The operative questions becomes this: if neither the CIA nor the Joint Chiefs of Staff had existed when Osama bin Laden launched his attack, if Congress had not created the Department of Defense or the National Security Council back in 1947, would the United States find itself in any worse shape than it is? That is, if President Bush had had to rely upon the institutions that existed through World War II - a modest State Department for diplomacy and two small cabinet agencies to manage military affairs - would he have bollixed up Iraq any more than he has? To frame the question more broadly: When considering the national security state as it has evolved and grown over the past six decades, what exactly has been the value added. And if the answer is none - if, indeed, the return on investment has been essentially negative - then perhaps the time has come to consider dismantling an apparatus that demonstrably serves no useful purpose.
Those words appear on P. 101 of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew J. Bacevich, West Point Grad, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, and one of the most cogent critics of the nation in which we live.
I am no expert on military matters. Unlike Bacevich, I am not a retired career military officer, and my own military service was strictly stateside, in music and computers, during the 1960s. Thus I may seem an unlikely person to be writing about this book. Further, my abilities as a book reviewer may well not be sufficient to give an appropriate sense of how important this book is. What I can do is let Bacevich speak for himself, and I will do that.
One day I came home and opened up a package to find a copy of the book and a note from the author's representative. I'm used to this when the books are about education, a field in which I do claim some expertise. I was somewhat surprised, but then remembered that I had in this diary written favorably about a Boston Globe op ed Bacevich had penned. And I know how highly respected Bacevich is by people who deal professionally with matters military and of international relations.
I read the book several weeks ago, but felt that anything I might say about it would be lost in the frenzy of the buildup to the election. Now, as the new administration begins to take shape, it seems more appropriate to offer a few words.
Most of what you will read will be from the author, and not from me. Let me start by saying that Bacevich writes clearly enough that even the non-expert can fully grasp the import of his words, the thrust of his thinking. He provides an overarching framework, derived from the work of Reinhold Niebuhr. As Bacevich writes in his introduction, which is entitled "War Without Exits,"
The United States today finds itself threatened by three interlocking crises. The first of these crises is economic and cultural, the second political, and the third is military. All three share this characteristic: they are of our own making. In assessing the predicament that results from these crises, The Limits of Power employs what might be called a Niebuhrean perspective. Writing decades ago, Reinhold Niebuhr anticipated that predicament with uncanny accuracy and astonishing prescience. As such, perhaps more than other figure in our recent history, he may help us to discern a way out.
He gives a brief introduction to the work of Niebuhr, in which he notes
As prophet, he warned that what he called "our dreams of managing history" - born of a peculiar combination of arrogance and narcissism - posed a potentially mortal threat to the United States. Today, we ignore that warning at our peril.
Niebuhr was no fuzzy idealist, and he examined all the negative possibilities that flowed from the nature of man - after all, he lived through the destruction of the Second World War - and he wrote from the perspective of one who was strongly rooted in his own sense of Christianity. Bacevich notes
Realism in this sense implies an obligation to see the world as it actually is, not as we might like it to be. The enemy of realism is hubris, which in Niebuhr's day, and in our own, finds expression in an outsized confidence in the efficacy of American power as an instrument to reshape the global order.
As I read those words I could not help but think of the arrogance, cultural as well as military and economic, that so undergirded this administration's actions in Iraq. And of course I immediately thought back to the assertions of Wilson at the end of the Great War that we could make the world safe for democracy. Bacevich notes the arrogance of our assumption that "American values and beliefs are universal and that the nation itself serves providentially assigned purposes." We hear it not only in the rhetoric of politicians who believe that God is calling them to particular service, but as an inherent part of the common belief that America has the right to attempt to remake the world in our own image, that is, in the false image through which we idealize our own history while ignoring our many failings. Or as Bacevich puts it in one cogent sentence:
Hubris and sanctimony have become the paramount expressions of American statecraft.
Let me offer, using ellipses, several other cogent sentences from the introduction:
Whether the issue at hand is oil, credit or the availability of cheap consumer goods, we expect the world to accommodate that American way of life . . .
Simply put, as the American appetite for freedom has grown, so has our penchant for empire . . .
The actual exercise of American freedom is no longer conducive to generating the power required to establish and maintain an imperial order . . .
So far I have only offered from the introduction. Let me skip to the very end, the conclusion of the book. Bacevich calls us, all of us, the American people, to account, warning that we remain in denial of the costs of how we live, including such direct challenges as this:
The United States ranks among the world's worse polluters - here we confront one unfortunate by-product of American freedom as currently practiced. Acting alone, American cannot curb climate change. Yet unless the United States acts, the chances of effectively addressing this global threat are nil.
Of course this relates to national security, and Bacevich makes explicit, as have others, the national security implications of our dependence upon upon foreign sources of energy, and the implications that flow therefrom:
No doubt undertaking a serious, long-term, national effort to begin the transition to a post-fossil fuel economy promises to be a costly proposition. Yet whereas spending trillions to forcibly democratize the Islamic world will achieve little, investing trillions in energy research might actually produce something useful.
Bacevich warns of an American tendency that is very applicable after the recent election - that we the American people are reluctant to "settle accounts" and that we remain too passive as our leaders continue dysfunctional and destructive actions and we do not insist on accountability. We will
tolerate stupefying incompetence and dysfunction in the nation's capital, counting on the next president to fix everything that the last one screwed up.
And our insistence upon living standards as the norm by which we measure things leads us to "venerate freedom while carefully refraining from assessing its content or measuring its costs."
Costs - accountability - accepting limits - all ideas that seem very alien in much of our culture. Bacevich wrote before the recent crises exploded first in the housing market and then in the financial markets, or should we say they exploded in both only with the lack of oversight we did not notice how intertwined they were?
There are only three paragraphs in the book after the sentence I have just quoted. Let me offer them now, and only then further whet your appetite for this important book by offering a sampling of some of Bacevich's other insights. Here is the end:
"The trustful acceptance of false solutions for our perplexing problems," Niebuhr wrote half a century ago, "adds a touch of pathos to the tragedy of our age." That judgment remains valid today. Adamantly insisting that it is unique among history's great powers, the United States seems likely to follow the well-worn path taken by others, blind to the perils that it courts through its own feckless behavior.
For all nations, Niebuhr once observed, "The desire to gain an immediate selfish advantage always imperils their ultimate interest. If they recognize this fact, they usually recognize it too late." Both parts of this dictum apply to the United States today - and in spades. To extend however slightly the here and now, Americans are increasingly inclined to write off the future. So they carry on, heedless of the consequences even for themselves, no less for their children or grandchildren.
Thus does the tragedy of our age move inexorably towards its conclusion. "To the end of history," our prophet once wrote, "social orders will probably destroy themselves in the effort to prove they are indestructible." Clinging doggedly to the conviction that the rules to which other nations must submit don't apply, Americans appear determined to affirm Niebuhr's axiom of willful self-destruction.
By now I hope I have convinced you of the importance of this book. It is wide-ranging in its examination of our history, our present, and what the future may hold. I believe it serves as a clarion call, especially at the moment a new administration prepares to take office in the midst of a major crisis. I am not sure we could have expected people to take seriously the ideas Bacevich offers in the midst of a heated political campaign, and certainly it would be near impossible for a candidate for the presidency to openly espouse the ideas Bacevich propounds - the opposition would tear such a candidate apart for belittling America, for demeaning our greatness.
But perhaps now, as it becomes apparent that many of the goals for which Obama advocated during the campaign begin to slip away in light of the financial limitations we face due to the crises, perhaps now we can have an honest conversation about how our willful self-blindness has helped create the many levels of our current mess. Perhaps now a book written without knowing the specifics of our current world-wide financial crisis but which in many ways anticipated something like that can find an appropriate audience.
Perhaps I have already convinced you to read this this book, and to insist of others that they do likewise, in which case you need read no further the words I offer.
But just in case I have not, please allow me to offer a few more selections from Bacevich, whose words make the case far better than do mine.
Pick the group: blacks, Jews, women, Asians, Hispanics, working stiffs, gays, the handicapped- in every case, the impetus for providing equal access to the rights guaranteed by the Constitution originated among pinks, lefties, liberals, and bleeding-heart fellow travelers. When it came to ensuring that every American should get a fair shake, the contribution of modern conservatism has been essentially nil. Had Martin Luther King counted on William F. Buckley and the National Review to take up the fight against racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s, Jim Crow would still be alive and well.
Crediting the United States with a "great liberating tradition" distorts the past and obscures the actual motive force behind American politics and U. S. foreign policy. It transforms history into a morality tale, thereby providing a rationale for dodging serious moral analysis. To insist that the liberation of others has never been more than an ancillary motive of U.S. policy is not cynicism, it is a prerequisite to self-understanding.
Reinhold Niebuhr once observed that "the most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy." In international politics, the chief danger of hypocrisy is that it inhibits self-understanding. The hypocrite ends up fooling mainly himself.
. . . American grand strategy since the era of Ronald Reagan, and especially throughout the era of George W. Bush, has been characterized by attempts to wish reality away. Policymakers have been engaged in a de facto Ponzi scheme intended to extend indefinitely the American line of credit. The fiasco of the Iraq war and the semi-permanent U. S. occupation of Afghanistan illustrate the results and prefigure what is yet to come if the crisis of American profligacy continues unabated.
Although the text of the Constitution has changed but little since FDR's day, the actual system of governance conceived by the framers - a federal republic deriving its authority from the people in which the central government exercises limited and specified powers - no longer pertains.
The imperial presidency would not exist were it not for the Congress, which has willingly ceded authority to the executive branch, especially on matters touching, however remotely, on national security. As the chief executive achieved supremacy, the legislative branch not only lost clout but gradually made itself the object of ridicule.
. . . the problem with the first lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan - that the Pentagon needs to get better at waging "small wars" - is that it overlooks far more fundamental matters. Rather than transforming the armed forces of the United States into a imperial constabulary, the imperative of the moment is to examine the possibility of devising a nonimperial foreign policy.
Far from producing a stampede of eager recruits keen to don a uniform, the events of 9/11 reaffirmed a widespread popular preference for hiring someone else's kids to chase terrorists, spread democracy, and ensure access to the world's energy reserves. In the midst of a global war of ostensibly earthshaking importance, Americans demonstrated a greater affinity for their hometown sports heroes than for the soldier defending the distant precincts of the American imperium. Tom Brady makes millions paying quarterback in the NFL and rakes in millions more for endorsements. Pat Tillman quit professional football to become an army ranger and was killed in Afghanistan. Yet, of the two, Brady more fully embodies the contemporary understanding of the term Patriot.
And finally this:
America doesn't need a bigger army. It needs a smaller - that is, more modest - foreign policy, one that assigns soldiers missions that are consistent with their capabilities. Modesty implies giving up on the illusions of grandeur to which the end of the Cold War and then 9/11 gave rise. It also means reining in the imperial presidents who expect the army to make good on those illusions. When it comes to supporting the troops, herein lies the essence of a citizen's obligations.
There is so much more I could quote, but I would prefer you read the words of Bacevich in the context in which he intended them. That is, I strongly urge you to read the book. I do not expect that you will agree with all that he offers - I certainly do not. I would hope that you would use the book as an occasion to engage with some serious ideas and issues. That is part of our obligation as an active citizenry, which if it ceased to function would indicate the death of the Republic, the liberal democracy for whose leadership we have been working so hard these past few months.
We have won an election, but our work is only beginning. Being informed is part of our continuing task. I believe this book will help with that process.
UPDATE - several commentators have suggest that I add links for Bacevich's recent appearances on TV, so here they are