image of book cover - The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism
image of book cover - The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism

The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism

Nov 11, 2008

America is facing a profound triple crisis: the economy, the government, and an involvement in endless wars. This threatens all of us, Republicans and Democrats alike, says Andrew Bacevich.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs. On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I'd like to thank you for joining us.

Today it is a pleasure to welcome back Andrew Bacevich. Whenever Professor Bacevich speaks at the Carnegie Council, he leaves us with much to think about. After he finishes discussing his book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, I know that you will have lots more to ponder.

The day after tomorrow, the world is going to wake up to find that we have a new president—at last. No longer will we be able to use the Bush presidency as an alibi for all that has gone wrong in our country and with our foreign-policy initiatives. While there is no question that in the past eight years, America's image has been tarnished by its domestic problems and its foreign-policy misadventures, the practical effects of this are far from clear. The Bush Administration has taught us a lot. We have learned that the United States cannot dominate, much less dictate and expect that others will follow.

However, Professor Bacevich points out that what we haven't learned is that the impulses that have landed us in an economic crisis of monumental proportions and a war of no exits and no deadlines come from within. Both are connected and, as our foreign policy has for decades, provide an outward manifestation of American domestic conditions, needs, and fears.

For some time now, Professor Bacevich says, he has been troubled by the course of U.S. foreign policy. In The Limits of American Power, he expresses his concerns about our country, its citizens, and the direction—or misdirection—in which we are headed. Offering a historical perspective on the illusions that have governed American policy since 1945, he provides a well reasoned analysis of the problems and what we need to do to fix them. He writes about three interlocking crises:

  • The first is economic and cultural, in that our economy can no longer be fixed by relying on expansion abroad.
  • The second is political, in that our government has been transformed by an imperial president, so that we have become a democracy in form only.
  • The third crisis can be found with the military, in that we have become so infatuated with our military power that we have become enmeshed in endless wars.

Drawing inspiration from the great theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, Professor Bacevich believes we may find a way out of this predicament if only we begin to see the world as it actually is, not as we might like it to be.

Andrew Bacevich is unusual. He's unusual in that as an avowed conservative, he convincingly refutes many conservative foreign-policy tenets. He is known as a clear-eyed and original thinker who speaks truth to power. He holds no prisoners as he challenges views held on both the right and the left. As an educator and an author, who, as a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, has written a number of widely acclaimed books, as a former soldier and West Point graduate with over 20 years in the military, including service as a soldier in Vietnam, Professor Bacevich has over the years acquired the intellect of a historian, the conscience of a warrior, and the mind of a realist. He is not afraid to use his voice to point out the limits of U.S. power and, while doing so, takes aim at America's culture of exceptionalism and cuts through our illusions.

In fact, if everyone was as introspective as Professor Bacevich, perhaps we would not be in this predicament. But the fact is, we are, and we need to find a way out. Maybe then can we determine America's proper role in the world.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest today, Andrew Bacevich.


ANDREW BACEVICH: That was an exceedingly generous introduction. I'm very grateful. I'm grateful for the chance to speak to you this morning.

I'm going to try to talk for about 35 minutes, with the hope that if I can run through this fairly quickly, then we'll have time for questions and discussion. I'm sure you will find that more interesting than anything I have to say anyway.

It seems to me that with regard to the ongoing economic crisis, there are two possibilities.

The first possibility is that it's a passing phenomenon—painful, yes, but a problem that has a solution. Through its bailout and other actions, the federal government is now implementing that solution. In the weeks to come, confidence will be restored and the economy will right itself. Congress will pass legislation that will prevent greedy Wall Street bankers from getting us in this fix again, and things will go back to normal. Nothing of substance will have changed. After all, why should it? As the politicians constantly assure us, the fundamentals of the economy are sound and no one can outproduce the American worker, when the American worker is given a fair chance to compete.

The second possibility is that this crisis signals that we have reached a true turning point, not only in the history of the United States, but in global history. According to this possibility, neither the greed of Wall Street nor the recklessness of Main Street can adequately explain the predicament we face. The real problem lies in the fact that the American people and the American government have for too long refused to live within their means, assuming the availability of a limitless line of credit. In this case, the urgent need is to put our house in order, which means that there must be substantive change, not only in the way we manage our economy, but in our culture, our politics, and in the way we relate to the world beyond our borders.

I subscribe to the second possibility. Although my book appeared before the current economic crisis erupted, my book argues that putting our house in order has become an urgent imperative.

There are two things that I think we need to do. The first is to see the world as it is, and the second is to see ourselves as we are, which implies viewing the past without illusions. This in turn implies abandoning the mythic narrative of America's relationship with the world beyond our borders. The mythic narrative—and I have to tell you, this is the narrative that the typical Boston University undergraduate brings into the classroom at age 18 or 19, when they embark upon the study of history—the mythic narrative goes like this: A nation, providentially set apart in the New World and wanting nothing more than to tend to its own affairs, grudgingly responded to calls that it assume the mantle of global leadership in order to preserve the possibility of human freedom.

Now, this mythic narrative is wildly misleading. Worse, however, the mythic narrative obstructs efforts today to gauge accurately the predicament in which we find ourselves. A truer—and not only truer, but also more useful—narrative would allow that the United States became a great power because it sought power and succeeded spectacularly in acquiring it.

Among the factors contributing to that success, in my judgment, two stand out. The first, we need to recognize, has to do with the folly of our competitors—chiefly, Japan, Germany, and then the Soviet Union, but also including, from an earlier period, France and Great Britain. The second factor, however, contributing to our success is the skill and the savvy and the ruthlessness of American statesmen.

The central theme of the policies devised by those statesmen over the past two centuries is not one of isolationism reluctantly abandoned somewhere in the interval between September 1939 and December 1941. Rather, the central theme of U.S. foreign policy is expansionism, beginning in the wake of the American Revolution and continuing down to the present day.

What did this expansionist project aim to achieve? In the 19th century, the emphasis was on the acquisition of territory and on the opening of markets abroad. For a brief moment, after 1898, that focus shifted to the acquisition of colonies—a brief, unhappy experiment with formal empire that was soon abandoned. Then in the 20th century, the focus shifted again and the priorities became these: political stability, economic and military access, adherence to American norms, and, in strategically critical regions, outright hegemony. To sum it up in a single phrase, an expansionist foreign policy sought the creation of an informal empire.

What means did the United States employ to achieve these aims? Put simply, whatever was necessary and whatever worked. At various times U.S. policy emphasized diplomacy and dissembling, threats and coercion, invasion and conquest, infiltration and filibustering, acquisitions paid for with cold, hard cash, and population removal, or what we would today call ethnic cleansing.

With what results? Apart from several missteps along the way—and one might cite here the annexation of the Philippines, the mishandling of Cuba, and the Vietnam War as prime examples—apart from several missteps along the way, the strategy of expansionism proved wildly successful. It was not a morally uplifting enterprise. Statecraft seldom is. It was, however, a remarkably effective enterprise.

As a result, by the midpoint of the 20th century, around the time I was born, the United States had become inarguably the most powerful, the richest, and, in the eyes of the white majority at least, the freest nation on the face of the earth.

Let me emphasize, in particular, that last point, the emphasis on freedom. Expansion enhanced American power. Power brought with it material abundance. Incrementally over time, abundance made freedom accessible to an ever-growing percentage of the American people. To put it another way, abundance—that is, the anticipation and the reality of an ever-larger economic pie—endowed our political system with an elasticity that enabled and encouraged political leaders to deal with social problems through the distribution of largesse, cutting into the American dream those who had been excluded or marginalized without requiring the privileged to make any significant sacrifices. Politically, there was no need to rob Peter to pay Paul. There was enough to go around to satisfy the demands of both.

Granted, none of this happened quickly or without struggle by the deprived and the oppressed. Indeed, it was not until the United States reached the acme of its economic dominance in the 1950s and 1960s that the circle of freedom finally widened enough to admit blacks, women, Latinos, gays, and the disabled.

But here's the problem. Right then in the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, this positive correlation between expansion, power, abundance, and freedom began to become undone. With few people taking proper notice, from that time forward, further efforts at expansionism have led to the squandering of American power. Expansionist policies have undercut American prosperity. To the extent that the central government, and especially the executive branch, began to acquire excessive authority, the emphasis on expansionism abroad also began to compromise American freedom.

The end of the Cold War helped to obscure this ominous development. We were told when the Cold War ended that history itself had ended, and we declared ourselves the winner. During the 1990s, in describing the position of the United States in the new post-Cold War order, it became fashionable to employ terms like "indispensable nation" and "sole superpower," and to speak of a "unipolar moment" or a "unipolar era."

But this was hogwash. The numbers told a different story, numbers related to trade imbalances, persistent federal deficits, and mushrooming entitlement programs, plummeting savings rates and growing energy dependence. To balance the books, we resorted to borrowing from foreign governments, counting on others to underwrite an American way of life increasingly based on the prospect of unfettered consumption. The actual theme of the post-Cold War era was this: Americans were refusing to live within their means and they expected someone else to foot the bill. The United States was increasingly becoming a debtor nation. When it came to energy and credit, it was becoming dependent on others.

Yet to forestall the day of reckoning, when it came to foreign policy, post-Cold War administrations hewed to the expansionist tradition of American statecraft. Expansionist efforts now increasingly focused on imposing our will on the vast and troubled region of the world today commonly referred to as the Greater Middle East.

We need to understand that the global war on terror initiated by George W. Bush is an expression of this urge to expand. Of course, the immediate rationale for the war on terror is to prevent the occurrence of another 9/11. But the chosen means to that end is to assert American power throughout the Greater Middle East. The object of the exercise is to transform this region, to employ American power, both hard and soft, to impose order, while ensuring stability and access and adherence to American norms—in essence, to establish unambiguous U.S. hegemony, so that the Islamic world will no longer serve as a breeding ground for terrorists who wish to kill us. The idea is to accomplish in the Middle East what the United States, albeit with considerable help and in radically different circumstances, accomplished in Germany and Japan 60 years ago.

Don't take my word for it. Here's Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld speaking at a press conference on September 18, 2001, a week after 9/11: "We have a choice either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way that they live, and we chose the latter."

The verb tense, I think, here is a bit revealing—"chose." That is to say, within a week after 9/11, the basic decision had already been made: The Bush Administration was changing the way that "they" live. Rumsfeld did not explain who "they" were, and nobody asked who "they" were, because we know who "they" are. "They" are the approximately 1.4 billion people who inhabit the Islamic world.

Changing the way they live meant that the United States was going to have to bring about a fundamental political and cultural transformation of this entire swath of humanity. Here is Rumsfeld in a memo to President Bush on September 30, 2001: "If the war does not significantly change the world's political map"—and "war" here is not Iraq; "war" is the larger enterprise—"if the war does not significantly change the world's political map, the U.S. will not achieve its aim."

Along similar lines, here's Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, in a memo that he drafted for Rumsfeld. This is dated May 2004. America's purpose, wrote Feith, was to, quote, "transform the Middle East and the broader world of Islam generally."

Oddly—or perhaps not so oddly, given the cultural revolution that we have experienced over the past 40 or so years—the administration laid out this very bold agenda, this strategy of transformation, without making any effort to mobilize the country in support. The Bush Administration, after 9/11, did not expand the size of the United States military, apparently assuming that the military assets in existence at that time would suffice for all the tasks ahead. This is noteworthy. This is the first time in our history—think of 1812, think of 1846, 1861, 1898 1917, think of World War II, think of Korea, think of Vietnam—this is the first time in our history that we embarked upon a major conflict without the president immediately turning to the Congress and saying, "We need more soldiers." It's the first time we entered a major conflict and assumed that the soldiers we had would be sufficient for the tasks ahead.

Indeed, the Bush Administration did not ask the American people to make any sacrifices on behalf of this great enterprise. President Bush explicitly, two weeks after 9/11, urged the American people to carry on as if there were no war. And we did as instructed.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was supposed to jumpstart this strategy of transformation. There has been a tremendous amount of controversy over exactly what explains the decision to invade Iraq. I know that there is no one single explanation. There were a variety of concerns and motives. But I think, from a strategic point of view, from the point of view of the Iraq enterprise relating to this larger effort to transform Islam, Iraq was intended by the Bush Administration to be a demonstration project. Success there would set the stage for success elsewhere in the region—in Iran, in Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan.

I don't mean that a successful invasion would then be followed by an invasion of Syria or an invasion of Iran. What I mean is that the expectation was that our willingness and capacity to demonstrate that we could use hard power to bring about fundamental change in a country like Iraq would transform power relationships throughout the region and put us in a position to be able to use leverage to bring change elsewhere.

Here's Condoleezza Rice quoted in the latest Bob Woodward book: "I have believed from day one that Iraq is going to change the face of the Middle East. I have never stopped believing that."

But the invasion of Iraq has not changed the face of the Middle East, at least not in the way that Rice and others predicted. The invasion of Iraq has not brought stability to the region. If anything, the reverse is true. The invasion of Iraq has not enhanced our influence and our standing in the Islamic world. It has not given us leverage to be employed on others. It has simply fostered greater anti-Americanism.

By the time the next president takes office, the sixth anniversary—the sixth anniversary—of the Iraq War will be approaching. By that time, the United States will have expended nearly $1 trillion in Iraq, while sacrificing the lives of over 4,000 American soldiers, not to count the thousands of wounded, not to count the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have been killed. Yet when the president takes office, we are going to have, in round numbers, 140,000 troops still in Iraq, along with 30,000 troops in Afghanistan.

During his two terms, President Bush will have begun two wars. He will leave office without having been able to bring either one of those wars to a conclusion.

Those are the facts. When we contemplate those facts, can anyone possibly think that at this stage a strategy of changing the way "they" live is either plausible or affordable? What does it mean today to see the world as it is and to see ourselves the way we are?

It turns out that the Islamic world is not nearly as malleable as some people imagined. It turns out that U.S. power, and especially military power that we thought was our strong suit, is not nearly as great as we once imagined. Transforming the Greater Middle East lies beyond our means. The effort that President Bush inaugurated after 9/11 is not enhancing American power, prosperity, and freedom. Just the reverse is true. And to persist in the course that he has set us on will lead only to ever-greater debt and dependence.

The point, therefore, is not simply that the Bush Administration's post-9/11 strategy is failing, which it is, but that the foreign policy of expansionism, the tradition to which we have long adhered—that tradition has now run its course.

To husband our power, to ensure that future generations will share in the American dream, and, above all, to preserve our freedom requires that we abandon that tradition and devise an entirely new approach to dealing with the world. This is the task, it seems to me, that we must confront. That task requires that we give up the effort to change the way "they" live and pay more attention to changing the way we live, so that we can preserve that which we claim to value most—namely, our freedom.

Thank you very much.

Questions and Answers

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much.

I just want to mention that the book is part of a series of Metropolitan Books on the American Empire Project. It includes works by today's leading thinkers and writers as they grapple with escalating tensions and pitfalls of America's expanding global power.

I know you all have a lot of questions.

I think, Andrew, you and I would have a lot to disagree about. But I want to ask you a little bit about the positive side of this, which you just hinted at—what we should do instead.

Had we not had a President Bush with this transformative vision—the way I understand it, part of your point is that it's less about him than about the sweep of American history—what would a more prudent figure have done in the face of things like the Arab human development reports that say, "Here is a part of the world that suffers from profound deficits, which are political, as well as cultural, as well as economic," and which called upon other states to do something about?

That is, if you combine the sense that there is this terrible vacuum there with the sense that this is a place of strategic importance to us, but you didn't suffer from the transformational fantasies which I think you have rightly ascribed to this administration, would you instead have adopted a more classically realist view like that of Bush's father, in which you would have said, "We will deal with regimes that share our strategic sense," or would you have thought, "Well, no, we actually live in a different world in which it's in our interest to try to do something about those kinds of deficits"?

I think there's a middle ground, and I think the best way to identify the middle ground would be to try to distinguish between short-term imperatives and longer-term objectives.

The short-term imperative would be one in which the classical realism would recognize that there is great value simply to being able to try to ensure a modicum of stability in the world, and that means you are probably going to have to work in tandem with regimes that don't share your values.

The longer-term goal would be one in which we would recognize an interest in bringing about positive change in the region, but we would also recognize the limits of our capacity to direct that.

My own reading of the efficacy of development is one that suggests that, apart from certain specific exceptions—postwar Western Europe would be the biggest example—regardless of how well-intentioned we may be, we really don't know how to bring about development. We really don't know how to guide nations into modernity. Therefore, we shouldn't kid ourselves that these are problems that, gosh, if we just gave less money to the Pentagon and more to AID [U.S. Agency for International Aid], everything would be okay. But we still have an interest in this transformation.

I think that the best one could hope to do would be to use the elements of so-called soft power to encourage change, never having expectations that you will have any effects, apart from on the margin. It is a good thing, for example, I think, to encourage educational exchanges. It is a good thing to encourage cultural exchanges. It is a good thing to try to employ some amount of economic assistance to respond to the needs of those who are most desperately suffering. But we should never do that somehow with the expectation that that's going to have a decisive impact.

QUESTION: I guess it's a fair guess that you don't get too many invites to speak at Pentagon training workshops. Maybe I'm wrong on that.

You must hear that folks think your argument is a bit overdrawn. Do Americans really live much more beyond their means, let us say, than those in Luxembourg or Northern Italy, very high-income parts of the world? What might account for that?

I wonder, though, if you could just take a moment to tell us about what seems to many to be what has been the exceptional American contribution to the international order—and that was in that New Deal-kind-of-gone-global spurt of international institution building, international law that many, particularly on the right, have bitterly resisted in the United States over the past 60 years, but nonetheless sets out a globally inclusive vision and a political order - and how you see, let us say, what became a complement to that, NATO in the transatlantic region, and the purposes of NATO expansion, whether that's hegemonic or whether that's simply a mutually beneficial kind of securing the peace.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I actually get a remarkable number of invitations to speak to military audiences. I have to say, I generally don't accept them because they want me to fly to places like Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and it's not very convenient. But I do take from the frequency of the invitations that—I don't want to make any sort of broad generalizations about the officer corps, because it's not as if somehow I have some great insight into the officer corps today. I don't. But I take from those invitations that at least there is a certain awareness that an argument that says that American power, and especially military power, is limited is not an anti-military argument. The people who are deploying to Iraq for their third or fourth or fifth combat tour, the people who have prospects of having their entire career be encompassed by what the Pentagon calls "the long war"—it has been referred to as a "generational war"—that this may not be in the interests of the country, it may not be in the interests of the officer corps, and it may not be in the interests of the individual soldiers who serve.

That would be point number one.

Point number two: I guess I'm not sure I understood the question. Did the United States, in the aftermath of World War II, contribute to the creation of certain international norms and international regimes? Were those efforts, on balance, probably more useful than not useful? Heck, yes.

QUESTIONER: [Not at microphone] But is that the expansionist model which you implied has been the driving factor—

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think it's clear that in the aftermath of World War II, the United States set out to achieve hegemony both in Western Europe and in East Asia. Now, this is an effort to achieve hegemony that did not result in our having to say to the Western Europeans, "We've just drawn our pistol. Now follow these orders." There is a great phrase, "empire by invitation." The Western Europeans— and I think also, to a degree, the Japanese—welcomed American hegemony.

But it's still hegemony. It's a soft hegemony. It's still hegemony.

Did this effort to achieve hegemony in Western Europe and East Asia after World War II serve the interests of the United States? I tried to say as clearly as I possibly could, yes, emphatically. Up to, roughly, the 1960s, expansionism fostered the acquisition of power, helped to make us rich, and helped to make us free. It was a good thing.

I also tried to say as clearly as I could that that relationship no longer pertains, in my judgment.

Do the Luxembourgians live beyond their means? I don't really know. Do they live well? Yes. They live well, in part, because, of course, Western Europe has gotten in the habit of outsourcing its security to the United States of America. We pay the bills, so that they can devote their resources to things other than defense. I think perhaps that's no longer necessary.

I don't know what the Luxembourgian savings rate is. I do know that ours is below zero—below zero. This is not a sign of a healthy society.

So I can't make much of a comparison there.

Let's talk about NATO, NATO expansion. The purpose of NATO expansion in the aftermath of the Cold War was to try to consolidate the victory in the Cold War, to incorporate into democratic and liberal Europe the remnants of the Soviet Empire. I would say, on balance, that effort has certainly served the interests of Europe; on balance, it has probably served the interests of the United States.

But, of course, things are never quite that simple, are they? The consolidation and the expansion of NATO eastward and other representations of American foreign policy—like the intervention in the Balkans, like the insistence upon ballistic missile defenses for Europe—were done basically over the objections of the Russians. For 20 years, we basically said, "We don't care what you think. You're weak, we're strong, and we're going to do what we want." And we got away with that for 20 years.

It seems to me that the significance of the Georgian episode is that the Russians have indicated very clearly that they are no longer all that weak, we are no longer all that strong, and therefore, at this point, this eastward expansionist project needs to come to an end. I think we need to recognize that the Russians have certain security interests, and Russian security interests, not unlike American security interests, get translated into an effort to define a sphere of influence over which they intend to have control.

It is the misfortune of the Georgians that Georgia happens to be located immediately next door to Russia, just as, one might say, it's the misfortune of the Cubans that they are located 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

My view is, we were able to poke the Russian bear in the eye for 20 years and got away with it. It seems to me now it's time for us to desist from that tendency and to perhaps recognize Russian security interests.

If you put aside centuries of history where victors enslaved the vanquished and killed prisoners and stuff—we, in fact, put atomic bombs in Japan, and Germany was devastated. If we look at the building of a modern Islamic world, don't we really need to be a little tougher than complaining after six years? If you took the example of Mustafa Kemal, I think you would be closer to a reworking of an old saying, so that you would say that you would want to stay the course until you strangled the last Taliban with the entrails of the last mullah.

I'm just curious as to what your thoughts are on that.

I'm not sure I actually understood the question. If the question is, should we not stay the course—one of the fundamental problems that we have is that we already have too much war, too few warriors. The two wars which we have, on a historical scale, are actually relatively modest in size. But the two wars that we have are all that we can handle. General McKiernan, the guy who just took over command of NATO forces in Afghanistan, has said clearly that we don't have enough troops in Afghanistan. General McKiernan wants three additional brigades. That's approximately 15,000 soldiers.

Parenthetically, needless to say, we're not going to get them from Europe. Forget that.

Fifteen thousand soldiers out of the population of this country, with 310 million? It doesn't seem like a lot, does it? Well, they don't exist. They're not available.

Secretary Gates has said, "Yes, McKiernan is right. He needs additional troops in Afghanistan," and, "Maybe by next spring, you can have some." Next spring? Why? Because the only way we can have more troops go to Afghanistan is to take troops out of Iraq.

So if you want to stay the course, if you want to kill that last Islamic radical sometime 50 years from now or 100 years from now, we are going to need many, many, many, many more soldiers. Where are they going to come from? We are committed to the concept of an all-volunteer force. I view that commitment as irrevocable. It might be nice to talk about conscription. Conscription is not going to happen.

Where are you going to get the soldiers? They are not going to come from the 18- and 19- and 20-year-olds of this country, beyond the numbers that we currently have prepared to serve. So if you want to fight a long war successfully—forget how much this is going to cost and where the money is going to come from—if you want to fight a long war successfully, you have to have lots and lots and lots of soldiers. We don't have lots and lots and lots of soldiers. My personal judgment is that the soldiers that we have we are subjecting to abuse by the way we send them back again and again and again.

QUESTION: Dr. Bacevich, I want to ask you a question about the implementation of expansionist policy on the ground. Some years ago, the Washington Post military correspondent—I think her name was Dana Priest—wrote a book, whose title I have forgotten—

ANDREW BACEVICH: The Mission, I think it was called.

Yes. It laid out in detail the power and authority of the regional commanders of the military. It seemed to me, reading this book, that it was the best example at that time of the ongoing power and authority that these commanders have, not only militarily, but diplomatically and, to some degree, economically. Is that, in your view, a good thing to keep going? Have these people performed? Is it indeed an arm of expansionist policy? If you were the president, would you reduce it or do away with it?

ANDREW BACEVICH: That's a really good question. There is no simple answer to the question. Let me take a whack at it, however.

I would say, as a bottom-line judgment, our foreign policy has for too long been excessively militarized, to the extent that senior military officers, such as the four-star regional commanders, are the principal actors in the framing and implementation of U.S. foreign policy, and that almost guarantees that our policies will continue to be excessively militarized.

However, it does not follow that if we take power from the four-star regional commanders and give it to the civilians, our foreign policy becomes unmilitarized, because for too long the civilian national security elites have themselves been completely enamored with the effectiveness of military power.

Dana Priest wrote her book based on observations of the clout that these regional commanders had acquired during the Clinton era. Civil-military relations in the Clinton era had become tilted in favor of the military. In many respects, the military had acquired a de facto veto over U.S. national security policy. In my judgment, the Republicans in the 1990s, who were out of power, were observing this problem in civil-military relations and they saw it as a problem and vowed to correct it, if and when they came back into power. When Rumsfeld became the secretary of defense in 2001, that was almost item number one on his agenda. He was going to show who was in charge. He was going to reassert civilian control.

You may remember that those regional commanders in the 1990s were called CINCs, which was an acronym for "commander-in-chief," so that the admiral out in Hawaii was the commander-in-chief/Pacific or the commander-in-chief of SOUTHCOM. It was Rumsfeld who said, "There's only one commander-in-chief, and you guys are not going to call yourselves that anymore. You guys are henceforth going to call yourselves combatant commanders." That was symbolic, but it was symbolic, I think, of his determination to reassert control.

I support civilian control emphatically and without any question. The problem is, Rumsfeld may have been in charge, but he turned out to be a man of incredibly poor judgment. So after 9/11, we have policy being made by civilians. Indeed, we have generals getting trampled on. The case of General Shinseki would be the example. We have the civilians making policy, and they are making bad policy. That's a problem.

By the time we get to about 2006, Rumsfeld has so discredited himself that he gets fired, and the implementation of the so-called surge in Iraq, which, it is argued, has turned that war around—awkward phrasing, because I don't buy that—has now once again tilted civil-military relations in the opposite direction.

When the new president takes office, who will be the one individual that he has to deal with most carefully, to whom he must express the greatest deference? It's going to be a guy named General David Petraeus. That is to say, we are once again in a situation, it seems to me, where, arguably, the military has become too powerful, at the expense of the civilians.

So I think it's a fairly complicated story, but it's a fascinating story.

QUESTION: I haven't read your book, but I'm going to, of course. It's fascinating.

The question I have is, you have not addressed some of other reasons for expansionism, such as trade. This is a major factor throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Beginning with Thomas Jefferson and the war with the Barbary pirates and the Louisiana Purchase, our expansionism was for trade. We had to put our people to work and we had to get our factories going. We are dominating the world with trade, not just military.

Would you address that, please?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Unless I misread my script, I said quite specifically that the purpose of expansionism—in the 19th century, the emphasis was on the acquisition of territory and the opening of markets. I agree with you emphatically.

QUESTIONER: I missed that. I think it pertains today, too.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think it's more complicated than that today. I absolutely acknowledge that part of the strategy of expansionism was commercial expansionism. That aspect of expansionism, as with territorial expansionism, was very successful and contributed to our growing wealth and power over a period of time.

Today I'm not so sure. If I'm not mistaken, the negative trade balance this last fiscal year is something in the realm of $800 billion. Is that good or bad? When I was a kid, the trade balance was always in the black, and we said that was good. So if now, for the last 35 years, it has been in the red—and not simply in the red, but getting redder and redder and redder from one year to the next—that strikes me as a problem.

Therefore, simply to unthinkingly endorse the proposition that free trade is a good thing I guess is something that I'm no longer willing to do. I'm not going to make the opposite argument that therefore trade is bad and we should pass a new Smoot-Hawley tariff and try to cut ourselves off. But it seems to me that free traders have not given us an adequate explanation for why our trade balance has gotten to be so much out of whack and what the implications are of that.

QUESTION: First of all, thank you very much.

I certainly agree with your underlying point that we should get our house in order and that we are overly militarized. But I kind of want to draw you out a little bit on your interpretation of American history. The way I heard your remarks, in contrast to this freshman who shows up in your class, there have been these leaders of the United States over a century and a half who have had a deliberate kind of deception of the American people, because they put out this rhetoric about freedom and helping other countries in trouble and, instead, have had these goals of expansion. They have deliberately misrepresented this consistently to the American people.

That's kind of my understanding of what you said.

My question about that is, where does that come from? In other words, we have Republicans and Democrats. These people don't always talk to each other, necessarily, when they come into office about these questions. When I was in government, as I mentioned to you, I usually found that these big questions never got addressed. The transition team would come in and just talk about the immediate little problem—what do we do tomorrow about Israel or Iraq, whatever?

How does that work, in your mind? In other words, is there just kind of an assumption about these things in the leaderships of the American public that are absolutely never addressed or is there a conspiracy?
I think there's something a little more ad hoc, maybe, or responding to immediate crises—Hitler comes up or the Japanese come up.

To relate that to kind of your leap from Clinton to Bush, if Sandra Day O'Connor had not sort of thrown the election to the Republican Party, Al Gore would have been the president. At least there are many people who believe we would not then have gone into Iraq in the way we did. So everything you had to say about Rumsfeld and company and how they have terribly taken us down the wrong road, with which I agree, may not have happened, because we would have maybe had some other approach, whatever that might have been, in Afghanistan or something.

I wonder if you could sort of amplify a little bit how you see the trajectory of American history relating to the points I have just tried to outline.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Two points. The first is this question that Rumsfeld and people of his ilk took us down the wrong road. My argument is that we had already gone down the wrong road. The decisions made by the Bush Administration in the aftermath of 9/11 absolutely reinforced the wrong direction, accelerated our movement down the wrong road. But we had chosen that wrong road—the way I portray it in the book, basically, the key pivot point is the interval between Jimmy Carter's "malaise speech" of July 1979—he proposed that we go down a different road—and the inauguration of Ronald Reagan in January of 1981, who said, "Hey, this is a good road. Not to worry. Let's go. Come on. Hustle up."

Indeed, I'm not at all willing to let Clinton, and therefore Gore, off the hook. My argument is that to the extent that we have become promiscuous in our approach to the use of force as an instrument of foreign policy, that promiscuity—which, needless to say, has to revolve around Bill Clinton—that promiscuity really appears in the 1990s. It's Clinton who ups the ante in Somalia. It's Clinton who intervenes in Haiti, Clinton who intervenes in Bosnia, Clinton who intervenes in Kosovo, Clinton who tries to hammer training camps in Afghanistan (ineffectually), Clinton who bombs Iraq more times than anybody can possibly count during the 1990s.

You may, on the individual episode, say that the use of force was either proper or not proper. But the record of the 1990s under Bill Clinton is one in which the United States intervenes more frequently, in more parts of the world, for more purposes than any time in our history. So it's not just a problem with Rumsfeld.

Now, given that, the public justification for U.S. interventionism or for informal empire tends to revolve around the assertion that the American people act because the American people are interested in peace and freedom for all mankind. Does that constitute a deliberate deception by our policymakers? No, it does not constitute a deliberate deception. I think, if anything, it constitutes a collective self-deception that goes back to the founding of Anglo-America. The reason that the notion of American exceptionalism is noted in the subtitle of my book is to acknowledge the extent to which throughout our history—going back to John Winthrop on the deck of the Arabella in 1630 proclaiming that the community that he is about to establish in Massachusetts Bay will serve as a "City upon a Hill"—this notion of being providentially chosen, of having a special mission to history, of claiming special prerogatives as a consequence of that runs as a theme throughout our history.

I actually would say that the vast majority of Americans, to include many American statesmen, genuinely believe that, genuinely believe that we are a providential nation. The transformation of George W. Bush after 9/11 from somebody who is kind of a soft realist—I don't think he really thought about the world in any significant way—after 9/11, he is transformed into a full-blooded Wilsonian, who proclaims that we will eliminate evil from the face of the earth.

I don't think that that's hypocrisy. I think that this genuinely religious man underwent a conversion experience on 9/11 and woke up the next day and had become Woodrow Wilson reborn. He genuinely believed that, and he genuinely believed it because it had become convenient to believe that. It helps to provide a moral impetus for the project of expansionism that we were going to begin. We ourselves, as consumers—go read the president's second inaugural address. It is a remarkably important state paper. It is eloquent and it is uplifting and it's completely wrongheaded as a basis for strategy. Nonetheless, it's not deliberate deception. It's telling us what they believe and what they are certain we want to hear, and all that then provides a convenient rationale for actions that are undertaken, not only to bring about peace and freedom. If peace and freedom is what we're all about, by God, it's time to go liberate Zimbabwe. It's time to liberate Myanmar.

QUESTION: First of all, when you talk about military versus civilian leaders, I think we should give credit to individuals. For example, General Petraeus has been spending a great deal more time studying what has been going on in Iraq and Afghanistan and what the people really want and how they have evolved than Paul Bremer, who was a civilian, who just gave orders.

The question is, if you were a professor not at Boston University, but at your alma mater, West Point, what would you be telling the young cadets is the purpose of their military service? I have met cadets who talk about peacekeeping and nation building and other more liberal goals than one would imagine as just using instruments of war.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I hope I would say exactly what I say to my students at Boston University. I think the function of an educator is to do the best you can to divine the truth and speak the truth, making no claim that one has a lock on the truth.

I don't know what goes on at West Point today. I gave a talk there over the summer, but it would be wrong for me to claim that I have a feel for how things happen in the corps of cadets. I would say that when I was there, in another century, to put it mildly—from my present vantage point, I can understand clearly that we did not receive an education at West Point. We were trained and we underwent a very intensive program of socialization, which I think was very well designed, purposely designed, not unintelligently designed, in order to try to shape us into officers. Again, they did a pretty good job of that, I think. But I would never mistake my four years at West Point for the equivalent of having gotten an undergraduate education. Indeed—it's water over the dam; it doesn't matter—I regret the fact that I never got an adequate undergraduate education because of what I was doing instead.

But for me personally, what I would say to them is what I say to you, because it's what I think.

JOANNE MYERS: I have to thank you for a very exciting and stimulating morning. Thank you.

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