The following was posted in 2009.

Book cover of <em>The Limits of Power</em>, by Andrew J. Bacevich

Review of The Limits of Power, by Andrew J. Bacevich. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2008, 206 pp.

Reviewed by Mary Meehan

"America doesn't need a bigger army," says Prof. Andrew J. Bacevich, a West Point graduate and retired army colonel. Instead, it needs "a smaller-- that is, more modest--foreign policy." It should give up "illusions of grandeur," and it must rein in "the imperial presidents who expect the army to make good on those illusions." He adds: "When it comes to supporting the troops, here lies the essence of a citizen's obligation."

His book, The Limits of Power, is slim and elegant yet packs a strong punch. Published during the 2008 presidential campaign, it is just as relevant now as then. Bacevich, a fiscal and cultural conservative, is a major critic of the war in Iraq and the foreign policy that produced it. He had a wrenching personal experience with Iraq: His only son, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, was killed in action there in 2007. He dedicates the book to his son's memory and says in a note at the end: "His mother and his father will mourn his passing until the last day."

Prof. Bacevich, who teaches history and international relations at Boston University, was a critic of the war long before his son's death. In this book, he takes on both civilian and military leaders, suggesting major incompetence in both. He maintains that our foreign policy reflects the "ethic of self-gratification" in our country. Most Americans, he says, are on "a relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge," and this has led to "a condition of profound dependency," especially on foreign oil. While recent presidents bemoaned that dependency, they did little to reduce it. "Instead, they wielded U.S. military power to ensure access to oil, hoping thereby to prolong the empire of consumption's lease on life."

Bacevich is hard on President Ronald Reagan, criticizing the huge growth in federal spending and deficits during his 1981-89 presidency. He charges that Reagan "mainly indulged American self-indulgence" and that his presidency was a time of "gaudy prosperity and excess." He also suggests that Reagan's military build-up, his "tilt" toward Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and his aid to those resisting the USSR invasion of Afghanistan helped lead to today's wars in that area. While all of this is true, there is plenty of blame to go around for those wars. President Jimmy Carter, in office immediately before Reagan, had given secret aid to anti-Soviet Afghans that had contributed to the USSR invasion of Afghanistan. Then he, and later Reagan, aided the Afghan resistance that nurtured Osama bin Laden and other militants. As so often happens, one war led to another.

There were huge increases in both U.S. oil imports and the U.S. trade imbalance during Bill Clinton's presidency. And President Clinton, Bacevich says, "developed a prodigious appetite for bombing," especially in Iraq. UN economic sanctions, championed by the Clinton administration, led to great civilian suffering in Iraq and the deaths of many Iraqi children. But U.S. consumers at the time "enjoyed low gas prices and gorged themselves on cheap Asian imports," so "the price that others might be paying didn't much matter."

Prof. Bacevich is scathingly critical of President George W. Bush. One of his kinder comments is that Bush was "an imperial commander in chief not up to the job." The Bush record, Bacevich says elsewhere, is "orders of magnitude beyond inexcusable." He does, though, acknowledge that the Bush administration inherited major problems. He believes a changing cast of prestigious advisers, often called the Wise Men, have led presidents astray for decades. While many people in Washington use the term "Wise Men" with reverence, Bacevich writes about "Wise Men Without Wisdom."

A special target is Paul Nitze, an adviser to President Harry Truman and later presidents. Bacevich blames Nitze for formulating, in 1950, a policy of U.S. military build-up and for consistently exaggerating threats to our country. Nitze's policy, he says, "was an exercise in fearmongering, which has remained the stock-in-trade of Wise Men" ever since.

He also criticizes the "national security apparatus," that is, the Cold War-inspired interagency system that includes the National Security Council, National Security Adviser, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Central Intelligence Agency. They are supposed to work with older government agencies such as the State Department, but interagency squabbles continue. The cumbersome system just has not worked very well. Bacevich says presidents since the 1960s have seen it "not as an aid but as an impediment in decision making." Starting with President John Kennedy, presidents have used various devices to work around the apparatus; but some of their improvised systems have caused other problems.

When I read Bob Woodward's 2006 book about the Iraq War, State of Denial, my overwhelming impression was one of incompetence across the board: in the White House, National Security Council, Defense Department, Joint Chiefs--everywhere. And with so many different people and agencies stumbling over one another, it is hard to affix blame for bad policy. As Bacevich remarks, failure "does not yield apology or contrition or even acknowledgment of responsibility."

He also says out loud what army officers still on active duty may fear to say: that since the Cold War's end, the quality of top generals "has seldom risen above the mediocre." He makes specific criticisms of Generals H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Wesley Clark, Tommy Franks, and others. Unlike many Washington insiders, he is not dazzled by General David Petraeus. When Petraeus was in charge of Iraq, he says, "Bribes and guns helped turn the Sunnis against their erstwhile Al Qaeda allies. It was the cops paying the Crips to take on the Bloods."

If the situation is as bad as Bacevich believes, then what's to be done? He offers several proposals. One is to think about dismantling the unworkable national security apparatus. He doesn't say that he wants to abolish every part of it, but seems to imply that cabinet officers should have more responsibility. There is much to be said for that.

I would also argue for abolishing the covert-action portion of the CIA, which has caused enormous foreign-policy problems since the 1950s. (This is a problem Bacevich mentions, but does not pursue in depth.) As many critics have shown, presidents use the CIA as their own private army. It's very tempting to deal with overseas problems by resorting to secret regime overthrows and torture. Yet both are evil in themselves, and they lead to severe "blowback" against the United States.

Instead of an open-ended war against terrorism, Bacevich suggests a containment policy for violent Islamic extremists. He says this means more intense surveillance and "multilateral police efforts to prevent terrorist attacks and to root out terrorist networks." While he supports educational and cultural exchanges with Islam, he cautions that such efforts "will have a marginal effect at best." He advises: "Let Islam be Islam. In the end, Muslims will have to discover for themselves the shortcomings of political Islam."

He believes that abolition of nuclear weapons should be "an urgent national security priority" and urges this on the basic of "realism rather than idealism--not 'do-goodism' but self-interest." He says that nukes "are unusable" and that "the day is approaching" when the U.S. will have the ability to deter nuclear-armed nations through conventional weapons that are precise, accurate, and "highly lethal."

I would have liked to see more discussion of technical aspects of this point. And while I believe Bacevich is absolutely right to call for abolition of nuclear weapons, we need to keep in mind the horrific results of even conventional bombs.

He rejects the whole concept of preventive war. He says that "even setting moral considerations aside, to launch a war today to eliminate a danger that might pose a threat at some future date is just plain stupid. It doesn't work." Instead, he says, we "should conform to the Just War tradition."

Bravo! I would add, though, that there are different versions of Just War principles and that some are sketchy. We need a strict version that includes forbidding cruel and indiscriminate weapons. This should ban several kinds that we have used and/or sold to others for decades: napalm, white phosphorus, cluster bombs, and land mines. The ban is needed to protect both soldiers and civilians from injuries that can amount to lifelong torture.

Bacevich sees global warming as a national-security problem, too. (While somewhat skeptical about our ability to prevent global warming, I believe there are other good reasons--especially health reasons--to reduce pollution.) He is right to insist that we must reduce our dependence on foreign oil. As he says, "self-sufficiency has a value greater than even the largest army."

Prof. Bacevich is not optimistic that Americans will rise to the challenge of changing our foreign policy. He fears that, instead, we will follow our old patterns and "guzzle imported oil, binge on imported goods, and indulge in imperial dreams." And that we will "tolerate stupefying incompetence and dysfunction in the nation's capital, counting on the next president to fix everything that the last one screwed up." He believes our future may be one of "willful self-destruction."

I'm sure he would be happy to be proven wrong in his fears. And besides the motivation of avoiding more disaster, he suggests positive reasons to accept the limits of power. Recognizing those limits provides chances "to adjust policies and replenish resources--perhaps even to renew institutions." He adds that constraints "promote fresh thinking" and also "unleash creativity."

We certainly need all of this. We might say to the retired colonel, "Sir, yes, sir!" And to ourselves, "No more excuses about the failure to change!" Or, as they say in the country, "Let's get 'er done!"

Old man with Veterans for Peace cap holds sign: 'No Empire!'