Monday, September 22, 2008

America's limits and the long war to deny them (4)

Andrew Bacevich is particularly concerned with the ways in which the national security state has increasingly removed important foreign policy and military decisions from any healthy functioning of the democratic process. His essay in The Long War looks in particular at how the development of civil-military relations since the Second World War has contributed to that result.

Those relations have been far more complex than simply Don Rumsfeld being a nasty guy. (Though he certainly is that!) At the conclusion of his analysis, Bacevich writes that national security has been, both in the Cold War and now, "the one arena of American life from which democratic processes were persistently excluded". That's not to say they were immune to democratic processes. The essay by Charles Chatfield in The Long War examines the popular social movements that raised challenges to aspects of the Long War, both in its Cold War phase and since. But Bacevich's generalization remains valid:

Thus did the civil-military reality that had pertained through the Cold War persist during the new global war on terror: as factions of the national security elite, both civilian and military, vied with each other behind closed doors to control this or that aspect of policy, all remained united in their collective determination to keep the people - assumed to be ill-informed, vacillating, and untrustworthy - out.
Bacevich's The Limits of Power (2008) is written in a more popular style, and is done in a somewhat more polemical tone. For those not so acquainted with the historical background surveyed in The Long War, some of Bacevich's analysis may sound jarring. Which is no doubt one of the purposes of the book, to encourage readers to look more carefully at these problems.

Limits has a prophetic aspect to it in the sense of railing against unacceptable evils. Bacevich draws heavily on the political theory of Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, once on of the leading influences among American Cold War liberals.

He focuses on three areas of crisis: profligacy; the political crisis; and, the military crisis. His insights are valuable through, though his devotion to such beloved but obsolete articles of faith as the balanced budget detracts somewhat from his arguments on excessive profligacy. But his larger framework of questioning crass materialism and anarchic economic "progress" is appealing in a world facing environmental disasters and global climate change.

Limits offers some qualities that are far too rare in writing on public affairs in America today. He takes a genuinely critical-minded look at some major flawed bipartisan assumptions of our foreign policy without falling into careless generalization or artificially blurring real differences between the two major parties. And he takes an unsentimental approach that comes from extensive knowledge of military affairs when he discusses military figures. He concludes on an explicitly prophetic note:

Adamantly insisting that it is unique among history's great powers, the United States seems likely to follow the well-worn path taken by others, blind to the perils that it courts through its own feckless behavior. ...

Thus does the tragedy of our age move inexorably toward its conclusion. "To the end of history," our prophet [Niebuhr] wrote, "social orders will probably destroy themselves in the effort to prove that they are indestructible". Clinging doggedly to the conviction that the rules to which other nations must submit don't apply, Americans appear determined to affirm Niebuhr's axiom of willful self-destruction.
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"It is the logic of our times
No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."

-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?


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  • The Big Bail Out
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  • America's limits and the long war to deny them (3)...
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  • America's limits and the long war to deny them (2)...
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  • America's limits and the long war to deny them (1)...
  • Re-thinking Some Issues



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