washingtonpost.com
Speaking Truth to a Superpower
We consume too much . . . go to war too often . . . and don't govern ourselves wisely enough.

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.

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? ยท

Robert G. Kaiser is associate editor of The Washington Post and author of "So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government," to be published in January.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company