Friday, November 20, 2009

The Limits of Power - Review Part II

In Part I of my review of Andrew Bacevich's book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, I wrote, "America has become a profligate, self-serving nation, bent on bringing its power to bear upon those that will not serve its interests or appetites."

Bacevich continues his criticism of American foreign policy by arguing against the myopic morality tales often cited to cast American military power in its best light. He writes:

"From time to time, although not nearly as frequently as we like to imagine, some of the world's unfortunates managed as a consequence to escape from bondage. The Civil War did, for instance, produce emancipation. Yet to explain the conflagration of 1861-1865 as a response to the plight of enslaved African Americans is to engage at best in an immense oversimplification. Near the end of World War II, GIs did liberate the surviving inmates of Nazi death camps. Yet for those who directed the American war effort of 1941-1945, the fate of European Jews never figured as more than an afterthought.

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 rationale for dodging serious moral analysis. To insist that the liberation of others has never been more than an ancillary motive is not cynicism; it is a prerequisite of self-understanding. (pages 19-20)

He continues to expose the myth of American Exceptionalism by reviewing the methods employed to expand our borders. He writes:

"How was expansion achieved? On this point the historical record leaves no room for debate: by any means necessary. Depending on the circumstances, the United States relied on diplomacy, hard bargaining, bluster, chicanery, intimidation, or naked coercion. We infiltrated land belonging to our neighbors and then brazenly proclaimed it our own. We harassed, filibustered, and, when the situation called for it, launched full-scale invasions. We engaged in ethnic cleansing. At times, we insisted that treaties be considered sacrosanct. On other occasions, we blithely jettisoned solemn agreements that had outlived their usefulness.

As the methods employed varied, so too did the rationales offered to justify action. We touted our status as God's new Chosen People, erecting a "city upon a hill" destined to illuminate the world. We acted at the behest of providential guidance or responded to the urgings of our "manifest destiny." We declared our obligation to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ or to "uplift little brown brother." With Woodrow Wilson as our tutor, we shouldered our responsibility to "show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty." Critics who derided these claims as bunkum--the young Abraham Lincoln during the war with Mexico, Mark Twain after the imperial adventures of 1898, Senator Robert La Follette amid "the war to end all wars:--scored points but lost the argument. Periodically revised and refurbished, American exceptionalism (which implied exceptional American prerogatives) only gained greater currency. (pages 20-21)

He summarizes later, "...the defining characteristic of U.S. foreign policy at its most successful has not been idealism, but pragmatism, frequently laced with pragmatism's first cousin, opportunism." (Page 22)

This in essence is the best of the book. He skewers presidents and their advisers throughout the book--including everyone from Kennedy through George W. Bush. He is most hard on Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushes as they have been the ones most responsible for the state of affairs in Washington.

This book will surely be distasteful to conservatives who live under the illusion of American Exceptionalism, but it will also serve to disillusion those who believe that Barack Obama will bring meaningful change to Washington. In his conclusion, he anticipates Obama's victory and recognizes that no politician will be able to deliver change because:

"The real aim is to ensure continuity, to keep intact the institutions and arrangements that define present-day Washington. The veterans of past administrations who sign on as campaign advisers are not interested in curbing the bloated powers of the presidency. They want to share in exercising those powers. The retired generals and admirals who line up behind their preferred candidate don't want to dismantle the national security state. They want to preserve and, if possible, expand it. The candidates who decry the influence of money in national politics are among those most skilled at courting the well-heeled to amass millions in campaign contributions." (page 171)

So what to make of all this? Bacevich has his own ideas, and they are good, insofar as they go. But real change must occur within the people of the nation. As Bacevich even testifies, the people are as responsible for the state of affairs as the politicians are. Let us repent and change. That is the only way.

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