How America Is Squandering Its Wealth and Power

Andrew Bacevich, a military veteran and scholar, blames the Bush administration and the American people

Andrew Bacevich

Andrew Bacevich


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. Excerpts:

Where do you think American foreign policy has gone wrong?

Most important is to see the connection between the American way of life and the foreign policy that our government conducts. There are some critics of American foreign policy, Noam Chomsky, for instance, who portray U.S. foreign policy as a great conspiracy where certain elites pull the wool over the eyes of the people to benefit themselves and their cronies. I've come to believe that U.S. foreign policy is broadly conceived to reflect the will of the American people. Yet the majority of people don't now support continuing the war in Iraq.

Not that the majority of Americans thought that invading Iraq was a good idea either, but that they were satisfied and wanted to protect the American way of life, which requires access to massive amounts of oil. Tacitly, at least, the American people are complicit and responsible for the policies made in Washington. It is one thing to sit on our couches and disagree with policy, but nothing is going to change unless we are willing to make substantive changes in the way that we live our lives.

Is there any chance that such a revolution in thinking is in the offing?

I doubt that there will be any change. In the aftermath of 9/11, there may have been a moment for a president to turn to the American people and say, "In order to make sure this doesn't happen again, we have to change the way we conduct our affairs." Instead, the president made very clear the fact that we would not change. Instead, we were told to keep shopping and go to Disney World.

Now we're seven years into a war that our country supposedly supports and yet we are running out of soldiers. Why is that? The nation refuses to correct our domestic dysfunction on energy, consumption, entitlements, and endless credit. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said something like, "We need to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or we can change the way they live." That reflects a very familiar strand of thought in American foreign policy back to the Native Americans, which says that "they" will always have to change to accommodate our way of living.

But our efforts to remake the world in our image now are making us poorer. We are squandering our wealth. We're not becoming more powerful. We're squandering our power, particularly our military power, on which we've placed so much emphasis.

Is our military power exaggerated?

The end of the Cold War and the first Persian Gulf War both bred in Americans a bipartisan infatuation with military power. But nobody captured that better than [then Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright's famous question to Colin Powell about the value of bragging about having a great army if you're never going use it. By the 199os, we came to believe that military power was the most effective instrument for bringing about change in the world. Conservatives and liberals differed on the priorities for that military power and what kind of change needed to be brought about, but there was a united understanding of the effectiveness of high-tech military power. But this perception tended to minimize what had been the historical experience of war, in which the resort to arms time and time again produces unintended consequences.