Saturday, March 21, 2009

Left Wing Book Club, pt 2

THE LIMITS OF POWER: The End of American Exceptionalism
by Andrew Bacevich

From outward appearances, Bacevich gives every indication of being a liberal/progressive author. He writes books about the US that make copious use of the word "Empire." He wrote an essay excoriating Bush's conduct of the Iraq War. He publishes books with the same publisher as Noam Chomsky and Chalmers Johnson. And, he has been a vocal critic of the War on Terror virtually from its inception.

The reality is much more interesting. Bacevich is no liberal. He is a devout Catholic, a scholar of Reinhold Niebhur, and a conservative. He lacks the anti-US and anti-military posture that so many critics of US foreign policy always seem to use as their default position. The obvious comparison is to Pat Buchanan, but Bacevich lacks Pat's fiery rhetoric. His view of the US as a fallen nation, seduced away from its republican form of gov't for the short term wealth of empire, is also a Buchanan theme. While you might not agree with everything Bacevich might say (I certainly don't) his ideas are provocative and worthy of your attention. 

This book is a short, but intense look at what Bacevich sees as the three intertwined crises facing America: the crisis of profligacy, the political crisis (no argument here), and the military crisis. These crises are the result of an American foreign policy dedicating to improving the economic conditions of Americans at the expense of the rest of the world, but which require the gov't to spend untold trillions to maintain the military commitments that support our commercial empire. Bacevich sees the US rapidly hurtling toward a moment when it will overreach and be forced to "live within its means," the dream of many critics of the  US.

The crisis of profligacy is Bacevich's least satisfying discussion. Not that I disagree that America has a crisis of profligacy! However, Bacevich is one of those people who think the US's economic problems can be summed up by the letters "O"I""&"L," and that our overseas "empire" is predicated on keeping the taps flowing, and the engines of trade spinning to benefit the US consumer. I don't disagree that we import too much of the stuff, and that we rely on hostile regimes for our most basic resources, but that is not the be all and end all of the US's economic troubles. Bacevich spends little time on the US's worse habit of repeatedly blowing investment bubbles, for example. He also may be the only person who has read Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech and found in it a visionary call for Americans to change their energy use, rather than a grim jeremiad against the American way of life. Bacevich also fails to note the essential hypocrisy of greens like Carter who demand changes in US energy use, but then refuse to allow reasonable alternatives like coal and nuclear, but instead pursue unproven solar and wind technology. Still, Bacevich's central point - that the US has spent too much and is in grave danger of economic collapse, even as it frantically spends even more to prop itself up - is a sound one that our political class is refusing to consider. 

The political crisis is the congress' abdication of its co-equal status in  favor of an "imperial" presidency directing the spread of empire, first during the Cold War and now during the War on Terror. In Bacevich's view, the American republic ended when FDR mobilized for WW2, and Truman failed to stand down, but maintained US defense spending to counter the Soviet Union. Bacevich focuses on the political crisis in terms of its effect on foreign policy, where a complaisant Congress has allowed successive US presidents to "run" an empire with little or no oversight. 

By "empire," Bacevich does not mean a bunch of colonies paying tribute, but rather the US's empire of military bases. Honesty, I have heard this "empire of bases" rhetoric before. I agree that our military commitments are vast, and often irrational, inasmuch they are based on the implied promise that American soldiers will die to protect, for example, Romania. They will?? But, calling it an "empire" is a stretch because it does not meet the traditional definition of an empire. Really, much of the world is a protectorate of the US with the wealthy countries of Europe and Asia, essentially freed from looking to themselves for their defense. Language aside, Bacevich correctly diagnoses this as a product of WW2 and the Cold War, when the US had rational reasons to want to contain the Soviet Union. Bacevich sees the "empire of bases"as a needlessly expensive relic of a by-gone age, and that the US needs to "stand down". Given the undercurrent of hostility with which even our allegedly most friendly "allies" seem to view the US military presence in the world, I would say that's a discussion worth having, but I'll bet a lot of them would just as soon continue to rely on US military protection even as they rail against the "dumb" flat-footed policeman off the world.

Bacevich spends little time on domestic politics, but I would argue that the real political crisis is here at home where Congress has given every indication of being a slightly mad institution, lurching from feather-bedding the rich and powerful to populist "outrage," even as it spends and borrows trillions in a mad attempt to prop up the welfare state and the international financial system. Bacevich's book came out before the Crash of '08, and the subsequent Age of Bailouts. I would say the broken nature of our political class has been on full display for six months now with no end in sight. 

The military crisis is Bacevich's most sobering chapter. He sees the American soldier as a noble, well trained highly motivated warrior, but bluntly states that this is not enough. Bacevich sees a military that has failed at the jobs it has been given - pacify Afghanistan and Iraq - and also failed at its most basic mission: defend the US from attack on 9/11. Predictably, Bacevich faults politicians from both political parties who have sent US troops into undeserving locales such as Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia. He also faults the strategic decisions that led to the War in Iraq. However, Bacevich reserves most of his scorn for the military itself, especially the generals in the Army, who seemed clueless as to how to come to grips with the insurgency in Iraq. Bacevich sees an officer corps that has simply forgotten how to fight and win wars, and the performances of Gens. Abizaid, Sanchez, and Casey in Iraq certainly support this thesis (at the time this book was published, Petraus' Surge strategy had just started paying fragile dividends. I have no idea how this has changed Bacevich's views). Many times, the brass comes across as products of a graduate school seminar who would look askance at a Patton or a Sherman. Certainly, there is still an extreme aversion against the loss of life, and a bias in favor of overly expensive weapons systems that strain our resources, and are easily defeated by cheap IED's. This is a fascinating discussion and the best part of this book. While we can all "support the troops," I think Bacevich's critique is a fair one, and one that the military's civilian supporters are often reluctant to consider or even acknowledge. 

This book is a broad based critique of America's conduct of its foreign affairs over the last 50 years, and especially the last 8. While I don't often agree with some of Bacevich's choice of targets and rhetoric, I think his point that we are approaching a moment where we need to make fundamental changes in the allocation of our military resources is a sound one. Certainly, it makes no sense to maintain military presences in countries for which there is little rationale for doing so. And, rather than creating weapons systems that are tremendously expensive, yet vulnerable to cheap dangers like IEDs and suicide bombers, it might make more sense to downsize to meet the enemies that we actually have, rather than some mythical Red Army that no longer poses an existential threat. 

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