The Limits of Power

The recently released book “The Limits of Power: the End of American Exceptionalism" (NY: Henry Holt & Co., 2008) should be read by every thinking Americanespecially before this year's national elections.

             Written by Andrew J. Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel who is now a professor of history and political science at Boston University, the book’s thesis is simply that America's involvement in what seems a perpetual state of war is due principally to our addiction to living beyond our means, which in turn has its roots in our tendency, first noted by DeTocqueville in the 1830s, of confusing the quantity or amount of what we possess, whether it be land, riches, or whatever else, with quality of life. Or to put it in the words of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Bacevich considers to have been a prophet, Americans have "a culture soft and vulgar, equating joy with happiness and happiness with comfort." To this harsh judgment, Bacevich adds "...with Americans increasingly confusing comfort with self-indulgence" (p.9).

          Is Bacevich correct? He makes his case in just three chapters. In the first, "The Crisis of Profligacy," Bacevich outlines U.S. history from our country's founding through its relentless westward expansionism, its nineteenth century of wars of conquest against Mexico (protested by Lincoln no less) and Spain (championed by Teddy Roosevelt) and, of course, its continued quest to make the world safe for the American life-style and its cult of "freedom." All this seemed to work fine for us until the tipping point was finally reached during the disastrous Vietnam War, during which Nixon tried to balance the books by cutting our dollar from the gold-standard. After the oil crises of 1973 and 1979, Jimmy Carter declared, in January 1980, that America's foreign policy must henceforth be focused on the Middle East, no doubt, because of its oil. When he finally came to his senses by the summer of that same year, Americans were not ready to hear the bad news and threw Carter out of office in favor of Reagan who blithely convinced us, as perhaps only a actor can do, that instead of all that gloom and doom, it really was a new “morning in America." The rest, of course, is, as they say, "history." In effect, from having been an “empire of production,” America become an ”empire of consumption” and we have been suffering the consequences ever since.

          Bacevich's second chapter, "The Political Crisis," gives us a picture of a government in which the chief executive has become a virtual emperor under the sway of specialmostly big businessinterests and Congress has become almost entirely dysfunctional. The third chapter on “The Military Crisis"  is particularly strong, especially coming from a former career officer whose loss of his own son in Iraq has added more than a note of personal grief and passion. Bacevich excoriates the Pentagon as well as the generalship as having learned practically nothing from Vietnam, or having learned something, with having ignored the lesson.

          All this might well have been followed by another chapter on the present financial melt-down. But perhaps that would not really be necessary, because the true causes really have their roots not just on Wall Street but in the profligacy described in chapter one. But all in all, I'd say that this book and its thesis deserve our careful consideration.

          As for American “exceptionalism,” yes, in many ways our country has been exceptional, but as we should have sadly learned long before now, not so exceptional that we can afford to ignore the basic laws of common sense statecraft, generalship, and diplomacy, or now, as we sadly see, financial responsibility. Having fooled ourselves so many times by what Niebuhr singled out as the American cult of "self-indulgence" posing as "freedom," can we afford to delude ourselves any longer?               

R W Kropf  10/13/08                                                   LimitsofPower.doc   08-10-14.html