Grim fore­cast for the Im­pe­rial Pres­i­dency

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

An­drew Bace­vich is the real deal: Pro­fes­sor of Mil­i­tary His­tory at Bos­ton Uni­ver­sity, au­thor of many well­re­spected books, a West Point grad­u­ate, con­ser­va­tive Catholic and Viet­nam war vet­eran, he is an ex­pert at war from it bloody, messy grass­roots to its ethe­real heights of grand strate­gic de­bate. And in the in­ter­nal chaos of Amer­ica’s pun­dit’s par­adise of self-im­por­tant, con­fi­dent, ig­no­rant talk­ing heads, Mr. Bace­vich has been a quiet, cool voice of san­ity for decades with his spare, rig­or­ous and un­fail­ing hon­est analy­ses of Amer­ica’s role in the world and deep­en­ing strate­gic predica­ments.

This lat­est work, how­ever, stands apart: Even the tim­ing of its pub­li­ca­tion is un­canny. Mr. Bace­vich in his text, ob­vi­ously writ­ten many months be­fore our cur­rent fis­cal melt­down erupted, even an­tic­i­pates a Wall Street fi­nan­cial cri­sis on the scale of 1929 and what that would mean to the fan­tasies of global suzerainty and em­pire that U.S. pol­i­cy­mak­ers have re­mained ob­sessed upon.

“The Lim­its of Power” cer­tainly stands tall in the rapidly grow­ing tra­di­tion of se­ri­ous in­tel­lec­tual crit­i­cism of un­lim­ited U.S. mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment around the world that has es­pe­cially pro­lif­er­ated since the war in Iraq started to go sour five years ago. But it also joins the by-now bulging book­shelves of dev­as­tat­ing indictments of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and what they have done wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan, leav­ing ef­fec­tively un­winnable wars and night­mar­ish with­drawal sce­nar­ios for their suc­ces­sors to deal with.

But where Mr. Bace­vich’s work stands head and shoul­ders above sim­i­lar vol­umes is in the depth and suc­cinct­ness of its meta-his­tor­i­cal anal­y­sis.

Far from see­ing Ge­orge W. Bush as an ap­palling aber­ra­tion from a long and sane tra­di­tion of bi­par­ti­san, in­ter­na­tion­al­ist pres­i­dents rang­ing from Harry S. Tru­man to Bill Clin­ton, and en­com­pass­ing Dwight D. Eisen­hower and Ron­ald Rea­gan along the way, Mr. Bace­vich con­vinc­ingly places the cur­rent pres­i­dent as the wellmean­ing and loyal heir to all of them.

The road to an ever-widen­ing, ever-more ex­pan­sive and un­lim­ited strate­gic com­mit­ment to re- make the world in the do­mes­tic Amer­i­can im­age was not aban­doned at the end of the Cold War when the Soviet Union dis­in­te­grated. Un­der Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, and es­pe­cially in his sec­ond term of of­fice with ob­ses­sively in­ter­ven­tion­ist Madeleine Al­bright as sec­re­tary of state, that process only ac­cel­er­ated. In­deed, the fate­ful de­ci­sion to bomb Kosovo in 1999 without seek­ing a United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion first — then go­ing it alone with some NATO al­lies to start the bomb­ing of Ser­bia without any such U.N. sanc­tion or tacit ap­proval by Rus­sia or China, opened up a Pan­dora’s Box of un­lim­ited mil­i­tary com­mit­ments that the United States has skid­ded down­hill on ever since.

How­ever, Mr. Bace­vich goes much deeper than this: He traces the bur­geon­ing pow­ers of the Im­pe­rial Pres­i­dency that were only briefly and su­per­fi­cially reined in af­ter the set­backs of Viet­nam and Water­gate, re­viv­ing to ex­pand more re­lent­lessly than ever in the decades that fol­lowed. He doc­u­ments how the heady rhetoric of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism, virtue and di­vine ap- proval led smoothly into the Bush­neo­con­ser­va­tive vi­sion of re­mak­ing the Is­lamic world in Amer­ica’s own, vir­tu­ous, demo­cratic and free mar­ket im­age, un­de­terred by the moun­tains of ev­i­dence that such a project was im­pos­si­ble and ut­terly di­vorced from any sane con­cep­tion of re­al­ity.

Fi­nally, Mr. Bace­vich re­morse­lessly piles on the ev­i­dence why the projects of global em­pire and the re­mak­ing of the world in Amer­ica’s im­age are des­tined to fail be­cause they are in­her­ently un­achiev­able. Fur­ther, he ar­gues, the pur­suit of em­pire has fate­fully weak­ened the real main­springs of both free­dom and pros­per­ity at home.

This has dire im­pli­ca­tions for the long-term health and pos­si­bly even sur­vival of Amer­i­can democ­racy, Mr. Bace­vich ar­gues, be­cause from the very beginning, the suc­cess of democ­racy and po­lit­i­cal free­dom within the United States was pred­i­cated on the eco­nomic abun­dance and se­cu­rity nec­es­sary to as­sure it.

Nor does Mr. Bace­vich hold out much hope from Mr. Bush’s suc­ces­sors. He doc­u­ments re­peated state­ments from Demo­cratic pres- iden­tial can­di­date Barack Obama that could have been taken out of the Bush speech­mak­ing lex­i­con at ran­dom — and no doubt were. Mr. Bace­vich’s point, of course, is that just as Mr. Bush was no aber­ra­tion from an Amer­i­can pol­i­cy­mak­ing norm of strate­gic over-ex­ten­sion and hubris that was gen­er­a­tions in the mak­ing, be­yond the su­per­fi­cial cos­met­ics of pol­i­tics, his suc­ces­sor, be he Obama or Sen. John McCain, will re­main wed­ded to the same as­sump­tions as well.

Taken in­di­vid­u­ally, few of Mr. Bace­vich’s ar­gu­ments and doc­u­men­ta­tions in this book are new. But I know of no work that is so com­pelling and suc­cinct in syn­the­siz­ing them into a sin­gle, over­ar­ch­ing and co­he­sive ar­gu­ment.

This book should be es­sen­tial read­ing for ev­ery Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil staffer in the next Wash­ing­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion, be it Repub­li­can or Demo­cratic (Hav­ing lec­tured to many audiences of such pol­i­cy­mak­ers over the past three years in var­i­ous ca­pac­i­ties, I have con­sis­tently found their lev­els of knowl­edge and ba­sic facts about the es­sen­tial vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of the United States to be stag­ger­ing). 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. It is a grim judg­ment on the lack of in­tegrity or ba­sic com­pe­tence in our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem that such an ap­point­ment from ei­ther party re­mains in­con­ceiv­able.

Mr. Bace­vich, how­ever, has ap­pealed above the head of the Per­ma­nent Pol­i­cy­mak­ing Class in Wash­ing­ton to bring his ar­gu­ments and his cool, lu­cid pre­scrip­tions for lim­ited sane poli­cies in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions, na­tional se­cu­rity and eco­nomic af­fairs to the gen­eral pub­lic. This book 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 is chief po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent for United Press In­ter­na­tional. He was nom­i­nated for the Pulitzer Prize for in­ter­na­tional re­port­ing for his cov­er­age of the col­lapse of the Soviet Union in The Wash­ing­ton Times.


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