The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism

Friday, June 1, 2012

Author: Andrew J. Bacevich

Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Metropolitan Books; First Edition edition (August 5, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0805088156
ISBN-13: 978-0805088151

Book Description

From an acclaimed conservative historian and former military officer, a bracing call for a pragmatic confrontation with the nation's problems

The Limits of Power identifies a profound triple crisis facing America: the economy, in remarkable disarray, can no longer be fixed by relying on expansion abroad; the government, transformed by an imperial presidency, is a democracy in form only; U.S. involvement in endless wars, driven by a deep infatuation with military power, has been a catastrophe for the body politic. These pressing problems threaten all of us, Republicans and Democrats. If the nation is to solve its predicament, it will need the revival of a distinctly American approach: the neglected tradition of realism.

Andrew J. Bacevich, uniquely respected across the political spectrum, offers a historical perspective on the illusions that have governed American policy since 1945. The realism he proposes includes respect for power and its limits; sensitivity to unintended consequences; aversion to claims of exceptionalism; skepticism of easy solutions, especially those involving force; and a conviction that the books will have to balance. Only a return to such principles, Bacevich argues, can provide common ground for fixing America’s urgent problems before the damage becomes irreparable.

Subjects: Political Science › Public Policy › General

Exceptionalism/ United States
Overheidsbeleid./ gtt
Political Science / American Government / General
Political Science / General
Political Science / Political Freedom
Political Science / Public Policy / General
Political Science / Security (National & International)
Power (Social sciences)
Power (Social sciences)/ United States
Social Science / Sociology / General
United States

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this caustic critique of the growing American penchant for empire and sense of entitlement, Bacevich (The New American Militarism) examines the citizenry's complicity in the current economic, political, and military crisis. A retired army colonel, the author efficiently pillories the recent performance of the armed forces, decrying it as an expression of domestic dysfunction, with leaders and misguided strategies ushering the nation into a global war of no exits and no deadlines. Arguing that the tendency to blame solely the military or the Bush administration is as illogical as blaming Herbert Hoover for the Great Depression, Bacevich demonstrates how the civilian population is ultimately culpable; in citizens' appetite for unfettered access to resources, they have tacitly condoned the change of military service from a civic function into an economic enterprise. Crisp prose, sweeping historical analysis and searing observations on the roots of American decadence elevate this book from mere scolding to an urgent call for rational thinking and measured action, for citizens to wise up and put their house in order.


“This compact, meaty volume ought to be on the reading list of every candidate for national office in November's elections. In an age of cant and baloney, Andrew Bacevich offers a bracing slap of reality. The Limits of Power is gracefully written and easy to read… chockablock with provocative ideas and stern judgments. Bacevich's brand of intellectual assuredness is rare in today's public debates. Many of our talking heads and commentators are cocksure, of course, but few combine confidence with knowledge and deep thought the way Bacevich does here. His big argument is elegant and powerful.”—The Washington Post

“Strongly felt and elegantly written… The Limits of Power is painfully clear-sighted and refreshingly uncontaminated by the conventional wisdom of Washington, D.C.”—The Economist

“Andrew Bacevich speaks truth to power, no matter who’s in power, which may be why those of both the left and right listen to him.”—Bill Moyers

“Compelling.”—Lou Dobbs

“Bacevich is the real deal. A quiet, cool voice of sanity with his spare, rigorous and unfailing honest analyses of America's role in the world and deepening strategic predicaments. This book should be essential reading for every National Security Council staffer in the next Washington administration, be it Republican or Democratic. In any sane political system, Mr. Bacevich would be immediately recruited to run intelligence and research at the State Department or policymaking at the Pentagon. The Limits of Power is destined to stand as a lonely classic signpost pointing the way to any future hope of renewed international and political security for the American people.” —Martin Sieff, The Washington Times

“In this utterly original book, Andrew Bacevich explains how our ‘empire of consumption’ contains the seeds of its own destruction and why our foreign policy establishment in Washington is totally incapable of coming to grips with it. Indispensable reading for every citizen.”—Chalmers Johnson, author of the Blowback Trilogy

"A clear-eyed look into the abyss of America's failed wars, and the analysis needed to climb out. In Andrew Bacevich, realism and moral vision meet."—James Carroll, author of House of War

“In The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich takes aim at America’s culture of exceptionalism and scores a bulls eye. He reminds us that we can destroy all that we cherish by pursuing an illusion of indestructibility.”—Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor USMC (Ret.), co-author of The General’s War and Cobra II

“Andrew Bacevich has written a razor sharp dissection of the national myths which befuddle U.S. approaches to the outside world and fuel the Washington establishment’s dangerous delusions of omnipotence. His book should be read by every concerned US citizen.”—Anatol Lieven, author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism

“In The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich delivers precisely what the Republic has so desperately needed: an analysis of America's woes that goes beyond the villain of the moment, George W. Bush, and gets at the heart of the delusions that have crippled the country's foreign policy for decades. Bacevich writes with a passionate eloquence and moral urgency that makes this book absolutely compelling. Everyone should read it.”—Mark Danner, author of Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror

The Independent Review: A Journal of Political Economy

With The Limits of Power, Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University and retired U.S. Army colonel, continues his critical examination of American foreign policy since World War II. In American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), Bacevich argued that American foreign policy since the end of World War II, regardless of the party in the White House, has been geared toward achieving U.S. global dominance. In a following book, The New American Militarism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), he focused on the reconstitution of the military in American life, especially its reinvigorated role in the conduct of foreign policy since the Vietnam War, and he concluded that the military has integrated itself so successfully into official U.S. dealings with the rest of the world that it has come to be seen as essential to effective foreign policy.

In his latest effort, Bacevich concentrates on the lessons to be learned from U.S. military commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he reaches conclusions that, not surprisingly, differ from those of many public leaders and pundits. In his view, the war in Iraq exposed clearly for the first time the hypocrisy of the “morality tale” (p. 19) that had been the staple of American foreign policy since World War II. Sprinkled throughout his critique are the thoughts of the prominent Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), who expressed a deep concern about Americans’ tendency to parade their power and prosperity before the rest of the world and to believe that they could use these assets to spread their worldview to others, if not to impose it on them. In this respect, Niebuhr’s views provide a prescient framework for Bacevich’s analysis.

In chapter 1, “The Crisis of Profligacy,” the author portrays American society as imbued with a culture of “entitlement.” Because Americans see themselves as the global good guys, they believe that other nations should welcome their ideas and institutions. Thus, President Jimmy Carter’s famous 1979 “crisis of confidence” speech cautioning Americans to temper their hubris and sanctimony was rapidly overshadowed by President Ronald Reagan’s optimism and assurances of technological invulnerability. As Bacevich puts it, President Reagan told Americans what they wanted to hear. Moreover, Bacevich argues, President George W. Bush has followed the same motif by offering Americans both “guns and butter” (p. 62). Meanwhile, from the Carter administration through the Reagan presidency the military was continually building both politically and ideologically for a major effort in the Persian Gulf region. In Bacevich’s view, this process came to fruition in George W. Bush’s presidency: Bush and his neoconservative subordinates and advisers intended to “remake the world” (p. 60) by imposing American values and dominance in a swath extending from Morocco through central Asia to Indonesia. These aspirations have come to naught, however, because Americans, unable to discipline themselves domestically and internationally, “have forfeited command of their own destiny” (p. 65).

In chapter 2, “The Political Crisis,” Bacevich moves inside the Beltway to examine the causes of the current disarray in the United States. He argues that the country has been on a war footing since the presidency of Harry S. Truman and that during this time power has become increasingly concentrated in the executive branch. Congress has been moved outside the circle of real power over decisions about military initiatives. Moreover, Bacevich asserts, it makes little difference who is president because a current of “subterranean similarities” (p. 75) has flowed through all of the post–World War II administrations. These similarities express four core convictions: the tenet that history has a purpose; the view that the United States embodies freedom; the faith that God has called Americans to advance this freedom; and the belief that only when American values prevail throughout the world will the United States finally be secure. In Bacevich’s opinion, the second Bush has been especially candid and vigorous in promoting these positions. Unfortunately, because these ideas have become firmly ensconced among the oligarchy of those personally loyal to the president, the range of options in foreign policy has been severely limited. In particular, with the military’s encouragement, this ideological rigidity has resulted in a tendency to view U.S. interaction with the rest of the world in military terms. Bacevich identifies James Forrestal, the first U.S. secretary of defense (1949), as “the godfather of the militarized mindset” (p. 111) and traces his legacy through the ideas of Paul Nitze and, ultimately, Paul Wolfowitz. He asserts emphatically that the logical culmination of this theoretical school was the doctrine of preventive war that rationalized the invasion of Iraq, an action that in the long run threatens both the domestic and the international integrity of the United States.

In his penultimate chapter, Bacevich chronicles the debilitating effects that a culture of entitlement and a narrow mindset among policymakers have on the U.S. military itself. For him, the upshot is that the soldiers are superbly trained and courageous, but their effectiveness has been severely weakened by the environment created by bumbling leaders, both political and military. He argues that what many have seen as the lessons to be drawn from the conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan are simply erroneous. The belief that the United States must now prepare for “small wars” is really a brief for expanding the U.S. empire, a position that he clearly believes should be abandoned. He vigorously opposes the argument that high-ranking military commanders should be given more latitude in the field. In his view, “the quality of American generalship has rarely been above mediocre since the Cold War” (147). The gist of this appraisal is contained in the chapter subtitle, “Does Knowing Douglas Feith Is Stupid Make Tommy Franks Smart?” Bacevich answers definitely in the negative. Finally, he concludes that the all-volunteer army is here to stay. Politicians may argue that the military should make more use of reserves and draftees, but candid professional military people affirm that in their experience citizen-soldiers are more trouble than they are worth. Moreover, the basic nature of war is also here to stay. Although technologically sophisticated weapons may elicit “oohs and aahs” from the general public, in Iraq crudely assembled improvised explosive devices have visited havoc on the world’s best-equipped army. The purveyors of shock and awe still have to contend with a determined enemy on the ground.

American policymakers must, says Bacevich, recover the “lost art of strategy” (p. 165). Political leaders have too often confused strategy with ideology, and, in turn, military leaders have tended to mistake operations for strategy. Bacevich believes that constructive strategy in foreign policy must recognize that the U.S. military has both limited resources and limited impact. He offers the options of containment and selective engagement as promising strategic approaches. In contrast, the choices of preventive war and Vice President Dick Cheney’s one percent doctrine simply cannot be sustained consistently for any length of time. They stretch U.S. resources beyond their limits and negatively affect the nation’s international standing.

The value of Bacevich’s work lies in his ability to look beyond the conventional rhetoric of academic, political, and military leaders. By drawing on critics of U.S. foreign policy and considering a wide range of events, he has constructed an alternative narrative of the American past. He maintains that this story reveals a nation with imperial ambitions. Recent events have confirmed much of his argument, often tragically, especially his identification of growing reliance on military action for the solution to international problems. He remains ominously pessimistic that any elected leader can change the current course of U.S. policy.

The broader picture to be derived from Bacevich’s analysis is perhaps even gloomier. He is suggesting that American leaders’ failure to understand the limits of their power threatens to bring the entire American ethos crashing down. Although Americans seem to be intent on saddling the rest of the world with their form of freedom, their domestic profligacy and military adventurism have made them more dependent on foreign resources, such as oil, and more vulnerable to attacks from renegade terrorist elements. The decision makers who wield executive power seem oblivious to the impending dangers that their policies have engendered. They fail to recognize that the status of the richest, most powerful nation the world has ever seen was achieved not through government direction, but through the hard work of many striving, independent, and unregulated individuals. Bacevich charges that the overwhelming thrust toward military solutions and imperial ambitions undercuts the very successes these people have attained. Reliance on government power to impose U.S. values and concepts of freedom on the rest of the world has undermined the military’s effectiveness, made the United States heavily dependent on foreign natural resources, and left Americans less secure in their own country. Bacevich clearly believes that the men and women of the armed forces deserve better—indeed, that all Americans deserve better.

The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism
Andrew J. Bacevich

Reviewed By: G. John Ikenberry
November/December 2008

In post-Cold War foreign policy debates, it has been the voice of the sober realist, pointing out the limits of U.S. power and counseling restraint, that has been the most faintly heard. In recent years, Bacevich has been among the most articulate of these realists -- and this is his manifesto. He sees the United States as having embarked on a disastrous career of empire building and military adventurism that is bankrupting and corrupting the country, all the while making it less secure. Well known for his criticism of the Bush administration's intervention in Iraq and "war on terror," in this book Bacevich seeks out the deeper "ambitions, urges, and fears" that drive the United States' long-standing efforts to confront the enemies of freedom and remake the world. What emerges is a rather distinctive and curious argument about the sources of U.S. empire. It is not, in Bacevich's view, business interests or old-style militarism that drives Washington's outward ambitions. Rather, it is the United States' expanding notions of freedom and the good life, which over the decades have stimulated growing "appetites" that can only be satisfied through a Pax Americana. But, Bacevich argues, a U.S.-run world of easy credit, abundant oil, and cheap consumer goods is not sustainable. Echoing the ideas of scholars such as Barry Posen, Ian Shapiro, and others, the book calls for a grand strategy of containment, reducing the United States' far-flung military commitments, and returning to a more modest foreign policy agenda. The important question Bacevich does not explore is about the nonimperial ways that the United States can lead the world without undermining its values and institutions.

About the author

Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, retired from the U.S. Army with the rank of colonel. He is the author of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War and The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism and The New American Militarism. His writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. He holds a Ph.D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University, and taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins University prior to joining the faculty at Boston University in 1998. He is the recipient of a Lannan Award and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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