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The Boston Globe

The Grand Illusion of American Power

The other day I went to hear my favorite soldier-scholar, Andrew Bacevich, give a talk at Boston University, where he teaches. A retired colonel and Vietnam veteran, Bacevich's new book is called "The Limits of Power, The end of American Exceptionalism."

Bacevich has migrated from a conservative outlook to what might be called a neo-Niebuhrean position - his thinking being influenced by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Bacevich calls "the most clear-eyed of American prophets."

Niebuhr warned against "dreams of managing history," a combination of arrogance and narcissism that posed a moral threat. That's why Niebuhr is often held in contempt by neo-conservatives for whom power is everything. Bacevich's concern is that the dream has become a physical threat that could lead to America's inevitable decline.

There is a mythical American narrative, according to Bacevich, that the United States is a nation "providentially set apart in the New World and wanting nothing more than to tend to its own affairs," only grudgingly responding to calls for global leadership "in order to preserve the possibility of freedom." In reality, the United States has sought expansion, first by pushing west until it reached the sea, then through a brief period of direct colonialism, and more recently through a ruthless if indirect imperial policy of control. It worked spectacularly. The United States became a great power replete with material abundance.

Right around the time of the Vietnam War, Bacevich argues, this began to unravel. Trade imbalances, federal deficits, "mushrooming entitlements, plummeting savings rates, and energy dependence" led us to become a debtor nation, counting on others to foot the bill. "The positive correlation between expansion, power, abundance, and freedom began to become undone . . . Further efforts at expansionism have led to the squandering of American power," according to Bacevich.

The actions of the Bush administration after 9/11 may have been designed to make the United States safe from another attack. But the chosen method was nothing less than to "assert American power throughout the Greater Middle East . . . to transform this region, to employ American power, both hard and soft, to impose order while ensuring stability, order, access, and adherence to American norms - in essence to establish unambiguous US hegemony so that the Islamic world will no longer serve as a breeding ground for terrorists who wish to kill us."


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The grand illusion of American power as a transformative agent is evident in what Bush's lieutenants had to say. "We have a choice," said Donald Rumsfeld in September, 2001. Either we change the way we live, "which is unacceptable," or we "change the way they live, and we chose the latter. " Or as Douglas Feith would later put it: America's purpose was to "transform the Middle East and the broader world of Islam generally."

This grand imperial overreach never had a chance. Transforming Islam can only be done by Muslims themselves, in their own due time. The new "liberated" Iraq has not changed the Middle East. The passions of the Middle East have transformed Iraq, perhaps more stable now than a year ago but in no way destined to achieve what Bush, Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, et al wanted and expected.

The net result is that much of the world now looks on the Bush administration's resurrection of Woodrow Wilson's ideals and the expansion of democracy as a cover for coercion and bare-knuckle dominance. As Bacevich says, Bush always confused strategy with ideology.

Militarily, we threw containment and deterrence out the window, banking on the "shock and awe" of preventive war. It hasn't worked. We are bogged down in two wars with an end to neither in sight.

Bacevich doesn't see the November election as necessarily producing a beneficial change. John McCain touts the stalemated Iraq war as a success, while Barack Obama calls for more effort in Afghanistan. In Bacevich's view, it is the entire doctrine of preventive war that has proved a failure. There has to be a better way than occupying Muslim countries.

Both McCain and Obama "implicitly endorse the global war on terror as the essential core of US policy," while in reality it's the entire concept that needs to be rethought.

H.D.S. Greenway

H.D.S. Greenway

H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Boston Globe and author of Foreign Correspondent: A Memoir.

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