"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it—this is knowledge." (from The Analects of Confucius)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hard Truths: Historian Andrew Bacevich's America (And, oh, do we need his voice.)


Is a thoughtful, detailed, non-ideologically driven discussion on how we arrived at our present foreign relations and economic crises possible? One that has an interest in reality? I’m grateful that, yes, such a discussion is possible, and I’m referring to the work of conservative historian Andrew Bacevich. Dr. Bacevich is a veteran of the Vietnam War and the first Persian Gulf War, a former Army colonel, and now a professor of international relations and history at Boston University. In The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, he takes the reader on a long view of U.S. foreign policy since WWII, illustrating what amounts to a series of systemic short-comings, to say the least, derived largely from delusions of grandeur about America’s power in the world.

The book’s epigraph, “Set thine house in order” (2 Kings 20:1), sets the dire tone for an exploration of deep problems from within our country, problems that far eclipse, and in many cases fuel, the threats from outside. Bacevich frames his critique by connecting the current state of American foreign policy with the way that so many Americans pursue “freedom” in the age of consumerism – living divorced from reality and beyond their means, dependent on cheap imports and foreign oil, in short, practicing a lifestyle assumed to transcend reproach or negotiation simply because we’re Americans and what we desire, we should get. And our leaders’ role in this? “The chief aim of the U.S. government,” Bacevich writes, “is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part through the distribution of largesse at home…and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad."

Though Bacevich’s critical analysis covers a number of aspects of the Bush administration – for painfully obvious reasons – his reach stretches into nearly every presidential administration since WWII as well as a national security bureaucracy that’s grown increasingly byzantine with each decade. Among the many novel turns Bacevich’s analysis takes is his critique of top military leaders. Exploring a number of recent American military missions – from Somalia to Kosovo to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – Bacevich writes, “Allegations that senior commanders…have labored under unreasonable constraints are unsustainable. Granted an abundance of resources and considerable autonomy, the generals simply haven’t gotten the job done. War is a difficult business, and to question the good intentions of any of these officers would be unfair. No doubt that each did his level best. Yet, in one instance after another, senior commanders have performed less well than the troops in their charge.”

A particularly fascinating section of the book is Bacevich’s take on President Carter’s infamous “malaise speech,” as it came to be dubbed. Carter delivered this in the summer of 1979, a time at which the country’s economy was in poor health, the inflation rate was 11%, and gas prices soared – an outgrowth of panic buying due to the revolution occurring in Iran (which would also lead to American embassy workers in Tehran being held hostage for 444 days). To understand Bacevich as some kind of apologist for Carter would be to miss the point. Say what you will about Carter, but from where we now are as a country, the prescience of Carter’s words, which at the time were roundly derided, is astounding. (You can find the full text of the speech here.)

For Bacevich, Carter’s panned speech and the ensuing landslide election of Ronald Reagan the following year marked a crucial point in American history – but not as many conservatives would characterize it: “Reagan portrayed himself as a conservative. He was, in fact, the modern prophet of profligacy, the politician who gave moral sanction to the empire of consumption. Beguiling his fellow citizens with his talk of ‘morning in America,’ the faux-conservative Reagan added to America’s civic religion two crucial beliefs: Credit has no limits, and the bills will never come due,” writes Bacevich.

The voice of Bacevich is so badly needed today as feverish daily demagoguery offers up jingoistic pabulum on whom the “real” problem is with, on “the truth” you don’t hear anywhere else. His concern is seeing things as they are – rather than perpetuating one of the many tired narratives about the source of what’s wrong with this country.

Not interested in a book? No problem. A number of thorough interviews with Bacevich are available. Here are two.

This is an interview that will stay with you. His critique on American “profligacy” is powerful. One of the clearest perspectives on the defects with such positions as the Bush Doctrine of preventive war that I’ve encountered. And a more recent interview. Note in particular his concerns of the Obama administration, namely its handling of our involvement in Afghanistan. Again, Bacevich is a man not interested in putting party, left/right persuasion, or personality before thorough analysis.

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