Andrew Bacevich is no fan of George W. Bush. The conservative historian and former military officer lost a son fighting in Iraq and has publicly called the administration’s foreign policy record one of “substantial, if almost malignant, achievement.”
Yet in his new book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, he argues that the country’s foreign policy is a direct result of the American way of life. The only way of changing that policy, he contends, is changing the way Americans live.
In 1995, Bacevich wrote presciently that “to cope with a world in which terrorists and warlords pose as great a challenge as massed armies, a radical revision of military thinking is essential,” arguing that the lessons of Vietnam had largely been forgotten. With those lessons still forgotten, he now says, the country’s problems are of its own making. Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, recently spoke with U.S. News.
Editor’s Comment — Andrew Bacevich points to a reality upon which no one is likely to be able to build a popular cause: the need for changes so profound that they would change everyone’s lives.
Generally speaking, political rallying cries all apply the same socio-psychological gimmick: posit an external entity (Bush and Cheney, Republicans, Democrats, government, corporations, immigrants, Muslims, foreigners, the West, Washington, the military-industrial complex, etc) and then fire up a sense of solidarity that comes from standing in opposition to whatever it is that one sees as the problem. Self-righteously, we can come together, stand up and speak out, confident that it is the “other” that must change. And if — because that other is too powerful or vast — it is unrealistic for us to have any hope of being agents of change, then we can at least find comfort in the idea that we remained true to our principles.
Nato is useless. It has failed to bring stability to Afghanistan, as it failed to bring it to Serbia. It just breaks crockery. Nato has proved a rotten fighting force, which in Kabul is on the brink of being sidelined by exasperated Americans. Nor is it any better at diplomacy: witness its hamfisted handling of east Europe. As the custodian of the west’s postwar resistance to the Soviet Union’s nuclear threat it served a purpose. Now it has become a diplomats’ Olympics, irrelevant but with bursts of extravagant self-importance.
Yesterday’s Nato ministerial meeting in Brussels was a fig leaf over the latest fiasco, the failure to counter the predictable Russian intervention in Georgia. Ostensibly to save Russian nationals in South Ossetia, the intervention was, in truth, to tell Georgia and Ukraine that they must not play games with the west along Russia’s frontier. Nato, which Russia would (and should) have joined after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is now a running provocation along the eastern rim of Europe.
There was no strategic need for Nato to proselytise for members, and consequent security guarantees, among the Baltic republics and border states to the south. Nor is there any strategic need for the US to place missile sites in Poland or the Czech Republic. This was mere Nato self-aggrandisement reinforcing the lobbying of the Pentagon hawks.
Europe has entered the new 19th century. The Russia-Georgia war of 8-12 August 2008 has acted as a time-machine, vaporising the “end of history” sentiment that shaped European politics in the 1990s and replacing it with an older geopolitical calculus in modern form.
An older calculus – but not a cold-war one. Indeed, though the conflict over South Ossetia has generated heady rhetoric of the cold-war’s return, the real constellation of power and ideology it has revealed is different from the days of superpower confrontation in the four decades after 1945. This is indeed time-travel, not a mere reversal of gears.
It is the singular element of a power-confrontation not accompanied by developed ideological polarisation that makes the Russia-Georgia war the first 19th-century war in 21st-century Europe. The near-coincidence of the fortieth anniversary of the Red Army’s invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the “Prague spring” in August 1968 makes the point. The punitive incursion into Georgia is not a remake; its conditions, motives, driving certainties and governing justifications are different. Russia’s military expedition – and victory – in Georgia marks Moscow’s attempt to return to the centre of European power-politics. It signals the resurgence of Russia as a born-again 19th-century power eager to challenge the early-21st century post-cold-war European order.
Once upon a time there was a master narrative, and a neater little theory-of-everything you never did see. In its 19th century heyday it rationalized the having of the haves and commanded the deference of the have-nots; it spoke from the pulpit, the newspaper and the professor’s chair.
Its name was market, and to slight it in even the smallest way was to take your professional life into your hands. In 1895, the economist Edward Bemis found this out when he was dismissed from John D. Rockefeller’s University of Chicago thanks to his “attitude on public utility and labor questions,” as he put it in a letter to Upton Sinclair. Professors elsewhere paid the same price for intellectual independence.
But the orthodoxy lost its power of life and death. Academia developed protections for scholars who pursued unpopular ideas. Rockefeller’s University of Chicago went on to become the pre-eminent research university in the land, a temple of free inquiry and a magnet for Nobel prizes. I studied there and loved its atmosphere of endless debate.
Today, though, that old master narrative is back in a softer form. The market doesn’t so much intimidate scholars as bend them in particular, profitable directions. For example, a contract between Virginia Commonwealth University and Philip Morris reportedly gives that company the right to veto publication of certain research done by VCU professors. The New York Times tells of a prominent Harvard child psychologist, a powerful advocate for certain drugs, who received large consulting fees from drug manufacturers. Further examples could be piled up by the dozen.
The federal government has been using its system of border checkpoints to greatly expand a database on travelers entering the country by collecting information on all U.S. citizens crossing by land, compiling data that will be stored for 15 years and may be used in criminal and intelligence investigations.
Officials say the Border Crossing Information system, disclosed last month by the Department of Homeland Security in a Federal Register notice, is part of a broader effort to guard against terrorist threats. It also reflects the growing number of government systems containing personal information on Americans that can be shared for a broad range of law enforcement and intelligence purposes, some of which are exempt from some Privacy Act protections.
While international air passenger data has long been captured this way, Customs and Border Protection agents only this year began to log the arrivals of all U.S. citizens across land borders, through which about three-quarters of border entries occur.