Andrew Bacevich: Here’s who Lost the American Century!

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Andrew Bacevich is marking The Short American Century as the span of less than 70 years between Henry Luce’s momentous 1941 essay in LIFE magazine and the decay of our Iraq War and the Wall Street meltdown of 2008. I take it personally, still with a pang — seeing the American glory days of my boyhood through rose-tinted glasses, Bacevich tells me. But I might also date our downfall much earlier than Bacevich does — in 1971, one could argue, the year when the cosmopolitan giant of our journalism Walter Lippmann, stricken by the heedless slaughter in Vietnam, declared: “I am a neo-isolationist and proud of it.”

I’ve always told my kids that the American Century could be summed up on two fingers: (1) the timely and decisive — late! — entry of US fighting forces into the European War; and (2) the sound of Count Basie’s band. You can still hear in the Basie recordings: the rhythm of our industrial production, the cultural glory of the great black migration out of the South, not to mention the transnational chic of Basie’s big hit in 1955, “April in Paris,” written by the Russian-American Vernon Duke, born Vladimir Dukelsky. Now there was American power! What happened?

If the erosion of “social democracy” is the great lament of Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land, which prompted this series of conversations, it’s the want of “pragmatic realism” in American foreign policy that binds the eight striking essays Andrew Bacevich has gathered into The Short American Century. Jackson Lears contributes the definition of pragmatic realism, from William James, as the tradition that, “at its best, counseled war only as the last resort — the least desirable alternative in the policy maker’s arsenal.” Others recount the decline of our postwar multi-lateralism — remember the Marshall Plan, the creation of the United Nations and NATO — and the eclipse, especially under George W. Bush, of Jefferson’s “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” And meantime our Empire of Production became an Empire of Consumption, then of trillion-dollar deficits, an Empire of Debt.

Andrew Bacevich likes to describe himself as a conservative Catholic from the Midwest. He is a West Pointer who served in Vietnam and the first Gulf War. Long before his son and namesake was killed in action in the Iraq War, Bacevich had taken his history Ph.D. at Princeton and embarked on a series of studies of The Limits of Power and American Militarism — of the arrogance of empire, in the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr. In the spirit of the “Who lost China?” nagging in the McCarthy era, I am asking him simply: “Who lost our Century?”

I’d probably nominate the post-Cold War presidents as a group — for the remilitarization of American foreign policy. Reagan’s role, of course, is to revise the image of the American military and the American soldier — in a sense to banish the negative image from Vietnam. George Herbert Walker Bush’s contribution was to inaugurate a new era of interventionism — in Panama certainly, in the first Persian Gulf War, but also not to be forgotten, in Somalia — his going-away gift to the nation. But I would very much then include Bill Clinton in my list of villains, because it is really during the Clinton era — this draft-dodger of the Vietnam era who seemed to represent the inverse of the militarist. But it’s Bill Clinton who becomes more promiscuous in his use of American military power than any preceding American president: upping the ante in Somalia; intervention in Haiti, intervention in Bosnia, intervention in Kosovo, any number of dust-ups with Saddam Hussein… That’s the circumstance that George W. Bush inherits, and I certainly don’t want to let him off the hook. But to understand the hubris of George W. Bush’s vision of a “global war on terror” that is going to liberate the Islamic world — that vision is rooted in expectations about the efficacy of military power that grew out of the Clinton years and the years when his father was president. So all these people, I think, should plead guilty to the charge of abusing and misusing American military power and accelerating the end of the American Century…

The pattern continues. The expectation of the people who voted for Obama — and that certainly includes me — was that his ascendance would mark a break in the trajectory of ever-increasing emphasis on military power to try to sustain what remains of the American Century. And he has been a major disappointment. Now he would say: hey, I promised to end the Iraq War, and I ended it. I would respond: Yes, Mr. President, but in addition you both expanded and prolonged the Aghanistan war; you extended the Afghan war into Pakistan. You opened up new fronts in this supposed global war on terror — in Yemen, in Somalia. A couple of weeks ago there was a drone strike in the Philippines…

That hard experience and candor haven’t made it to the presidential campaign where, as Jackson Lears writes, “The vision of the American Century persists, even as its economic basis crumbles.” To Andrew Bacevich, we look like a chicken just after it’s lost its head.

We are running around the world using hard power in questionable circumstances, yielding ambiguous results. And meanwhile here at home we’ve had five years, is it, of trillion-dollar deficits. The American Century is running on fumes at this point.

Andrew Bacevich with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 20, 2012

Next round: Daron Acemoglu of MIT and Why Nations Fail on the political structure of inequality.


  • Michael M Thomas

    I have always dated the end of the American Century to 1973-75 when the three legs of the hegemonic throne on which America perched and looked down on the world were kicked out from under us: military hegemony: the retreat from Saigon; economic hegemony: OPEC; moral hegemony: Watergate. No nation could withstand such a bam-bam-bam series of body blows to its self-confidence and sense of rulership.

  • Sean McElroy

    Andrew Basivich quoting Akira Iriye “…cultural exchange and intellectual exchange,,,” … maybe becoming less American is not so bad. After all, European nationalists landed here in the 16th century with the same expansionist agenda that America is promoting to this day. Still the geography can’t be discounted. The boundaries, although vast, are defensible – ultimately the point of WWII – and thus the American Century.

    But now the terrain is virtual which devalue the “real” assets so coveted by military expansionism.

  • a poet in India

    What Must Be Heard

    Baghdad, Baghdad,
    Whatever happened?
    Leave me alone.
    Could see you bigger
    Than Standard Oil
    And America’s stovepipe.
    You are looking
    Do battle
    For your freedom.
    Let me talk to yah.
    Good morning,
    How’d you get here?
    Rebecca
    Stole brother.
    Is that your annex?
    What have you done to history?
    Today bombs,
    That’s all I hear from you.
    Where’s my case?
    I’m not wearing that.
    Can we recall some people
    Blaming defense?
    What scapegoat nation?
    What unwarranted invasion?
    Then textbook came:
    Propaganda
    Let’s travel all damn day.

    He gives us hope.
    I give –
    The volleyball
    Of change’s position.
    I gotta go.
    That’s the front line.
    Here for a second.
    Where’s Chandru?
    He just isn’t splitting up.
    He’s off to race some other battlefield.
    Getting hit in the face,
    How did it hurt?
    It destroyed my ability to spring.
    That’s too sad.
    Jumpitis,
    Like I said,
    Said no we’re goin’
    To get rid of your dictator
    In advance of the early warning system.
    This was not our doin’.
    Now we start now
    Get someone else to replace ‘im
    Or somethin’.
    It’ll knock the fire outta yah
    A foreigner,
    You do
    That get rid of.

    Isn’t there right around here?
    That’s for the trash.
    It’s close to here
    The idea I have to police my neighbor.
    What are you tryin’ to do?
    Here’s the horses
    That step in and bother us.
    Knock it off.
    Is it always a lonely game?
    I don’t know check Hitler.
    We didn’t perfume
    His army hop.
    We’re open
    To receive an apology.
    We’re open
    To receive war reparations.
    Take your hardware
    But
    Give us your shoulder
    Health minister said.
    You’re still alive?
    Let’s hope so.

    Boy you go into some heavy stuff.
    I’m gonna get you fired.
    A poet in India
    Make for you
    Somethin’ more than snub your nose.
    I made a donkey;
    I made an issue
    Of your going after me:
    Someone not in your pretty scheme of things.
    What are people going to think?
    Good night.
    Your mother woke me up.
    It’s ten thirty.
    Lens we got here.
    Isn’t that beautiful:
    Mountain ranges,
    You’re up.
    That’s what I’m sayin’.
    I’ll be seeing you.

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  • CHuck

    His prescriptions for the economy are the stuff of Ryan, Romney, and Rush. He had me to that point, but his utter blindness of the actual causes of the current debt is either loyal GOP faith or willful ignorance.

    And just like the 3 R’s above, he thinks we need to balance the budget on the backs of the poor, the elderly, the students and it is not even in his historical view that taxes have been plummeting for the elites since the 1960′s.

    Nor did you encourage him to recognize his cognitive dissonance.

  • Potter

    This had the effect of a cold shower.

    But luckily I listened after I read Mary Lydon’s Letter from Portugal. So when Bacevich says that the American century also depended on the decline and devastation elsewhere after WW2, I can compare that, fresh in my mind, at least in the economic sense, to what is happening in Europe now to how we seem to be doing now…. relatively okay.

    But at far as foreign affairs go- Bacevich’s view of history is a very much appreciated telling. It does not have to be told this way as was noted (i.e. Kagan’s book).

    And it’s good to hear that, at least at first, Jimmy Carter had it right. It’s good to hear this especially after Romney’s recent remark “even Jimmy Carter” (regarding Obama getting credit for capturing Bin Laden) I remember Jimmy Carter from that time, that speech and was astonished at the reaction to this truth-telling.

    One other point perhaps to lift my own spirits about us/US is that I think we have become as a nation, a transnational nation, at least on the ground level. Many cultures (the gifts they bring) permeate to our far corners. Chop suey, thanks to wikipedia, I understand is really from China. (I thought it was invented here.)

    I don’t mean to be too bright-eyed about us to counteract this cold shower (an American trait) since our politics, our political class, has not caught up, has no sign of catching up, and we do have serious divisions that are exacerbated by the media. We have propaganda ingested as truth. And it goes unchallenged. When all is said and done, as Bacevich says, it is the people out here who keep informed, ask questions, think more deeply, or who do not.

  • http://none peter

    In response to CHuck above: The Bacevich prescription includes a vastly different (smaller) military role for the US in the world than would be proposed by Romney and Rush. Bacevich’s strengths are history, foreign policy and military, not economics…but they are related: an honest military policy includes paying for our wars rather than borrowing to pay for them.
    I wish the answer to the final question were more positive. I think people in both the Tea and Occupy movements want less foreign war and more balanced books, but there are huge differences between the two groups, as he says.

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