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The Empire Strikes Out

Soldier-scholar Andrew Bacevich on his blockbuster book, a less-costly Afghanistan strategy, and why it doesn't really matter who's president.

| Mon Oct. 13, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel turned professor of history and international relations at Boston University, wasn't prepared for all the attention his latest book has received. Published in August, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism has clearly struck a chord, its title name-dropped by foreign policy enthusiasts as a must-read analysis of how America has strayed from greatness. Metropolitan Books, a Holt imprint, was prepared for modest sales with an initial press run of around 13,000. But the book's eye-opening qualities promptly landed it on the New York Times best-seller list, where it remains six weeks later, and the publisher has been reupping ever since. "I can't imagine how these politicians do it," the author told me, referring to the physical demands of media interviews. "I wouldn't have the endurance."

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Bacevich did have the endurance to lead a platoon in Vietnam and serve 23 years in the military, but wasn't until much later that he began to reflect on his experience. "I have come to an appreciation of the difficulty of making war politically useful," he explains. "I'm not a pacifist; I support having a strong and effective military. But I'm very wary of when that military ought to be used." In The Limits of Power, Bacevich goes beyond mere Bush-bashing; he traces the long-term erosion of America's economic, political, and military might to the peculiar delusion that history's direction is preordained, and that the United States is destined to play the lead role. He mines our past to explain the disconnect between civilian and military leaders and the rise of a self-perpetuating national security establishment that serves to undermine national security. Bacevich also lays bare a foreign policy whose primary purpose, he argues, is to ensure Americans' freedom to consume more than their fair share, and a dysfunctional Congress whose top priority is to keep incumbents in power.

I caught up with Bacevich the morning after the vice presidential debate . So naturally, we began with the election.

Mother Jones: In terms of foreign policy, do you think it matters who wins next month?

Andrew Bacevich: It matters, but not nearly as much as the candidates would have us believe. And this is a disappointment to me. I had hoped that an Obama candidacy would help to create conditions in which we would have a debate over the fundamentals of foreign policy and national security policy. I think what we're ending up with is a debate over operational priorities: McCain is arguing, "Elect me president and I will deliver victory in Iraq, which is the central front in the global war on terror." Obama says, "Elect me; I will send more troops to Afghanistan because that's a central front on the global war on terror." That difference is based on a consensus that the global war on terror provides the correct framework in which to think about US national security policy.

MJ: Do you think Obama could initiate the alternative debate and still win the election?

AB: Certainly his political advisers have calculated that he cannot have that debate. But I would insist that it would have been tremendously useful for the country. I guess I hold out a little bit of hope that if he wins, and if his victory is read as a repudiation of the Bush approach to national security policy, then maybe that opens up some space for a debate over fundamentals, posing the question, "What is our approach to the rest of the world?"

MJ: During the first debate, Obama noted that China is active in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. He said, "The conspicuousness of their presence is only matched by our absence, because we've been focused on Iraq. We have weakened our capacity to project power around the world because we have viewed everything through this single lens." That struck me as an affirmation of our militaristic foreign policy.

AB: I think that you're correct. It's signaling his deference to a conception of America's role in the world. "Global power projection" is one of those cornerstone concepts that implies a big military establishment, high military spending, and a network of bases scattered around to support and sustain the projection of power.

MJ: Obama is right that the cost of these operations has weakened our military stance elsewhere. So at what level of debt might the global pursuit of US power stall?

AB: I think it's gonna take some rather large catastrophe for us to directly address the implications of our profligacy—to recognize that we cannot simply spend and spend and borrow and borrow as if the line of credit has no limit. We're all quite nervous about where this financial crisis is headed. If it heads us into some kind of serious economic slump, that might promote a greater awareness of the extent to which we have become militarily and economically overextended.

MJ: McCain, Palin, and others are going around saying the surge has worked, and they're not really being challenged on it. Does that worry you?

AB: Yeah, it does. We don't know exactly which events during the period called the surge actually made a difference. And while violence is down, it doesn't seem to me there's a lot of persuasive evidence that the so-called political reconciliation is going to happen anytime soon. We should acknowledge the positive developments, but on balance it seems we're likely to be years away from Iraq being able to manage its own affairs in any meaningful sense. We've already spent somewhere between 800 billion and a trillion dollars on that war, and even if we achieve the victory that proponents of the surge say is just around the corner, what will we have won? My answer is, not much. I say that because I understand the war to have been undertaken within the context of the Bush administration's attempt to transform the Islamic world. Iraq was supposed to be a demonstration project, and five and a half years later we can see that it is an enormously difficult and costly long-term proposition. The notion that, having succeeded, we're now going to apply comparable means to bring about transformation elsewhere—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria—is clearly absurd. Even if the Iraq War ends in what some call victory, strategically it has been an abject failure.

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