Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism

On Friday, September 15th, I watched Bill Moyer's Journal. It consisted of an hour interview with Andrew Bacevich. You've had the experience, I'm sure, of watching a program like this --- and instead of making yourself do it because you know it's good for you --- you find yourself so absorbed that almost nothing could break your undivided attention. Bill Moyer's weekly Journal on PBS is always worthwhile: you find out what the MSM (Main Stream Media) doesn't have time, or lacks the guts to bring to the public.

This particular program I wish could have been watched by every adult American. It might help this nation wake up!

When I discovered that Bacevich considers himself a conservative, graduated from West Point and left the service as a colonel --- I wondered how much time I would give him. What could he say?
How many military officers have illuminating comments on the nation in general?

Here is his background as stated in the program: After 23 years in the Army, the West Point graduate retired as a colonel and has been teaching international relations and history at Boston University. Bacevich has published several acclaimed books, including this one, THE NEW AMERICAN MILITARISM. His latest, published this week, is THE LIMITS OF POWER: THE END OF AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM.

After the program, I realized that I had been privileged to listen to a true patriot, a brilliant public thinker, a man with some of the answers to -- and explanations of the concern and worry felt by perceptive, patriotic Americans.

(In what follows -- everything in italics are Bacevich's.)

When it comes to foreign policy, most Americans think this nation's problem are "out there" -- when in reality, Bacevich says: Our major problems are at home.

Our foreign policy, according to Bacevich, reflects what our D.C. politicians think we want -- and what will get them re-elected if they supply it. Bacevich says that what we seem to want: and large is ...a continuing flow of very cheap consumer goods. For example, we want "affordable" gas for whatever car(s) we own.

These wants we demand to be satisfied lead the country into greater and greater debt and the nation ends up living on an increasing long line of credit --- much of it to foreign powers, e.g. China.

Bacevich: What will not go away, is a yawning disparity between what Americans expect, and what they're willing or able to pay.

Instead of balancing our national books and living within our means as most prudent familites do --- we project American military power throughout the world securing the materials to maintain this dysfunctional system.

This country has become an empire, our army -- a professional army, an imperial army -- doing the same thing the British did in their past securing spots to supply the mother country.

Bacevich contrasts WW II -- an essential war -- a war in which all Americans pitched in, made sacrifices, endured hard times --- to our present voluntary army which has become, in a sense, a mercenary army which we pay to ensure we don't have to live within legitimate and realistic limits.

Bacevich puts our predicament this way: The pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit.

Bacevich believes that neither of the two Presidential candidates will have the nerve or ability to tell Americans do what they need to do to end this decline: Look at themselves in a mirror to find out what the source of the nation's plight is. This would require a type of "fireside chat" in which the President tries to illustrate the source of our basic problems and convince us to accept the necessary alternation in life style and perception of our "needs".

President Carter tried to do this towards the end of his time in the White House, but that courageous speech was a major factor in his being defeated by Ronald Reagan - who often said that it is always "morning" in America.

Bacevich believes that had the nation heeded the advice of Carter, faced up to reality --- we would not be in such a serious situation as we are today.

After WW II through the Eisenhower Years and into Kennedy's term of office --- we were an empire of production. We manufactured goods for all the world. Now, we are an empire of consumption --- living on a national line of credit that will eventually undo us.

Andrew Bacevich: When President Johnson became President, our trade balance was in the black. By the time we get to the Nixon era, it's in the red. And it stays in the red down to the present. Matter of fact, the trade imbalance becomes essentially larger year by year. So, I think that it is the '60s, generally, the Vietnam period, slightly more specifically, was the moment when we began to lose control of our economic fate. And most disturbingly, we're still really in denial. We still haven't recognized that.

Reagan encouraged Americans to think the good times would last forever. There were no sacrifices necessary Everything was going well. All we need to do is to shrink the size of government and manage the debt. He came in and he said we need to reduce the level of federal spending. He didn't reduce it, it went through the roof, and the budget deficits for his time were the greatest they had been since World War Two.

Bacevich believes Americans must decide what is most important, what is at the center of what we value. Some values are community, freedom, harmony, opportunity.

Bacevich: We are squandering our wealth. In many respects, to the extent that we persist in our imperial delusions, we're also going to squander our freedom because imperial policies, which end up enhancing the authority of the imperial president, also end up providing imperial presidents with an opportunity to compromise freedom even here at home. And we've seen that since 9/11.

Bacevich points out that not just the present President, but Clinton, Bush's father, and Reagan all have seen military power as our strong suit. They all have worked under the assumption that through the projection of power, or the threat to employ power, that we can fix the world. Fix the world in order to sustain this dysfunctional way of life that we have back here.

As the United States has become an imperial power with its leaders believing in full spectrum dominance over the world through military superiority --- Congress has shrunk and turned over more and more leadership and power to the Imperial President. The National Security State is another natural result of these actions, attitudes and thinking. Dissent at home is frowned upon and, eventually, not tolerated.

Bacevich believes that those in recent times running for President --- want to be Imperial Presidents. And, he includes both running for President this year.

Bacevich: We look to the President, to the next President. You know, we know that the current President's a failure and a disappointment - we look to the next President to fix things. And, of course, as long as we have this expectation that the next President is going to fix things then, of course, that lifts all responsibility from me to fix things.

One of the real problems with the imperial presidency, I think, is that it has hollowed out our politics. And, in many respects, has made our democracy a false one. We're going through the motions of a democratic political system. But the fabric of democracy, I think, really has worn very thin.

Bacevich considers himself a conservative, which means for him: to avoid foreign entanglements, to have no larger a government than we need, to keep our national budget balanced, and to believe in and practice civic virtue as a people and, especially among our leaders.

He must be rather discouraged, I would think because one would think Republicans would be conservatives. Maybe somewhere in our past history they were, but beginning with Reagan, Bush Senior and Bush Junior --- they have enlarged government and driven us into enormous debt. And, again starting with Reagan, although Democrats are no angels (especially in personal sexual morality) -- the Republican administrations have far excelled in political and financial corruption. In other words: they get an "F" for Civic Virtue. When it comes to foreign entanglements we can start with the Vietnam War. Was it not wasteful and, if you face up to it, not necessary? The "domino theory" is now seen to be just plain silly. The last edition of Bush has given us the longest, wasteful-unnecssary war in our history. And they were about to start one with Iran.


How did we come to be a nation in which we really thought that we could transform the greater Middle East with our army?

What have been the costs that have been imposed on this country? Hundreds of billions of dollars. Some projections, two to three trillion dollars. Where is that money coming from? How else could it have been spent? For what? Who bears the burden?

Who died? Who suffered loss? Who's in hospitals? Who's suffering from PTSD? And was it worth it? Now, there will be plenty of people who are going to say, "Absolutely, it was worth it. We overthrew this dictator." But I hope and pray that there will be many others who will make the argument that it wasn't worth it.

It was a fundamental mistake. It never should have been undertaking. And we're never going to do this kind of thing again. And that might be the moment when we look ourselves in the mirror. And we see what we have become. And perhaps undertake an effort to make those changes in the American way of life that will enable us to preserve for future generations that which we value most about the American way of life.