FOREIGN POLICY

Speaking Truth to a Superpower

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Reviewed by Robert G. Kaiser
Sunday, August 31, 2008

THE LIMITS OF POWER

The End of American Exceptionalism

By Andrew J. Bacevich

Metropolitan. 206 pp. $24

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.


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