Book Review: The Limits of Power

By Jim Miles

The Limits of Power – The End of American Exceptionalism.  Andrew J. Bacevich. Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Company, New York, 2008. 

Before the war in Iraq started Robert Kagan wrote a wonderful little narcissistic view of the United States and its abilities to provide peace in a world of democratic capitalism.  It climaxed in my favourite statement of hubris and jingoism that I have read in recent supposedly academic scholarly works, stating: 

“The proof of the transcendent importance of the American experiment would be found not only in the continual perfection of American institutions at home but also in the spread of American influence in the world.”

Beyond that statement, Kagan indicated that while the rest of the world may welcome, ridicule, or lament that belief, “it should not be doubted.”[1] Current events, if not the many contra-indicators from previous historical events, clearly demonstrate the patriotic presumptiveness in this expression of U.S. exceptionalism. 

Five years later, with the “transcendence” of the United States clearly not in effect, and its institutions clearly demonstrating their lack of perfection, Andrew J. Bacevich’s new work The Limits of Power provides a wonderful cerebral antidote to the unsubstantiated claims of U.S. greatness professed by Kagan. 

Bacevich does not come up with an all-encompassing statement similar to Kagan’s, but his summaries and conclusions provide a degree of succinctness to his supporting arguments.

His general theme is that “freedom” as espoused by the United States is from a need to expand and consume, an imperial ambition that uses the military to try and guarantee ongoing consumption by the U.S. public for the economic power of the elites.  The introduction, “War Without Ends,” begins with the word “freedom…not so much a word or even a value as an incantation, its very mention enough to stifle doubt and terminate all debate.”  A common thread throughout the presentation is the philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr, beginning with the recognition that U.S. dreams of managing the world are “born of a peculiar combination of arrogance and narcissism.”

What is needed, as seen by Bacevich/Niebuhr, are “realism and humility…each infused with a deeply felt Christian sensibility.”   Today these are “in short supply.”  A paradox is presented in that “centered on consumption and individual autonomy, the exercise of freedom is contributing to the gradual erosion of our national power.”  The only argument with that statement derives from the current market meltdown as anything but gradual.  The U.S. economy, as a world power, appears to be rapidly diminishing. 

Following the introduction are three hard hitting essays that outline the problems faced by the U.S. today.  The first of these is “The Crisis of Profligacy” a well chosen title from the root word profligate, meaning licentious, dissolute, recklessly extravagant, all coming from the Latin root indicating to strike down or overthrow.  Bacevich may well have used the word only in its more narrowly defined sense indicating the trait of spending extravagantly or also meaning excess in action and immoderate indulgence of bodily appetites, both of which are a propos for current U.S. society.  The intent remains clear either way as he discusses “the ethic of self-gratification” leading to “foreign policy implications of our present day penchant for consumption and self-indulgence [that] are almost entirely negative,” to the extent that it “threatens the well-being of the United States.”

The route to this profligacy was through imperial expansion, starting with the acquisition of the continental U.S.  By the time of the Industrial Revolution “Americans came to count on an ever larger economic pie to anesthetize the unruly and ameliorate tensions related to class, race, religion, and ethnicity.”   After World War II “more power abroad meant greater abundance at home.”  After the Carter-Reagan transition, Reagan and his successors “wielded U.S. military power to ensure access to oil, hoping thereby to prolong the empire of consumption’s lease on life.”  Later when the Middle East’s resources became more important the Reaganites “encouraged the belief that military power could extend indefinitely America’s profligate expenditure of energy…[relying] on military might to keep order in the Gulf and maintain the flow of oil.”

Finally, Bush “committed the nation to a breathtakingly ambitious project of global domination [that] demanded oil wars.”  The result for the military was that “A generation of profligacy had produced strategic insolvency,” and more, at the time of writing the essays, created a “nervous speculation about a coming economic collapse comparable in magnitude to the Great Depression.”  The end result, at least as of this writing, is “Americans have yet to realize that they have forfeited command of their own destiny,” and “[squandered] American wealth and power, while putting freedom at risk.”

This profligacy is accompanied by “The Political Crisis”, recognized here as a Congress “which has willingly ceded authority to the executive branch,” resulting in the chief attribute being “dysfunction.”   This is accomplished in part by “using (or devising) some sort of diabolical other” with the intent to “simplify, clarify, and remove ambiguity” in order to “mobilize, discipline, and squelch dissent.”  The ideology of national security “provides a continuing rationale for political arrangements that are a source of status, influence, and considerable wealth.”

Again Bacevich follows the story from World War II through to today’s main “prince of audacity” within the ideology, Paul Wolfowitz, in whose ideas  “national security served as a sort of surrogate religion” and “assigned a central role to military power.”  His conclusions argue that “the ideology of national security, American exceptionalism in its most baleful form, poses an insurmountable obstacle to sound policy,” the “Americans can no longer afford to underwrite a government that does not work,” and finally “To attend any longer to this elite would be madness…They have forfeited any further claim to trust.” 

These are every powerful statements – argued not simply by some armchair academic, or more correctly by some neocon chicken hawk as is Robert Kagan (one of the author’s of the Project for a New American Century) – but by a career military man who served in Vietnam and the Gulf War, who retired to teach with an emphasis on foreign policy. 

Bacevich leaves “The Military Crisis” for last.  His “one undeniable conclusion” is that “Estimates of U.S. military capabilities have turned out to be wildly overstated.”  He discusses the illusions and lessons of recent military endeavours arriving at “the imperative of the moment is to examine the possibility of devising a nonimperial foreign policy.”   Having already recognized Wolfowitz as the grand architect of pax americana, Bacevich renders unto Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy under Rumsfield, as the “stupidest….guy on the planet,” for his success on pushing forward with the Iraq war. 

Of course that description would rightly apply to all the Bush neocons, as the lesson from preventative war suggests that “to launch a war today to eliminate a danger that might pose a threat at some future date is just plain stupid.”  Relating the “Exercise of military power” back to the “crisis of profligacy…is to invite inevitable overextension, bankruptcy, and ruin.”  From all that is being seen with current events, Bacevich’s words ring out truthfully.

In his conclusion, “The Limits of Power,” Bacevich ties these ideas together in a single perspective.  First, nuclear weapons should be abolished as “an urgent national security priority” (thus fully denying Wolfowitz’ position of nuclear dominance), as they are “unusable.”   This becomes a way of “Transforming humankind’s relationship to the environment.”  He reiterates that equation of freedom with consumption and self-actualization that evinces “little appetite for either risk or sacrifice”, tying it together with climate change arising from this profligate consumption of fossil fuels and the need to develop alternative energy resources. The “transition to a post-fossil fuel economy promises to be a costly proposition.”

Bacevich returns to Niebuhr to support his closing position on the U.S., “The desire to gain an immediate selfish advantage always imperils their ultimate interests.  If they recognize this fact, they usually recognize it too late.”  Ultimately, if the U.S. continues its imperial pursuit of wealth and comfort at the expense of others, the “Americans appear determined to affirm Niebuhr’s axiom of willful self-destruction.” 

The Limits of Power is a wonderful antidote to the poisonous jingoism and hubris supporting “American exceptionalism.”  The ending is rather negative (for the United States), but by recognizing the crisis for what it is and defining the need to change foreign policy and the domestic consumption that commands that foreign policy, Bacevich provides a clear view as to where the U.S. and the world should be moving. 

-Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle.  Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.


[1] Kagan, Robert.  Of Paradise and Power – American and Europe in the New World Order.  Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2003.  Kagan is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, an institution that appears to support Pax Americana rather than a global democratic peace.

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