Monday, December 29, 2008

Review - The Limits of Power

All things considered, the theory that explains the largest number of phenomena is going to be the most compelling. It still needs to be tested against the usual values of truth and valid implication, but, if it is reasonably competent, it has to at the very least be in the ballgame. I've talked about my problems with economics as a science (my usual disclaimer: it's doing some good things, but it is in no way a mature discipline yet), and this is a problem. Many economic papers or theories are so narrowly defined that they are abstracted away from anything close to the real world.

I don't write too much about foreign policy here, because, first, I don't really have an overarching theory that covers the world; every situation seems to have its own set of rules, and it's dangerous to generalize, and second, I don't have any particular knowledge about any particular country or area. So I'm left at the intersection of common sense and the contributions of experts.

All this is preface to an admission that I don't know for certain that Andrew Bacevich, professor and retired Army colonel, is an authority, someone I should trust for an overarching theory of America's role in the world. So I'm left to weigh his arguments based on what I do know and what makes sense, and, on those points, his book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008) is a sobering dose of truth to which we had better pay attention.

For Bacevich integrates our current economic climate with our past and present in foreign policy, and does so convincingly enough that LOP needs to be put on the table as we move forward. This short book, 182 pages, is thick with history and insights, and is profoundly pessimistic that we will reach the heights to which we aspire as a nation, arguing that our goals have been mistaken, our means flawed, and our leaders incapable of accomplishing what they promise (assuming that's what they really want).

I could write a lengthy detailed review here, but Bill Moyers has already done a lot of the work for me. He conducted an interview with Bacevich back in August (transcript here) that summarizes the book more concisely than I would be able to, and I suggest you read through that. I will, thus, pick and choose from the book more than I normally would.

One challenge presented to anyone who tries to argue that the United States is in a passel of trouble is, "We've been through rough times before, and we flourished, we overcame, so who says anything's different now?" The obvious rejoinder, that Rome thought it was going to overcome all obstacles until, oh my, it didn't, always falls on deaf ears. One is left to explicate the ways in which our neglect has made this time far more precarious. In many respects, the whole of LOP is a rejoinder, a response to those who would urge staying the course under the false assumption that history inevitably repeats.

LOP is built on three pillars: that we are suffering a "crisis of profligacy," in which our inability to prioritize domestically has put us in a heretofore unthought-of vulnerable position; a "political crisis," the salient feature of which is an unchecked executive branch of remarkable incompetence; and a "military crisis," in which the decisions of our military leaders have proven to be incapable of dealing with the true challenges we face.

Perhaps the key tenet of the book is the idea that America has been building, in effect, a soft empire. Even globalization is a euphemism for that empire, in which the rest of the world exists to play its role in the American narrative. And, always, standing behind that is the American military machine, providing the muscle to back up that view of the world. This ties directly into the notion of American Exceptionalism, the idea that we play a unique role in the history and the present of the world, that our values are so special that they should be imposed on everyone else, no matter the cost.

Our whole "defense" apparatus is not so much about defending our borders, but about projecting our power out into the world. Shielded by that power, we are freed from having to look at other nations or entities in clear light; we call Saddam and bin Laden "evil" without having to understand their motivations.

Bacevich contrasts a desire for realism and humility (the cornerstones of Reinhold Niebuhr) with their opposites, hubris and sanctimony, respectively. Anyone who sat through Condoleezza Rice's Meet the Press appearance last week saw that in action:
To say that those people deserve the same, the same life that we have, the same freedoms that we have, that seems to me, humble.
Humility or sanctimony?

The crux of the argument is that we're caught up in a self-defeating relationship between expansion, abundance, and freedom. Bacevich's "abundance" is what I have in the past termed "luxury," but the result is the same. We have indulged ourselves in a lot of things that are unnecessary, heedless of the cost it's incurred on other people and on our own future generations. Not that all abundance is bad - in many respects, it paved the way for greater freedoms for more people (only in an expanding economy could we have extended rights to women and African-Americans) - but much of it was earned only because we could back it up with a strong dominating presence in the world.

However, this cycle is now coming up against hard limits; actually, it has been for 25 years or more. That portion of our prosperity that has come from cheap oil has been somewhat illusory, as it has required our military strength to enforce our access, and the cost has been an increasing dependence on other nations. Jimmy Carter saw this, and made the mistake of telling the American people, and he was swept away by the rosy optimism of Reagan.

Now things are different:
Expansionism squanders American wealth and power, while putting freedom at risk....Rather than confronting this reality head-on, 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. Policy makers have been engaged in a de facto Ponzi scheme intended to extend indefinitely the American line of credit.
One might think that one political tradition or another might work to counteract this trend, but Bacevich is not optimistic. Congress has essentially ceded all power to the imperial presidency, leaving us without an important check on the power of one office. Bush has made an important contribution, by taking the ideas to such an extreme that he has laid bare their "defects and utter perversity." In this telling, the Bush Doctrine is not so much revolutionary as an explicit statement of business as usual.

The vast security and intelligence apparatus is completely dysfunctional, incapable of providing any real protection to the American people. Periodic reorganizations have served only to create larger and more expensive fiefdoms, creating fund-attracting power centers to no effect.

Bacevich credits Paul Nitze with creating the blueprint for all that has come since he wrote NSC 68 back in 1950. In that document, State Department employee Nitze formulated the strategy that has governed our dealings ever since. He presented three strategies for containing the threat posed by Soviet communism: isolationism, preventive war, or a massive increase in American power, represented by huge spending on the tools of destruction. Unsurprisingly, we picked the third, and that cast the die that has remained operative through the days of Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld.

But what is most important to this strategy is that every threat is the big one, the existential threat that will wipe us off the planet if we don't act swiftly and decisively. And so, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq.

For this strategy to work, we would have to possess overwhelming force applied brilliantly, both in strategy and tactics. And Bacevich contends that we've really come apart here, that our military leaders have been unable to rise to the occasion. Three illusions governed this failure: that we had managed to change the nature of war, that it could be precise and targeted and capable of focused destruction; that civilian leaders and the military had forged a new understanding of goals that would target vital national interests; and that American society was now fully on board with whatever the military might do. None of these has proven to be true, as we've seen in Iraq.

Bacevich notes that we have seen the folly of these assumptions, but that our corrections (our focus must be not on destruction, but on nation-building; our military must be given primary responsibility; we will integrate the military into society by reinstituting the draft) are ultimately unworkable, ineffective, and impossible.

There are four lessons we must learn, however, and they are the ones that must inform our judgment going forward.
  1. War is and always will be chaos, and will forever be a combination of planning and reaction. We did not begin to understand the effect that IEDs would have in Iraq, and any war will always bring things like this.
  2. Force is not the solution to every problem. "Shock and awe" may topple statues and dictators, but they don't bring democracy to a huge region or allow us to control the natural resources of it.
  3. Preventive war is "just plain stupid." It is hard to support morally; even if we can get by that, it cannot possibly eliminate all threats.
  4. Strategy has become hopelessly muddled; civilian leaders confuse it with ideology, military leaders with operations.
Bacevich harbors little hope that a new president will bring about fundamental change, so ingrained is the idea that America plays a unique role in the world and needs to project that everywhere. As long as we retain the arrogance that allows us to believe that our system needs to be recreated everywhere, and that we deserve to live exactly as we wish, awash in material goods, we are destined to continue our record of failure, and that will ultimately impoverish us. We have, paradoxically, attempted to impose our will on the world and have ended up dependent on others, for oil, for goods, for money.

What we should do is to pursue a policy of containment, coupled with a concerted effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons and reverse climate change, both of which actually are existential threats. These problems, difficult as they are, are unlikely to prove more difficult than "transforming the Greater Middle East, which requires changing the way a billion or more Muslims think."

Ultimately, Bacevich is not positive about our chance to make the changes we need to. He doesn't believe that Americans will accept the limits of power, that we will go on beating our heads against the same walls. This important book closes with the depressing:
"To the end of history," [Niebuhr] once wrote, "social orders will probably destroy themselves in the effort to prove that 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.
[For another take on this book, see this from Ta-Nehisi Coates, who finds a way to link this book to "Use Me" by the great Bill Withers, which even he admits is reaching, but it's still worth checking out.]

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