Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Limits of Power

Americans confuse freedom with a never-ending abundance of goods. As the economic power of the U.S. has declined, we have naively relied on military power to keep the goods flowing. But this has cost us our real freedom: freedom from an imperial presidency that keeps spilling the blood of our own citizens (and the citizens of many other nations) in a fruitless attempt to create a permanent American empire. We need to get over our illusions and embrace what's really possible and necessary. Ending the threat of nuclear war, for instance, is achievable in a way that ending terrorism is not.

These are the lessons that Andrew J. Bacevich wants us to learn. His short book The Limits of Power lays them out in clear language, with compelling examples, in a factual manner but with the courage to point out when American policy is stupid, or absurd, or self-destructive. Bacevich has the experience to write this book. He retired from the Army at the rank of lieutenant colonel and now teaches history at Boston University. He also possesses the moral authority. His son, Andrew Jr., followed his father's path into the military and died in Iraq in 2007.

I tremendously respect Bacevich's honesty, intelligence, and well-placed outrage. He is politically conservative and intellectually rooted in Reinhold Niebuhr and the "enlightened realism" school of foreign policy, whereas I am a man of the Left and rooted in Marx and the analysis of imperialism that grew up in the U.S. around the Vietnam War, but we both see the folly of this country's course in foreign affairs.

Where I think Bacevich falls short is that he roots this problem in a moral failing. Using 19th-century language, he accuses Americans of "profligacy," meaning a wasteful addiction to consumption without any regard for the consequences for ourselves or others in the long term. I can't argue with that as a description, but it falls short as an analysis. Why has our culture grown in this direction? Isn't it because corporate capitalism requires an endlessly expanding market of people to buy things they had no idea they needed before they were produced? When people stop spending more than they can afford, this economy falters, meaning people get thrown out of work. Pretty soon, they can afford even less...and so it goes.

It's not a moral failing that makes the pursuit of abundance the goal of U.S. foreign policy. It's a contradiction within our economic system. Bacevich speaks eloquently about the limits of power, but he does not observe the limits of capitalism that have pushed us toward using power willy-nilly as a last resort to avoid economic decline. It will take more than sermons about profligacy to change something that's so fundamental to the way work, investment, consumption, leisure, and political power are all organized in this country.

It may take a catastrophe. I hope not, and if we avoid a catastrophe, it's because people like Bacevich sounded the trumpet for a new way of thinking. Even if he hasn't totally achieved that himself, he deserves thanks--and your reading time. (You can also see an interview with him on Democracy Now!)