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The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism

Reviewed by John W. Coffey

Andrew J. Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (New York:  Metropolitan Books, 2008), 206 pp., $24.00.

Andrew Bacevich’s latest book unleashes a philippic against American foreign policy.  Had the author criticized the hubris and sanctimony animating America’s penchant for global social engineering, his message would offer a healthy antidote to the blunders of the last eight years.1  This splenetic book ranges much farther afield than that, however.  Bacevich diagnoses a terminally ill patient, the American republic, proffering a prescription that promises a beguiling cure and omitting the inconvenience of historical context – namely, that the world is round, that it contains other actors whose actions affect us, and that the United States cannot retreat from its turmoil and struggles.  Let us examine his diagnosis of the patient.

According to Bacevich, since the 1960s Americans’ pursuit of freedom has produced an orgy of material self-indulgence and individual autonomy at home and a quest for empire abroad to satisfy our appetites.  This behavior has resulted in an eclipse of citizenship, unsustainable debt, an overextended military, an imperial presidency, and constitutional degradation.  Hence the paradox of our time: “While the defense of American freedom seems to demand that U.S. troops fight in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the exercise of that freedom at home undermines the nation’s capacity to fight.  A grand bazaar provides an inadequate basis upon which to erect a vast empire.”2 The “unnecessary,” “counterproductive,” “unsustainable” Iraq war manifests the intersection of our multiple crises.

Since the Founding, American acquisitiveness has fueled an inexorable, ruthless expansionism.  The United States never liberated others, absent a threat to its own security or economic interests.  Thus, the Civil War only ‘incidentally’ freed the slaves.  World War II only ‘incidentally’ saved European Jews.  Bacevich appears to believe that Jefferson’s “empire for liberty” has been a malign force in modern history.  He concedes that America’s pragmatic, opportunistic foreign policy has not differed from that of all states and that it did enable the emergence of a great power; yet he labels “pernicious” a strategic tradition that from the start (italics mine) squandered national wealth and power.

Bacevich could never be accused of understatement.  He claims that the national mobilizations of World War II and the Cold War left the traditional republic of checks and balances deader than a doornail.  To describe the regime today as a republic would be “like calling Adolf Hitler a dictator or the weapon dropped on Hiroshima a bomb.”3 Instead of providing “enlightened governance,” our dysfunctional political system “poses a clear and present danger to those it is meant to serve.”4 Plenty of blame exists to spread across the political spectrum.  Bacevich harbors special rancor for the post-World War II bipartisan consensus supporting the baleful “ideology of national security” that destroyed the “Old Republic:” 1) the abiding theme of history is freedom to which all men aspire; 2) the United States embodies freedom; 3) America has a providential mission to ensure freedom’s triumph; 4) for the American way of life to endure, freedom must prevail everywhere.

Both parties and all so-called Washington “Wise Men” since 1945 have subscribed to this “reductive and insipid ideology.”  The path to postwar perdition was inevitable.  This “meretricious conception of security” gave birth to the Bush Doctrine, culminating in the Iraq “shipwreck.”  So, down with all “Wise Men,” for starters!  Presidents would do better, the author disdainfully asserts, to pick advisers by lottery.  “…presidents would be better served if they relied on the common sense of randomly chosen citizens rather than consulting sophisticated insiders.”5

Having followed him this far, the reader will be unsurprised by Bacevich’s summary indictment of the war on terror as an abject failure and his contention that the Afghan/Iraq wars demonstrate the hopeless disrepair of all our institutions, the illusoriness of our military capability, and the bankruptcy of an American way of life dependent on oil wars.  We don’t need a bigger army.  We need a smaller, i.e., non-imperial, foreign policy.

It’s difficult knowing where to begin in appraising this vituperative screed.  Bacevich seems to view the American republic as fatally flawed from the start, but he never provides his standard of judgment.  At one point, he sardonically dismisses a “mythical Old Republic,” so it seems doubtful America ever enjoyed “enlightened governance.”  If Jefferson’s “empire for liberty” has been a baneful force in history, would the author have preferred the Anti-Federalist (utopian) small, agrarian republic?  Does Bacevich think the world would be better off had North America been parceled into British, French, Spanish, and Russian fiefdoms?  What would the world have looked like, if the “empire for liberty” had not existed to defeat the totalitarian threats of the twentieth century?  What, by the way, does Bacevich think the Civil War and World War II were about?  If the United States, like all great powers, only fights for its vital interests, why is Bacevich in high dudgeon that politics ain’t bean bag, and foreign policy ain’t missionary work?

Bacevich’s litany of denunciation, unburdened with sustained analysis or historical context, covers the map and is replete with non-sequiturs, post-hoc fallacies, and reductionism.  He finds, for instance, a causal connection between the Strategic Air Command (SAC) and the National Organization for Women (NOW)!  “SAC helped make possible the feminine mystique and much else besides.”6 The “malignant” Reagan legacy of SDI’s spurious promise of a technical solution to global military supremacy ignores the existence of an aggressive Soviet Empire and the moral case for shifting deterrence from mutual assured destruction to defense.  Reagan set the stage for our Persian Gulf imperium to control oil, and Bacevich almost takes grim satisfaction that we now confront jihadists Reagan once supported.  The author neglects to mention that the Afghan intervention hastened the demise of the Soviet Empire.  Bacevich fails to recognize that foreign policy always entails trade-offs and that blow-back sometimes happens.  No better illustration of this exists than the Allied cooperation with Stalin in World War II, although it eventuated in Soviet domination of East Europe for half a century.  Churchill grasped the choice at the moment, as he explained to his private secretary, Jock Colville:  “I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby.  If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”7

Bacevich does not elucidate what his “non-imperial” foreign policy means, so the reader must draw inferences.  He regards Reinhold Niebuhr as “the most clear-eyed of American prophets” and thinks C. Wright Mills correctly analyzed America with his theory of a “power elite,” but he condemns the way Washington’s “insipid” “Wise Men” have drowned out “principled dissenters” like paleoconservatives, libertarians, pacifists, and neo-agrarians.  Who are these unsung strategists?  The anti-Semite Pat Buchanan who believes World War II was a mistake?  Ron Paul?  Reverend Jeremiah Wright?  Washington “Wise Men” haven’t a clue about “sound strategy,” but Bacevich’s assessment of Iraq violates a cardinal maxim of sound strategy – start with where we go from here, not where we wish we were or should have been.  This is not the place for a discussion of Iraq, but several distinguished scholars propose how to make the best of the hand we’ve been dealt in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.8 They are “wise men,” however.

What, then, is the cure for the terminally ill patient?  All our institutions are broken, elections don’t matter (much), and citizens are besotted with self-gratification.  Bacevich’s facile remedy is:  ‘Patient, heal thyself!’  “The onus of responsibility,” he declares, “falls squarely on citizens.”9 But how will sick souls recognize that they are sick, much less heal themselves with a painful regimen of self-sacrifice?  If who controls political office is irrelevant and all institutions are dysfunctional, what difference does it make?  Of one thing we can be certain.  The complex domestic and international problems facing us will not be solved by playing the lottery, or consulting the telephone book.  These problems call for “wise men,” skilled Washington insiders who know how to work the levers of power to find allies and build coalitions through compromise and politicking to accomplish things.10  Andrew Bacevich’s message is:  ‘A pox on all your houses.’  Don’t call him for help.End.


1.  For a paradigmatic expression of this overweening hubris and sanctimony, see Condoleezza Rice, “American Realism for a New World,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 87 (July/August, 2008), pp. 2-26.  Rice has the temerity to assert that “our uniquely American realism” requires an international order reflecting our values to safeguard our national interest.
2.  Bacevich, The Limits of Power, p. 11.
3.  Ibid., p. 67.
4.  Ibid., p. 72.
5.  Ibid., p.123.
6.  Ibid., p. 27.
7.  Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 3, The Grand Alliance (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950), p. 370.
8.  See Stephen Biddle, Michael E. O’Hanlon, and Kenneth M. Pollack, “How to Leave a Stable Iraq:  Building on Progress,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 87 (September/October, 2008), pp. 40-58.
9.  Bacevich, The Limits of Power, p. 13.
10.  See Norman J. Ornstein, “Defending the Insiders:  Change in Washington?  Not Without Them,” Washington Post, (September 5, 2008), A19.



John Coffey
John Coffey

John W. Coffey received a Ph.D. in American history from Stanford University and taught for 20 years. He served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 1986-88 and as a civil servant at the Commerce and State Departments for 15 years, retiring from State in 2005. He has written widely on foreign and defense policy.


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