Saturday, February 14, 2009

A jeremiad for these times

The book jacket says Andrew Bacevich is "a conservative historian and former military officer." I'd say his newish book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism shows him to be a smart observer who cuts through a lot of bull to get to some uncomfortable truths about the contemporary U.S. He convicts our society, addicted to consumption, especially of imported oil, of a heedless profligacy. Bacevich is sure that the day of U.S. empire -- crumbling and rotten -- is over, whether our rulers and citizens know it or not. Those are some large assertions for a small volume.

Bacevich points out that this country adopted as universal truths an understanding of its own participation in World War II that was largely false (wars are winnable in some defined sense) and foolish (the U.S. is the bearer of virtue to the world). I find it useful to look at the history of my lifetime as governed by these false paradigms. We are still surprised when our wars don't fit these preconceptions. For example, even those of us who adamantly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq never anticipated that all that military might could not win some kind of "victory" in that unfortunate country. Nor would we have believed that six years later a new administration would for practical purposes be negotiating with the Iraqis about how to get out.

Bacevich denounces the national security state; for the sake of imperial hegemony, we have acquiesced in the imperial presidency.

Beginning with the election of John F. Kennedy 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.

This volume was published before President Obama's election, but it is easy to see the new guy being slotted into the familiar roles. In this system, Congress exists merely to perpetuate "democratic" theatrics. He writes

The Congress may not be a den of iniquity, but it is a haven for narcissistic hacks, for whom self-promotion and self-preservation take precedence over serious engagement with serious issues.

The failure of the Democratic Congress elected in 2006 on an antiwar mandate to do anything useful to end the Iraq war proves the point for this author (and for many of us).

But Bacevich doesn't just blame "the national security elites" -- those I usually call "our rulers." He blames the people of the United States for demanding that nothing disturb our accustomed standard of living.

The chief desire of the American people, whether they admit it or not, is that nothing should disrupt their access to [imported] goods, [imported] oil, and [imported] credit. The chief aim of the U.S. government is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part through the distribution of largesse at home (with Congress taking a leading role) and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad (largely the business of the executive branch).

Obviously, Bacevich wrote this before the financial pyramid scheme that underlay it imploded. I'm sure he wasn't surprised. Much of the book is a chronicle of the sheer incompetence that follows from official Washington's detachment from realities, especially in the author's area of professional expertise, the management, care and feeding of the military.

This is a conservative jeremiad, a prophecy of deserved doom, ringing largely true from the left end of the political spectrum as well as from the right. I highly recommend it. Alternatively, listen to or read what Bacevich has to say in an interview with Bill Moyers last August. We're not used to such blunt honesty in our politics, even in the era of "change."


Fr. John said...

My fear is that it will take the most dire consequences of global warming to disrupt the addictive/consumptive culture in which we live, and move us in a different direction. I hope it will not be too late.

President Obama continues to warn of difficult days ahead - I hope he is seriously considering how to engage us in a dramatic lifestyle change to save the planet - and ourselves.

Kay Dennison said...

I went and watched the video and I intend to read the book.

This man said what's been rattling around the back of my brain for quite some time but I've never could quite put in perspective.

Andrew Bacevich has done it for me. Thank you so much for sharing this!

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