, American exceptionalism is firmly ensconced as the default ideology for both parties, as is our over-reliance on military power. Bacevich’s book is a bracing critique of the Washington consensus, even if there’s little chance that we’ll voluntarily chart a change of course.