I have just finished The Limits of Power by Andrew Bacevich, an excellent critique of American foreign policy, specifically the ideology of “National Security” as rooted in our political culture. I believe the book’s flaws have been adequately pointed out by David Gordon in his review back in the Spring, so I’ll avoid the temptation to criticize and highlight what is most valuable about this short but potent book.
First, while Bacevich is by no means any sort of political radical, his critique is stringent and quite amenable to radicalism. Consider this assessment of our recent middle-eastern adventurism in the broader context of American history:
We’ve been down this path before. After liberating Cuba in 1898 and converting it into a protectorate, the United States set out to transform the entire Caribbean into an “American lake.” Just as, a century ago, senior U.S. officials proclaimed their concern for the well-being of Hatians, Dominicans, and Nucaraguans, so do Senior U.S. officials now insist on their commitment to “economic reform, democratic reform, and human rights” for all Central Asians.
But this is mere camouflage. The truth is that the United States is engaged in an effort to encorporate Central Asia into the Pax Americana.
The striking thing about this passage, as with so many in the book, is that it can apply equally to this administration as well as the previous one. Bacevich understands that the ideology of National Security is a bipartisan faith, even if American voters don’t. And he understands the nature of that ideology, which has little to do with the actual safety of the American people.
The ideology of national security does not serve as an operational checklist. It imposes no specific obligations. It functions the way ideology so often does- not to divine truth or even make sense of things, but to provide a highly elastic rationale for action. In the American context, it serves principally to legitimate the exercise of executive power. It removes constraints, conferring on presidents and their immediate circle of advisers wide prerogatives for deciding when and how to employ that power.
Speaking of the executive, Bacevich is particularly scathing about how the focus of mass politics has been reduced down to that office, indeed it seems to be solely about our emotions regarding the man in power:
Beginning with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, the occupant of the White House has become a combinaiton of demigod, father figure, and, inevitably, the betrayer of hopes. Pope, pop star, scold, scapegoat, crisis manager, commander in chief, agenda setter, moral philosopher, interpreter of the nation’s charisma, object of veneration, and the butt of jokes- regardless of personal attributes and qualifications, the president is perforce all these rolled into one.
The president also serves as an important cultural shibboleth. How you feel about Obama or Bush will determine who your friends are, what social circles you can participate in. But in practice they all serve the same function. In a recent Young American Revolution article on the antifederalists, Bill Kauffman quotes the pseudonymous Philadelphiensis’ objection to the executive proposed by the recently proposed constitution: “Who can deny the president general will be . . . a king elected to command a standing army?” Our revolutionary forbears were as suspicious of standing armies as we are enamored of- and dependent upon- them.
Bacevich follows his thorough critique of the national security state’s failures with a question that points in the right direction:
When considering the national security state as it has evolved and grown over the past six decades, what exactly has been the value added? And if the answer is none- if, indeed the return on the investment has been essentially negative- then perhaps the time has come to consider dismantling an apparatus that demonstrably serves no useful purpose.
“Dismantling the apparatus” is the starting point, though it will mean different things to different groups. But I think that everyone outside of the hegemonic center of American politics, from left-libertarians to post-paleos, social anarchists to anarcho-capitalists, even disaffected liberals and conservatives, has a common interest in dismantling it. For a somewhat centrist conservative like Bacevich, the purpose is to insure a more cautious and moderate foreign policy that attaches a different, more humble, meaning to American freedom and prosperity. This is worth considering, too. Though I don’t think the word “hubris” ever comes up in the book, it’s clearly what Bacevich identify’s as the country’s greatest sin. And it’s not just that our use of military might is immoral, or that it has been incompetantly exercised: there are actually objective limits on what force as such can accomplish.