“An empire founded by war has to maintain itself by war.” ~ Charles de Montesquieu
I’m batting 1.000 with my reading selections lately. If The Island of Dr. Moreau was the best fiction I’ve read all year, Andrew J. Bacevich’s The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism is the best non-fiction I’ve read all year. In under 200 streamlined, straightforward, and accessible pages, Bacevich, a professed conservative, details how American foreign policy, specifically during the Bush presidency, has failed the nation. While he finds numerous faults with W and his subordinates, Bacevich persists in making his case for a new, broader perspective that needs to be applied when examining current global events. In refocusing his hindsight, Bacevich traces a pattern of miscalculation, greed, pride, and grand ego going back to the waning days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and continuing uninterrupted to the very here and now (the edition I picked up includes a cautionary afterword written days after President Obama’s inauguration).
Bacevich sees our current national predicament–a polarized populace whose divisions run far deeper than red and blue, coping with a floundering economy as vital funds and resources continue to be spent on two seemingly interminable wars, and represented by a deeply uninspiring and ineffective body of legislators–as the result of three unique but interconnected crises.
One is a crisis of politics. Here, Bacevich argues that while on paper a republic, the United States is anything but. A democracy with a duly elected body of lawmakers, yes; but one that is ruled over by an individual whose power has continued to grow unchecked since, Bacevich argues, the 1960s. The evolution of the so-called imperial presidency has meant that one person, with a select accompaniment of increasingly like-minded advisers, has been able to shape American foreign policy unchecked, often with disastrous results. His evidence is enlightening, but ultimately this proves to be Bacevich’s weakest argument. He advocates the return of war powers to Congress, only to extensively bemoan the lack of intelligence, character, and valuable experience of members in both the House and the Senate. He offers no genuine solution, other than simply electing new people.
Far stronger is Bacevich’s assessment of our military crisis. A retired officer himself, Bacevich argues that our military is understaffed, poorly supplied, and inadequately trained. More so, he argues that the armed forces of the United States are incompetently lead. In Bacevich’s eyes, the end of the Cold War should have signaled a significant reformation of our military, its command structure, and its priorities. Those who were in the driver’s seat in the late ’80s failed to see those signs, and as such we were left with a military far larger and more powerful than we needed, and the constant temptation to use it. After the fall of the Soviet Union, that abundance was quickly and meaninglessly spent. Now, when we need it most, we are without it.
Abundance is a major theme of Bacevich’s third, strongest, and most arresting section of analysis. In what he calls the crisis of profligacy, Bacevich argues that our precarious international predicament can be solved right here at home, by each and everyone of us taking stock of our habits, separating our desires from our necessities, and living within our means. Bacevich slams the American people for, over the last thirty years, having operated under the assumption that they could live as large as they liked, that the abundance they found themselves blessed with would never run out and never cost anything. A cynic like me can appreciate the airtight argument Bacevich makes for how the American people have aided and abetted this ethos, how it has continued no matter what political party was calling the shots, and how your simple coveting of that Prada purse or that BMW convertible or that three bedroom house has direct impact on America’s standing and security, both internal and external. Yet a cynic like me also fails to see how that behavior is going to change without the bottom completely falling out. It’s clear that the Great Recession, as it has eye-rollingly been dubbed, has done little to change the cultural norms and expectations of the nation.
While I understood and even heartily agreed with many of Bacevich’s theses, I couldn’t help but thinking throughout my reading that it’s rather hard to write about events as relatively recent as the fall of Baghdad and the Congressional elections of 2006 as fixed points on the pages of a closed book of history. If Bacevich advocates anything, it is a continually evolving perspective on the past. I think he makes an excellent case for finding a new and crucial way for understanding the more immediate past, but Bacevich seems to ignore the fact that American imperial ambition predates the fall of the Soviet Union, or the defeat of the Axis Powers. The twentieth century dawned on a surge of aggressive American expansion, starting with the Spanish-American War. Bacevich draws only brief and inconsequential parallels between the path before us now and that little-known conflict of a over 100 years ago, a war launched on forged intelligence that soon overstretched the nation’s military. The Mexican Wars, Manifest Destiny, and the Monroe Doctrine all predate this. Let’s face it: the moment America freed itself from one empire, it began building another. Only twenty years separate the Battle of Yorktown and the Louisiana Purchase. America has had an empire complex from the very beginning. The only time America wasn’t looking beyond its borders was when it was entrenched in civil war.
While a few of Bacevich’s arguments are limp and without proper support (Congressmen bad! Soldiers good!), his main point that the surest route to victory in the War on Terror is for the American people to change their lifestyle habits is spot on. In calling for a recalibration of our historical eye, Bacevich also warns us against allowing history to repeat itself, which may be the most important lesson of all–one that Bacevich believes has been very hard for us to learn.