The Limits of Power

I’ve been mired in political history books lately, and I blame my fascination on Bill Moyers’ Journal, where I also encountered Bacevich. His book is a scathing commentary on today’s Washington, where everything is broken. And it’s not just Washington’s fault, it’s our fault, the citizenry. We’re too accustomed to cheap imported goods and gas guzzling cars to want to change our lifestyle. We don’t want sacrifice; we don’t volunteer for the military. We accumulate debt and chill out while the young poor men of this country fight our imperial battles.
“The chief attribute of the existing system (Washington)… is dysfunction.” (p 71)
Bacevich has a deep respect for Reinhold Niebuhr, quoting him widely in this book. I’ve already got Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History on hold at the library to devour soon.
Bacevich, quoting Niebuhr, ” One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun.” (p12)
President Jimmy Carter’s July 15, 1979 pivotal speech on energy sealed his re-election defeat simply because he asked Americans to focus once again on old values instead of worshiping consumption. “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.” “We’re at a turning point in our history… one path… leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others.” Carter then outlined a six-point program to end dependance on foreign oil: quotas on imported oil, reducing oil used for power generation, create a new government agency to complete key energy projects, and have the American people practice conservation. Sacrifice just might be a good thing.
Well, Americans wanted no part in that, so elected Reagan in a landslide. While paying lipservice to reducing government size and spend, the government under Reagan grew astronomically, deficits skyrocketing and bureaucracies swelling.
While no Bush fan, Bacevich gives him a pass, partly excusing his actions as no different than any of his predecessors for the past 60 years. We simply want to impose our American way of life on the world, whether or not they want it. “Freedom must prevail everywhere.” The ideology of national security “provides policy makers with a moral gloss that can be added to virtually any initiative by insisting that, whatever concrete interests might be at stake, the United States is also acting to advance the cause of freedom and democracy.” (p 77)
Ever heard of Paul Nitze and NSC 68? I hadn’t. NSC 68 was written by Nitze for President Truman in 1950 in response to Soviet development of nuclear technology and the Chinese Communist Revolution, widely seen as one of the “foundational documents of postwar American statecraft.” (p 107) Nitze outlines three options: isolationism, preventive war (nuclear first strike), or a more rapid build-up of American power. The first two options were thrown out, isolationism equated with giving up, and preventive war rejected as morally corrosive and repugnant. And thus began the permanent militarization of American policy. This document “has become a model to which members of the national security elite have repeatedly turned… He demonstrated the advantages of demonizing America’s adversaries, thereby transforming trivial concerns into serious threats and serious threats into existential ones. He devised the technique of artfully designing “options” to yield precooked conclusions, thereby allowing the analyst to become the de facto decision maker. He showed how easily American ideals could be employed to camouflage American ambitions, with terms like peace and freedom becoming code words for expansionism. Above all, Nitze demonstrated the inestimable value of sowing panic as a means of driving the policy-making process.” (p 113)
Paul Wolfowitz took Nitze even further, by legitimizing the concept of preventive war. In the days following 9/11 all the talk turned to how we needed to root out evil from the corners of the world, and Wolfowitz immediately began the drumbeats to take out Saddam Hussein. While Iraq had done nothing to directly target the US, they became the focus of our aggression and occupation.
“Americans can no longer afford to underwrite a government that does not work. A condition of quasi-permanent crisis stretching across generations has distorted our Constitution with near-disastrous results. To imagine at this juncture that installing some fresh face in the White House and transferring the control of Congress from one party to the other… will make much of a difference is to ignore decades of experience. Yet if presidents have accrued too much power, if the Congress is feckless, if the national security bureaucracy is irretrievably broken, the American people have only themselves to blame. They have allowed their democracy to be hijacked. The hijackers will not voluntarily return what they have stolen.” (p122)
“The chief remaining function of Congress is to ensure the reelection of its members, best achieved by shameless gerrymandering, doling out prodigious amounts of political pork, and seeing to the protection of certain vested interests. Testifying to the spectacular effectiveness of these techniques, in 2006, 93 percent of senators and representatives running for reelection won. The United States has become a de facto one-party state, with the legislative branch permanently controlled by an Incumbents’ Party.” (p 69)
“The Congress may not be a den of iniquity, but it is a haven for narcissistic hacks, for whom self-promotion and self-preservation take precedence over serious engagement with serious issues.” (p 70)
Why the Draft is a Good Idea
We have no antiwar movement, but if we got the draft, it would “animate large scale protest, alter the political dynamic and eventually shut down any conflict that lacks widespread popular support. The prospect of involuntary service will pry the kids out of the shopping malls and send them into the streets. It will prod the parents of draft-eligible offspring to see politics as something other than a mechanism for doling out entitlements. As a consequence, members of Congress keen to retain their seats will define their wartime responsibilities as something more than simply rubber-stamping spending bills proposed by the White House. In this way, a draft could reinvigorate American democracy, restore the governmental system of checks and balances, and constrain the warmongers inhabiting the executive branch.” (p140)


auth=Bacevich, Andrew J.
pub=2008
sub=The End of American Exceptionalism
isbn=0805088156