Review of Andrew J. Bacevich, The Limits of
Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. New York:
Metropolitan Books, 2008. Pp. 206. ISBN 978-0-8050-8815-1.
The Limits of Power is a
book for our times, one that belongs in the hands of presidential
aspirants in 2008 and beyond. It is a short book, but offers food
for thought on almost every page. Andrew Bacevich is
currently professor of history and international relations at Boston
University and the author or editor of a dozen other books on the
U.S. military and related subjects. An Army career veteran who retired at the rank of
colonel, he fought
in Vietnam and has lost a son serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq. He
is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. This résumé
makes him someone we should take seriously. He is also an
old-fashioned conservative of the kind not much encountered any
Bacevich's prose is spare and
no-nonsense in style, directing a withering sarcasm at people he
considers fools. He pulls no punches:
Thus does the tragedy of our age move inexorably toward its
conclusion. "To the end of history," our prophet once wrote,
"social orders will probably destroy themselves in the effort to
prove that they are indestructible." Clinging doggedly to the
conviction that the rules to which other nations must submit don't
apply, Americans appear determined to affirm Niebuhr's axiom of
willful self-destruction (182).
Bacevich starts by citing
Reinhard Niebuhr on the American penchant for grandiose dreams
"under the most grievous temptations to self-adulation" (7). He
further quotes the influential Protestant clergyman and thinker when
Niebuhr decries the hubris and sanctimony of American post-WWII
policies, especially in his magisterial The Irony of American
Niebuhr says that we cannot have perfect solutions to our problems;
the world does not work that way. Then he adds that "the trustful
acceptance of false solutions for our perplexing problems adds a
touch of pathos to the tragedy of our age" (182). Bacevich shares
this dark indictment.
Granted, the remedies Bacevich
proposes seem minor and "surprisingly small bore: America should
live within its means, pursue a more modest foreign policy, act to
abolish nuclear weapons and combat global warming."  But how
difficult and far-ranging in effect these "simple" changes would be.
Bacevich writes that "American exceptionalism" colors almost all the
domestic audience ever hears. For the record, he feels that all
American adventures in foreign affairs have actually been the
actions of a self-interested nation-state, even though few
Americans, whether common citizens or policy-makers, admit it.
Bacevich examines the economic,
political, and military roots of our current dilemmas. American
stress on "freedom" has the rationale of ensuring that our children
have it better than we did. The "land of the free" is the myth of
everlasting and increasing abundance in a consumption-based society.
We have borrowed heedlessly; now the American economy depends for
one-quarter of its viability on consumer spending. Wal-Mart and
China are prospering. No longer is there any attempt at matching our
means to our ends. We need a more limited redefinition of the
"American dream." This will not be easy!
Our political system is
currently dysfunctional, giving power to the President and leaving
Congress concerned only with pork and other favors to secure its
members re-election. Bacevich maintains that presidents have
acquired a national security administration impervious to any
outsiders' check, and that, if the people do not demand it, nothing
will change. He also contends that presidents employ outsiders for
advice because the national security apparatus is splintered, each
component seeking to carve out and protect its own bailiwick (e.g.
the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the FBI, etc.). Of course, he is
correct in his warnings about taking advice on military and
strategic matters from any outside group (or a selected groups of
insiders/outsiders, e.g. JFK's Executive Committee for the Cuban
Missile Crisis). But what does a president do when his National
Security apparatus is broken and gives him advice that is half-baked
or just plain loony?
Bacevich does not feel that the
person we select as president will change the national security
apparatus: the president has become too dependent on it. His comment
on the role of the president has been applauded by a veteran White
House hand on the PBS program Bill Moyers Journal (15 August
During a wide-ranging interview, Moyers said Bacevich's description
of the roles the president has to play was the best he had ever
read. Bacevich says that, starting with JFK in 1960,
the occupant of the White House has become a combination of demigod,
father figure, and inevitably the betrayer of inflated hopes. Pope,
pop star, scold, scapegoat, crisis manager, commander-in-chief,
agenda setter, moral philosopher, interpreter of the nation's
charisma, object of veneration, and the butt of jokes--regardless of
personal attributes and qualifications, the president is perforce
all these rolled into one (68).
Although careful to
admit that there are always a few who have it right, Bacevich
nevertheless says the majority of Americans—be they bureaucrats,
presidents, or plain citizens--do not. His critique of the military
is bitter and far-ranging: among other things, we are wrong to give
so much attention to the valor and sacrifice of our troops rather
than concentrating on whether they are fulfilling their mission and
whether that mission makes any sense. He definitely does not
feel American troops should become imperial guardians of policies
neither valid nor serving America's interests.
Bacevich thinks that the
American military has concentrated on new weapons to the neglect of strategic thinking, and has done a mediocre job generally since
1945. The problem is not lack of authority (they have been given
wide discretion), but failure to blend politics with might in a
limited framework of American interests. (For some exceptions, I
note the careers of Generals Eric Shinseki and Wesley Clark).
Bacevich worries that the
military is helping civilians make the case for ceaseless war
with no exits possible, under cover of the claim to be spreading
"democracy." The new weapons systems also appear to make the case
(wrongly in Bacevich's view!) that wars can be quick, easy, and
cheap, with low casualties and negligible "civilian collateral
damage." Certainly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan make the
opposite case! He cites Niebuhr again: "The paths of progress ...
proved to be more devious and unpredictable than the putative
managers of history can understand" (49). Despairing of false
assumptions about the easy spread of democracy and the banishment of
Islamic terrorists, he agrees with Niebuhr's maxim--"No simple
victory of good over evil in history is possible" (81). He
recommends that American generals and admirals reread Carl von
Clausewitz on the fog of war and note his conclusion that "War is
the realm of chance. No other human activity gives it greater scope;
no other has such incessant and varied dealings with this intruder"
This book is a first-rate
argument against the neo-conservatives, who have risen to such great
power in the present Bush administration. Somehow I think George F.
Kennan in heaven is smiling over Professor Bacevich's shoulder.
Eastern Michigan University
 See esp. American Empire: The Realities
and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Pr,
2002), The Imperial Tense: Prospects and Problems of American
Empire (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003), The New American
Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War (NY: Oxford U
Pr, 2005), and The Long War: A New History of U.S. National
Security Policy since World War II (NY: Columbia U Pr,
rpt. with an introduction by Bacevich (Chicago: U Chicago Pr,
Tepperman, NYT Book Review (14 Sep 2008) <link>.
video and transcript of the interview are available online <link>.