Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Limits of Power

Christopher Lydon's Open Source podcast is radio at its best. His recent conversation with Andrew Bacevic, author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, ought to be heard by every educated American who loves his country and cares about its place in the world. From the Open Source website:

Andrew Bacevich incandesces with the rage of a serious professional: with a West Pointer's scorn for political weasels and embarrassment at incompetent generalship; with a citizen's horror at the Long Peace that became the Long War — war today as "a seemingly permanent condition." He burns with a Nieburhian realist's dread of our imperial self-destruction; with a father's remorse at the loss of his son and namesake on Army duty in Iraq. Representative prat boys in Bacevich's account (and there are many of them) are the "insufferable" Doug Feith, #2 in the Rumsfeld Pentagon who was dubbed by General Tommy Franks "the stupidest fucking guy on the planet," and also the same Tommy Franks, who spun the vulgar celebration of himself as an all-conquering hero in quick wins over the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.

Click to listen to Chris's conversation with Andrew Bacevich (27 minutes, 12 mb mp3)

The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism is the distillation of Andy Bacevich's fury. It is the single best stab I've read at accounting for the general "meltdown," the political, military, financial, cultural and moral disarray we are still heading into; and amazingly it's a best-seller (7 weeks on the New York Times list, as high as #4 in hardcover non-fiction). The short form of a compact book is this: bullying abroad cannot sustain an orgy of consumption back home. Or conversely, as Bacevich puts it: "A grand bazaar provides an inadequate basis on which to erect a vast empire."

In Bacevich's neat-but-not-too-neat formulation, a single year set the trap we're now in — the twelvemonth between August 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union started to sink, and August 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and dared the US and its allies to undo the deed. American mythmaking spun the first into a war victory, not Russia's internal collapse, and it hyped the second, an overmanned police action, into a world-historical invitation to redesign the Middle East. Thus did hubris gear up for nemesis.

Not the least appealing thing about Andy Bacevich is that his mind is in motion. I first encountered him six years ago, in the week that the Bush Doctrine (written for "the boys in Lubbock," as the president said) foretold an era of unilateral arrogance, pugnacity and preemption. On a panel with Andy before a mass of Boston University freshman, I blurted out the Founders' warning against empire and Jefferson's caution about a "decent respect to the opinions of mankind." My memory is that Andy Bacevich blew me off and argued that the Bush Doctrine was no worse than the Clinton record. He had just published a half-hopeful account of American Empire.... 

Andrew Bacevich of Boston University and The Limits of Power in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 30, 2008