Tuesday, March 17, 2009



Reviewed by Pamela Crossland

Bacevich, Andrew J. The Limits of Power. Metropolitan Books, 2008. 206 pp.

The author is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. A lifelong conservative with several other books to his credit, Bacevich is a retired military colonel who served in Viet Nam and taught at West Point and John Hopkins University. He has argued extensively that the United States relies too heavily on military power in international conflicts rather than using diplomatic means. Unrealistic and romanticized notions of war particularly in films have contributed to the American’s people unrealistic notion of what can be accomplished by war. This is only one of the heads of the hydra that threatens to destroy the American dream; manifest destiny, dependence on foreign oil, and global warming will also chew up the illusion that things can continue unchanged.

According to Bacevich, the United States is in a crisis made up of three components: economic and cultural, political, and military. He devotes a chapter to each of these parts, breathing fire and brimstone in a manner a Baptist preacher would envy. An insatiable appetite for bigger and better toys is the basis for the dismal economic situation that the US finds itself in, according to Professor Bacevich. This has been evolving since the end of World War II according to his analysis and has reached a critical mass. Prior to the 1970s, the United States led the world in oil production. This decline, along with an imbalance in trade, which has grown steadily worse over the decades, coupled with consumer greed and uncompromising determination to maintain a standard of living outside the scope of much of the world has resulted in the current economic climate. Cheap oil and cheap credit are things of the past.
Bacevich often refers to the “imperial presidency.” He decries the advise of the “Wise Men” or presidential advisors who have special expertise (or at least claim to have such knowledge) without the burden of voter accountability. Colonel Edward House, a special advisor to Woodrow Wilson and Dean Acheson and a whole host of members of the "Eastern Establishment" in the administration of FDR are praised as examples for Karl Rove and Paul Wolfowitz in the Bush administration. The increase in the concentration of power in the office of the president in particular is another factor in the imperial presidency. That Bush expanded the powers of the president will come as no surprise to those who endured his term as governor of Texas, where he cut his political teeth expanding the power of that office. This is a sad contrast to the vision of a republic in which individual states have most of the political power, keeping the federal government in a limited role. The Founding Fathers must be spinning in their grave clothes.

Bacevich knows where things went wrong. He states that "the true pivot of contemporary American history lies between two dates: July, 1979 and March, 1983. The first is President Jimmy Carter's "Crisis of Confidence" speech, in which he stated, "We are at a turning point in our history." Carter believed that America could select one of two paths, one of self-interest and the other a path of common purpose to rediscover and define American values. Bacevich credits this speech as the reason Carter was not re-elected. The second is a speech by then President Ronald Reagan on March 23, 1983 . This talk is remembered for Reagan's "Star Wars" plan, but Bacevich believes two important ideas were imbedded in the talk. America can only be safe if it achieved something like permanent global military supremacy, and technology can solve all our problems. The ideas in this speech have been the political basis for all the presidents that followed Reagan according to Bacevich.

The third point is where the former colonel spends most of his ire. Military might is not a fix a flat solution to every world crisis or disaster. “Valor does not offer the measure of an army’s greatness nor does fortitude, nor durability, nor technological sophistication. A great army is one that accomplishes its assigned mission.” Using this definition, Bachevich explains how the military has failed since George W. Bush declared war on terror. With twenty-three years of experience in the army to his credit, he makes his case, particularly in his criticism of the war in Iraq. He believes that America does not need a bigger army. “It needs a smaller – that is, more modest – foreign policy, one that assigns soldiers missions that are consistent with their capabilities.” This and reigning in the oft mentioned imperial president should be the way the America supports her troops.

Professor Bacevich offers no insights that would lead to solutions to the current interlocking crisis in the United States. Despite this, this book is compelling and will give the reader much to think about.