The Limits of Power

The Limits of Power : The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew Bacevich is another book on American imperial overstretch and the changes that need the author needs America to undergo. It is worth noting that Bacevich’s son recently died on active duty in Iraq and that he and Bacevich both served for the US military unlike the many war proponents who did not.

The book is divided into three sections on the various crisis that Bacevich believes Americans are undergoing. The first is a crisis of profligacy, the second a political crisis and the third a military crisis.

The section on profligacy is the first, it isn’t very strong because Bacevich isn’t very interested in economics and the chapter is more about politics than the US economy. The very just point is made, however, that the US is living beyond it’s means and has been since the late 1970s. Bacevich correctly points out that it has been the Republican administrations that have been the worst for US government responsibility, exploding the US debt out. He also takes some swipes at the level of American consumption. He really should point out how the US could reasonably easily reduce government debt. If the US were to pull out of Iraq, cut defense to Clinton era levels and remove the Bush tax cut the US government could balance the books. US consumers could probably also be curtailed with a more aggressive Federal Reserve policy that targeted probable bubbles.

Bacevich frequently refers to Reinhold Niebuhr, an American christian thinker who thought that Americans were becoming to materialistic and were also in danger of becoming enamoured of US military power.

In the political crisis Bacevich gets stronger where he points out that the US elite is fairly consistent in what it does and believes. Both the Democrats and the Republicans use the military on dubious causes with monotonous regularity. Bacevich makes the interesting point that many US administrations has subvert the current security setup for their own purposes. They do this because they believe that the security apparatus is giving them bad advice or is deliberately subverting their aims. Kennedy did it after believing that the bellicosity of the US general staff during the Cuban missile crisis was awful, but also did it in the nepotistic way of appointing his own brother to lead clandestine efforts to kill Cuba for which he was completely unqualified.

Once onto the military crisis Bacevich is on home turf, slamming the US military leadership and it’s generals. Bacevich wonderfully points out how Tommy Franks thought that he was a better general than Rommel or Guederian after the invasion of Iraq and takes a number of pot shots at Franks, all of which land making Franks appear foolish. He talks about the Powell doctrine somewhat fondly, but points out that it would require for many of the missions the US has been sent on, conscription which is unacceptable to the US as a whole.

Bacevich concludes by stating that the US needs to reduce its desire to cast the world in its own image. He is certainly correct here. And he is right to point out that US political leadership needs to change. The book would have been stronger if it had looked at US economic problems in more detail. In many ways they are not as dire as Bacevich suggests, it is worth comparing US debt as a percentage of GDP to that of Japan or Germany. It is also worth considering that some of the problems that Bacevich raises about government and it’s experts, in this case the military, are things that have been pondered since ancient times.

The book is well worth a read 4/5.

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2 responses to “The Limits of Power

  1. Interesting that he talks about both sides using the military for dubious ends. Much as everyone wants to believe that only the ‘other’ side does. I suppose that’s a symptom of a highly militarised culture? Does he talk about that?

    I’ll read this one some time.

  2. Bacevich does talk about how both the Republicans and the Democrats use the military for dubious imperial ends.

    He doesn’t talk about how the US is more martial than other Western countries.

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