Andrew J. Bacevich thinks our political system is busted. In “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism,” he argues that the country’s founding principle — freedom — has become confused with appetite, turning America’s traditional quest for liberty into an obsession with consumption, the never-ending search for more. To accommodate this hunger, pandering politicians have created an informal empire of supply, maintaining it through constant brush-fire wars. Yet the foreign-policy apparatus meant to manage that empire has grown hideously bloated and has led the nation into one disaster after another. The latest is Iraq: in Bacevich’s mind, the crystallization of all that’s gone wrong with the American system.
In the dog days of the George W. Bush era, as the fighting drags on in Afghanistan and Iraq and global food, energy and economic crises mount, this argument has huge intuitive appeal, and indeed Bacevich’s book has climbed the best-seller lists. The nation does seem to be in serious trouble. Figuring out how it got that way is important, and a root-and-branch rethink may be necessary to set things right.
That’s just what Bacevich aims to provide. Hailing from what might be called the ultratraditionalist school of American foreign policy, Bacevich, who teaches history and international relations at Boston University, sees himself as a modern Jeremiah, railing at a fat and self-indulgent country that’s lost its way. By his reckoning, things started going sideways at the end of World War II, when the United States first emerged as “the strongest, the richest and . . . the freest nation in all the world.” As American power expanded abroad, liberty grew at home. But the country’s expectations soon exceeded its ability to satisfy them. At that point, Americans faced a choice: “curb their appetites and learn to live within their means, or deploy . . . United States power in hopes of obliging others to accommodate” them. You can guess which one Bacevich thinks Americans went for.
As its citizens were growing soft, the United States government was mutating as well. Responding to the shocks of the Communist revolution in China, the Soviets’ atom bomb and the onset of the Korean War, Washington created a vast new permanent security apparatus, consisting of the Pentagon, the F.B.I., the C.I.A. (along with the smaller intelligence agencies) and the National Security Council. These bodies, and a compliant Congress, enabled a huge expansion in executive power.
Still, this new setup might have been fine, Bacevich argues, had it worked the way it was supposed to. But of course it didn’t. The vast bureaucracy quickly proved more hindrance than help; individual agencies put their interests above the nation’s; the generals just looked out for themselves and their particular services. Frustrated presidents from John Kennedy on turned to informal kitchen cabinets for advice, shutting out the newly established security system. And things quickly fell apart. In relatively short order we got the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, the ’70s oil crisis, Lebanon, Star Wars, the Persian Gulf war of 1991, Somalia, Kosovo and then, after 9/11, the “Long War” on terror, which has made conflict a “permanent condition.” Then came Iraq: proof, for Bacevich, of our political, economic and military rot.
As a story this all sounds plausible, but it unravels slightly on closer inspection. First, while Bacevich no doubt would describe himself as a realist, his nostalgia for the enlightened republic Americans supposedly enjoyed before World War II involves a large dose of myth-making. Excess consumption is hardly a postwar phenomenon, and even by the time John Quincy Adams warned against going “abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” American presidents were already violating the dictum.
Another sticking point is Bacevich’s rhetoric. This short, punchy book is clearly meant as a polemic, and that’s not necessarily bad. The problem is that certain of Bacevich’s verbal tics, like his annoying references to America’s supposed “emperor-president,” sound paranoid and ring false. They make it hard to take the argument seriously.
Which is a pity, for many of Bacevich’s points are well taken, including his critique of the hypocrisy inherent in Americans’ talk of their supposedly universal values. The same goes for his emphasis on the similarities between the policies of recent presidents. Bacevich’s awareness of the continuities in American foreign policy is especially useful today, when Obamamania has convinced so many that everything will be different come November. According to Bacevich, it won’t be, and he’s probably right — especially if the United States remains dependent on foreign oil, cheap Chinese goods and infinite credit. And special interests will no doubt continue to warp policy no matter who wins office.
Unfortunately, Bacevich is not very good at offering suggestions. Given the sweep of his attacks, the alternatives he comes up with are surprisingly small-bore: America should live within its means, pursue a more modest foreign policy, act to abolish nuclear weapons and combat global warming — all sensible ideas but hardly the sort of grand transformation he says the country needs. Perhaps Bacevich doesn’t feel he has to provide detailed answers because he sees himself more as a prophet than as a policy maker. But surely what we require today, more than broad condemnations of American consumerism, are very specific solutions to very specific problems.
THE LIMITS OF POWER
The End of American Exceptionalism
By Andrew J. Bacevich
206 pp. Metropolitan Books/ Henry Holt & Company. $24