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The Limits of Power: An Interview with Andrew Bacevich

In 2008 Boston University historian Andrew Bacevich released, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. In the book he pulls no punches--presenting a stark assessment of the U.S. in the post-Cold War world. He questions the sustainability of the current U.S. economic model, challenges long-standing assumptions about America's historical place in the world, and speaks bluntly about the consequences of the failed “war on terror.” The following interview was conducted via telephone.

The opening chapter of your book is titled “The Crisis of Profligacy.” You frame the chapter in part by using a point from U.S. historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, that “Not the constitution, but free land and an abundance of natural resources,” made American democracy possible. You also highlight the fact that, “By the end of WW2 the country possessed nearly two-thirds of the world’s gold reserves and more than half of its entire manufacturing capacity.” The chapter presents a picture of a very wealthy country with avaricious tastes. Why does your book start this way?

My interpretation of our culture is one that suggests it is deeply unhealthy. It’s unhealthy because of the way too many Americans have come to define freedom in terms of consumption and individual autonomy. I think that expresses itself in the economic arena in the insistence of having more, more, more...without paying due attention to who’s going to pay the bills, what are the consequences for future generations.

You make a very stark statement early on that, “Baghdad was not Berlin in 1945; it was Warsaw circa 1939.” Could you elaborate on what you mean?

I think the architects of the Global War on Terror, did not think the war on terror was going to end in Baghdad. They thought that the war on terror was a way station, a preliminary objective and that having achieved success in Baghdad they expected they would be able to go on to liberate, or pacify, or dominate--depending on what term you want to use--the rest of the greater Middle East. So it was the start of something they imagined would be much bigger. However, because they didn’t achieve the success in Iraq that they imagined, the grander project was nipped in the bud.

There’s a lot of well stated anger in your book. As I read this I began thinking these past eight years, the Bush years, have seen a stark erosion of confidence and sense of legitimacy by many, including the intelligentsia in this country. Do you think that true? And if so what do see as the implications?

I think there’s been an erosion of confidence in our basic institutions because of a variety of things. One of those is the mishandling of the Iraq war. The perception that exists in some quarters, not all, is that lies were told about the purpose of the war. There are also the scandals that have occurred in places like Abu Ghraib and the larger issue of torture. I think compounding all that is the economic crisis and the fact that the economic crisis, to some degree at least, appears to have been propelled by recklessness and dishonesty in the the basic financial institutions of the country. I think some number of Americans find themselves in a situation today where they basically have to question, ‘Who can we trust?’ and their answer is, not anybody.

You talk about Bush as thinking that history “has a visible direction.” You also cite Obama making statements about putting, “hands on the arc of history.” In contrast you say pretty unambiguously that “History’s purpose remains inscrutable.” Could you talk about that?

I think there’s a very long tradition in our country, that is really part of this idea of American Exceptionalism, based on the notion that history does have an arc and to one degree or another the United States has a responsibility to move history along that arc, to get history to where it is supposed to go. In our political discourse, history is supposed to go toward freedom for all mankind. Freedom in this sense is assumed to be the American way of life; that our values, our notion of what it means to be free, our political system, are intended to prevail everywhere. This is such a staple of the way our politicians talk we almost don’t even hear it any longer.

My own sense is that is all a bunch of malarkey. That the truth, to look at the actual events of history, is to suggest that it has no pattern. It has no direction, it has no purpose that we are able to discern and frankly, get used to it, that’s the way it is going to be.

You make a searing criticism of the U.S. military establishment - -and single out Gen. Tommy Franks particularly. At one point you say, "A great army accomplishes its assigned mission. Since George W. Bush inaugurated his global war on terror, the armed forces of the United States have failed to meet that standard."  How did you arrive at such a startling conclusion?

I don’t think it is startling. We have been involved in Afghanistan for almost eight years now and nobody thinks it’s being won. Some people think its winnable, but many people do not. That’s hardly a manifestation of “Mission Accomplished.”

In Iraq you might say the picture is somewhat more ambiguous, but certainly the mission that was assigned to the U.S. Armed Forces was not to get involved in a war that was going to go on for as long as that war has gone on, for six years now. The mission was to overthrow the regime and bring order to Iraq. That is not what happened. That is not an attack on all the soldiers who have gone over to these to places, and done the very best that they can. I simply think we need to be realistic, and recognize what the outcome has been. The outcome in neither place has been a victory.

You say in the afterward of the paperback edition that, “A world that once indulged America’s profligacy is no longer willing to do so...we don’t have the money and we don’t have the troops -- we can’t make the world indulge our profligacy.”  Isn’t that ominous for the future of the U.S.?

The notion back in the 1990s was that we were the world’s sole superpower. We were the indispensable nation. To overstate it a little bit, ‘we could call the shots.’ That was wrong in the 1990s and it is even ‘wronger’ today.

The implications are that we need to be more modest in acknowledging that the world is complex. That humanity is not headed in the direction that all people are going to live their lives the way we live our lives. Recognize that our power is quite limited. We have power. We have more than other countries, but it's not sufficient to fulfill the ambitions of American statesmen. We should husband our power. We should try and cope as best we can with the complexities of the world. We should abandon any notion that utopia is just around the corner, if we’ll just try a little bit harder to make it into a reality.

About Andrew Bacevich

Andrew J. Bacevich is Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University. A graduate of the U. S. Military Academy, he received his Ph. D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University. Before joining the faculty of Boston University in 1998, he taught at West Point and at Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Bacevich is the author of The Limits of Power: American Exceptionalism (2008). His previous books include American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U. S. Diplomacy (2002), The Imperial Tense: Problems and Prospects of American Empire (2003) (editor), The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005), and The Long War: A New History of US National Security Policy since World War II (2007) (editor). His essays and reviews have appeared in a wide variety of scholarly and general interest publications including The Wilson Quarterly, The National Interest, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Nation, The American Conservative, and The New Republic. His op-eds have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today, among other newspapers.

In 2004, Dr. Bacevich was a Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.  He has also been a fellow of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.