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Sunday Book Review: The Limits of Power

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This is the sixth installment of a seven part series on the Patterson School’s Summer Reading List.

  1. World of Nations, William Keylor
  2. The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier
  3. Hide and Seek, Charles Duelfer
  4. Second World, Parag Khanna
  5. The Accidental Guerrilla, David Kilcullen
  6. The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich


Limits of Power
is Andrew Bacevich’s fourth book, and will almost certainly be his most popular. Bacevich’s argument can be characterized thusly: Americans have become addicted to empire, and to the material benefits that empire provides. The piper, however, needs to be paid; American hegemony cannot endure forever, and especially cannot be preserved on the cheap. He argues that, especially in the post-Cold War era, US foreign policy has been marked by a militarized approach to hegemony that has enjoyed relatively strong bipartisan support. The American pursuit of empire is now more at odds with the structure of the international system than it ever has been, and this has produced economic, political, and military crises for the United States. Bacevich is a bitter critique of both the strategic mindset that put the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the operational execution of the wars. While he clearly loathes the Bush administration and neoconservativism, however, he doesn’t Democrats or previous Republican presidents from his fire.

Bacevich makes clear his view that all Americans are implicated in American empire. While the fruits of empire may have been allocated unequally, hegemony has acted as the ultimate “tide that lifts all boats,” creating broad and deep benefits for labor, women, minorities, and so forth. As he puts it in a clever turn of phrase:

A proper understanding of contemporary history means acknowledging an ironic kinship between hard-bitten Cold Warriorss like General LeMay and left-leaning feminists like Ms. Friedan. SAC helped maked possible the feminine mystique, and much else besides.

This is a remarkably interesting claim. I’m sure that it’s partially true; hegemony and empire have served to improve the material standards of ordinary Americans in ways that are difficult to catalogue. At the same time, there are certainly elements of the process of empire that have so egregiously favored small interest groups over large that I wonder whether it’s entirely reasonable to lay the responsibility for empire, even in small portion, at the feet of Martin Luther King and Gloria Steinem. To be clear, Bacevich isn’t an apologist for empire; he isn’t claiming that empire is justified because of the good that it has produced for all Americans. Rather, he’s arguing that the progress that much of the progress that Americans have (often correctly) congratulated themselves for has been enabled by empire, and thus bears some substantial moral and practical cost. Bacevich does not spare “conservatives” from critique, arguing that Ronald Reagan’s central contribution to American life was to enable American self-gratification. One of the more interesting takeaways from this argument is that bipartisan support for American empire is essentially unsurprising. Democratic representatives don’t vote to enable wars because they disagree with the base; they vote for wars because, at least in the short term, Democratic interest groups benefit from empire and from the national security state. While this may not show up in polling data, it does affect long term voting behavior. Voters who strongly oppose a particular war may nevertheless end up voting for a pro-war incumbent when that incumbent wins a local contract to build the weapons necessary to fight the war.

In his chapter on the political crisis of empire, Bacevich details the way in which the pursuit of hegemony has restructured the American political system. Since 1940, Bacevich argues, the United States has been in a condition of permanent national security emergency. This has enabled the executive to increase its power at the extent of the other branches of government, the Federal government to increase its power at the extent of the states, and government at all levels to increase its dominance over American private life. In the years after World War II, the United States has drifted from foreign policy crisis to foreign policy crisis, each purportedly more serious than the last, and each justifying a more substantial national security apparatus. The crisis of the post-Cold War era are notable only in their absurdity; the US is more secure now that it has been at any point in its history, but nevertheless jumps when North Korea sneezes. There is more than a whiff of antiquarianism here; mourning over the loss of the “old Republic” makes no more sense coming from Andrew Bacevich than it from Gore Vidal. America, as Scott is fond of saying, did not have a virgin birth. Moreover, while I think its clear that the pursuit of empire has had some redistributive effect on power in the American political system, it’s not quite the case that all, or even most, change in the system of American governance has been produced by the need for hegemony. The relationship between the state and the individual has changed all over the Western world over the past sixty years, and cannot entirely be laid at the feet of empire. Moreover, the “old Republic”, such that is was, had a set of problems that weren’t necessarily preferable to the ones we face today. Nevertheless, Dr. Bacevich paints a compelling “second image reversed” portrait, demonstrating how our foreign policy choices change our politics and restructure how we live.

Dr. Bacevich paid a high price for the maintenance of American Empire, losing his son in 2007 in Iraq. There’s no question that Limits of Power is an angry book, but to say that it’s angry doesn’t mean that it’s an unfocused tirade. At risk of sounding trite, reading the book brings to mind Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino; it’s not difficult to imagine Walt Kowalski sharing many of Dr. Bacevich’s beliefs, while at the same time maintaining a deep core of loyalty to the United States. For the leftist reader, The Limits of Power represents a genuine conservative attempt to grapple with the problems of the national security state, and a deeply refreshing alternative to the bad joke that Republican foreign policy has become. Limits of Power is also relatively short, well written, and easy to read. There’s much to disagree with (from either a progressive or conservative perspective), but it’s certainly worth a read.

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