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My wife is a high school teacher and the "Sex" trick is one she uses to gain students' attention. She stands on a desk and yells "SEX!!" I realize its alot more attractive coming from her, but I try, nonetheless. Now that I have your attention. I am begging you to do some reading here. I wrote this book review in two parts, but I'm combining it here into one entry. Please read, this is an important book.

BOOK REVIEW: The Limits of Power, Andrew J. Bacevich

The full title of the book: The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism indicates clearly the perspective and inclinations of the author. The author, Andrew J. Bacevich is a retired U.S. Army Colonel who now holds the position of Professor of History and International Relations at Boston University. Additionally and tragically Professor Bacevich lost his son in Iraq in 2007. This review divides into sections: 1. Thesis 2. Summary 3. Critique 4. How the DailyKos community can use this book.


Professor Bacevich argues that the fundamental flaws of American Foreign policy lie in the rise of the Imperial Presidency and the permanent National Security apparatus that controlled the formulation and execution of American Foreign Policy throughout the Cold War. This contentious partnership originated with NSC-68 in the late Truman administration and grew in scope and entrenched bureaucracy since that time. George W. Bush and his Neocon operatives, while categorically wrong, merely leveraged and expanded an existing mentality in both the electorate and the "National Security" apparatus of our government. Moreover, as a corollary thesis the American electorate gave tacit approval to this arrangement by their disengagement and willingness to equate material prosperity with "freedom." "Freedom," a term used to elicit emotional responses without any careful examination of motives or policy; a term that for the most part lost any substantive meaning during this period of U. S. History. The current crisis faced by the United States presents a Hydra of threats resulting from overspending, overextended military power, dwindling world support for U.S. policies and unwillingness on the part of American political leaders and the American people to confront reality with a rational mind. The current crisis presents an opportunity to fundamentally address our course or face certain and dramatic decline.


In three main chapters entitled "The Crisis of Profligacy," "The Political Crisis," and "The Military Crisis," Professor Bacevich substantiates his thesis with significant examples and historical context delineating the evolution of our current state of affairs.

In the Profligacy chapter, Bacevich outlines the ascendancy of the US in the post WW II economic world order and the fundamental economic strength derived from victory in the context of European and Japanese destruction. Throughout the 1950s the US achieved a standard of living that became the envy of the world however, that began to shift in the late Vietnam War period:

Prior to the 1970s, because the United States had long been the world’s number one producer of petroleum, American oil companies determined the global price of oil. In 1972, domestic oil production peaked and began its inexorable, irreversible decline, The year before, the perrogative of setting the price of crude oil had passed into the hands of a new producers’ group, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). (pp. 29-30)

From here he moves on to economic decline and the choice between the prescient Carter’s energy dependence challenge and Reagan’s optimism. Regan’s victory ushered in a period of spending unsupported by fundamental economic strength. Trends since then have only continued and debt has supplemented earning power in American life. The bills for this "profligacy" eventually came due.

In the Political Crisis chapter, Bacevich lays out the evolution of the Imperial Presidency and the National Security apparatus. He argues that in the post WW II world, Congress abdicated its’ role in the checks and balances system allowing for the creation of the Imperial President. The National Security apparatus renders this situation intolerable by supplanting the voters as the final arbiter of American policy. Presidents come and go, but the National Security apparatus stays in place, much to the detriment of any President coming to Washington thinking they will actually change anything. Bacevich substantiates this with numerous examples of Presidents that become suspect of the advisors. More importantly, he punctuates this chapter with a healthy discussion of NSC 68 and the spirit of foreign policy exemplified by two WW II era leaders who exhibited markedly different styles: Henry L. Stimson and James Forrestal. Both men were Wall Street Republicans who served under FDR, but they exemplified very different traditions. Stimson served as a Colonel in WW I, Governor General of the Philippines, Secretary of State under Hoover, and finally Secretary of War under FDR. He exemplified the conservative reaction to circumstances: cool and measured. James Forrestal served the Secretary of Navy, Frank Knox and went on in the postwar to become the first Secretary of Defense. Forrestal possessed a pessimistic temperament and tended to emphasize potential threats as always imminent. Eventually he broke down and committed suicide. Bacevich agues that while Stimson remained respected the majority of advisors emulated Forrestal and culminated in a statement of policy in NSC 68 written by Paul Nitze who was then head of the Policy Planning Staff of Dean Acheson’s State Department:

   Historians have long seen NSC 68 as one of the foundational documents of postwar American statecraft. From our present perspective, it is that and more. NSC 68 provides us with an early sense of what our postwar habit of deferring to the Wise Men has wrought.
   Two recent events had prompted Truman in January 1950 to direct the State and Defense departments to undertake an urgent—and of course secret—review of national security strategy. Although those events were by no means trivial, Nitze’s chief contribution was to blow them completely out of proportion and use them as a basis to argue for sweeping reorientation of U.S. policy. In this effort, he ultimately prevailed. (pp. 107-108)

Over the next few decades, hyping the potential threat promoted job security for the National Security elite and it spiraled into lower and lower tolerances for risk. This culminated with Dick Cheney saying that a 1% chance of Iraq having WMDs is too much. In the context of the Profligacy chapter no one can afford a policy that demands such risk analysis. Policy must maintain a balance between possible and probable, because the basis for military strength has always been economic.

In the Military Crisis chapter Bacevich builds on the previous two chapters and moves into the area of his greatest strength—specifically military policy. He clearly dissects the various forms of conventional wisdom as they emerged at various times from 2001-2007. Every time he effectively winds back to his main thesis that the endless War on Terror represents a clear over-extension of American capability and if continued will accelerate decline. The financial crisis, the sputtering War on Terror and the unrealistic expectations of the American electorate will combine to continue unrealistic policies that solve nothing. Most convincingly he lays out the axiom that all "Small Wars" are wars of empire, and that is not what we should be engaged in prosecuting. The Department of Defense is more accurately described as the Department of  Power Projection and it needs to get back to doing defense.

Lurking behind this simple question are several larger ones. How is it that our widely touted post-Cold War military supremacy has produced not enhanced security but the prospect of open-ended conflict? Why is it that when we flex our muscles on behalf of peace and freedom, the world beyond our borders becomes all the more cantankerous and disorderly? To turn Madeleine Albright’s famous question to Colin Powell on its head, what exactly is the point of using this superb army of ours if the result is Iraq and Afghanistan?
 The events of the recent past offer several lessons that illuminate these questions. The first, and perhaps most important, concerns the nature of the war. Iraq and Afghanistan remind us that war is not subject to reinvention, whatever George W. Bush and Pentagon proponents of the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs or "shock-and-awe" may contend.
 War’s essential nature is fixed, permanent, intractable, and irrepressible. War’s constant companions are uncertainty and risk. "War is the realm of chance," wrote the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz nearly two centuries ago. "No other human activity gives it greater scope: no other has such incessant and varied dealings with this intruder," a judgment that the invention of the computer, the Internet, and precision-guided munitions has done nothing to overturn. "The statesman who yields to war fever," Churchill correctly observed, "is no longer the master of policy, but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events." Therefore, any notion that innovative techniques and new technologies will subject war to defining human direction is simply whimsical. (pp. 156-157)

In the end of this chapter he concludes that the essential problem is not the size of our Army, but what we are asking it to do. Technical military capability does not make up for age old fixed costs of conflict. Moreover, any foreign policy needs to be grounded in sound fiscal policy otherwise it is unsustainable in the long run.  


 The Limits of Power appears to have been written with a dual purpose in mind. On the one hand, at 182 pages, its’ length make it accessible to an audience that normally might not read this type of book. On the other hand, Bacevich often utilizes vocabulary not terribly accessible to readers more accustomed to newspapers; terms that lean more toward a purely academic environment. Professor Bacevich certainly does readers a favor by making them appreciate the full nuance of "profligacy" in its’ various forms, but on other occasions his useage seems a bit forced and will cause many readers to reach frequently for the dictionary. Cited in the notes, Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (1987) seems a spiritual cousin of this book, but Kennedy intended his book, at 700+ pages, purely for the academic environment; it just happened to become a bestseller. The book contains suitable footnotes, but lacks a bibliography. This leaves one to surmise that only the books cited informed this work. A more significantly developed bibliography would have greatly appreciated.

  In the larger canon of works on Postwar American foreign policy, Bacevich’s tendencies lean more toward the Revisionist authors like Gabriel Kolko or the ubiquitous William Appleman Williams, author of the cornerstone book of the Revisionist school, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959). The irony of the current time may very well be that a book like this could gain rather mainstream acceptance because of the sheer disastrous results of current U.S. foreign policy. Bacevich’s credentials as a Retired U.S. Army colonel make him a difficult target for Traditionalists nattering on about the academic left. The strength of his argument lies very much in his even-handedness in criticizing both Democratic and Republican administrations since WW II. All of them contributed to the Imperial Presidency and the National Security apparatus. Moreover, one of his more fundamental arguments for changing conditions in the United States pleas with the electorate to take greater responsibility for holding leaders and the system in general to account. He accurately points out that expecting Obama to take office and subsequently change things, remains a dubious position to hold. In order to get different results the assumptions upon which the current power structure rests must be dismantled and recast in a more realistic, less ambitious mold. This will require an active electorate armed with the Internet to hold both mainstream media and the government itself to honestly addressing the needs of the nation.

Beyond Bacevich’s general argument, there remain two noticeable contributions that will no doubt rise out of this book. First, a healthy re-examination of NSC 68 could greatly inform the electorate on the origins of the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy since 1950. His scathing appraisal of the tone of the document should spawn a more mainstream historical review of the topic in general. Bacevich’s portrayal of Paul Nitze (NSC 68's primary author) paints a stark picture that demands further examination and scrutiny. The adoption of NSC 68 into dogma created an environment where military power became the sole arbiter of power and seriousness. To possess a less reverent attitude toward force from this point forward indicated "soft" and "idealistic" thinking.  Perhaps the greatest irony here comes from the fact that NSC 68 came out of the Truman Administration which Senator Joseph McCarthy famously accused at the time of being "soft" on communism. NSC 68 was produced by a State Department that McCarthy made repeated attacks of being riddled with "communists" and "fellow travelers." (As a side note, I might add, that Nixon was elected to Congress employing a Red-baiting campaign accusing his rival of being a "pinko." Meanwhile, Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s alter-ego in academic guise, turned the names of suspected communists over to J. Edgar Hoover while president of Harvard University.)

The second contribution will be the resurrection of Reinhold Niebuhr. Bacevich cited Niebuhr more than any other author, and heavily relied on his works in his conclusion. Niebuhr charted a career for himself as a realistic moralist through the 30s, 40s and 50s. Initially, by training and profession he was a minister, but his intellectual works make him now probably one the most serious American moralists and political philosophers that very few people know. The popularity of this book might bring about a Niebuhr revival. It would fit our times, and our predicament like a glove. Here are two of my favorite Niebuhr quotes:  

A society which exempts ultimate principles from criticisms will find difficulty in dealing with the historical forces which have appropriated these truths as their special possession.
The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness

The realm of freedom which allows the individual to make his decision within, above and beyond the pressure of casual sequence is beyond the realm of scientific analysis.
The Irony of American History

I can think of nothing better than bringing this brilliant man’s work back into the focus of many. He certainly merits more widespread exposure among the electorate of today.

How Can the Daily Kos Community Use This Book

This book is available in hardback at Amazon for $14.40. If you order two the shipping will be free. You can order it here:
Order Here

I think this is a valuable book because the general thesis is non-partisan. Many of the Republicans I have talked to generally bemoan the course we have taken as a nation. We spend too much money, our foreign policy is a mess and the future requires sacrifice and unity. To many Republicans, Bacevich is the kind of man they respect. He did not spend his life in an academic ivory tower, similar to Jim Webb, he earned his position in the military and therefore he can savagely criticize military policy and practices without being subject to smears. He also advocates what I and many Kossacks embrace: AN INVOLVED ELECTORATE. This is the major point of intersection. No one in America can afford to ignore what has been going on, and its going to take all of us to hold leaders and more importantly the system to account. This book provides a starting point for many conversations on building the new coalition. As a final plea to all Kossacks, search for common ground. Just because you might disagree with a Conservative on abortion or taxes does not mean that you cannot find common ground on many of the principles outlined in Professor Bacevich’s book. When you find yourself arguing with someone over an issue they are not going to change their mind on, drop it. Switch to what you agree on and continue amicably. We are going to have enough of a majority that abortion and some other hot-button issues will not really be at stake. Don’t argue over issues that we have already won; build consensus where we need it. The aggressive foreign policy of the U.S. needs to be reversed permanently. That will require a new majority of many different kinds of people. Let’s work for it; it’s worth it.

Originally posted to FrankCornish on Wed Oct 29, 2008 at 02:21 AM PDT.

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