The Limits of Power

The End of American Exceptionalism

by Andrew J. Bacevich

Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2008, paperback


The hardheaded lawyers, merchants, farmers, and slaveholding plantation owners gathered in Philadelphia that summer [1776] did not set out to create a church. They founded a republic. Their purpose was not to save mankind. It was to ensure that people like themselves enjoyed unencumbered access to the Jeffersonian trinity [life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness].

In the years that followed, the United States achieved remarkable success in making good on those aims. Yet never during the course of America's transformation from a small power to a great one did the United States exert itself to liberate others ...

By the end of World War II, the country possessed nearly two-thirds of the world's gold reserves and more than half its entire manufacturing capacity. In 1947, the United States by itself accounted for one-third of world exports. Its foreign trade balance was comfortably in the black. As measured by value, its exports more than doubled its imports.'° The dollar had displaced the British pound sterling as the global reserve currency, with the Bretton Woods system, the international monetary regime created in 1944, making the United States the world's money manager. The country was, of course, a net creditor. Among the world's producers of oil, steel, airplanes, automobiles, and electronics, it ranked first in each category. "Economically," wrote the historian Paul Kennedy, "the world was its oyster."

And that was only the beginning. Militarily, the United States possessed unquestioned naval and air supremacy, underscored until August 1949 by an absolute nuclear monopoly, affirmed thereafter by a permanent and indisputable edge in military technology. The nation's immediate neighbors were weak and posed no threat. Its adversaries were far away and possessed limited reach.

For the average American household, World War II had finally ended the Depression years. Fears that wartime-stoked prosperity might evaporate with the war itself proved groundless. Instead, the transition to peace touched off an unprecedented economic boom. In 1948, American per capita income exceeded by a factor of four the combined per capita income of Great Britain, France, West Germany, and Italy. Wartime economic expansion-the gross national product grew by 60 percent between 1939 and 1945-had actually reduced economic inequality. Greater income and pent-up demand now combined to create a huge domestic market that kept American factories humming and produced good jobs. As a consequence, the immediate postwar era became the golden age of the American middle class.

Many Americans remember the 1960s as the Freedom Decade-and with good cause. Although the modern civil rights movement predates that decade, it was then that the campaign for racial equality achieved its great breakthroughs, beginning in 1963 with the March on Washington and Martin Luther King's "1 Have a Dream" speech. Women and gays followed suit. The founding of the National Organization for Women in 1966 signaled the reinvigoration of the fight for women's rights. In 1969, the Stonewall Uprising in New York City launched the gay rights movement.

Political credit for this achievements [of the civil rights movement] squarely with the Left. Abundance, sustained in no small measure by a postwar presumption of American "global leadership," made possible the expansion of freedom at home. Rebutting Soviet charges of racism and hypocrisy lent the promotion of freedom domestically a strategic dimension. Yet possibility only k9 became reality thanks to progressive political activism.

Pick the group: blacks, Jews, women, Asians, Hispanics, working stiffs, gays, the handicapped-in every case, the impetus for providing equal access to the rights guaranteed by the Constitution originated among pinks, lefties, liberals, and bleeding-heart fellow travelers. When it came to ensuring that every American should get a fair shake, the contribution of modern conservatism has been essentially nil. Had Martin Luther King counted on William Buckley and the National Review to take up the right against racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s, Jim Crow would still be alive and well.

[Ronald Reagan's] real gift was a canny knack for telling Americans what most of them wanted to hear.

During the Carter years, the federal deficit had averaged $54.5 billion annually. During the Reagan era, deficits skyrocketed, averaging $210.6 billion over the course of Reagan's two terms in office. Overall federal spending nearly doubled, from $590.9 billion in 1980 to $1.14 trillion in 1989. The federal government did not shrink. It grew, the bureaucracy swelling by nearly 5 percent while Reagan occupied the White House. Although his supporters had promised that he would shut down extraneous government programs and agencies, that turned out to be just so much hot air.

The Reagan Revolution ... was never about fiscal responsibility or small government. The object of the exercise was to give the American people what they wanted, that being the essential precondition for winning reelection in 1984 and consolidating Republican control in Washington. Far more accurately than Jimmy Carter, Reagan understood what made Americans tick: They wanted self-gratification, not self-denial. Although always careful to embroider his speeches with inspirational homilies and testimonials to old-fashioned virtues, Reagan mainly indulged American self-indulgence.

Reagan's two terms in office became an era of gaudy prosperity and excess. Tax cuts and the largest increase to date in peacetime military spending formed the twin centerpieces of Reagan's economic policy.

Whereas President Carter had summoned Americans mend their ways, which implied a need for critical selfawareness, President Reagan obviated any need for soul-searching by simply inviting his fellow citizens to carry on. For Carter, ending American dependence on foreign oil meant promoting moral renewal at home. Reagan-and Reagan's successors-mimicked Carter in bemoaning the nation's growing energy dependence. In practice, however, they did next to nothing to curtail that dependence. Instead, they wielded U.S. military power to ensure access to oil, hoping thereby to prolong the empire of consumption's lease on life.

Ronald Reagan

The defense policy of the States is based on a simple premise: The United States does not start fights. We will never be an aggressor. We maintain our strength in order to deter and defend against aggression-to preserve freedom and peace.

Reinhold Niebuhr
The most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy.

Illusions about military power first fostered by Reagan outlived his presidency. Unambiguous global military supremacy became a standing aspiration; for the Pentagon, anything less than unquestioned dominance now qualified as dangerously inadequate.

... A new national security consensus emerged based on the conviction that the United States military could dominate the planet as Reagan had proposed to dominate outer space. In Washington, confidence that a high-quality military establishment, dexterously employed, could enable the United States, always with high-minded intentions, to organize the world to its liking had essentially become a self-evident truth. In this malignant expectation-not in any of the conservative ideals for which he is retrospectively venerated lies the essence of the Reagan legacy.

Just beneath the glitter of the Reagan years, the economic position of the United States continued to deteriorate. Despite the president's promise to restore energy independence, reliance on imported oil soared. By the end of Reagan's presidency, 41 percent of the oil consumed domestically came from abroad. It was during his first term that growing demand for Chinese goods produced the first negative trade balance with that country. In the same period, Washington-and the American people more generally resorted to borrowing. Through the 1970s, economic growth had enabled the United States to reduce the size of a national debt (largely accrued during World War II) relative to the overall gross national product (GNP). At the beginning of the Reagan presidency, that ratio stood at a relatively modest 31.5 percent of GNP, the lowest since 1931. Reagan's huge deficits reversed that trend.

The United States had long touted its status as a creditor nation as a symbol of overall economic strength. That, too, ended in the Reagan era. In 1986, the net international investment position of the United States turned negative as U.S. assets owned by foreigners exceeded the assets that Americans owned abroad.

For members of the political class, serving, gaining access to, reporting on, second-guessing, or gossiping about the emperor-president (or about those aspiring to succeed him) has become an abiding preoccupation.

The imperial presidency would not exist were it not for the Congress, which has willingly ceded authority to the executive branch, especially on matters touching, however remotely, on national security. As the chief executive achieved supremacy, the legislative branch not only lost clout but gradually made itself the object of ridicule. David Addington, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, pungently described the philosophy of the Bush administration this way: "We're going to push and push and push until some larger force makes us stop." Even under Democratic control, the Congress has not remotely threatened to be that larger force. No one today seriously believes that the actions of the legislative branch are informed by a collective determination to promote the common good. For this very reason, periodic congressional efforts to curb abuses of presidential power are mostly for show and mostly inspired by a desire to gain some partisan advantage.

The chief remaining function of Congress is to ensure the reelection of its members, best achieved by shameless gerrymandering, doling out prodigious amounts of political pork, and seeing to the protection of certain vested interests. Testifying to the spectacular effectiveness of these techniques, in 2006, 93 percent of senators and representatives running for reelection won.' The United States has become a de facto one-party state, with the legislative branch permanently controlled by an Incumbents' Party.

Although relatively few legislators are overtly dishonest, the sense of taking bribes or kickbacks, a subtler form of corruption pervades both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Congress nay not be a den of iniquity, but it is a haven for narcissistic hacks, for whom self-promotion and self-preservation take precedence over serious engagement with serious issues.

Dissent, where it exists seldom penetrates the centers of power in Washington. Principled dissenters ... remain on the political fringes, dismissed as either mean-spirited (that is, unable to appreciate the lofty motives that inform U.S. policy) or simply naive (that is, oblivious to the implacable evil that the United States is called upon to confront).

The ideology of national security persists not because it expresses empirically demonstrable truths but because it serves the interests of those who created the national security state and those who still benefit from its continued existence.

In a famous book published over a half century ago, the sociologist C. Wright Mills took a stab at describing [the] "power elite." His depiction of an interlocking corporate, political, and military directorate remains valid today, although one might amend it to acknowledge the role played by insider journalists and policy intellectuals who serve as propagandists, gatekeepers, and packagers of the latest conventional wisdom. Although analysts employed by the RAND Corporation or the Hudson Institute may not themselves qualify as full-fledged members of the national security elite, they facilitate its functioning. Much the same can be said about columnists who write for the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Weekly Standard, the research fellows busily organizing study groups at the Council on Foreign Relations or the American Enterprise Institute, and the policy-oriented academics who inhabit institutions like Harvard's Kennedy School of Government or Princeton's Wilson School.

To say that a power elite directs the affairs of state is not to suggest the existence of some dark conspiracy. It is simply to acknowledge the way Washington actually works. Especially on matters related to national security, policy making has become oligarchic rather than democratic. The policy-making process is not open but closed, with the voices of privileged insiders carrying unimaginably greater weight than those of the unwashed masses.

From the late 1940s to the present day, members of the power elite have shown an almost pathological tendency to misinterpret reality and inflate threats. The advisers to whom imperial presidents have turned for counsel have specialized not in cool judgment but in frenzied overreacfion.

The ideology of national security underwrites a bipartisan consensus that since World War II has lent to foreign policy a remarkable consistency. While it does not prevent criticism of particular policies or policy makers, it robs any debate over policy of real substance.

Since World War II, Congress and the executive branch have collaborated in creating a large, permanent, and ever-expanding national security apparatus.

As soon as he entered office in January 1961, john F. Kennedy jettisoned his predecessor's deliberate approach, which was at odds with Kennedy's own temperament and with the image that his administration wished to project. "New Frontiersmen" cultivated a style that placed a premium on informality, flexibility, and quickness. Kennedy and those around him believed that small groups of really bright people-people like themselves-could reach better decisions faster, if not encumbered by bureaucratic process. Fancying themselves as not only smart but also creative, they had little patience for the orthodoxies and conventions to which the national security apparatus professed devotion.

If Kennedy nursed any lingering thoughts of that apparatus proving itself useful, they did not survive the debacle of the Bay of Pigs. When JFK became president, plans to overthrow Cuba's Fidel Castro using a small force of CIA-trained and -equipped Cuban exiles were well advanced. Kennedy just needed to give the signal to launch the invasion. The new president hesitated, however, directing General Lyman Lemnitzer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to evaluate the plan's feasibility. When the Chiefs endorsed the operation, Kennedy issued the order. An epic disaster ensued.

It soon became apparent that the Chiefs had supported the mission less because they expected it to succeed than because they were counting on a CIA failure to pave the way for a conventional invasion, their preferred option for eliminating Castro. The Chiefs knew that Kennedy had no intention of ordering direct U.S. intervention-he had said as much-but they were counting on a presidentially-ordered CIA disaster to force his hand. Rather than offering the president forthright professional advice, they had diddled him.

In the history of the national security state, the Bay of Pigs proved a turning point. A furious Kennedy, convinced (not without reason) that he had been set up and betrayed ...

The Bay of Pigs [invasion of Cuba] convinced [John] Kennedy that the joint Chiefs of Staff, however many ribbons and medals they might have earned, were either stupid or untrustworthy.

former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger

[Joint Chiefs of Staff's advice] is generally irrelevant, normally unread, and almost always disregarded.

For those who occupy the inner circle of power, the national security state is an obstacle to be evaded rather than an asset to be harnessed. Viewed from the perspective of a defense secretary or national security adviser, professional military officers, career diplomats, or intelligence analysts are not partners but competitors. Rather than facilitating the exercise of executive power, the career professionals complicate or even obstruct it, pursuing the favored agendas of their own agencies instead. Yet because the institutions comprising the national security apparatus provide the foundation of executive power, the president-emperor is the person least inclined to acknowledge publicly the defects inherent in that apparatus. As a consequence, the American people remain in the dark, persisting in the illusion that, whatever their faults, institutions like the Joint Chiefs and the CIA remain indispensable to the nation's safety and well-being.

And so the national security state perdures. It does so not because its activities enhance the security of the American people, but because, by its very existence, it provides a continuing rationale for political arrangements that are a source of status, influence, and considerable wealth. Lapses in performance by this apparatus might logically raise questions about whether or not the United States would be better off without it. Instead, failures inspire new efforts to reorganize and reform, which almost invariably translate into further institutional expansion. The more the national security state screws up, the more sprawling it becomes. In the meantime, presidents occupy themselves cultivating ways to work around, ignore, or subvert those institutions.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Defense Department employees on September 10, 2001, one day prior to the attacks of 9/11

The topic today is an adversary that poses a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America. This adversary is one of the world's last bastions of central planning. It governs by dictating five-year plans. From a single capital, it attempts to impose its demands across time zones, continents, oceans and beyond. With brutal consistency, it stifles free thought and crushes new ideas. It disrupts the defense of the United States and places the lives of men and women in uniform at risk.

Perhaps this adversary sounds like the former Soviet Union, but that enemy is gone: our foes are more subtle and implacable today. You may think I'm describing one of the last decrepit dictators of the world. But their day, too, is almost past, and they cannot match the strength and size of this adversary.

The adversary's closer to home. It's the Pentagon bureaucracy.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2003, General Eric Shinseki, the army chief of staff, expressed the view that occupying Iraq might pose a daunting challenge and could require several hundred thousand troops. This departed from the Bush administration's vague but rosy predictions about the war and its aftermath. Shinseki's candor elicited immediate rebukes from Rumsfeld and his deputy. The general's estimate was "wildly off the mark," an obviously annoyed Wolfowitz informed the press. Shinseki became persona non grata and was soon ushered into retirement.

Shinseki's fate offered an object lesson to his peers. In Rumsfeld's Pentagon, generals did not ask questions; they did not express independent views, even to Congress; they did as they were told. No one got the word quicker than General Tommy Franks the officer who as commander of U.S. Central Command planned and implemented the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. When it came to pleasing Rumsfeld, Franks was nothing if not eager. Asked by President Bush prior to the Iraq War to offer his own views, the general replied, "Sir, I think exactly what my secretary thinks, what he's ever thought, whatever he will ever think, or whatever he thought he might think."

Secretary of State Dean Acheson

If you truly had a democracy and did what the people wanted, you'd go wrong every time.

[Paul] Nitze served as the principal author of NSC 68, a highly classified report drafted for President Truman and the National Security Council in early 1950.

... according to NSC 68, the Soviet [Union planned] "the complete subversion and forcible destruction of the machinery of government and structure of society in the countries the non-Soviet world and their replacement by an apparatus and structure subservient to and controlled by the Kremlin."

[Paul] Nitze's proposed buildup called for massively increased defense spending, with particular emphasis on accelerating the development of a hydrogen bomb; increased security assistance to train and equip the armies of friendly nations; efforts to enhance internal security and intelligence capabilities; and an intensification of covert operations aimed at "fomenting and supporting unrest and revolt" inside the Soviet bloc. National security had to rank first among the nation's priorities, so NSC 68 called for curbing domestic expenditures. It also argued for higher taxes to make available the resources needed to fund rearmament. In effect, this "Nitze Doctrine" offered a recipe for the permanent militarization of U.S. policy.

... the methods pioneered by Nitze in 1950 retain value. He demonstrated the advantages of demonizing America's adversaries, thereby transforming trivial concerns into serious threats and serious threats into existential ones. He devised the technique of artfully designing "options" to yield precooked conclusions, thereby allowing the analyst to become the de facto decision maker. He showed how easily American ideals could be employed to camouflage American ambitions, with terms like peace and freedom becoming code words for expansionism." Above all, however, Nitze demonstrated the inestimable value of sowing panic as a means of driving the policy-making process. When it came to removing obstacles to A and loosening purse strings, the Nitze Doctrine worked wonders.

In the mid-1950s, with Nitze himself leading the charge, there came reports of a dismaying "bomber gap," the Soviets said to be outstripping the United States in the production of strategic bombers. Soon thereafter, rumors of a "missile gap" made headlines, with the Soviets reportedly far ahead of the United States in long-range rocketry. The ubiquitous Nitze served as principal author of the Gaither Report that trumpeted this concern.

By the end of the decade, insiders worried anxiously that Soviet strategic advantages were becoming so great as to undermine the "delicate balance of terror." The U.S. ability to deter its adversary was eroding and might soon disappear.

For [Paul] Wolfowitz, the ideology of national security served as a sort of surrogate religion. He was a true believer, harboring no doubts about history's purpose and America's assigned role in accomplishing that purpose. Viewing American power as bountiful and self-replenishing, Wolfowitz had always been keen to put that power to work. If anything, the end of the Cold War only accentuated this activist inclination. Wolfowitz shared in the view that victory had vaulted the United States to a position of overwhelming preeminence. "With so great a capacity to influence events," he wrote, "comes a requirement to figure out how best to use that capacity to shape the future. "

... In his own approach to shaping the future, Wolfowitz assigned a central role to military power.

Just as [Paul] Nitze had seized upon the Soviet bomb, the Chinese Revolution, and later the Korean War to argue for rebuilding American military power, so [Paul] Wolfowitz ... seized upon the attack by Al Qaeda to argue for unleashing American military might... Iraq offered the means to that end.

... For [Paul] Wolfowitz, the main purpose of the Iraq War was to establish new norms governing the use of force. Nominally, the object of the exercise might be to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, overthrow a brutal dictator, and begin draining the terrorist "swamp." More fundamentally, the objective was to lift any and all restrictions on the use of armed force by the United States.

... The aim went beyond targeting would-be terrorists themselves. The United States meant to deprive terrorists of sanctuaries or "safe havens" by nothing less than a policy of "ending states who support terrorism." In NSC 68, Nitze had at least made a pretense of offering several options for consideration. For Wolfowitz after 9/11, there existed only a single option: open-ended global war.

... History will remember Paul Wolfowitz as the intellectual Svengali who conjured up the Bush Doctrine. In NSC 68, Nitze had rejected preventive war as "repugnant." Wolfowitz now promoted it as permissible, essential, even inviting.

Reinhold Niebuhr

False security to which all men are tempted is the security of power.

The Bush Doctrine represents the most momentous national security initiative since the inauguration of the Manhattan Project that built the first atomic bomb. Its implications far outstrip in importance the eponymous doctrines of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, or Reagan.

Needless to say, in formulating this doctrine the Bush administration did not seek congressional assent. Nor did it even go through the motions of consulting the American people. A handful of Wise Men, led by Wolfowitz, saw a great opportunity to revolutionize national security policy. They wasted no time in exploiting that opportunity, selling the president on the merits of their idea and then implementing it, essentially by fiat.

a senior Bush administration official famously remarked to the journalist Ron Suskind.

We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

A reliance on volunteer-professionals places a de facto cap on the army's overall size. The pool of willing recruits is necessarily limited. Given a choice, most young Americans will opt for opportunities other than military service, with protracted war diminishing rather than enhancing any collective propensity to volunteer. It is virtually inconceivable at any presidential call to the colors, however impassioned, any PR campaign, however cleverly designed, or any package of pay and bonuses, however generous, could reverse this disinclination.

Furthermore, to the extent that an army composed of regulars [volunteer-professionals] is no longer a people's army, the people have little say in its use. In effect, the professional military has become an extension of the imperial presidency. The troops fight when and where the commander in chief determines.

Finally, a reliance on professional soldiers eviscerates the concept of civic duty, relieving citizens at large of any obligation to contribute to the nation's defense. Ending the draft during the waning days of the Vietnam War did nothing to heal the divisions created by that conflict; instead, it ratified the separation of army from society. Like mowing lawns and bussing tables, fighting and perhaps dying to sustain the American way of life became something that Americans pay others to do.

When Nixon pulled the plug on selective service [the Draft], the system was already on life support. The American people killed the draft. In the midst of a misbegotten war [Vietnam], they withdrew from the federal government its hitherto widely accepted prerogative of commanding citizens to serve... One serendipitous result was to lay the basis for a new consensus, henceforth defining military service as a matter of individual choice. In short order, liberals, conservatives, and centrists all signed on, and the bargain became permanent.

... Today, with the possible exception of conservative evangelicals, no significant segment of the electorate will concede to the federal government the authority to order their sons and daughters into uniform. Legislation mandating involuntary service would almost certainly elicit the same reaction that Prohibition induced back in the 1920s, only more quickly and on a larger scale: The law would be unenforceable.

Granted, arguments that a draft might correct the inequities inherent in our existing military system have indisputable merit. To anyone with a conscience, sending soldiers back to Iraq or Afghanistan for multiple combat tours while the rest of the country chills out can hardly seem an acceptable arrangement. It is unfair, unjust, and morally corrosive.

Yet seldom in American history have questions of fairness or equitability played a decisive role in shaping public policy. The present moment does not qualify as one of those occasions; if it were, we would not tolerate the gaping disparities between rich and poor in our society. Relying on a small number of volunteers to bear the burden of waging an open-ended global war might make Americans uneasy, but uneasiness will not suffice to produce change. To salve the nation's conscience, the government might augment our hard-pressed troops with pricey contractor-mercenaries, but it won't actually trouble citizens to do anything. Indeed, the privatization of war-evident in the prominence achieved by armies-for-rent such as the notorious Blackwater suggests a tacit willingness to transform military service from a civic function into an economic enterprise, with money rather than patriotism the motive. Americans may not like mercenaries, but many of them harbor an even greater dislike for the prospect of sending their loved ones to fight in some godforsaken country on the other side of the world.

In short, although conscription will continue to make a nice topic for angry op-eds and heartfelt letters-to-the-editor, the chances of Congress actually enacting legislation to restore the draft are nil. In this instance, the views of Congress reflect the views of the American people. Whatever, its shortcomings, the professional army created after Vietnam is here to stay.

Norman Mailer

Fighting a war to fix something works about as good as going to a whorehouse to get rid of a clap.

Reinhold Niebuhr

Nothing in history is inevitable including the probable. So long as war has not broken out, we still have the possibility of avoiding it. Those who think that there is little difference between a cold and a hot war are either knaves of fools.

Reinhold Niebuhr

It is not within the realm of moral possibilities to ask a nation to be self-sacrificing.

Reinhold Niebuhr

The desire to gain an immediate selfish advantage always imperils the [nation's] ultimate interests. If they recognize this fact, they usually recognize it too late.

Reinhold Niebuhr

To the end of history, social orders will probably destroy themselves in the effort to prove that they are indestructible.

Andrew Bacevich page

Home Page