Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Andrew Bacevich's The Limits of Power (2008)

Andrew Bacevich's The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008) has been very widely reviewed (there was a good review in the NYT). I found it a thought-provoking jumble, a book that is perhaps most interesting for the discussions that can ensue from examining its virtues and shortcomings together.

The book's primary virtue is its hard-hitting examination of failure, combined with the utter refusal in the U.S. to accept failures as such. Americans want more and more, and are willing to allow their government to do anything that perpetuates accumulation. They are even willing to accept decreased freedom in the name of freedom. As long as we get more, we don't care.

I enjoyed the first half of the book more, as he explained these problems. The second half wandered, from dislike of Douglas Feith, criticism of high-ranking generals, discussion of the all-volunteer army, etc. He periodically tosses in policy prescriptions, but some (like environmental issues) suddenly appear without clear connection to his overall argument.

The most serious shortcoming is that it is ahistorical. For Bacevich, U.S. foreign policy begins with James Forrestal. Interestingly, he makes brief (and accurate) reference to U.S. policy in Central America in the 1920s as a model for our nation-building wars (p. 135). But he never elaborates, which is unfortunate because a more detailed look would bring out the failures of democracy that ensued, the resentment that built, and the continuity that those Central American occupations represented. Brian Loveman has a forthcoming book, No Higher Law: American Foreign Policy and the Western Hemisphere since 1776, that delves deeply into that continuity. This isn't new to the post-War II era, or even the post-9/11 era. American exceptionalism, preventive war, and "democracy promotion" have always been there.

As a result, we help create many of our own problems. That has certainly been the case in Central America, where our occupation of Nicaragua in the early twentieth century can only be called disastrous, both for the security of the U.S. and for the Nicaraguan people. It was unnecessary and poorly conceived. We want to bend the will of the world, or even of a region, and very often we just make things worse. That's the book's most important (and pressing) message.


Vicente Duque 12:37 PM  

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

-Alexander Pope,
An Essay on Man, Epistle I, 1733

Have a Nice Christmas Mr Weeks and all friends here !

America should be happy with the Health Care Bill advances in Congress. I think that there is going to be a final approval.

Yes, it is very important to study History and Foreign Policy .... Thanks for you site and these book reviews. ....The most beautiful objective would be to achieve peace ( if possible )

What Teddy Roosevelt said about Health Insurance, protection of the poor and the weak, Protection of the Immigrant, Taxation of the Rich, Presidential Campaign 1912

Vicente Duque

Nell 10:26 AM  

Bacevich seems to grasp that the problem is the U.S.'s imperial foreign policy, so it is odd that he fails to focus on the moment at which most historians locate that turn: the U.S. invasion and occupation of the Philippines at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The conversion of the country to a full-blown empire and national security state took place during and after the second world war. But the imperial policies were in full operation well before that, and especially wrt Latin America.

The failure of most of the political class to learn any of the actual lessons of the U.S.' lethal and disastrous intervention in Viet Nam and southeast Asia made inevitable our further military aggrandization and economic decline.

Now we're completely ruled by a sort of junta of financial behemoths and "defense" and "intelligence" corporations, whose favored policies are beyond challenge by anyone who wants to be viewed as Serious.

Andrew Bacevich's challenge is more direct than most, and certainly than most of what gets reviewed in the NYT and treated seriously by pundits.

Justin Delacour 7:24 PM  

Now we're completely ruled by a sort of junta of financial behemoths and "defense" and "intelligence" corporations, whose favored policies are beyond challenge by anyone who wants to be viewed as Serious.

Funny how that works, isn't it?

al loomis 3:06 PM  

the american oligarchy can be brought under control, if enough people want to. the only weakness in professor b's analysis is the missing link between political impotence in the electorate, and resulting apolitical consumer culture.

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