So, I began Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power:  The End of American Exceptionalism and was so thoroughly disappointed that I didn’t make it past the introduction.  Having read little of his previous work (a couple of articles but none of his books), I expected something in line with the realism of a Stephen Walt but with the added credibility and gravitas one expects from a retired Army colonel–someone who recognizes the unsustainability of the current US imperial project and who advocates realistic ways to extricate our forces from the trap into which we stumbled.

I was surprised at his errors in logic.  After the usual talk of the US as the sole superpower with responsibilities and prerogatives, and the US facing 3 crises (economic/cultural, political, and military) I began to lose him.  Bacevich seems to think that the GWOT is being waged on behalf of the freedoms and lifestyles of most Americans:

“…especially since the 1960’s, the reinterpretation of freedom has had a transformative impact on our society and culture.  That transformation has produced a paradoxical legacy.  As individuals, our appetites and expectations have grown exponentially…The collective capacity of our domestic political economy to satisfy those appetites has not kept pace with demand.  As a result, sustaining our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness at home requires increasingly that Americans look beyond our borders.  Whether the issue at hand is oil, credit, or the availability of cheap consumer goods, we expect the world to accommodate the American way of life.”

So, Bacevich cites the “paradoxical legacy” of the “reinterpretation of freedom” that the US underwent in the 1960’s as the underlying cause of the flailing US response to 9/11 and the GWOT.   So, rising living standards, civil rights, the woman’s movement, the environmental movement have had the unintended effect of inuring Americans to having its soldiers dying in far-off lands fighting for the expansion of their freedoms.  He goes on to say that “heightened claims of individual autonomy have eviscerated the concept of citizenship” that Americans find themselves trapped in an endless cycle of consumption, which fuels the need of politicians to support Americans habit of overconsumption by, it is assumed, invading defenseless Muslim nations.

Bacevich sticks with the freedom theme:

“The resulting sense of entitlement has great implications for foreign policy.  Simply put, as the American appetite for freedom has grown, so too has our penchant for empire.  The connection between these two tendencies is a causal one.  In an earlier age, Americans saw empire as the antithesis of freedom.  Today, as illustrated above all by the Bush administration’s efforts to dominate the energy-rich Persian Gulf, empire has seemingly become a prerequisite of freedom.”

Bacevich goes on to say “[t]hat President Bush is waging his global war on terror to preserve American freedom is no doubt the case.”

While I agree that the American people are basically politically illiterate and overly vegged out, and that they are also fed on a steady diet of overconsumption, I do not for one moment believe that the imperial actions of the US are taken for the benefit of the general populace or that US imperial action is taken on behalf of the citizenry.  That overconsumption is, to the contrary, what provides the cover or distraction for Bush to go on his imperial adventure.

Bacevich seems to be conflating Bush’s perceived strategic encirclement of the Persian Gulf as being an outgrowth of Americans’ freedom.  And  his lumping rising standards of living and consumer goods with civil rights and freedom is highly problematic.  Maybe Bacevich just needs to choose his words more carefully.  Freedom is one thing; consumption is another.

But the things is, even if we were to take freedom out of the equation and try to assume that he simply means Americans’ abililty to consume, it’s not at all clear that the outcome of the war in Iraq will be that US consumers are better off than they were before.   After all, in the long term the US will spend $3 trillion dollars on the war in Iraq, largely at the expense of programs that actually benefit the broad swath of Americans.  Bacevich certainly has made some personal sacrifices for the war in Iraq, but lashing out at the greatest achievements our society has produced in the last century is not the way to set things straight.

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