Promoting a New Realism

By Shawn Brimley

Hello everyone, and thanks for having me.

I spent the better part of yesterday reading Andrew Bacevich's new book "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism".

A former Army Colonel and popular professor at Boston University, Bacevich believes that both Democrats and Republicans have been suffering from the same delusion - "an outsized confidence in the efficacy of American power as an instrument to reshape the global order." Seven years of war, a skyrocketing deficit, rising oil prices, and a domestic politics that is nothing if not corrosive, it is certainly hard to be an optimist these days.

But in Bacevich's view, the root of the problem is a deep desire among most Americans for more, more, more. "American habits of conspicuous consumption," according to Bacevich, "drew the United States ever more deeply into the vortex of the Islamic world, saddling an increasingly debt-ridden and energy-dependent nation with commitments that it could neither shed not sustain."

Also at fault is something Bacevich calls the "ideology of national security," which consists of four convictions:

1. History's abiding theme is freedom, to which all humanity aspires.
2. America has always been, and remains, freedom's chief exemplar and advocate.
3. Providence summons America to ensure freedom's ultimate triumph.
4. For the American way of life to endure, freedom must prevail everywhere.

Not surprisingly, Bacevich argues that Democrats and Republicans have all bought into this ideology, "not to divine truth or to even make sense of things, but to provide a highly elastic rational for legitimate the exercise of executive power."

Bacevich believes that time is running out. "When American power was ascendant, the United States could pretend to interpret history's purpose or God's will," Bacevich warns. "Today, it can no longer afford to indulge in such conceits."

There is much more to the book, including a section titled "Does Knowing Douglas Feith is Stupid Make Tommy Franks Smart?" which was worth the cover price alone. From a critique of the modern military's faith that technology can lift the fog of war, to a description of what a better U.S. grand strategy might look like, this is foreign policy criticism at its most readable.

"The Limits of American Power" is a cogent and passionate work of dissent from one of the more direct public intellectuals of our day. Bacevich is no radical, but he is one of those rare figures not seen very much anymore - a true conservative realist deeply concerned about America's future, and willing to challenge the status quo. I certainly didn't agree with everything in the book, but it was time well spent.

By |  September 8, 2008; 8:28 PM ET  | Category:  Books , Wiser in Battle
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Bacevich was on Bill Moyers show a few weeks back. Transcript and video available here:

Also, David Brooks talked about the "more, more, more" culture in a column back in July:

Posted by: Matt | September 8, 2008 9:44 PM

No, no, no, youre doing Gods Will! Just ask Sarah Palin! Manifest Destiny, shining city upon the hill, War on Evil, dont ya get it?

One thing that really confuses me about the current politics of the USA is that they seem to have slipped into a holistic, paralel reality field. I read an AEI report on Musa Quali, most of it rational, and suddenly in the conclusions they start talking about the parameters of the outcome being wether the US has the *Will* to win. And it echoes all the POTUS speeches about the Will of the Nation as significant, how if you just want it enough it will happen, etc. Wtf has this New Age scientology got to do with reality? Can you just will a new and improved logistic-situation into existence?

Posted by: fnord | September 10, 2008 7:06 AM

I have no faults for Bacevich other than he is either naive or trying to be gracious in describing the ideology on national security (if the latter, he is already giving way too much ground).

The serious peoples' intention has never been freedom. It's always been about control. There has been zero deviation in that intent since 1947, no matter how much lipstick you put on that pig.

Posted by: srv | September 10, 2008 11:10 PM

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