The Reckoning

If it is true that, in the words of the military historian Correlli Barnett, “war is the great auditor of institutions,” then we Americans have more to worry about than our 401(k)s. The Iraq war’s bloody audit has revealed institutional flaws that have been consistently overlooked or concealed by those who should have been keeping an eye on the balance sheet. And while it is surely right to blame the Bush administration’s miscalculations, willful illusions, and mendacity for these disasters, the Democratic opposition has persistently failed to provide meaningful alternatives, reasoned criticism, or even well-informed debate. Even now, with the war in its fifth year, many political leaders take refuge in inflated claims about the triumphs of the “surge,” while others concentrate on what we should have done in the past rather than on the difficult choices that confront us in the present. Enabling these failures of intellect and will is the indifference of a public that has been largely untouched by the war’s costs, which have been shifted to future generations, or, more immediately, to a relatively small group of professional warriors and their loved ones. About the skill and courage of these troops there is no question, but their leadership has often been inept, their political mission ill-defined.

No one has described the deep roots of these political and military difficulties more eloquently than Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University (and a frequent Commonweal contributor). His New American Militarism, published in 2005, is a powerful, indeed indispensable book, which combines a shrewd analysis of contemporary issues with a former soldier’s firsthand experience of war and a scholar’s profound grasp of historical development. Bacevich’s criticisms of contemporary U.S. policies are all the more compelling because one senses he comes to them reluctantly: by temperament and conviction he is a conservative who clearly finds no pleasures in chronicling our current discontents.

The Limits of Power is not as successful as The New American Militarism: its tone is impatient and sometimes shrill, its arguments polemical and sometimes overdrawn. (Is it, for example, fair to condemn Bill Clinton’s Iraq policy as “strategically misguided and morally indefensible” without examining the alternatives? Or can we really explain the contradictions in American society as “the accumulated detritus of freedom, the byproducts of our frantic pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness”?) The Limits of Power was written in anger, sorrow, and haste. Nonetheless, this is a book very much worth reading. One would like to think it found its way into the hands of those who have just moved into positions of authority.

The Limits of Power sets the invasion and occupation of Iraq in the context of three overlapping crises, what Bacevich calls “the crisis of profligacy,” the political crisis, and a military crisis. In fact, all flow from the same source and all manifest themselves in the same inclination to overestimate our own power, especially military power, and to underestimate what the use of this power costs ourselves and those around us. In a reckless attempt to rid the world of evil, we have inflicted great harm, suffered severe losses, and put our national interest at risk.

These crises, Bacevich argues, are “of our own making.” He recognizes the dangers posed by our enemies abroad and has harsh words to say about the failings of our leaders at home, but he emphasizes that our problems come neither from the outside nor from above but from our own self-indulgence, inattention to politics, and reluctance to accept the responsibilities of citizenship. The only political leader willing to call attention to these unwholesome aspects of the American experience was Jimmy Carter, in his much-maligned “malaise” speech of July 1979. The results of Carter’s willingness to acknowledge unpleasant truths were not lost on the political elite, especially after he was soundly defeated by Ronald Reagan, whose “real gift was a canny knack for telling Americans what most of them wanted to hear.” No one has since repeated Carter’s error.

In his own attempt to tell Americans what we may not want to hear, Bacevich turns to the work of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), the prominent Protestant theologian, whose political vision was shaped by his deep Christian faith and by his experiences in the struggle against totalitarians on left and right. During the Second World War and the cold war, Niebuhr acknowledged the obligation to combat political evils, even if this meant going to war. But he also insisted that we ourselves and the weapons we deploy are never pure and uncontaminated. Even in a struggle for good ends, therefore, we can end up doing wicked things. Violence may sometimes be necessary but it is always difficult to contain, and its consequences are rarely predictable. This tragic insight should not prevent us from acting, but it should make us aware of our own limitations and the enduring resistance of the world to our efforts. The first of these insights brings humility, the second, realism—both essential guides to action in this fallen world of ours. For more than twenty years, the bankruptcy of U.S. policy has come from our moral and intellectual failure to see clearly ourselves and the world in which we live.

In an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe, published just after the election, Bacevich expressed the guarded hope that Barack Obama will temper the excessive optimism of his campaign rhetoric (“Yes, we can”) with a Niebuhrian sense of limits and complexity. It is time, Bacevich writes, to replace the “grandiose undertakings” that produced so many recent disasters with a more measured assessment of our powers to coerce the course of history. In this endeavor, Bacevich is right to urge that Obama renew his earlier commitment to Niebuhr as a source of inspiration and instruction. But a profound sense of the limits of power is only one side of Niebuhr’s message. Of course we should give up self-serving illusions, but we cannot abandon the duty to seek a better future or the confidence that we have the ability to achieve it. As this “low dishonest decade” (to use Auden’s phrase) nears its end, the task before us is to find a satisfactory equilibrium between humility and confidence, between the recognition of power’s limits and the courage and wisdom to use it well.


Related: American Triumphalism: A Postmortem, by Andrew Bacevich

Published in the 2009-02-27 issue: 

James J. Sheehan, a frequent contributor, is professor emeritus of history at Stanford University.

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