Empire of dysfunction

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.

12 thoughts on “Empire of dysfunction

  1. That book was certainly one of the best I read in 2008. (At Christmas I received the new edition of RN’s “The Irony of American History” with the introduction by Bacevich.)

    What Bacevich is criticizing, at root, is our lack of humility or sense of limits. It could be argued that Obama’s plans to combat climate change and develop alternative energy sources are statist plans with little to no personal sacrifices demanded of citizens, apart from taxes – and even there he promises tax cuts nearly everyone. It is easy for people to believe that they will be able to continue their lives as normal and, by voting Obama, the government will fix everything from climate change to gas prices. No curtailment of expectations or standards of living required.

    Personally I like Obama’s plans, probably in part because they promise to allow me to live my life without significant interruption. I can see how Bacevich would make the argument above though. Especially since he is a far more consistent conservative than I am.

  2. Lee

    That’s a good point – obviously sacrfice and changing the way we live may well be necessary. On the other hand – I’m always a bit wary of general calls for “sacrifice” simply for its own sake. Like when people say that Bush should’ve called us all to sacrifice after 9/11 — that would’ve made sense, assuming that the sacrifice was for some specific purpose. But I find it a bit creepy when some people suggest that we need a generalized spirit of sacrifice simply for our own good. I’m not saying that’s what Bacevich thinks–but there are people who seem to think that, and to almost look forward to some civilizational collapse with the idea that it will force us all to be more virtuous, communal, etc.

    (George Monbiot’s Heat gives a readable account of what would be necessary to address climate change while retaining most of the blessings of modern society.)

  3. Agreed. Perhaps part of this general call to sacrifice some try to make is an effort to get us united around a common cause. Something that would help us “serve a cause greater than ourselves” (to use McCain’s campaign phrase). I’m sympathetic to this. I would love to feel like I’m part of something big. Yet I also share in your suspicion. Grand unifying causes “for the greater good” have, well, turned sour sometimes. And I’m also frustrated with people trying to make me feel guilty. For example, I’ve recently switched from a more fuel efficient car with looming, major mechanical problems to a less fuel-efficient car in much better repair and given to me as a gift by a family member. Should I have stayed with the more fuel-efficient car that would have cost me more and more money? Or should I have taken out a car loan to buy a greener car? Since I’m a nonprofit accountant I have to go with the cheaper option: the free, not-as-efficient car.

    What I’m saying is that calls for general sacrifice, as much as I’d love to be part of such a cause, don’t take into account the situations in which real people find themselves. The problem is big enough that I think the solutions will require a kick-start by the government.

  4. Sounds like B is tracing the problem to (a) undemocracy, (b) the excessive power of the executive, (c) the dominance of the military-industrial (-congressional) complex, (d) military-economic globalism, and (e) the Superpower delusion.

    This is the same diagnosis you would get from the more firmly anti-interventionist progressives – the kind the media love to characterize variously (odd that all these labels are still sometimes made to sound synonymous with “extremists”) as “liberals”, “the left,” or “the far left.”

    But relatively few think the solution must involve amendment of the Constitution so as to further empower the people and subject the executive to them through the legislature.

    What do they say about people who keep on doing the same thing, always hoping for different results?

  5. Oh, slipped my mind.

    As to the question of America’s engagement in the neocon wars and in the Israelo-Palestinian conflict, Bacevich seems always to ignore the crucial role of the American Zionism, both Jewish and Christian, that dominates our policy in the Middle East.

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  7. Interestingly, Bacevich’s book is published as part of the “American Empire Project,” which also includes titles from the likes of Noam Chomsky.

    Regarding constitutional amendment–there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem there, isn’t there? Why wouldn’t the same forces that keep the majority from exerting its will now also stymie any attempt at constitutional reform?

    And on the Israel question–Bacevich says that people who blame our problems on, e.g. “the neocons” or “the Israel lobby” are at best only getting at part of the picture. The roots go much deeper, which is the burden of the rest of the book to explain. I’m inclined to agree; I’ve never particularly bought the Israel tail wagging the American dog as an explanation for the main thrust of our Middle East policy.

  8. chicken and egg problem –

    Well, it’s more like fighting over a gun a man is about to use to kill you. Of course the attacker will fight to keep the gun. But if you don’t fight to take it away your prospects are much worse than if you do.

    I agree the prospects of constitutional reform are slim to none.

    That is the upper bound of our prospects for ending American globalismo democratically rather than having to ride it out until it fails, once and for all – or maybe collapses a piece at a time.

    As to the roots going deeper, that is true, of course.

    Hence my first post adverted to those roots and made no mention of Zionism.

    My second adverted to the crucial role in these particular conflicts, the Israelo-Palestinian wars and the neocon wars, of Zionism both Jewish and Christian and its political clout in America, which it seems he pretty much refuses to discuss, ever.

  9. Jeffrey

    As to why Bacevich is focusing on issues such as combating global warming and containing nuclear proliferation, rather than aiming for a bigger agenda, I suspect his reason is the same as the Obama administration’s – in the current political climate, they are issues on which real political traction is possible. As far as I can tell, the American public might be up for pursuing containment of terrorism, but currently has no stomach for meaningfully reducing America’s global military presence. But one of the main reasons we insist on living beyond our means is our knee-jerk political consensus that we must be the world’s policeman. The economic problem of endless credit Bacevich identifies ultimately can’t be addressed without severely curtailing our military hegemony. Can’t say I blame him for being pessimistic as to whether the Obama administration – or any other administration, Rep or Dem – would make the right choice between the two when the time comes. Though making the right choice in the interim on those other issues (climate/nuke proliferation) might help shift the collective American character in a manner that prepares us for those larger and harder choices.

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