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Saturday, June 5, 2010

Reclaiming America

On the trip back from Ohio I listened to a book on CD, in this case The Limits of Power:  The End of American Exceptionalism.  The book is available in hardback, on CD or via the Kindle.  The author is Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich

Surprisingly, on Friday Professor Bacevich had an OpEd in The Boston Globe, which basically told the same story.  The title is "America’s skewed national security priorities".

Professor Bacevich is a retired Army Colonel, with a PhD from Princeton University, in American Diplomatic History.  As I recall, part of his time in the Army was a tour with Andy Marshall's Office of Net Assessment.  A tour under Andy Marshall would be like getting a whole additional PhD.

The book was published in 2008.  Maybe it was to allow the author to explain why he was so unhappy with President George W Bush.  Maybe it was his job application to the anticipated Obama Administration.  Maybe it was just his belief that someone had to speak out about what was wrong with Washington—a sort of early Tea Party plea.

As with most books, this one leads to others than need to be read.  In particular there are the works of the late Reverend Reinhold Niebuhr.  Before you say "another darned German", Rev Niebuhr was born and raised in these United States.  By the beginning of the Cold War he had moved to an approach that might be called "realism":
Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.
The Pastor's position was toward the center, believing in sin and questioning the social gospel, but rejecting the Biblical literalism of those deemed more conservative.

In a quick summation, Professor Bacevich holds that the Executive Branch has been gaining power since the time of Franklin D Roosevelt and the US Congress has been abrogating its own responsibilities and has become a claque for what is becoming an Imperial Presidency.

The Professor marks as one of the turning points the approval of NSC-68, which was the US National Strategy for the Cold War.  It can be found here.  While the Professor doesn't say it, he implies that the invasion of South Korea by the North was not that important, but worse, gave the appearance of credibility to the draft NSC-68, crafted by Paul Nitze.
For Nitze, it was a timely bit of good luck.  Communist North Korea's invasion of the south seemingly affirmed the analysis contained in NSC 68:  International Communism, responding to directives issued by the Kremlin, was apparently on the march.  Not for the last time in recent American history—the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 offers another example—Wise Men impulsively attributed earth-shattering significance to a development of middling importance.
It might be noted that Mr X, the author of "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" (Foreign Affairs, July 1947), was a "realist" in foreign policy and opposed NSC-68 as being too focused on a military response to the Soviet Union.

In parallel with his argument about the Executive gaining too much power it is argued that the Wise Men of WWII and before have been replaced by new "Wise Men" (and women) who are too quick to react to changes in the international situation.  Some problems don't need to be tended too.  Describing the last of the old school Wise Men, Henry L Stimson, Professor Bacevich writes:
He had seen it all.  As such, he was not given to overreaction.  He did not panic.  He represented steadiness, prudence, and sobriety.
In contrast was, first, James Forrestal, who became the first Secretary of Defense, and then Paul Nitze, and finally Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense under President George W Bush, until pushed out.  From the author's point of view, this later group tended to overreact and thus caused the United States to take action when none was required.  The Invasion of Iraq and the prolongation of the war in Afghanistan being two cases of overreaction.

But, there is another thread running through the book and that is American dependence on foreign oil.  It is the Professor's contention that our ever deepening dependence on foreign oil is causing us to make foreign policy decisions that are stupid—his word.  To that dependence on foreign oil, with its terrible impact on our balance of payments problem he would add unwarranted destruction of the environment.

Going back to the newspaper article of Friday:
Since the promulgation of the Carter Doctrine in 1980, the United States has expended hundreds of billions of dollars (along with the lives of several thousand US troops) in vainly attempting to determine the course of events across the Greater Middle East.  Resting on the assumption that the application of American hard power fosters order and stability, that effort continues today, with no end in sight.

Little evidence exists to suggest that US exertions, whether aimed at liberating, transforming, or dominating the Islamic world, are achieving success.  No matter: Washington shows no sign of relenting. In Congress, new appropriations to fund the war in Afghanistan are pending — $58 billion — with passage assured.
The Professor is very unhappy with the US Congress.

It is possible that if the Tea Party movement had a foreign affairs wing, it might embrace this critique of Washington.

Professor Bacevich has a new book coming out in August of this year, Washington Rules:  America's Path to Permanent War.  I expect it will be a further explication of the themes of The Limits of Power.  Waiting for the new book might substitute for buying the 2008 version.  However, if you are thinking of sending something to Rep Tsongas or one of our two Senators, the 2008 book is good enough and they need to start reading now.

I don't agree with a lot of what the author says, but he has his finger on some strong points.  First and foremost, I would single out the need for the US Congress to resume its traditional duties and for it to be in tension with the White House and not working for it.  We do need a President who can respond to a real crisis, but we need a Congress that expresses the will of the People.

In closing I would note that when George Anthes was on WCAP in the mornings and I was the designated Guest Co-host one day I tried to get the Professor on to talk about one of his earlier books.  However, there was some confusion as to who would pay for the phone call.  In the end the Professor begged off, saying that it looked like a "setup".  Far from it and unfortunate in that in Lowell we have quite a few people who are interested in both international affairs and where our nation is headed.

Regards  —  Cliff


Jack Mitchell said...

I have long maintained that the decision making process during war, especially the long "Cold War," has skewed power to the White House. There is nothing like the threat of instant nuclear annihilation to streamline decision making.

An unfortunate byproduct was that Americans started to view POTUS as the end all be all to federal government. It seems to me that Americans, not all, but most, want to hire a person that they can "fire and forget." Like a really, really smart bomb.

Oddly, I credit Newt as a figure that challenged that notion.

ncrossland said...

Although I have never detected the slightest personal bitterness in his writing, Bacevich lost a son to combat in Iraq. For him, as reported by others, it was an absolutely crushing loss, given his long career with the Army.

Among the many points made throughout The Limits of Power, I found a common thread that posits that America has, and continues to be quite disengenuous in its foreign policy face. We condemn other countries for the same things we reserve the right to do for ourselves. This tends to weaken rather than strengthen our international persona.

His suggestion that we have evolved into an impotent Legislative Branch and an Imperial Presidency is spot on, and perhaps the greatest threat to America as we've known her. Some of that migration began out of what many suggest was the necessities of extricating the US from a deep depression (economically and psychologically) and spinning up the country for a world war. Many noted historians debunk that theory completely, and convincingly. FDR was a monumental egomaniac much the same as The One who is the most imperial of all the imperial Presidents in the past. And while much of what he forced into play benefited the country and its population, it was in truth a naked grab for power and a princely place in history.

I am not certain that Bacevich had aspirations to be part of the Obumble administration, but I do think he would like to be involved in a more direct way in the formulation and implementation of national policy. Not so sure that would be a bad thing either.

Having served (like many others who've worn the uniform) in overseas posts, Bacevich's assertions about American Exceptionalism is in so many ways exemplified by the book, The Ugly American. In my WestPac tours, I saw this played out in a hundred ways, over and over. At Clark AB, we had a HUGE on-base housing area that was reserved strictly for State Department employees. The houses were, even by field grade officer standards, quite luxurious and their occupants were by and large haughty to the point of being offensively snooty. They thought nothing of pushing we military scum to the back of the line because they were important. Of course, we 15 or 16 thousand military did precisely the same thing to the Filipinos....right in their own neighborhoods. While we were there, it was, our game, our rules. There was even one celebrated incident in which some American teenagers threw rotten fruit and cans at local nationals while riding DoD school busses to an off-base housing community. The local PC constabulary stopped the bus and arrested the kids, transporting them to the Angeles City doubt a horrible place to be. Well, the Base Commanderassembled a convoy of SP vehicles and launched a "rescue" mission. For a moment, it seemed to be an armed standoff, but the PI police chief caved in after considering his political future and gave up the kids. That single incident left a lot of bitterness in the local craw.

As visitors in a foreign land, Americans become rapidly more like inquisitors. And, if you read Bacevich carefully, and completely, that is the same message he conveys.