The Limits of Power

By Andrew Bacevich (2008)

Review by Dom Nozzi

This is one of the most important books I have ever read. At only 182 pages, I was able to read it quickly over the past few days. The book is exceptional in how clearly, compellingly and quotably it encapsulates why American national politics, economic system and militarism has become extremely dysfunctional. Why America is now entangled in overwhelming levels of secrecy (allegedly for “national security,” but largely to hide government blunders), and a criminally reckless, promiscuous and evangelical “global policeman” militarism allegedly to promote “freedom and democracy” but really mostly
designed to serve as moral cover for US corporate and cheap oil interests.

There are now, as a result, no limits on the US engagement in endless wars (allegedly to promote “democracy” and fight “terrorism”), and no limit on the annual, exponential growth in military spending. A striking example is Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, adopting the largest military budget in US history. Now, few if anyone objects in the US to our use of “anticipatory self-defense,” which Bacevich accurately describes as a
euphemism for preventive war (or what I call an indefensible form of preemptive military aggression, which the US would never tolerate if practiced by any other nation).

Disconcertingly, the author makes a strong case that without a radical change in how the US military operates, America is on a ruinous path. Republicans and Democrats, because of the vicious “national security” cycle put in place after WWII, are both compelled to continue this catastrophic path. A path much like the one followed by the Roman Empire, in my opinion.

At first, I thought I would pull excerpts from the book to summarize main, profound points. But I soon realized that nearly every page contains essential quotes and observations. Still I cannot resist citing a few observations from the book in the first few chapters…

“…A political elite preoccupied with the governance of an empire [intended, by the elite, to be the imperial policeman of the world], paid little attention to protecting the US itself. In practical terms, prior to 9/11 the mission of homeland defense was unassigned…The institution nominally referred to as the Department of Defense didn’t actually do defense; it specialized in power projection. In 2001, the Pentagon was prepared for any number of contingencies in the Balkans or Northeast Asia or the Persian Gulf. It was just not prepared to address threats to the nation’s eastern seaboard. Well-trained and equipped US forces stood ready to defend Seoul or Riyadh; Manhattan was left to fend for itself…When it came to defending vital American interests, asserting control over the imperial periphery took precedence over guarding the nation’s own perimeter…”

“…Pentagon senior military officers spoke in terms of “generational war,” lasting up to a century. Just two weeks after 9/11, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was already instructing Americans to ‘forget about exit strategies’; we’re looking at a sustained engagement that carries no deadlines.”

“…Americans were slow to grasp the implications of a global war with no exits and no deadlines.”

“…The enemy of humility is sanctimony, which gives rise to the conviction that American values and beliefs are universal and that the nation itself serves providentially assigned purposes…”

“If one were to choose a single word to characterize [the American] identity, it would have to be MORE. 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…The ethic of self-gratification threatens the well-being of the US…because it saddles us with costly commitments abroad [such as access to cheap oil and other resources] that we are increasingly ill-equipped to sustain…”

“…in his 2005 inaugural address, George W. Bush…went on to declare that America’s ‘great liberating tradition’ now required the US to devote itself to ‘ending tyranny in our world.’…on July 4, 1776 [the founders of this nation] did not set out to create a church. They founded a republic. Their purpose was not to save mankind. It was to ensure that people like themselves enjoyed unencumbered access to the Jeffersonian trinity…Crediting
the US with a ‘great liberating tradition’ distorts the past and obscures the actual motive force behind American politics and US foreign policy. It transforms history into a morality tale, thereby providing a rationale for dodging serious moral analysis…[i]f the  young US
had a mission, it was not to liberate but expand…[w]e infiltrated land belonging to our neighbors and then brazenly proclaimed it our own…[w]e 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.”

“…even the [US] policy makers viewed as the most idealistic remained fixated on one overriding aim: enhancing American influence, wealth, and power.”

“To imagine at this juncture that installing some fresh face in the White House, transferring the control of Congress from one party to the other, or embarking upon yet another effort to fix the national security apparatus will make much of a difference is to ignore decades of experience.”

“[We now have] a new political elite whose members have a vested interest in perpetuating the crises that provide the source of their power. These are the people who under the guise of seeking peace or advancing the cause of liberty devise policies that promote war or the prospect of war, producing something akin to chaos.”

“The agenda of [Barack Obama] is an admirable one. Yet to imagine that installing a particular individual in the Oval Office will produce decisive action on [the pressing issues I have identified in this book] is to succumb to the grandest delusion of all. The quadrennial ritual of electing (or reelecting) a president is not an exercise in promoting change, regardless of what candidates may claim and ordinary voters believe. The real aim is to ensure continuity…The veterans of past administrations who sign on as campaign
advisors are not interested in curbing the bloated powers of the presidency…The retired generals…who line up behind their preferred candidate don’t want to dismantle the national security state…The candidates who decry the influence of money in national politics are among those most skilled in courting the well-heeled to amass millions in campaign contributions…Any presidential initiatives aimed at alleviating the crisis of profligacy, reforming our political system, or devising a more realistic military policy are likely, at best, to have a marginal effect. Paradoxically, the belief that all…will be
well, if only the right person assumes the reins as president…serves to underwrite the status quo. Counting on the next president to fix whatever is broken promotes expectations of easy, no-cost cures, permitting ordinary citizens to absolve themselves of responsibility for the nation’s predicament…they persist in the fantasy that a chief executive, given a clear mandate, will ‘change’ the way Washington works and restore the nation to good health.”

“…spending trillions to democratize the Islamic world will achieve little…”

“As long as Americans remain in denial—insisting that the power of the US is without limits—they will remain unlikely to [address critical national needs on energy self-sufficiency, environmental woes, and crushing bankruptcy, debt and an economic downward spiral]. Instead, abetted by their political leaders, they will continue to fancy that some version of global war offers an antidote to Islamic radicalism. The US will modernize and enhance its nuclear strike capabilities while professing outrage that others should seek similar capabilities…They will guzzle imported oil, binge on imported
goods, and indulge in imperial dreams. All the while, Washington will issue high-minded proclamations testifying to the approaching triumph of democracy everywhere and forever. Meanwhile, the American people will ignore the imperative of settling accounts—balancing budgets, curbing consumption, and paying down debt. They will remain passive as politicians fritter away US military might on unnecessary wars. They will permit officials responsible for failed policies to dodge accountability. They 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.”

Don’t miss this book. It should be required reading for all Americans. Drop everything and read it as soon as you can.

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One Response to The Limits of Power

  1. Pingback: Books: Best Ever | Dom Nozzi's Best-Ever Hall of Fame Lists

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