Friday Links

I spent the day hanging out with my family, so these are coming a little late…

–Why Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal is neither brave nor serious.

–Free-range meat isn’t necessarily “natural.”

–A case for universalism from the Scottish evangelical preacher and biblical scholar William Barclay.

–A review of a recent book called What’s the Least I can Believe and Still Be a Christian?

–The WaPo reviews a local prog-metal band called Iris Divine (here’s their MySpace page).

–Do Americans love war?

–Speaking of war, April 12 marks the 150th anniversary of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter and the onset of the Civil War. I’m thinking of marking the anniversary by finally tackling James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom this spring.

–As I write this, it looks like the two parties are getting close to a budget agreement that will avert a government shutdown. But I still wanted to note that a shutdown would have a major impact on the District itself, shutting down a number of basic city services. This is something that hasn’t gotten much attention.

–The AV Club continues its feature “Loud”–a monthly review of the latest in punk, hardcore, metal, and noise.

Come home, America

I finished Andrew Bacevich’s Washington Rules last night, and it’s a worthy successor to his New American Imperialism and Limits of Power. Bacevich tells the story of how the “rules” that govern the U.S. foreign policy consensus–in brief, the imperative to maintain American military hegemony and capability for “power projection” at all costs–have been maintained and enforced, even when events threatened to overturn them (e.g., Vietnam). He reviews the emergence of the post-World War II national security state, the development of American nuclear policy under Gen. Curtis LeMay, the Cold War chicanery of the CIA, the futility of Vietnam, and the short-lived post-Cold War and post-Gulf War euphoria about the U.S.’s supposedly unrivalled military prowess. In each case, the hubris of the “best and brightest” led to unintended consequences and, in more than a few cases, unmitigated disasters.

Bacevich brings us up to date with a recounting of the so-called revolution in military affairs and its culmination in the second Iraq war (including a demolition of the supposed success of the “surge” and a pointed critique of the war as a total strategic failure judged by the criteria of its own architects), as well as the newly recovered fashion for counterinsurgency (COIN) wars. Unfortunately, as Bacevich makes clear, the Obama administration, and its policy of doubling down in Afghanistan, represents far less of a break with the existing foreign policy consensus than some of its supporters (and critics) would have us believe. We are, he thinks, headed for some kind of disaster as we try to maintain an increasingly far-flung and unsustainable global empire. Bacevich would have us “tend our own garden” and address the very real problems facing the United States–recalling the George Washington/John Quincy Adams tradition of America primarly as an exemplar of liberty and democracy instead of a global policeman. A disillusioned conservative, Bacevich also points to an eclectic array of home-grown social critics (including George Kennan, William J. Fulbright, Christopher Lasch, and Martin Luther King) who can help point the way for America to “come home” and focus on fashioning a polity that secures liberty and justice for all, rather than going abroad seeking monsters to destroy. Highly recommended.

Liberalism, conservatism, choice, and limits

What now for conservatives? Andrew Bacevich says they should advocate restraint–economic, personal, cultural, and in the foreign policy sphere. He contrasts this with the liberal culture of “unchecked individual autonomy,” “Ponzi scheme” capitalism, and neoconservative foreign policy. Damon Linker replies that what Bacevich advocates is tantamount to a culture of authoritarianism.

I agree with Linker that there’s no going back to a pre-modern culture and politics of authority–and we wouldn’t want to even if we could. (I’m also not sure that’s what Bacevich is proposing; in his book The Limits of Power he writes quite positively about the movements for expanding human freedom in the 20th century and laments conservatives’ opposition to them; see pp. 26-27.) Yet I don’t think Linker grapples seriously enough with the problem that some forms of liberalism face: if freedom of choice is the highest good, then it’s difficult to make the case for any restraint on human appetite. This is true even if freedom is only the highest political good, as that arch-liberal Lord Acton held. The reason is that sometimes we have to choose collectively in light of a greater good than the sum of individual desires.

Or at least it seems to me. A Millian harm principle might get you a good distance toward curtailing human selfishness, but is it enough, for instance, to get us to care for the environment, even if that might mean lowering our material standard of living? Or to work toward justice for people living in absolute poverty? Linker is right in my view to defend the “modern, liberal order” that “valorizes consent and individual choice,” but somehow that order needs to be balanced with a sense of limits and restraint. Bacevich’s writing thus can provide a useful corrective.

Bacevich book club

TPM Cafe is hosting a “book club” on Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power, wherein various smarty-pants foreign policy thinkers weigh in on the book and Bacevich gets an opportunity to respond. Read it here.

I blogged about Bacevich’s book here.

Left-wing American exceptionalism

Christopher makes an important point. To anyone who’s tempted to believe that the Bush years were a complete departure from an otherwise unbroken American tradition of “moral leadership” I’d recommend–for starters–getting acquainted with Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power, which I blogged about here. Then we can move on to the collected works of Reinhold Niebuhr.

2008: The year in book blogging

I’m not going to provide a best books of the year list, but here’s a sampling of those that got their hooks into me enough to generate some more or less in-depth blogging (needless to say, most of these weren’t published in 2008):

Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power

“Empire of dysfunction”

Evelyn Pluhar, Beyond Prejudice

Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4

Jay McDaniel, Of God and Pelicans

“Creation and omnipotence: a process perspective”
“More thoughts on omnipotence and creation”

Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation

Index of posts here.

John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation

“Initial thoughts on Gutierrez’s Theology of Liberation”

S.F. Sapontzis, Morals, Reason, and Animals

“What kind of equality?”

James Alison, On Being Liked

“An end to sacrifices”

John Gray, Straw Dogs

“John Gray contra humanism”

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma

“Against the globalized food chain”
“Pollan on the ethics of meat eating”
“More on Pollan and vegetarianism”

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.

Come on in, conservatives; the water’s fine

For whatever reason, this post, A Conservative for Obama, has been getting a lot of traffic recently. Are there still disaffected conservatives out there who haven’t drunk the McPalin kool-aid and are looking for a reason to vote Dem?

Here’s a good place to start: conservative historian–and self-described “Obamacon”–Andrew Bacevich on NPR’s Fresh Air. Among other things, he argues (convincingly, IMO) that the current GOP is anything but conservative if your idea of conservatism includes things like a realistic view of the world, foreign policy prudence, and fiscal sobriety.