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“This compact, meaty volume ought to be on the reading list of every candidate for national office in November's elections. In an age of cant and baloney, Andrew Bacevich offers a bracing slap of reality. The Limits of Power is gracefully written and easy to read… chockablock with provocative ideas and stern judgments. Bacevich's brand of intellectual assuredness is rare in today's public debates. Many of our talking heads and commentators are cocksure, of course, but few combine confidence with knowledge and deep thought the way Bacevich does here. His big argument is elegant and powerful.”—The Washington Post
“Strongly felt and elegantly written… The Limits of Power is painfully clear-sighted and refreshingly uncontaminated by the conventional wisdom of Washington, D.C.”—The Economist
“Andrew Bacevich speaks truth to power, no matter who’s in power, which may be why those of both the left and right listen to him.”—Bill Moyers
—Martin Sieff, The Washington Times
“In this utterly original book, Andrew Bacevich explains how our ‘empire of consumption’ contains the seeds of its own...
From The Washington Post
Reviewed by Robert G. Kaiser
This compact, meaty volume ought to be on the reading list of every candidate for national office -- House, Senate or the White House -- in November's elections. In an age of cant and baloney, Andrew Bacevich offers a bracing slap of reality. He confronts fundamental questions that Americans have been avoiding since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, first of all: What is the sole superpower's proper role in the world?
Bacevich is not running for office, so he is willing to speak bluntly to his countrymen about their selfishness, their hubris, their sanctimony and the grave problems they now face. He scolds a lot, but does so from an unusual position of authority. He is a West Point graduate who served his country as an Army officer for more than 20 years, retiring as a colonel with a reputation as one of the leading intellectuals in our armed services. A Catholic and self-described conservative, he earned a PhD from Princeton and taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins before joining the Boston University faculty in 1998 to teach history and international relations. His many articles and four previous books have made him a respected voice in debates on national security.
In this book Bacevich treats the writings of theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr as a kind of scripture. He calls Niebuhr, who died in 1971 at age 78, a "towering presence in American intellectual life from the 1930s through the 1960s" who "warned that what he called 'our dreams of managing history' -- born of a peculiar combination of arrogance and narcissism -- posed a potentially mortal threat to the United States." Repeatedly, Bacevich uses quotations from Niebuhr to remind us of the dangers of American hubris.
Bacevich describes an America beset by three crises: a crisis of profligacy, a crisis in politics and a crisis in the military. The profligacy is easily described: What was, even in the author's youth several decades ago, a thrifty society whose exports far outdistanced its imports has become a nation of debtors by every measure. Consumption has become the great American preoccupation, and consumption of imported oil the great chink in our national armor. When on Sept. 11, 2001, the United States suffered the most serious attack on its soil since 1812, our government responded by cutting taxes and urging citizens onward to more consumption. Bacevich quotes President Bush: "I encourage you all to go shopping more."
After 9/11, Bacevich writes, "most Americans subscribed to a limited-liability version of patriotism, one that emphasized the display of bumper stickers in preference to shouldering a rucksack."
Bacevich's political crisis involves more than just George W. Bush's failed presidency, though "his policies have done untold damage." Bacevich argues that the government the Founders envisaged no longer exists, replaced by an imperial presidency and a passive, incompetent Congress. "No one today seriously believes that the actions of the legislative branch are informed by a collective determination to promote the common good," he writes. "The chief . . . function of Congress is to ensure the reelection of its members."
In Bacevich's view, the modern American government is dominated by an "ideology of national security" that perverts the Constitution and common sense. It is based on presumptions about the universal appeal of democracy and America's role as democracy's great defender and promoter that just aren't true. And we ignore the ideology whenever it suits the government of the day, by supporting anti-democratic tyrants in important countries like Pakistan and Egypt, for example. The ideology "imposes no specific obligations" nor "mandates action in support of the ideals it celebrates," but can be used by an American president "to legitimate the exercise of American power."
Today politicians of all persuasions embrace this ideology. Bacevich quotes Sen. Barack Obama echoing "the Washington consensus" in a campaign speech that defined America's purposes "in cosmic terms" by endorsing a U.S. commitment to "the security and well-being of those who live beyond our borders" regardless of the circumstances.
Bacevich describes the military crisis with an insider's authority. He dissects an American military doctrine that wildly overstates the utility of armed force in politically delicate situations. He decries the mediocrity of America's four-star generals, with particular scorn for Gen. Tommy Franks, original commander of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He calls the all-volunteer Army, isolated from the society it is supposed to protect, "an imperial constabulary" that "has become an extension of the imperial presidency."
The heart of the matter, Bacevich argues, is that war can never be considered a useful political tool, because wars invariably produce unintended consequences: "War's essential nature is fixed, permanent, intractable, and irrepressible. War's constant companions are uncertainty and risk." New inventions cannot alter these facts, Bacevich writes. "Any notion that innovative techniques and new technologies will subject war to definitive human direction is simply whimsical," he writes, quoting Churchill approvingly: "The statesman who yields to war fever is no longer the master of policy, but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events."
Yet the United States is today engaged in multiple wars that both exceed the capacity of the all-volunteer force and are highly unlikely to achieve their political aims, Bacevich argues. War is not the answer to the challenges we face, he says, and "to persist in following that path is to invite inevitable overextension, bankruptcy and ruin."
The Limits of Power is a dense book but gracefully written and easy to read. It is chockablock with provocative ideas and stern judgments. Bacevich's brand of intellectual assuredness is rare in today's public debates. Many of our talking heads and commentators are cocksure, of course, but few combine confidence with knowledge and deep thought the way Bacevich does here.
Some of Bacevich's asides, however, are highly debatable -- that Richard M. Nixon and Mao Tse-tung together helped bring down the Soviet empire, for example. Bacevich is no globalist, and he treats trade as a sign of national weakness. One could provide a long list of objections of this kind, but quibbles cannot undermine Bacevich's big argument, which is elegant and powerful.
The end of the Cold War left the United States feeling omnipotent but without a utilitarian doctrine to guide its foreign policy. Instead, we have succumbed, again and again, to the military temptation. In Iraq we stumbled into a real disaster. If we cannot get our goals and our means into balance soon, our future will be a lot less fun than our past.
Bacevich is argumentative, and his case is not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, but at the end of this book, a serious reader has a difficult choice: to embrace Bacevich's general view or to construct a genuinely persuasive alternative. For many years our leaders have failed to do either. The price of their failure has been high and could go much higher. Bacevich knows a lot about the costs himself; his only son, Andrew John Bacevich, a first lieutenant in the Army, was killed in Iraq last year.
Candidates for office owe the voters their take on the big argument here: Do they think military power remains a tool of choice to help the United States make its way through the perils of the modern world? If so, can they explain why?
Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
- Publication date : August 5, 2008
- File size : 359 KB
- Print length : 224 pages
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Publisher : Metropolitan Books; First edition (August 5, 2008)
- Language: : English
- ASIN : B001ELVPMG
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Top reviews from the United States
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Bacevich is not a liberal, and any pinhead who labels him one because of his disagreement with the Bush Administration is unfortunately missing the point: that Bush43 (and Reagan and Bush41) aren't conservatives either, with their profligate spending, big government aid packages, extravagant social engineering and interventionist foreign policies. And not just the Republicans, but Clinton and Carter get their share of lashes from Bacevich too for continuing and in some cases initiating government actions which are counter to good foreign policy, good economic policy and especially high moral ground.
Bacevich quotes Reagan in 1983 saying "The United States does not start fights. We will never be an aggressor." Yet a mere 20 years later the Bush Doctrine urges pre-emptive wars against sovereign nations having "a 1% chance of threatening the U.S." This precipitous fall from moral high ground explains why military strength alone cannot project American values onto the rest of the world, and why our desire to do so is exactly what the rest of the world fears.
There is so much to this book, even hitting the high points would run to many pages! For instance: the lessons of Vietnam have not been absorbed by US leadership. Some of the same failed advisors on that war (Kissinger for one) are advising Bush on Iraq and Afghanistan and trying to rewrite history by replaying the game, somehow expecting a different outcome. Unfortunately, "shock and awe" tactics of rapid deployment and precision airstrikes are useless against an insurgency, useless against citizens in their own country and counter-productive in winning the hearts and minds of the non-insurgents.
Bacevich explains how the culture of rampant consumerism is intricately linked to the foreign policy of trade domination, globalization, rampant consumer debt and (as I write this) the apparent meltdown of the investment banking industry. Bush's advice to consumers to "go shopping" at the start of a generational War on Terror is one example of how American military actions have been taken over by the Executive Branch, running mercenary and rent-an-army troops under secret budgets so the general populace never sees what's being done "in our name." Bacevich rips into military leadership, civilian oversight, executive hubris and complacent legislators with equal glee, and hardly a word in his book is debatable.
This book deserves to be taught in schools, handed out to every freshman Senator, debated by presidential candidates, serialized on the radio, discussed on the news, and read by every voter. Bacevich says that he wrote the book "in order to sort out my own thinking" but every reader will benefit from his crystal clear conclusions.
In The Limits to Power, Bacevich, a former army colonel and currently a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, shows in well-documented detail how certain changes in the national attitude since World War II have led us to where we are today when it comes to our out-of-control consumerism, our fiscal irresponsibility, our obsessions with national security and our increasingly bloated and dysfunctional government, all of which we justify on the grounds of American exceptionalism. He also shows that this attitude - and corresponding behavior - has remained consistent over the last sixty years, from administration to administration whether Democrat or Republican, the differences being little more than matters of degree, and how Bush's disastrous One-Percent Doctrine is merely the same attitude given full rein without any sense of restraint.
If I were to quote every part of the book worth citing, I would end up copying most of the text. But the points Bacevich makes about how our concept of what "freedom" means has become warped is particularly worth noting:
"Freedom is not static, nor is it necessarily benign. In practice, freedom constantly evolves and in doing so generates new requirements and abolishes old constraints. The common understanding of freedom that prevailed in December 1941 when the United States entered the war against Imperial Japan and Nazi German has long since become obsolete.... The changes have been both qualitative and quantitative...."
"That transformation has produced a paradoxical legacy. As individuals, our appetites and expectations have grown exponentially. The collective capacity of our domestic political economy to satisfy those appetites has not kept pace with demand. As a result, sustaining our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness at home requires increasingly that Americans look beyond our borders. Whether the issue at hand is oil, credit, or the availability of cheap consumer goods, we expect the world to accomodate the American way of life."
"The resulting sense of entitlement has great implications for foreign policy. Simply put, as the American appetitie for freedom has grown, so too has our penchant for empire. The connection between these two tendencies is a causal one. In an earlier age, Americans saw empire as the antithesis of freedom. Today, as illustrated above all by the Bush administration's efforts to dominate the energy-rich Persian Gulf, empire has seemingly become a prerequisite of freedom...."
"Meanwhile, American political leaders -- especially at the national level -- have proven unable (or unwilling) to address the disparity between whow much we want and what we can afford to pay. Successive administrations, abetted by Congress, have deepened a looming crisis of debt and dependency through unbridled spending.... With Americans, even in wartime, refusing to curb their appetites, the Long War aggravates the economic contradictions that continue to produce debt and dependency. Moreover, a state of perpetual national security emergency aggravates the disorders afflicting our political system, allowing the executive branch to accrue ever more authority at the expense of the Congress and disfiguring the Constitution. In this sense, the Long War is both self-defeating and irrational."
In addition to pointing out how we are now being dragged down by the cumulative effects of the last six decades of American exceptionalism - staggering debt at all levels, unsustainable trade deficits, energy dependence, bloated and dysfunctional government, costly and unproductive wars - Bacevich also shows how we're already drawing the wrong lessons from the Iraq and Afghan wars, a warning that the next administration would do well to consider. Unfortunately, he also shows by their public statements how all of the current contenders to be the next President (at the time of publication - Obama, Clinton and McCain) are fully vested in the same American exceptionalist views as their predecessors.
The only thing I felt the book lacked was any proposal as to how we can change things. Bacevich does an excellent job at giving the prespective and framing the problems with remarkable clarity and documentation, showing how it is imperative that we change before our problems overwhelm us and telling us what we shouldn't be doing, but he fails to offer any plan or prescription for how we go about it. Still, I consider The Limits To Power a very timely and highly important read for anyone who wants to understand why we are where we are today. Highly recommended.
Top reviews from other countries
There are parts of this book that were a revelation to me. As a soldier who was once in Afghanistan, we used to be denounced as crusaders - a term some took to quite affectionately. I realised before ninety pages in that this title was in a way, true. We were not crusaders for Christ, but crusaders for the Democratic idea to which our societies are beholden. This book is about destroying myths. All societies revel and are deluded in their myths, and the book is a condemnation of the mythology that now holds tight to American society, its politicians and its military. His conception of the American government ("Imperial Presidency"), American military (in two words: poorly lead) will and has made shockwaves with readers. It will continue to do so.
This book is a polemic. It is quick and decisive. Even if you are too troubled to agree with everything he has presented, such as I, this book serves not only as a great introduction to the problems affecting the United States, but also as information for people well-acquainted with politics and history. It is like getting two or three steps ahead. Whether you will enjoy this book or it makes you suffer, you will be better for it.
But the book is something else entirely. The author explains the history of the present in about 196 pages, and boy does he make a truly excellent job of it! His written style is fluent, succinct, concise, intelligent but never boring or dry. He is a Professor of International Relations at Boston University, and his students must love him! Not only that, but he is a West Point graduate who served in Vietnam, and subsequently served in the US Army for 22 years.
He survived Vietnam, but ironically and very poignantly, he lost his son, a 1st Lieutenant, in Iraq. The book is dedicated to his son's memory. And it is an immensly worthy dedication. He writes with intelligence, passion and clarity. He shoots from the hip but, like the Zen archer, hits all his targets without fail; at the same time he doesnt hit anything he's not aiming at. Though it is an academic work, there is an almost spiritual profoundness and power about it, together with an almost military realism. He knows what he is about, and is not afraid to say it, no matter whose toes get trodden on.
If I had a million pounds (2 million dollars) I would buy every copy of this book I could find, and distribute it for free on every university and college campus in the US. It is that good an investment, and that important.