Andrew Bacevich: The End of Exceptionalism

Andrew Bacevich incandesces with the rage of a serious professional: with a West Pointer’s scorn for political weasels and embarrassment at incompetent generalship; with a citizen’s horror at the Long Peace that became the Long War — war today as “a seemingly permanent condition.” He burns with a Nieburhian realist’s dread of our imperial self-destruction; with a father’s remorse at the loss of his son and namesake on Army duty in Iraq. Representative prat boys in Bacevich’s account (and there are many of them) are the “insufferable” Doug Feith, #2 in the Rumsfeld Pentagon who was dubbed by General Tommy Franks “the stupidest fucking guy on the planet,” and also the same Tommy Franks, who spun the vulgar celebration of himself as an all-conquering hero in quick wins over the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.
The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism is the distillation of Andy Bacevich’s fury. It is the single best stab I’ve read at accounting for the general “meltdown,” the political, military, financial, cultural and moral disarray we are still heading into; and amazingly it’s a best-seller (7 weeks on the New York Times list, as high as #4 in hardcover non-fiction). The short form of a compact book is this: bullying abroad cannot sustain an orgy of consumption back home. Or conversely, as Bacevich puts it: “A grand bazaar provides an inadequate basis on which to erect a vast empire.”

In Bacevich’s neat-but-not-too-neat formulation, a single year set the trap we’re now in — the twelvemonth between August 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union started to sink, and August 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and dared the US and its allies to undo the deed. American mythmaking spun the first into a war victory, not Russia’s internal collapse, and it hyped the second, an overmanned police action, into a world-historical invitation to redesign the Middle East. Thus did hubris gear up for nemesis.

Not the least appealing thing about Andy Bacevich is that his mind is in motion. I first encountered him six years ago, in the week that the Bush Doctrine (written for “the boys in Lubbock,” as the president said) foretold an era of unilateral arrogance, pugnacity and preemption. On a panel with Andy before a mass of Boston University freshman, I blurted out the Founders’ warning against empire and Jefferson’s caution about a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” My memory is that Andy Bacevich blew me off and argued that the Bush Doctrine was no worse than the Clinton record. He had just published a half-hopeful account of American Empire. We recall that symposium in our conversation the other day:

I may have said ‘there is an American Empire; get used to it,’ because my own evolving, and there’s no question about it, evolving thinking about US foreign policy especially after the Cold War ended, persuaded me that we needed to think in terms of an imperial presence. We need to see that we’re imperial, not to brag about it but to recognize the course we had embarked upon and where it had brought us. If you insist, and many people in my conversations and talks insist on this, we’re not an empire, we don’t have colonies, we’re not like Britain, we’re not like Rome. In a formal sense you can make that case, you know we don’t have colonies that’s true, but we are an empire in the most fundamental sense in terms of our expectations, the expanse of our influence, the prerogatives that we insist upon. Now if I said ‘we’re an empire; get used to it,’ I’m guessing what I meant was we’re an empire and by recognizing that we’re an empire it might be possible for us to manage the empire in ways that the empire will be sustainable. That the empire might at least minimize the moral offenses that it commits. That an empire can be managed in a way to serve the larger interests and purposes of a variety of people. I don’t think empires have to be evil and oppressive and stupid. Now the direction that my thinking has evolved since that time 6 years ago is I’ve become persuaded that at least with this administration that its recklessness, its arrogance, its hubris has been very much at odds with the notion of an empire wisely managed. And the actions of this administration have so squandered American power and influence in the world that they have rapidly accelerated the decline of the American empire. Again, it’s not that I’m interested in the empire as such. I am interested in the well-being of the United States of America. And I think this administration has done great damage to our well-being.

Andrew Bacevich of Boston University and The Limits of Power in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 30, 2008

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  • tbrucia

    ‘We should ask why incompetent people are entrusted with positions of great responsibility.’ Yes, we should, but we shouldn’t expect an answer…

  • jazzman

    tbrucia: see The Peter Principle

  • robm

    I must admit I agree with the guy. We should get rid of our own nukes (and how toxic would that be?) as well as admit that we need to turn away and learn from the mistakes of the last administration and perhaps the previous one.

  • I heard Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Universal Soldier the other day and then listened to Dylan’s Masters of War. These insightful songs reminded me of my exceptionalism(?)–that I am not at all proud of the military and the soldiers and can’t view them at all as heroes. Their duty is to protect the people and they are only protecting the economic and political capital of the elite.

    Here we have another military guy who partially wakes up and wonders about the lies his country and his ideology were based on. One would have hoped that Vietnam was a lesson about the limitations of US military power and it’s utility. But NO.

    The lack of historical perspective is really America’s greatest exception and I’m sure in 20, 30 or 40 years, we’ll have to listen to another generation search their conscience and ponder why they gave up their civil responsibility and humanity and let the masters of war unleash their universal soldiers on a foreign people who did them no harm.

    Someone please tell me my thinking is not so unique.

  • nother

    “The only shame is to have none”

    -Blaise Pascal

    American Exceptionalism, you ask. To me it means that this great nation has come closest to realizing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idea:

    “the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

    I apply his idea to jazz and I think of that solo tonal breath, at once oppressed and liberated, stepping out of hardened gut…into sparkling brass…and out to three four. One two three four.

    I suspect that many people focus on attaining the last part of Emerson’s line, “the independence of solitude.” But keeping “in the midst of the crowd” is just as important, and it is my humble feeling that that is where we have lost our way. Sure the “crowd” can mean conformity, and that is what I believe the first Americans were liberating themselves from. But! The crowd = community as well. And when we belong to a community (as Bernard Lown so eloquently explained) we serve something bigger than ourselves. When we get too far away from that community it now strikes me that we lose our capacity for shame.

    The fact is I know more than one person who has stopped paying their mortgage (while still collecting rent from tenets) comfortably resigned to the fact that they will have bad credit for around five years or so. They have no shame in this. They didn’t even know who they were paying that money to, it’s not a person, it’s a derivative of a derivative…it’s paper, it’s shit. If that 250 grand was from their local bank, from the banker they see at church and their kid’s school, I bet my friends would more reluctant to stop paying their mortgage.

    Many of these houses were investments for these people, they were gonna flip them and get a big payday. Just like the Wall Street sleaze that were investing in stocks with money they had freak’n borrowed – BORROWED! From retirement funds of retirees they will never see.

    Now the boat rocks.

    “And all the woe that moved him so

    That he gave that bitter cry,

    And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats,

    None knew so well as I:

    For he who live more lives than one

    More deaths than one must die.”

    -Oscar Wilde

    Where is the bottom, they cry with their pubescent countenance? I chide them from below – first come to terms with shame, and then we’ll take it from there.

  • nother

    That didn’t stick.

    I guess he wrote this poem in prison, or right after prison.

  • What I like most about this show is Bacevich’s thoughtfulness. Instead of focusing on opinions or persuasion, the show remained in register of discursive strategies which I find quite conducive to critical thinking. Quite a refreshing departure from the journalistic mainstream.

  • nother

    From Wikipedia:

    American exceptionalism (cf. “exceptionalism”) refers to the belief that the United States differs qualitatively from other developed nations.

    I know one way we differ:

    Is there another developed nation this close to having a black president? Mandela was president of South Africa but “my friends” the proof is in the pudding, American exceptionalism is real – when it’s not co-opted by the right (like patriotism and the flag has been in the past).

    My playful prism is sports analogies. When I think of the great coaches and teams, I think of ones who excel at mid-game adjustments. Coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots is renown for this.

    So my hope lies in America’s capacity to make the adjustments. Sure we slide down the same slippery slopes as so many nations before us. But we make the necessary adjustments – so as to keep our eyes on the prize.

    As they say, It’s not how you fall down, but how you get up, that matters. Mr. Obama makes me want to get the hell up and unite…with gusto!

  • sir-otto

    Well said nother. Except substitute Giants.

  • potter

    There are many good points and insights and I have been listening in chunks over again.

    I think there is quite a difference between the Bush #1 and Clinton leadership versus GW Bush’s last 8. Bush #2 has taken us further down the road in a direction that was beginning to worry many: unilateralism and reliance on military “solutions”. Also we are a more divided country than 8 years ago- which we did not need. Also not to forget that Bush#2 had no mandate, even after 2004 he did not have much of a mandate from “we the people”. It did not matter. So I do not think it is right to lump the three together though I agree that the end of the cold war left us with a test which we have failed first by allowing Bush office twice, the second time unforgivably.

    This point I think Bacevich makes in his most recent post on TPM: “We the People” Are Complicit:

    My point is simply this: the essence of our problem is as much cultural as it is political and economic. Who we chose as president-emperor certainly matters. It just doesn’t matter nearly as much as all the election-related hoopla would seem to suggest.

    Will Obama be an improvement over Bush? Sure – almost anyone would. But Obama won’t save the country. He won’t even “change the way Washington works.” To believe otherwise is simply naïve.

    Not wrong, not entirely right in my opinion. One man can make a start, a push, a turn-around, and a difference.

    So I disagree that there is going to be little difference between an Obama presidency and a McCain presidency most especially in the areas of Bacevich’s criticisms.

    Also Bacevich is not the first to fault “we the people”, nor wrong, but when a person ascends to office they hold our trust to act in accordance with long held ideals. This president, our worst many would agree, has failed miserably and he should stand out as such in any discussion.

    We don’t revolt anymore. Let us hope that this means only that we are too busy to take off work, and not that we do not care. But it not good that many in this populous country do not understand the issues and how it affects them never mind the principles we were founded on.

    Michelle Bachmann, a Representative running for re-election from MInnesota made it very clear that there are some in the Congress, such as herself, who do not understand either.

  • potter

    Sorry- I meant to link that Bacevich piece on TPM:

    We the People are Complicit

  • potter

    In case you missed this on youtube:

    Matthews-Bachmann Interview

  • potter