An absorbing critique and analysis of the crises currently affecting America’s position in the world.
Bacevich identifies three crises currently facing the US: economic-and-social, political, and military. What makes the situation all the more depressing, is that “they are all of our making”. He draws the conclusion that a large part of the reason for the US’s weakened position is the result of the sin of self-indulgence, and this domestic environment of conspicuous consumption has a massive impact on the nation’s foreign policy: “Whether it is oil, credit, or the availability of cheap consumer goods, we expect the world to accommodate the American way of life.” Bacevich is also someone who believes the United States has leveraged itself beyond what can be argued as either sensible, safe or moral.
In terms of politics, Bacevich has little good to say about the inhabitants of Washington. Unlike Thomas Frank, though, he doesn’t train his sights solely on Republicans and conservatives. Instead, Bacevich evinces a great deal of contempt for many (if not most) denizens of the capital: “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.” The author clearly has very little respect of the way American politics has evolved since the founding, how the chief attribute of the current system is “dysfunction”, occupied by a “gang that couldn’t shoot straight.” To illustrate the ineptitudes of current government officials, he points to all the failures of the current administration (stressing that they are just the tip of the iceberg).
He does not leave the blame at the feet of just elected officials, though: “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,” for allowing their democracy to be “hijacked”. Believing that everything will change with an Obama administration (which was not a certainty when the book was published), Bacevich suggests, “is to succumb to the grandest delusion of all”.
On the military front, the United States finds itself over-stretched: “Seven years into its confrontation with radical Islam, the United States finds itself with too much war for too few warriors.” Merging the political and military elements of his argument, he shows how the 2006 midterm elections, which were supposed to serve as a referendum on the Iraq War (which, “to put it mildly… didn’t follow its assigned script”) resulted in… well, nothing. The Democrats are too interested in securing their majority over actually doing anything. As a former military man, Bacevich is disappointed with the acquiescence and politicization of the military during the Bush years, the leadership of which now act as yes-men for their civilian leaders. He condemns the military brass for being “complicit” in a ever-growing number of disinformation campaigns.
Using plenty of historical detail and perspective, Bacevich shows the reader that America’s problems are not new, nor are they the result of any nefarious aspect of the current Bush administration, putting it all into context, painting a picture of governmental incompetence. Rather than just offering a screed of America’s failures and abhorrent qualities (he takes shots at both Democrats and Republicans), he offers sensible prescriptions for solving any perceived decline – for example, “Rather than insisting that the world accommodate the United States, Americans need to reassert control over their own destiny, ending their condition of dependency and abandoning imperial delusions.”
It’s not entirely clear (to me, at any rate) what side of the political spectrum he hails from, but what you’ll find in The Limits of Power is a balanced, insightful, eloquent and lucid critique of the state of America today, lacking in partisan bickering or cheap potshots from the sidelines. Bacevich’s arguments are all measured and well explained. He’s not frothing, but everything covered in this book is clearly close to his heart, and his passion for the subject comes across through his writing. The tone of the book seems rather negative, but in the closing chapter Bacevich argues that the United States is not necessarily in irreversible decline, and he writes with a degree of optimism that the US can return to its previous stature, only warning that it will not be easy, and will take some time.
Andrew Bacevich is one of the most important observers writing about the United States today. If you buy only one book about America’s place in the world and its foreign policy this year, I strongly recommend you buy this one.
Also try: Andrew J. Bacevich, The New American Militarism (2006) & American Empire (2004); Alan Brinkley, The Age Of Abundance (2008); Arthur M Schlesinger Jr, War & The American President (2004); Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire (2004); Stephen Ambrose & Douglas Brinkley, The Rise To Globalism (1997)