Andrew J. Bacevich
The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism
(Metropolitan Books, 2008)
Americans have never been overly fond of limits. We don’t like to be fenced in, and equally, we hate to be fenced out. We love our freedom, so much that we want to share it with every last darkened corner of the world. We don’t care what it costs.
We should. As Andrew J. Bacevich makes clear in his new book, The Limits of Power, we are spending ourselves into oblivion to pay for a concept we no longer even understand. Americans, Bacevich writes, are in the dangerously bad habit of “venerat[ing] freedom while carefully refraining from assessing its content or measuring its costs.”
Bacevich is a retired U.S. Army colonel who now teaches history and international relations at Boston University. He takes a decidedly tragic view of American history, perhaps unsurprising considering the two ghosts that animate the book: his son, who died in Iraq, and the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose humble worldview serves as a counterpoint to traditional American narcissism. Though Bacevich describes himself as conservative, his is a refreshingly clear-eyed and even-handed indignation: No figure involved in politics or the military since the 1940s escapes his sharp criticism, regardless of party affiliation. He’s nearly as hard on Barack Obama as he is on George W. Bush. But the most poignant of his complaints is aimed at a closer target: ordinary citizens.
“For the majority of contemporary Americans,” Bacevich writes, “the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness centers on a relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors.”
This is hardly an original accusation. But what makes Bacevich’s book so fascinating is the way he traces the link between the individual American preoccupation with acquiring more of everything and the way that urge shapes and is shaped by our foreign policy.
Bacevich begins by recasting the U.S. origin myth. Ours was never a benevolent nation devoted to freeing the oppressed of the world from tyranny, he argues, but rather a republic of people whose main interest was in living their lives as they saw fit. We’re not so much ambassadors of freedom as hoarders of it, just like every other country in history. Bacevich points to key moments when we could have chosen another path. During the economic downturn of the late ’70s, for example, Americans faced a fundamental choice: “They could curb their appetites and learn to live within their means or deploy dwindling reserves of U.S. power in hopes of obliging others to accommodate their penchant for conspicuous consumption.” We responded by saying, essentially, What are credit cards for? Similarly, after 9/11, we opted to go shopping rather than try out the old-fashioned idea that a nation at war should tighten its belt and ration its spending, because generally, wars cost money. Freedom, we felt, was worth going into debt for.
The second half of the book explains the way this basic myth—that everything America does serves the noble cause of freedom—plays out in the upper echelons of government and the military. If that sounds dull, it isn’t: Bacevich wonders whether the Department of Defense should be dismantled, for example, and says the big problem with the military is not a lack of authority but a lack of ability. He names names and, despite the book’s slim weight, offers plenty of supporting evidence for his takedowns. Regardless of whether his conclusions ultimately stand or fall, the book is a surprisingly invigorating read, offering a wealth of possibilities for real “change.”