Alternate futures

Last night, I gave up five innings of the Giants National League pennant victory to watch the presidential debate.

I sacrificed the five run 3d inning in hopes of hearing the candidates answer a single question that moderator, Bob Shieffer, asked about 40 minutes in:  “What is your vision of America’s place in the world?”

Seconds later, a voice-over interrupted with tornado warnings for several counties north of here.  By the time it ended, the candidates were talking about the economy.  I waited for Shieffer to lead them back to the question he’d asked, but it never happened.  Same old, same old, I guess – the same dysfunctional vision I wrote about in January, in a post called, “Sabre-rattling over oil:  better get used to it.”

This was the first of several posts about the ideas of Col. Andrew Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran, West Point graduate, and currently a professor of History and International Relations at Boston University.  Like George McGovern, the first man I ever voted for as president, who died earlier this month, Bacevich is a warrior who hates warfare.

Sen. George McGovern (1922-2012) flew 35 bombing missions over Germany in WWII and ran for president in 1972 on a peace in Vietnam platform.

Bacevich pulls no punches in The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (reviewed here

Rereading key passages recently, Bacevich’s anger became even more apparent – the anger of a patriot who sees his country sliding down a slippery slope to disaster.  His core thesis is that in turning away from President Carter’s 1980 call for energy independence – never mind the lip-service it gets every four years – the United States has squandered lives and wealth in a hopeless series of wars aimed at compelling the rest of the world to play by our economic rules:

“For the United States the pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence – on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit.  The chief desire of the American people, whether they admit it or not, is that nothing should disrupt their access to those goods, oil, and 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…and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad.”

Bacevich argues that the status quo benefits those in power in Washington:

“…rather than addressing the problem of dependence, members of our political class seem hell-bent on exacerbating the problem…To hard-core nationalists and neoconservatives, the acceptance of limits suggests retrenchment or irreversible decline.  In fact, the reverse is true.  Acknowledging the limits of American power is a precondition for stanching the losses of recent decades and for preserving the hard-won gains of earlier generations going back to the founding of the Republic.”

In a 2008 interview with Bill Moyers, Bacevich said, “I happen to define myself as a conservative,” yet when you read his prescription for addressing the ills he enumerates, they parallel those of Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president. Moyers interviewed Stein on September 7:

Dr. Jill Stein, Green Party presidential candidate

Dr. Stein graduated summa cum laude from Harvard Medical School, and has specialized in environmental health.  She got her start in politics with a successful effort to pass a referendum to reform election spending in Massachusetts.  Reality set in when the Democratically controlled legislature overturned the people’s will in an unrecorded vote.

Both mainstream presidential candidates refer to their “plans” to create jobs, though they haven’t offered specifics.  Stein has a plan too:  cut defense spending in half and use the money to fund a “Green WPA” which would train and employ many of those now unemployed to work toward true energy independence.

In a 2008 interview with Moyers, Bacevich answered the obvious objection that cutting defense spending would jeopardize national security.  Those persons and groups that wish us harm are ““akin to a criminal conspiracy…Rooting out and destroying the conspiracy is primarily the responsibility of organizations like the FBI, and of our intelligence community, backed up at times by Special Operations Forces.  That doesn’t require invading and occupying countries.”  Events last year proved him correct.


What chance do ideas like these have of making it into the mainstream?  Little or none at present, but I don’t think that is the point.  Ideas rooted in reality can be seeds that sprout over time.  The first Earth Day was a peripheral event, but it has picked up momentum every since.

Bacevich repeatedly stresses that not all limits are bad, and despite the title of his book, affirms that he does believe in American exceptionalism  “if American exceptionalism implies that there are certain qualities that make the United States of America a special place, a wonderful place– a place worthy of a patriot’s love.”

In the course of their critiques, both Bacevich and Stein affirm that it’s love of country and citizens that motivates their efforts to change what’s broken.

After all, what other nation on earth could have invented the World Series?

5 thoughts on “Alternate futures

  1. I think I need to go find that book, even your brief synopsis makes it sound like I would find a lot of intriguing ideas in that book.

    The idea of American invincibility is still out there, but very few people are willing to accept the truth that by many measurable statistics, we’re nowhere near the top (most notably education).

    Unfortunately, we’re still mired in the same problems that we’ve had for the past 10-12 years, and we keep trying to same solutions even though they aren’t working. Maybe it’s time to try something different.


    • I have to say this was the most important book I read this year and the one that influenced my outlook the most.

      I recall times at work where we were able to see changes coming and adjust for them, vs. other times when, for whatever reason, we did nothing until the crisis hit – and that was in a comparatively small and agile department – nothing like the government.

      You can look at the lands where historical empires flourished – Egypt, Iraq, Greece, Italy, England – and assume that during their heyday, each of them thought they were the greatest and would remain so for all time…


  2. I wonder… what would it take to create such an ideological in our country?
    Our desire to consume has grown into an ugly beast and no one seems willing to be the change agent, at least not anyone with teeth!


    • At work, we had two ways of dealing with significant changes. Best case, we saw it coming and had the will and resources to prepare. Worst case left us fighting fires after they were good and hot. And this was in an enlightened company that tried to get these things right, where the vested interest was in responding to rapid change. I don’t think the Federal government fits into that category, so I think significant change will have to come from outside.

      For example, while the candidates dither around absurd concepts (drilling more oil in the US will solve our problems), car makers have found that people really want to buy fuel-efficient cars. This reminds me of a lesson from history: war and slaughter raged for nearly a century in Europe after the Reformation. The wars came to an end not because of governments but because the rising merchant class put pressure on governments because killing was bad for business – sometimes corporate interests line up with sanity.

      So to answer your question, I think significant change comes either from wise choices or as a response when the suffering gets bad enough. And though I’d like to, we can’t put that all on our leaders.

      Despite a year of freakish weather, for the first time since 1988, climate change wasn’t mentioned in the “debates,” and we know that’s a direct result of marketing wisdom determining that we the people will not elect a candidate that veers from the “never is heard a discouraging word” line.

      I guess it’s a matter of enough individuals wanting to hear and share the truth and the dynamics of critical mass, tipping point etc…


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