Andrew Bacevich on “An Extraordinary Opportunity for Congress”

Andrew Bacevich

Those who follow this blog will know the high regard in which I hold historian Andrew Bacevich. In a 2012 review of his book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, I mentioned a few of Bacevich’s credentials:

Bacevich, a Viet Nam veteran, retired as a colonel after 23 years in the army. He holds a PhD in American Diplomatic History from Princeton and taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins before joining the faculty at Boston University in 1998. In March, 2007, he described the US doctrine of “preventative warfare” as “immoral, illicit, and imprudent.” Two months later, his son died in Iraq.

On February 14, Bacevich posted a brief article on Moyers & Company that I’d love to see more widely read. He likens the current administration’s middle-eastern initiative to Nixon’s 1970 “incursion” into Cambodia and says:

“How did we arrive at this predicament? Where exactly are we headed? What is the overall aim? How will we know when we have succeeded? What further costs will the perpetuation of the enterprise entail?

Back in 1970, when the predicament was the Vietnam War, those questions demanded urgent attention. Today, the enterprise once known as the Global War on Terrorism, now informally referred to as the Long War or the Forever War or (my personal preference) America’s War for the Greater Middle East, defines our predicament. But the questions remain the same as they were when Cambodia rather than the Islamic State represented the issue of the moment.

So President Obama’s requested Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) could not have come at a more propitious moment. The proposed AUMF presents the Congress with an extraordinary opportunity — not to rubber stamp actions already taken, but to take stock of an undertaking that already exceeds the Vietnam War in length while showing not the slightest sign of ending in success.”

Read it, and instead of weeping, pass it on.

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?

The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew Bacevich – A book review

Anyone paying attention knows that our nation has lost its way, but that’s where clarity ends.  How and when did we go wrong?  Sometimes I wish I could read the histories that will be written a hundred years from now, after time has lent perspective to the chaos of current events.  Thanks to Andrew Bacevich, we don’t have to wait for at least one piercing analysis.

Bacevich, a Viet Nam veteran, retired as a colonel after 23 years in the army.  He holds a PhD in American Diplomatic History from Princeton and taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins before joining the faculty at Boston University in 1998.  In March, 2007, he described the US doctrine of “preventative warfare” as “immoral, illicit, and imprudent.”  Two months later, his son died in Iraq.

Andrew Bacevich

In The Limits of Power, published in 2008, Bacevich steps back to examine our history from WWII to the present, to look at the root cause of the folly that has made constant warfare, with its huge cost in lives and resources, our norm.  Foreign policy and domestic policy are wedded together, he says.  Despite political rhetoric, our seeming state of perpetual warfare is not simply the result of international villains like Slobodan Milošević, Saddam Hussein, or even Osama Bin Laden.  To blame them, he says, is like “blaming Herbert Hoover for the Great Depression or…attributing McCarthyism entirely to the antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy.”  Foreign policy has become “an expression of domestic dysfunction.”  Bacevich pulls no punches, and pinpoints the nature of this dysfunction in the title of his first chapter, “The Crisis of Profligacy.”

“For the majority of contemporary Americans, the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness centers on a relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors.”

Bacevich says the critical, though seldom acknowledged, turning point was bookmarked by two presidential speeches.  The first was President Jimmy Carter’s so-called “malaise” speech, though he never used the word.

The seventies was a decade of severe economic shocks that saw the first oil crisis, a stock market meltdown, and our transition from a producer to a consumer economy.  On July 15, 1979, Carter said the real crisis was not what OPEC was doing to oil prices, but our way of life, which makes us depend on foreign oil.

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God…too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.  Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.  But we’ve…learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

To continue down that road, Carter said, was “a certain route to failure.”  He urged a renewal of national purpose, characterized by national restraint and an effort to find and develop alternative energy sources.  The main effect of his speech was to provide ammunition to his political opponents.  Republican presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan, in his “morning in America” speech told us there were no restraints.  The energy crisis was the government’s fault.  The solution was to reduce federal spending and cut taxes.

In an effort to salvage his re-election prospects, Carter adopted a pugnacious tone, articulating the “Carter Doctrine” in January, 1980.  He said the nation would “use any means necessary, including military force,” to prevent any other power from dominating the Persian Gulf.”  Sadly, this endorsement of American imperialism rather than his earlier call to fiscal and moral balance is what guides our politicians to this day.  It isn’t hard to see why.  In the 1980 presidential election, Carter won just four states, while Reagan carried 48.  No one in Washinton missed the message:  the way to get elected is to pander to our illusions, to suggest that our credit is infinite and the bills will never come due.

In 1983, President Reagan proposed his “Star Wars” missile defense shield, implying that our national security and way of life were wedded to military superiority.  “Defense is not a budget item,” he said.  George Bush didn’t think so, nor do this year’s presidential candidates.  The President criticizes the Ryan budget for draconian cuts to key domestic services, but says nothing about its huge uptick in military spending – perhaps because for Democrats too, “defense is not a budget item.”

Bacevich articulates solutions akin to Carter’s – an end to the fool’s errand of trying to reshape the world in our image and an effort to set our own house in order.  He cautions that expecting those in power to adopt such a course of action is like expecting the CEO of a major car company to lobby for public transportation – there’s too much power and money vested in the status quo. Among other suggestions, he says:

“No doubt undertaking a serious…national effort to begin the transition to a post-fossil fuel economy promises to be a costly proposition.  Yet…spending trillions to forcibly democratize the Islamic world will achieve little, while investing trillions in energy research might actually produce something useful.” 

Technical innovation has been an American strongpoint, from the Mahattan Project to the space race, to the digital revolution.  In contrast, our efforts to reshape other cultures has been rather dismal.

If a change of course is possible, Bacevich does not think it likely.  Throughout his book, he quotes Reinhold Niebuhr, a pastor, theologian, and author who wrote between 1930 and 1960.  He gives us this quote by Niebuhr:

“One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun.”

The Limits of Power is a disturbing book to read, but one I can recommend to everyone who prefers hard truth to subterfuge and lies.  For a more recent look at Andrew Bacevich and his ideas, I recommend this interview, conducted in March, on “Moyers and Friends:”

As they say in 12 step programs, admitting there is a problem is the first step toward a solution.

Sabre Rattling Over Oil: Better Get Used to It

The juxtaposition of headlines this morning was strange but telling.  On page one of the Sacramento Bee, under the heading of “Tourism,” was the story of Virgin Galactic, a travel company that expects to offer 2.5 hour rides into space, starting as soon as next Christmas, for a mere $200,000.

You might want try to lock in your price now, before it goes up.  Buried back on page seven was this headline:  “Risk of showdown with Iran escalates as oil prices climb.”  According to Andrew Bacevich, in a 2008 interview with Bill Moyers, we can expect a constant string of oil crises; the choices we make as a nation make them inevitable.  There’s a price to pay for cheap space travel, among other things.

Andrew Bacevich

Bill Moyers 2008 interview with Bacevich is published in, Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues, (2011).  In the preface, Moyers says, “Our finest warriors are often our most reluctant warmongers.”  Bacevich is a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran who retired as a colonel after 23 years in the military, to teach history and international relations at Boston University.  Bacevich’s son, Andrew, died in Iraq in 2007.  Bacevich is the author of several books, including the best selling, The Limits of Power:  The End of American Exceptionalism (2008).

In his interview with Moyers, Andrew Bacevich doesn’t pull any punches.  He says our foreign policy, including our wars:

“reflect the perceptions of our political elite about what we the people want.  And what we want, by and large, is to sustain the flow of very cheap consumer goods.  We want to be able to pump gas into our cars regardless of how big they happen to be…and we want to be able to do these things without having to think about whether or not the books balance at the end of the month…”

To our list of wants we can now add, “affordable” space travel, with its guaranteed 5.5 minutes of weightlessness.   As an ex-miltary officer, Bacevich points to the dark side of this, something you never hear in presidential debates, and don’t often see anymore on the front page of the paper.

One of the ways we avoid confronting our refusal to balance the books is to rely increasingly on the projection of American military power around the world to maintain this dysfunctional system.”

The biggest elephant in the living room is our dependance on foreign oil.  Without oil, Bacevich notes, the middle east has “zero strategic significance.”  Every president since Richard Nixon has promised to address our dependance on foreign energy, and Jimmy Carter staked his political career on finding a solution.  Bacevich paraphrases Carter’s speech in 1979:

“If we don’t act now, we’re headed down a path along which not only will we become increasingly dependent upon foreign oil, but we will have opted for a false model of freedom.  A freedom of materialism, a freedom of self-indulgence, a freedom of collective recklessness.  The president was urging us to think about what we mean by freedom…Carter had a profound understanding of the dilemma facing the country in the post-Vietnam period.  And of course, he was completely derided and disregarded.” 

When Moyers asked him about the realities of al-Qaeda and radical Islam, Bacevich replied that yes, they are violent and dangerous, but 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.”

At the end of the interview, Bacevich, who defines himself as a conservative, says he hopes we will come to understand the war in Iraq as a great mistake.  And rather repeat the mistake in Iran or anywhere else, hopes we will “look at ourselves in the mirror.  And…see what we have become.  And perhaps undertake an effort to make those changes that will enable us to preserve for future generations that which we value most about the American way of life.”

You can read the full text of the interview with Andrew Bacevich in Bill Moyers Journal, along with many other provocative talks with thinkers and artists across the spectrum of contemporary life.