Monday, September 1, 2008

The Limits Of Power

The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Andrew J. Bacevich (Metropolitan Books, 224 pp.)

In his important new book The Limits of Power, retired colonel and Boston University history professor Andrew J. Bacevich casts a cold eye on that most sacrosanct of American values: The celebration and worship of freedom. By taking the concept freedom as an absolute value not subject to critical examination, Bacevich writes, the American people have stood aside while the meaning of freedom has changed, and not for the better. Once, freedom represented a commitment to the independence of the United States as a community. Today, it signifies the success of the individual accumulating as much as he can and doing whatever he wants with it. Forty-five years ago, Martin Luther King had a dream for all of America. Today, John McCain scores points by squawking that we need to "drill here...drill now" in order to put off the day of reckoning on energy independence for as long as possible.

Writing in no-nonsense sledgehammer prose (for an example, see the sidebar on this blog), Bacevich takes inspiration from the teaching and writing of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to structure his book around three related essays that skewer conventional wisdom and expose American Exceptionalism as undermining our own society and its place in the world.

American Exceptionalism in effect posits that God is on our side. In this view of history, a providential purpose for America informs American action. Not only that, divine providence has not so smiled on other nations, rendering their interests morally subordinate to ours. Exceptionalism is why John McCain can support the preemptive war in Iraq, claim that "in the 21st Century, nations don't invade other nations," and mean both. In his exceptionalist eyes, the United States is not just another nation and so not subject to modern political restraints. Exceptionalism comes perilously close to the idea that any action taken by the United States is by definition ordained by God and therefore morally acceptable. (You can see why Pat Robertson said that we had 9/11 coming to us: It was a divine warning that abortion rights, gay rights, and secular humanism were endangering our historically exalted position with God.)

Niebuhr thought that man had within him a capacity for "radical freedom" carrying with it the capability of both great creativity and great destruction. Bacevich argues that Americans view freedom only in positive terms, and that not critically examining both sides of the matter transformed postwar America from a nation of productivity to a nation of consumption. He traces the roots of Exceptionalism back the Puritan "city on a hill" and shows how it moved steadily forward until it became the dominant reality of American foreign and domestic policy.

In particular, The Limits of Power focuses on what Bacevich identifies as the three great crises facing Americans in the 21st century: The crisis of profligacy, the political crisis, and the military crisis.  For example he points out the military families bear the brunt of the Iraq war while the remaining 99.5% of Americans are encouraged to shop until they drop. Most significantly, this includes the continued consumption of oil at a rate that simply cannot be sustained. (As I noted in an earlier post, 5% of the world's population consumes 25% of its petroleum while owning less than 3% of total petroleum reserves.) 

Meanwhile, our political and military institutions face a genuine crisis of leadership. Bacevich pulls no punches in describing Generals Schwarzkopf, Clark, and Franks as mediocrities unworthy of the tradition of Washington, Grant, Marshall, and Eisenhower. On the political side, he dissects the long bipartisan tradition of setting foreign policy via a coterie of "wise men." These so-called wise men, Bacevich argues convincingly, are always wrong. For any given foreign policy situation, the country would be better served by pulling a few random people off the street and leaving the decision-making in their hands. 

Bacevich spares neither party, but his critique shows that the combination of certitude and ineptness reached its logical extreme with the Bush/Cheney administration. He doesn't let American people off the hook, either: After all, we are the ones driving the SUVs and electing the scoundrels even as evidence of the costs surrounds us. In a telling reassessment of Jimmy Carter's "crisis of confidence" speech, he points out that politicians who speak frankly of the need for sacrifice and changing habits usually pay for their candor by losing elections.

He hammers home the point that we have become a dependent nation -- especially on oil -- and that that is inevitably a form of self-strangulation. Along the way, he points out uncomfortable realities such energy independence being the last thing the military establishment wants because energy dependence has become its raison d'etre. Thus, the American people are faced with an excruciating paradox: Because our dependence on foreign oil has led to the growth of the military, we now have a military whose interests run opposite to energy independence, which has become our most important national security issue.

Limits isn't perfect. For example, Bacevich doesn't explore the culpability of modern marketing and advertising techniques in the creation of the profligacy crisis. In 1980, the Supreme Court determined that advertising is protected speech; the genesis of this decision goes back to the fateful 1886 case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, in which the court held that a corporation was a legal person and therefore entitled to the same constitutional guarantees as the individual. Certainly, the crisis of profligacy has important roots in these legal decisions that widely expanded the constitutional definition of freedom, and it would be interesting to get Bacevich's take on their impact.

Moreover, I believe that there is a fourth crisis, a crisis of education. The American educational system has become a giant vocational school cranking out the businessmen, engineers, scientists, and even doctors heavily invested in a culture of consumption. In his book Assault On Reason, Al Gore talked about the difference between "educated" and "informed." Our schools -- right through higher education -- do a good job of producing educated specialists and a poor job of developing informed, skeptical citizens. Such citizens are critical to demanding the kinds of change Bacevich argues for, but that's exactly what American education does not create.

The Limits of Power was written by a man who served his country and who cares deeply about its future. Limits is probing, rigorously argued, and conscientiously nonpartisan -- so much so that I can't say what Bacevich's political leanings might be. It's also pessimistic, which only means all the more that we ought to read what Bacevich has to say...

Here's a link to Mike Wallace's 1958 interview with Reinhold Niebuhr. It's not only a glimpse into the mind one of the most influential mid-Century thinkers, it's the kind of substantive television that is nonexistent these days. The interview includes Niebuhr's cogent, succinct explanation of why the separation of church and state is vital to democracy: 
It [religion] may be good and it may be bad. The separation of church and the state is necessary partly because if religion is good then the state shouldn't interfere with a religious vision or with a religious prophecy. There must be a realm of truth beyond political competence. That's why there must be a separation of churches. But if religion is bad — and a bad religion is one that gives an ultimate sanctity to some particular cause — then religion mustn't interfere with the state. So one of the basic democratic principles as we know it in America is the separation of church and state.
The transcript is here.


Paul Maurice Martin said...

On the bad aspect of religion, I'm forgetting whether it was Niebuhr or Tillich who spoke of the "demonic" in religion in terms of assigning ultimacy to causes and concerns that are less than divine, but I liked that. I think it explains how fanatically wrong the misguidedly "religious" can be, willing to do pretty much anything to promote their limited notion of the doing of God's will.

Darlene said...

I think of myself as being pragmatic; therefore, I find this post to be extremely thought provoking and interesting. The premise put forward requires deep thinking and a simple comment won't suffice.

I will, however, add that the citizens of every country in every war have believed that God (whoever their god was) was on their side. That was both impossible and illogical and yet it was fanatically believed.