597 of 628 people found the following review helpful
on August 15, 2008
This is the bluntest, toughest, most scathing critique of American imperialism as it has become totally unmoored after the demise of the Soviet Communist empire and taken to a new level by the Bush administration. Even the brevity of this book - 182 pages - gives it a particular wallop since every page "concentrates the mind".
In the event a reader knows of the prophetic work of the American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, you will further appreciate this book. Bacevich is a Niebuhr scholar and this book essentially channels Niebuhr's prophetic warnings from his 1952 book, "The Irony of American History". The latter has just been reissued by University of Chicago Press thanks to Andrew Bacevich who also contributed an introduction.
In essence, American idealism as particularly reflected in Bush's illusory goal to "rid the world of evil" and to bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East or wherever people are being tyrannized, is doomed to failure by the tides of history. Niebuhr warned against this and Bacevich updates the history from the Cold War to the present. Now our problems have reached crisis proportions and Bacevich focuses on the three essential elements of the crisis: American profligacy; the political debasing of government; and the crisis in the military.
What renders Bacevich's critique particularly stinging, aside from the historical context he gives it (Bush has simply taken an enduring American exceptionalism to a new level), is that he lays these problems on the doorstep of American citizens. It is we who have elected the governments that have driven us toward near collapse. It is we who have participated willingly in the consumption frenzy in which both individual citizens and the government live beyond their means. Credit card debt is undermining both government and citizenry.
This pathway is unsustainable and this book serves up a direct and meaningful warning to this effect. Niebuhrian "realism" sees through the illusions that fuel our own individual behavior and that of our government. There are limits to American power and limits to our own individual living standards and, of course, there are limits to what the globe can sustain as is becoming evident from climate changes.
American exceptionalism is coming to an end and it will be painful for both individual citizens and our democracy and government to get beyond it. But we have no choice. Things will get worse before they get better. Bacevich suggests some of the basic ways that we need to go to reverse the path to folly. He holds out no illusions that one political party or the other, one presidential candidate or the other, has the will or the leadership qualities to change directions. It is up to American citizens to demand different policies as well as to govern our own appetites.
While this is a sobering book, it is not warning of doomsday. Our worst problems are essentially of our own making and we can begin to unmake them. But we first have to come to terms with our own exceptionalism. We cannot manage history and there are no real global problems that can be solved by military means, or certainly not by military means alone.
Fellow citizen, you need to read this book!
94 of 98 people found the following review helpful
This is one of those books you might find yourself sitting down to read chapter and verse over and over again, only because the writing is so intelligent and so profound. "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism," by Andrew Bacevich, is one of those works that will enthrall the reader with its insight and analysis.
According to the author, the US has reached its limit to project its power in the world. His rationale for this conclusion are three central crises we now face: economic and cultural, political, and military, all of which are our own making.
The first crisis is one of profligacy. Americans want more, whether it is wealth, credit, markets, or oil, without consideration for cost or how these things are acquired. There is complete apathy in what policies are being produced as long as they provide plenty.
The political crisis was born of our mobilization in World War II to meet the threat of tyranny, and from the Cold War to meet the challenge of the Soviet Union. Both gave rise to unprecedented presidential power, an ineffectual Congress, and a disastrous foreign policy. Bacevich contends that our legislature no longer serves their constituents or the common good "but themselves through gerrymandering, doling out prodigious amounts of political pork, seeing to the protection of certain vested interests" with the paramount concern of being re-elected. Our presidents have been willing accomplices in keeping the American dream or greed alive by using our military as part of a coercive diplomatic tool to feed and fuel the first crisis.
Bacevich traces the end of the republic to the start of both wars, which gave rise to the "ideology of national security." The mission of the new Department of Defense is not defense, but to project power globally where we will view any nation as a threat that tries to match us in military might. At the same time, the largest intelligence agencies in the world are created to afford us more security, but after seventy years are unable to defend our cities and buildings in the US while it worries about intrigues worldwide. Competition and rivalry lead to a lack of cooperation, intelligence, and security when it was needed most.
The third crisis is our military which has been employed to satisfy the neuroses of the first and second crises. The author puts much of the blame squarely at the feet of inept military leadership, which he believes has confused strategy with operations. Content with the resilience of the American fighting man or woman, he is scathing in his critique of their leadership finding them "guilty of flagrant professional malpractice, if not outright fraud." He illustrates how improvised explosive devices that cost no more than a pizza have checked a military that is designed for speed and maneuver--that was considered invincible.
Andrew Bacevich contends that nothing will change as long as Americans are told to go to Disney World instead of making sacrifices, as long as the same one half percent of our population continue to populate the military that the president sees as his personal army, as long as an apathetic public and an ineffectual Congress continue to make periodic, grand gestures of curbing presidential power, the United States will have reached the limits of its power and exceptionalism.
This book profoundly moved me, and I was impressed by the insight that Professor Bacevich could bring in such few pages. Passages of this book should be plastered in the halls and offices of Congress, as well as the West Wing.
This book really stands out as a jewel in a sea of mediocre publications by radio and TV personalities who think they know what they are talking about when it comes to economics or geopolitics. The difference is that Andrew Bacevich does
Mayer, Jane, "The Dark Side, The Inside Story How The War on Terror Turned into a War on America's Ideals."
Schlesinger, Arthur, "War and the American Presidency."
Mann, Thomas & Ornstein, Norman, "The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track."
Zinni, Tony (Gen. Ret.), "The Battle for Peace: A Frontline Vision of America's Power and Purpose."
Niebuhr, Reinhold, "The Irony of American History."
Anything else by this author.
One hundred seventeen days and a wake-up until someone else's power is thankfully limited forever.
256 of 279 people found the following review helpful
on August 16, 2008
It's amazing how much PALEO-conservatives, like Col. Bacevich (and Pat Buchanan), have in common with progressives, especially when it comes to foreign policy.
My wife and I are very progressive (I'm a Democrat; my wife's a Green), but after watching Moyers' interview with Col. Bacevich, we were blown away. We agreed that if Bacevich was running for president as a Republican, we could see ourselves crossing party-lines to vote for him: that's how profound his effect was.
I hope both sides of the aisle listen to him, because Bacevich is absolutely dead-on in what he's saying.
I'm buying this book and telling everyone I know to read it, or at least watch the Moyers interview.
51 of 53 people found the following review helpful
When I read books like this one about America's descent into empire, the threshold question for me is always, to what extent does the author blame George W. Bush (or related bugaboos like Cheney, Rumsfeld, John Yoo, the Weekly Standard, etc.) for the state of the nation and the world today. For while all those worthies do deserve no small measure of vilification, the baseline insight for coming to grips with it all has to be that the roots of America's national security, welfare-warfare state far, far predate September 11, 2001. Andrew J. Bacevich, of course, knows this fact very well -- which is one reason I consider him one of the finest analysts of American empire, and why "The Limits of Power" is so worth reading.
In fact, Bacevich goes well beyond blaming Bush to point the finger, fundamentally, at the American people themselves (ourselves). Far more than a simple "You voted for the guy," Bacevich argues that Americans now understand "freedom" to mean unlimited consumer choice. The American calling to "promote freedom abroad" thus now really means doing whatever is required to ensure Americans never have to face cutting back, doing without, or otherwise living within our means. As one example of the implications of this new, twisted definition of "freedom," Bacevich asks us to consider the military consequences alone of substantially reducing our dependence on imported oil. For one thing, he argues, the whole structure of America's military presence in the Persian Gulf region, including Centcom and the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, would become redundant. Bases could be closed, soldiers brought home, ships mothballed, and "weapons contracts worth tens of billions of dollars would risk being canceled" (p. 173). Well, when you put it that way, is there any wonder there's no real leadership for "energy independence" coming from the Imperial Capital?
Interesting as this is, though, it's just one small point among the many important observations Bacevich crams into fewer than 200 pages. Other writers have covered individual points in more detail (I particularly thought of the work of Chalmers Johnson, as well as Gene Healy's essential new The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power while reading Bacevich's second chapter, "The Political Crisis"), but this author excels at pulling history and insight together in one quickly digestible package. One grounded, somewhat surprisingly in this case, in the teachings of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
Less often covered, in my experience at least, are the arguments Bacevich makes in his third chapter, "The Military Crisis." I was intrigued by his criticism of America's post-Vietnam generation of military and naval commanders, and particularly by his assertion that the Vietnam-era "lesson" of keeping politics and war separate has led to the death of strategy, or strategic thinking, as something military commanders know how to do. As an example, he describes General Tommy Franks' "basic grand strategy" for winning the Iraq War, which Franks "proudly reprints" in its original, single handwritten page in his memoirs American Soldier. "Yet even a casual examination of Franks' matrix," Bacevich writes, "shows that it did not remotely approximate a strategy. For starters, it was devoid of political context. Narrowly focused on the upcoming fight, it paid no attention to the aftermath. ... it ignored other regional power relationships ... it was completely ahistorical and made no reference to culture, religion, or ethnic identity ..." (pp.166-167). Strongly worded letter follows.
Again, though, this is just one of many points Bacevich makes about improperly-learned "lessons;" about false assumptions on the efficacy of military power; about how the deadweight of the national-security state complex leads presidents to try to find ways around it; about how solutions like restoring the draft are simple, obvious, and wrong; and (returning to my original point) about how thinking "we'll elect a new president to fix the problems created by the old one" never, ever works. It's an awful lot to think about, and "The Limits of Power" would repay frequent re-reading both before and after the first Tuesday in November. Recently, my mother bought copies of The Shack and handed them out to many of her friends and relatives. Were I tempted to do such a thing for people I loved and respected, "The Limits of Power" might very well be the volume I'd choose.
178 of 199 people found the following review helpful
on August 16, 2008
If you read the excellent review by Mr. David R. Cook, you probably wonder why I am bothering with one. Good thought. I am so impressed with this work, it is impossible not to praise it. When a book like Obama Nation can be pushed by false sales to the best seller list, and this book will probably never make it, we can only hope those who bought the Obama smear are too stupid to read it. Frankly this book offers more hope for the future than I see. We have had warnings of this condition we are now facing and ignored them long ago. Mr. Cook points to the book by Reinhold Niebuhr which was ignored because as the author here says Americans are too consumptive led to be willing to change. I must agree and would add that Americans have shown in the past several presidential elections they are afraid of change. As he points out we blindly believe the universe revolves around us and as the chosen of God's creation, no harm can come to us.
As Dr. Bacevich points out we are complacent about the outside world. We are unconcerned for the most part about the welfare of our armed forces. The American people are great at giving lip service, especially since World War II, but we stop far short when it comes to sacrifice. Our president, who has committed so many men and women to danger, flies around the world dancing with dictators and making bad jokes. The hope of our time, the Democratic congress has sold out to the select few who own the nation's future and use it for their own retirement program.
Until we reach that point in our economic and political situation when we are willing to face the truth that if our government is going to do its job, protecting its citizens, we must face the truth and not listen to palatable political pabulum, we are doomed. Anyone who can read and think should read this work. Let's take a bold step and show the ridiculous religious right, the most dangerous of all right-wing groups, that a book of real quality can be a best seller in America again.
60 of 65 people found the following review helpful
on November 9, 2008
In The Limits of Power Professor Andrew J. Bacevich states that the United States is in peril because of three historical developments which have largely occurred since the end of the Second World War: the profligacy (greed and self-interest) of the American people, the concentration of political power into the hands of the president and selected political advisors and the excessive reliance on the military to solve problems. These conditions reached a new height with the Bush administration, but Bacevich demonstrates that that administration was merely following a well-worn path rather than going off in an entirely different direction. Because of the pervasive nature of these problems no president or group of individuals can correct them. He devotes one chapter of this short volume (less than 200 pages) to each problem and concludes that American exceptionalism has come to an end and that there are limits to the usefulness of power.
The book is certainly timely given the recent economic crisis and presidential election. What Bacevich seems to be saying is that the chickens have come home to roost and Barak Obama will not make much of a difference no matter what his intentions or efforts may be.
There is much to be said for each of Bacevich's premises. The first may be obvious to most people given the increasing dependence on foreign oil, the ever-rising national debt and budget deficits, as well as the now huge trade imbalance. The American Dream, Bacevich says, is having more and more without a sense of responsibility for who pays the cost. Bacevich states that "the true pivot of contemporary American history lies between two dates: July, 1979 and March, 1983. The first is President Jimmy Carter's "Crisis of Confidence" speech, in which he stated "We are at a turning point in our history." America, Carter said, could go down one of two paths, one of self interest and the other a path of common purpose to restore American values. The talk was not well received, and of course Carter was not re-elected. The second is a speech by then President Ronald Reagan on March 23, 1983 in which Reagan provided his alternative to Carter. This talk is noted for Reagan's "Star Wars" plan, but Bacevich states that two important ideas were imbedded in the talk. The first is that America could only be safe if it achieved something like permanent global military supremacy. The second is that technology could solve all our problems. This talk, Bacevich asserts, provides the basis for future presidential actions, especially those of George W. Bush.
The second and three points receive the brunt of Bacevich's invective--and the book is full of ad hominum attacks. Bacevich traces the problem of the imperial presidency to the development of "Wise Men," presidential advisors, distinguished citizens who claim special expertise and are immune from voter sanctions. Colonel Edward House, a special advisor to Woodrow Wilson and Dean Acheson and a whole host of members of the "Eastern Establishment" in the administration of FDR are cited as examples for the likes of Karl Rove and Paul Wolfowitz in the Bush administration. Just as critical has been the growth and ever increasing concentration of power in the executive branch and especially in the office of the president. By contrast, the Founding Fathers envisoned a republic vesting most political power in the respective states and a more limited role for the national government.
But it is on the third point that Bacevich seems to vent most of his invective. As a former colonel in the army perhaps he has a more personal and emotional reaction to America's descent into never ending war. Bacevich faults Rumsfeld and others for believing that America could master war saying that the only sure thing about war is its uncertainty and unintended consequences. General Tommy Franks comes in for special criticism because of statements he makes in his book, American Soldier. Civilians such as Douglas Feith also are excoriated.
Bacevich also makes numerous references to Reinhold Niebuhr, who taught at Union Theological Seminary and was an influential writer during the period from 1930 to 1960.
But when it comes to the final chapter Bacevich has little to say beyond the idea that America has gone wrong. Apparently there is little hope of fixing these problems other than realizing that there are limits to everything, even America. All in all the book is interesting and somewhat enlightening reading, but fall far short of providing insight on how to solve the nation's problems. I have given it three stars, but could just as easily give it four. The book is short and the issues are not discussed in great depth. Worth reading for the idea that our current problems are not due just to the machinations of an administration that has perverted Americn values.
29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on August 23, 2008
Bacevich's previous books, AMERICAN EMPIRE & THE NEW AMERICAN MILITARISM, are trenchant, scholarly critiques of our post-Cold War foreign policy, spiced with a bit of acid wit. In THE LIMITS OF POWER, the acid level is way up, but the occasional humor is gone. Perhaps this is because Bacevich--history professor, retired Army lieutenant-colonel, Vietnam vet and West Point grad--lost his son (an Army 1st lieutenant, KIA) in Iraq in 2007.
Whatever the reason, THE LIMITS OF POWER is more of a polemic, though an effective one, informed as it is by the author's deep historical knowledge and enriched by quotes from titans of history like Winston Churchill & Reinhold Niebuhr, as well as midgets of the moment like Doug Feith and (Feith's nemesis) Tommy Franks. Bacevich's central thesis is that uncontrolled American appetites for cheap goods, cheap oil and cheap credit have led to a foreign policy which sees any possible threat to this profligate, constantly expanding, insanely materialistic "American way of life" (above all, a cut-off of cheap foreign oil) as an existential threat to America itself. This has led to the rise of the neocons and their obsession with "Benevolent World Hegemony," the concept that to safeguard our standard of living (deliberately mis-labelled as "our freedoms"), America must dominate the world, with military action the preferred method, leading in turn to such mis-begotten wars as Afghanistan, Iraq, and the whole grandiose, never-ending Global War on Terror itself. Bacevich lays out a convincing case. Continuing a theme begun in his previous books, he traces the roots of our current predicament and finds they are bi-partisan, going back at least as far as Harry Truman. Besides Truman, Bacevich blames heroes of the Democrats like Kennedy and Clinton, and revered Republicans like Reagan and both Bushes. He also takes aim at the cult of "the Wise Men," those senior statesmen and retired generals whose advice Bacevich finds is more likely to advance their own narrow interests and agendas than to serve the nation as a whole.
Bacevich is equally scathing when he goes after today's active duty generals. Regrettably, this is where he will lose the one or two movement conservatives (as opposed to the paleo variety) who actually bother to read the book. Why? Because he pronounces David Petraeus (who can do no wrong in conservatives' eyes) and the surge, a failure. Bacevich may be correct, but it's too early to tell and I wish he had been a little more tentative and a lot less strident. Bacevich also dares to state that the armed forces have failed to accomplish their missions in the GWOT, which many conservatives (at least, the type who let talk radio do their thinking for them) will mistakenly construe as an attack on the troops, despite the author's military background and acknowledgement that we have a very fine military. Again, I wish he had taken a more nuanced view, because this book needs to be read by conservatives, especially the 30% of the electorate who seem to have an unshakeable faith in George Bush.
Finally, Bacevich offers some suggestions for things we can do to climb out of the hole we have dug for ourselves. Unfortunately, they include two suggestions, nuclear disarmament and action to reduce global warming, which many (like me) will find ridiculous, or at least unacceptable, and may cause them to dismiss the great truths the book reveals about the course of self-destruction we are following. (Ergo, the pessimistic review title.)
But I DO HEARTILY RECOMMEND this book! Indeed, you should read AMERICAN EMPIRE & THE NEW AMERICAN MILITARISM as well as THE LIMITS OF POWER, to gain a broader and deeper understanding of how we came to be in this catastrophic pickle. Reading all of them is not difficult, because Bacevich--whose writing style is clear, direct and easy to read--also has the gift of concision: about 600 pages total for all three works. And I join with other reviewers who would like to see Andrew Bacevich much better known, and much more influential, than he is today. He would be a breath of fresh air on the NSC, wouldn't he?
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on August 21, 2008
If you can read but one book this year on American foreign policy, it should be Andrew J. Bacevich's The Limits of Power. Dr. Bacevich advances the impassioned and powerful argument that the error, incompetence, and futility of American foreign policy is grounded in the profligacy of the American people--in an incessant, insatiable demand for "freedom" redefined as "more", concomitant with an unwillingness to pay for it and an inability to recognize limits of resources, of power, or of the predictability of human events. To feed their demands, Americans require cheap and abundant energy, historically supplied by oil, and an endless flow of goods, for which we will borrow when we cannot produce enough.
Ensuring the supply of goods has lured us into national and individual debt. Ensuring the supply of oil has led us into an expensive and unsustainable imperial role in the world and an effort to control the sources of energy through the application of military power, accompanied by and frequently justified by an effort to re-mold the world in our own image. Internally, the effort has resulted in an abdication of Congressional responsibility, a concentration of power in executive hands, and an erosion of civil rights. We are no longer a republic in the sense our founders used the word. We cannot expect elected leaders to rescue us, for our leadership is determined by and constrained by our demands and our historic and continuing unwillingness to recognize limits.
All of this may sound like a cry emanating from a leftist screed worthy of the 1960's, but Dr. Bacevich is a conservative, lamenting the country we have lost, for all its serious faults and limitations, and well-nigh despairing of regaining it. His philosophy is grounded in that of Reinhold Niebuhr, whom he quotes frequently. His main text ends with the bleak observation that "Clinging doggedly to the conviction that the rules to which other nations must submit don't apply, Americans appear determined to affirm Niebuhr's axiom of willful self-destruction." His introduction, however, apparently written later, holds out a small hope. It is that the debate that must follow the Iraq war and its accompanying economic, military, and political crises will lead Americans into "ending their condition of dependency and abandoning their imperial delusions" and ultimately persuade them "to reexamine exactly what freedom entails,"
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
As I write this review, the country is embroiled in a public debate over the proposed $700 billion bailout for the nation's troubled finance banking sector. A good part of the cause of the crisis is the deregulation of the banking industry, which encouraged both corporate hotshots and dividend counters to shoot for the moon. Politicians are insisting that taxpayers ought not to be burdened with the bailout pricetag, and many are also insisting that the bankers ought not to take a personal financial hit either.
All this illustrates one of the central arguments in Andrew Bacevich's courageous and pithy The Limits of Power. Bacevich argues that the tail that wags the nation's foreign policy dog is our consumerist culture of instant gratification. We want the world, and we want it now. So we use traditional appeals to "liberty" and "freedom" as moral glosses that justify our imperial ambitions to control as much of the world's wealth as we can (Bacevich calls recent foreign policy a "de facto Ponzi scheme," p. 66). This means, of course, that the military is called upon. But we--the common citizen as well as the political elders and the "Wise Men" with whom they surround themselves--don't want to make any sacrifices to support the military. So the military gets stretched thinner and thinner, the nation's diplomatic relations with the rest of the world lose credibility, and our incessantly profligate lifestyles make the domestic economic situation increasingly fragile.
This is a recipe for disaster, and it's all predicated on the fact that the American culture simply won't curb greed--for wealth, for no-sacrifice lifestyles, for imperial reach. Bacevich asserts that we're headed for a rude awakening unless we wake up to the fact that bigger isn't necessarily better. There are obvious material limits to power, and Bacevich argues that there are moral ones too.
The voice of Reinhold Niebuhr serves as Bacevich's muse throughout the book, voicing both the moral highground and the hard-headed realism that are also Bacevich's trademarks. All in all, a remarkable and incredibly important book.
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on August 19, 2008
After reading all of the negative reviews from people who haven't even read the book truly demonstrates the depth of despair to which we have been reduced. Adrew Bacevich is a brave and brilliant American. He should be read and heard so that we can end our downward spiral and become the great America we once were. The message is not Republican vs. Democrat, nor even conservative vs. liberal. The message is that Congress has become a body that is only concerned with getting re-elected and has abrigated all of its reponsibilities to the Executive branch creating a defacto imperialist state. This is pointed out in the change in Congress after the 2006 elections, yet nothing changed at all. The President has run roughshod over the Constitution and neither the Legislative Branch nor the Judicial Branch has seen fit to bring our government into balance. This is Dr. Bacevich's argument. Maybe if some of the naysayers would take the time to read the book, they would see that truly conservative ideas are in jeapordy as much as they perceive the growth of liberalism. Please read the meterial before you bare your ignorance of what is really going on.