“Limits Of Power” by Andrew Bachevich

“The Limits Of Power” is an engaging book that explores the contemporary imperialism of the United States Of America.

Most of the facts that Andrew Bacevich puts forth in the book are quite true. The central core of the book, the weakness of the idea of American exceptionalism, is indeed valid. That exceptionalism and the resulting imperialism is, in the long run, more of a threat to American citizens and society, and indeed the whole world, than most foreign powers. Even though he gets that right, he harbors some essential misunderstandings which only serve bring him to some misguided conclusions.

His premise is that, because Americans have a fetish about freedom, they have succumbed to consumerism and dependence on foreign oil and other goods, in order to live the good life. This dependence has put a premium on military might to protect the freedom to consume. He sees this as the primary cause of the Middle East conflicts. Americans protecting their interests, using the false front of freeing the people of that region from tyrants, use military might to protect their supply of cheap oil.

He is writing from a background as a retired army colonel. Thus, when he speaks of The United States, America or Americans, he is generally speaking of the collective political apparatus of the state, not about the people at all. This does set the tone for much of the book and his outlook. There are times, however, when he does use the terms to describe individual people, consumers in the “crisis of profligacy.” This mixture serves only to confuse the logic of his arguments.

A fundamental error in his logic, which affects most of his conclusions and recommendations, is that he misconstrues the notion of freedom. The only coherent understanding of freedom is that it has limitations only in the responsibility to refrain from interfering with the freedom of others. That is not the understanding of freedom that Bacevich uses. He states that “freedom has an underside.” His statement in the first section of the book is telling. “In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Washington’s resolve that nothing interfere with the individual American’s pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness only hardened.”

It may be that politicians wanted Americans to think that they were interested in preserving freedom, but everything that they did resulted in the destruction of freedoms for Americans. As he noted later in the book, American politicians and military leaders used the pretext of freedom for Middle East countries to initiate aggressive military and political intervention in the affairs of foreign countries, with the objective of installing friendly governments. Yet he doesn’t grasp his own inconsistent understanding and misuse of the term throughout his discussions.

Through much of the book, that disconnect was quite disturbing, because I agree with much of what he said. Imperialism is weakening America, morally, politically and financially. American politicians are trying to impose on the world standards that they themselves refuse to abide by. Frequently, however, I would be jolted by something that didn’t fit, conclusions that were wrong. It seems to come down to the idea that freedom is the problem.

In his conclusion, he comes close to being right, but then veers off course by construing that international relations are only political or military. He refers to his master, Reinhold Niebuhr, saying “Yet he [Niebuhr] understood that a nation satisfies its interests more easily when those interests are compatible with the interests of others.” What he is stating is the essence of free trade. When people are free to trade with whoever they want on whatever terms they want, the interests of each are made compatible. Lack of coercion creates benefits of cooperation for both parties.

Where he goes wrong is to believe that the interests of American politicians are the interests of the Americans. That is the root of most economic fallacy and problems in international relations. The self interest of politicians is almost always at odds with the self interest of citizens. Bacevich treats them as one and the same. On the very last page, he quotes Neibuhr again, “social orders will probably destroy themselves in the effort to prove that they are indestructible.” The reality is that politicians will destroy social orders because their own self interest is in power, and power ultimately destroys freedom and progress.

Bacevich’s entire line of reasoning seems to be based on his understanding that “Freedom is the alter at which Americans worship, whatever their nominal religious persuasion.” That unrestrained pursuit of life, liberty and happiness leads to the outward projection of military might to protect American’s right to buy stuff for cheap. That has led to a dependence on foreign countries for cheap oil and cheap goods. The American standard of living is thus, according to Bacevich, the result of imperialism. The conclusion is that Americans must accept a lower standard of living in order to bring the imperialist government in line. If they keep demanding stuff, the government will feel obliged to get it for them.

There are, in fact, many people who do worship at that alter that Bacevich talks about. But the freedom he is talking about is not freedom with any coherent meaning. That false freedom denies that anyone else has freedom to pursue their own self interests. Because Americans are free to trade does not in any way give any philosophical support to the idea that they have a right to force others, domestic or foreign, to trade with them on terms that they themselves set. That is not freedom, in any coherent sense, but rather the use of coercion, the rejection of freedom of others. True freedom is, in fact, a two way street.

Americans have no right, whatsoever, to the petroleum resources or any other goods of any nation or person. If every Middle East country stopped producing and selling oil, that would probably be harmful to Americans in the short run. That fact does not give the American military or the CIA the right to interfere militarily or politically in the workings of any of those nations. Americans can and would adjust. But moreover, that scenario is highly unlikely to ever happen. The fact that Americans are dependent on foreigners for oil means that they are dependent on us for other things. When Americans pay in dollars, foreigners have to buy something from Americans to use those American dollars.

Bacevich suffers from the illusion that dependence is a bad thing, and that Americans would be better off by being independent of any country for any good. It is a very sound and widely accepted economic principle that international trade between individuals makes all parties better off. Thousands of different factors give comparative advantage to different regions, different cultures and different people. When someone concentrates on what they are good at and trades for what they are not good at, they will likely be significantly better off. The braoder and more international the structure on which comparative advantage can be pursued, the higher the standard of living will be for all involved. It is not dependency but rather interdependency.

The notion that nations trade is a fallacy that promotes imperialism. Nations don’t trade, the people of the nations do. Neither they nor their state apparatus has any right to coerce others to trade with them.

A more realistic line of reasoning to me is that economic freedom created prosperity. That prosperity allowed the possibility of large, powerful government that was capable of imperialism. That large government and its imperialism are a threat to the very freedom that created the prosperity. Thus, massive government and imperialism must be resisted by all people interested in true freedom and future prosperity. If the individuals in America were held responsible for their own lives and were free to trade with people, at home and in other nations, unhindered, and the people in other nations were free to trade with Americans without coercion and the threat of military force, America would be a shining star among nations in the world. Terrorists would not target Americans, because American military would not be using force for economic blackmail and political benefit. America’s military prowess could be deployed in true defense, not interfering in the politics of other nations. As Bacevich states, “We don’t need a bigger army, but rather a smaller foreign policy.”

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