Grim forecast for the Imperial Presidency
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.