When I read books like this one about America's descent into empire, the threshold question for me is always, to what extent does the author blame George W. Bush (or related bugaboos like Cheney, Rumsfeld, John Yoo, the Weekly Standard, etc.) for the state of the nation and the world today. For while all those worthies do deserve no small measure of vilification, the baseline insight for coming to grips with it all has to be that the roots of America's national security, welfare-warfare state far, far predate September 11, 2001. Andrew J. Bacevich, of course, knows this fact very well -- which is one reason I consider him one of the finest analysts of American empire, and why "The Limits of Power" is so worth reading.
In fact, Bacevich goes well beyond blaming Bush to point the finger, fundamentally, at the American people themselves (ourselves). Far more than a simple "You voted for the guy," Bacevich argues that Americans now understand "freedom" to mean unlimited consumer choice. The American calling to "promote freedom abroad" thus now really means doing whatever is required to ensure Americans never have to face cutting back, doing without, or otherwise living within our means. As one example of the implications of this new, twisted definition of "freedom," Bacevich asks us to consider the military consequences alone of substantially reducing our dependence on imported oil. For one thing, he argues, the whole structure of America's military presence in the Persian Gulf region, including Centcom and the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, would become redundant. Bases could be closed, soldiers brought home, ships mothballed, and "weapons contracts worth tens of billions of dollars would risk being canceled" (p. 173). Well, when you put it that way, is there any wonder there's no real leadership for "energy independence" coming from the Imperial Capital?
Interesting as this is, though, it's just one small point among the many important observations Bacevich crams into fewer than 200 pages. Other writers have covered individual points in more detail (I particularly thought of the work of Chalmers Johnson, as well as Gene Healy's essential new The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power while reading Bacevich's second chapter, "The Political Crisis"), but this author excels at pulling history and insight together in one quickly digestible package. One grounded, somewhat surprisingly in this case, in the teachings of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
Less often covered, in my experience at least, are the arguments Bacevich makes in his third chapter, "The Military Crisis." I was intrigued by his criticism of America's post-Vietnam generation of military and naval commanders, and particularly by his assertion that the Vietnam-era "lesson" of keeping politics and war separate has led to the death of strategy, or strategic thinking, as something military commanders know how to do. As an example, he describes General Tommy Franks' "basic grand strategy" for winning the Iraq War, which Franks "proudly reprints" in its original, single handwritten page in his memoirs American Soldier. "Yet even a casual examination of Franks' matrix," Bacevich writes, "shows that it did not remotely approximate a strategy. For starters, it was devoid of political context. Narrowly focused on the upcoming fight, it paid no attention to the aftermath. ... it ignored other regional power relationships ... it was completely ahistorical and made no reference to culture, religion, or ethnic identity ..." (pp.166-167). Strongly worded letter follows.
Again, though, this is just one of many points Bacevich makes about improperly-learned "lessons;" about false assumptions on the efficacy of military power; about how the deadweight of the national-security state complex leads presidents to try to find ways around it; about how solutions like restoring the draft are simple, obvious, and wrong; and (returning to my original point) about how thinking "we'll elect a new president to fix the problems created by the old one" never, ever works. It's an awful lot to think about, and "The Limits of Power" would repay frequent re-reading both before and after the first Tuesday in November. Recently, my mother bought copies of The Shack and handed them out to many of her friends and relatives. Were I tempted to do such a thing for people I loved and respected, "The Limits of Power" might very well be the volume I'd choose.