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The End of American Exceptionalism

May 14, 2009

Tags U.S. HistoryWar and Foreign PolicyPhilosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory

[The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. By Andrew J. Bacevich. Metropolitan Books, 2008. 206 pages.]

The Limits of Power cover 

Andrew Bacevich has written a powerful but flawed criticism of American foreign policy. Both an academic historian and a professional soldier, he is exceptionally qualified to undertake such a critique.

He begins his indictment from an indisputable fact. America has commitments all over the world, but we proved unable to defend ourselves against the assault of 9/11. By allowing empire to trump defense, what Bacevich calls the "national security state" failed miserably.

A political elite preoccupied with the governance of empire paid little attention to protecting the United States 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. (p. 5)

Bacevich contends that this failing reflects not merely the defects of the Bush administration, though he addresses these in detail, but the whole course of long-established American foreign policy.

Four core conditions inform this ideology of national security… [1] history has an identifiable and indisputable purpose… [2] the United States has always embodied, and continues to embody, freedom… [3] Providence summons America to ensure freedom's ultimate triumph… [4] for the American way of life to endure, freedom must prevail everywhere. (pp. 74–5)

The key idea, the core of the core, is in my view collective security, i.e., the contention that any threat around the world to "freedom" threatens America's security. Traditional American foreign policy, exemplified in Washington's Farewell Address, rejected this position. America, favored by its geographical position, could avoid involvement in European power politics.[1] In the twentieth century, Charles Beard ably challenged the basis of the collective-security doctrine in American Foreign Policy in the Making, 1932–1940 and other books. (Bacevich does not discuss Beard in the present book, but he has written about him sympathetically in his American Empire.)

Bacevich unfortunately disagrees: he thinks that America has always aimed at empire. The Farewell Address merely reflected America's temporarily weak position: "George Washington had dreamed of the day when the United States might acquire the strength sufficient 'to give it, humanly speaking, the command of its own fortunes'" (p. 28). No doubt Washington did hope for enhanced American power, but it hardly follows from this that insulation from European struggles was intended as a temporary expedient. In suggesting otherwise, Bacevich unwisely follows the interpretation of the warhawk Robert Kagan.[2] (Bacevich never refers to Kagan's book, and he elsewhere sharply criticizes his views on Iraq; but his unusual interpretation of the Farewell Address is identical with Kagan's.) Like Kagan, he confuses continental expansion with empire and great power politics. In what way does the former imply the key doctrine of collective security?

What is wrong with the foreign policy of the national security state? Bacevich argues that, far from promoting America's safety, the policy embroils us in dangerous disputes that weaken us. America's military presence in the Persian Gulf is a prime example:

Far more than any of his predecessors, Reagan led the United States down the road to Persian Gulf perdition. History will hold George W. Bush primarily responsible for the disastrous Iraq War of 2003. But if that war had a godfather, it was Ronald Reagan… [whose] real achievement in the Persian Gulf was to make a down payment on an enterprise destined to consume tens of thousands of lives, many American, many others not, along with hundreds of billions of dollars — to date, at least, the ultimate expression of American profligacy. (pp. 49, 52)

Though Bacevich is a political conservative, it is apparent that he holds Reagan, usually viewed as a paragon of the Right, in contempt. He denies that Reagan was a genuine conservative. He promised to curtail government but instead expanded it:

during the Carter years, the federal deficit had averaged $54.5 billion annually. During the Reagan era, deficits skyrocketed, averaging $210.6 billion over the course of Reagan's two terms in office. Overall federal spending nearly doubled, from $590.9 billion in 1980 to $1.14 trillion in 1989. The federal government did not shrink. It grew, the bureaucracy swelling by nearly 5 percent while Reagan occupied the White House. (p. 39)

Carter, though normally considered far to the left of Reagan, was substantially less a spendthrift.

Bacevich's revisionism on Reagan is useful, but behind it lies a dubious thesis on which the author insists. Given the bad consequences of unlimited intervention and empire, why have American policymakers adopted this policy? Americans, it seems, demand more and more material goods. These goods cannot be secured without access to energy, in particular to oil. America's aggressive policy in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere is ultimately motivated by our refusal to restrict consumption:

The first protracted economic downturn since World War II [in the 1970s] confronted Americans with a fundamental choice. They could curb their appetites and learn to live within their means or deploy dwindling reserves of U.S. power in hopes of obliging others to accommodate their penchant for conspicuous consumption. (p. 30)

Bacevich may deplore "conspicuous consumption," but his Veblenesque theory does not account for our bellicose foreign policy. If the American economy requires oil, there is no need to use military measures to secure it. Countries with oil have every incentive to trade with us. Hostile countries are no exception. Ivan Eland has pointed out that even if Saddam Hussein had taken over the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia,

his control over a greater market share of world-wide oil production and reserves would have allowed him to drive oil prices higher by cutting production somewhat. Yet, according to [economist David] Henderson, those price increases would have amounted to less than one-half of 1 percent of U.S. Gross National Product. (Ivan Eland, The Emperor Has No Clothes [Independent Institute 2004, p. 249.])

The American foreign-policy elite has indeed sought control of foreign resources, but this reflects its own quest for power and profit rather than an attempt to fulfill the demands of the rapacious consumer. As Bacevich himself emphasizes, the controllers of foreign policy disdain public opinion:

From time to time, however, the mask slips and it becomes apparent that those on the inside don't care a fig for what members of the great unwashed might think. "If you truly had a democracy and did what the people wanted," Secretary of State Dean Acheson once remarked in passing, "you'd go wrong every time." In addition to expressing his own personal view, Acheson's statement neatly summarized one of the fundamental assumptions on which the national security elite bases its claim of authority: Public opinion is suspect; when it comes to national security, the public's anointed role is to defer. (p. 103)

Bacevich displays appropriate severity toward the pretensions of the security elite; but at times, he is regrettably ambivalent. He looks with nostalgia on the "cadre of distinguished citizens rotated to Washington (more often than not from Wall Street) to occupy senior positions in the Roosevelt administration" (p. 104).

Most notable among these was Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson.

Adherents of the Stimson tradition saw themselves as servants of the state… Their aim was to preserve the United States rather than to tamper with the social or economic arrangements defining the American way of life. In the circumstances that existed in the 1940s, preserving the nation meant strengthening it — establishing beyond question America's place in the front rank of great powers. To a remarkable extent, Stimson and others like him succeeded in achieving their goal. (p. 104)

This praise for Stimson goes altogether too far. During his tenure as secretary of state in the Hoover administration, Stimson pursued a hostile policy toward Japan that helped drive that country into the arms of the Axis. His policy contrasted sharply with that of peace-loving President Hoover. Further, Stimson supported dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, albeit with some misgivings.

Bacevich contrasts Stimson and his cohorts with a more fanatical group that supplanted them. Among the latter were James Forrestal and Paul Nitze. Forrestal in particular arouses our author to fury, and about him he writes the following, which I commend to all lovers of invective:

Forrestal's personal life was a shambles: His wife was a floozy and a drunk; he was himself a hard drinker, an inattentive father, and a compulsive womanizer. He was ambitious, erratic, insecure, combative, and resentful. (p. 105)[3]

I fear that I must take issue with Bacevich on one more point. Throughout the book, he continually appeals to the wisdom and far-sighted realism of Reinhold Niebuhr.

As pastor, teacher, activist, theologian, and prolific author, Niebuhr was a towering presence in American intellectual life from the 1930s throughout the 1960s. Even today, he deserves recognition as the most clear-eyed of American prophets. (p. 6)

Niebuhr was a leading theologian; his magnum opus, The Nature and Destiny of Man, merits careful study. But he was a committed opponent of 1930s noninterventionism and a firm supporter of the Cold War as well. In ethics, he disdained absolute prohibitions. The prudent statesman must take account of the "impossible possibilities" of the Gospels but could be guided neither by them nor by natural law precepts. Accordingly, Niebuhr refused to condemn saturation bombing of civilians during World War II. Readers may find it useful to compare Bacevich's enthusiasm for Niebuhr with the remarks on him in Hayek's The Road to Serfdom.

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But I shall not end on a negative note. Bacevich concludes with several suggestions for changes in American foreign policy, and among these is one that is especially excellent:

For the United States, abolishing nuclear weapons ought to be an urgent national security priority… Nuclear weapons are unusable… Furthermore, the day is approaching when the United States will be able to deter other nuclear-armed states, like Russia and China, without relying on nuclear weapons. Modern conventional weapons possess the potential to provide a more effective foundation for deterrence. (pp. 178–79)

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[1] For an excellent defense of the continued relevance of the traditional policy of nonintervention, see Eric Nordlinger, Isolationism Reconfigured, and my review in The Mises Review Fall 1996.

[2] See Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation, and my review in The American Conservative, January 30, 2007.

[3] For a more sympathetic look at Forrestal, see Cornell Simpson [Medford Evans], The Death of James Forrestal (Western Islands, 1966).

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