Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Necessary Prophet Among Conservatives

Andrew J. Bacevich refers to himself as a conservative realist.  He's not very optimistic about America's role as the indispensable nation in the world.  Dr. Bacevich questions the wisdom of a global war on terror and forced democratic reform under the guidance of the US military in the greater Middle East.  He criticizes the profligacy of American materialist consumption, which he believes lies at the root of our current foreign policy quagmires.  He wonders at the immoral and unjust character of a nation that insists the country conduct war to secure its own interests, but refuses to pay the bill for the war directly, passing it on to future generations.  He questions the nation's sense of fair play by its willingness to rely upon only 0.05% of the population to actually fight that war, while blithely pursuing its life of leisure.

The professor of history and international relations at Boston University is a prophet among today's conservatives.  He is a Jeremiah among the triumphalist Right, and his warnings continue to be largely ignored, dismissed, or regarded with scorn and contempt by the purveyors of populist nationalism pervading much of the modern right wing.

Professor Bacevich is no ivory tower abstract idealist.  A graduate of West Point, he served in combat with honor during the Vietnam War.  Regarded by many as one of the most morally compelling thinkers on current US foreign policy, Dr. Bacevich is sought out by members of Capitol Hill, by academic institutions, and by a wide array of advocacy and policy organizations and institutes across the country.  But even more, Dr. Bacevich is a parent.  A parent who paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country when his son Andrew was killed in action by an IED in Iraq in 2007.

Andrew Bacevich's most recent book The Limits of Power, The End of American Exceptionalism will be the basis for several of my initial posts.  I find, that just like Bill Moyers, about every 3rd sentence is worth highlighting in neon yellow (for me it is actually whole paragraphs), and so it will take me a while to get through the book and think about the implications it has for my own thinking.  It is a gripping, compelling, and challenging read.

Here is just a sample of Bacevich's probing prose:

     During the 1990s, at the urging of politicians and pundits, Americans became accustomed to thinking of their country as "the indispensable nation." Indispensability carried with it both responsibilities and prerogatives.
    
     The Chief responsibility was to preside over a grand project of political-economic convergence and integration commonly referred to as globalization.  In point of fact, however, globalization served as a euphemism for soft, or informal empire.  The collapse of the Soviet Union appeared to offer an opportunity to expand and perpetuate that empire, creating something akin to a global Pax Americana.
     
                                        The indispensable nation's chief prerogative, self-assigned, was to establish and enforce the norms governing the post-Cold War international order.  Even in the best of circumstances, imperial policing is a demanding task, requiring not only considerable acumen but also an abundance of determination.  The preferred American approach was to rely, whenever possible, on suasion.  Yet if pressed, Washington did not hesitate to use force, as its numerous military adventures during the 1990s demonstrated. (The Limits of Power, p. 2).

     What is remarkable about these observations is that they emanate from within the broader spectrum of American conservative thinking (as distinguished from neo-conservative thinking with its foreign policy emphasis upon military interventionism for the sake of projecting and preserving American hegemony abroad).  Moreover, he lays the country's current converging economic and foreign-conflict crises directly at the feet of her citizens.  We are responsible for allowing the course of history to bring us to this critical point in our history.  That is probably the most stinging aspect of the book.  And yet, his rebukes arise out of a deep love for the American historical experiment, the noble aspirations of the republic, and the positive purpose set forth so eloquently in the preamble of the US Constitution.  Bacevich is clearly a member of the loyal opposition.

His is a much needed voice to check the grand illusions of American hegemonic global dominance; an empire the US can not afford to sustain; nor one that can in anyway, shape, or form, remain true to the ideals of the country's founding.  I recommend this book without hesitation, and I hope to unpack its riches without misrepresenting the sterling integrity of this most unusual of authors.

       

2 comments:

  1. I am by political persuasion normally a liberal, at least in terms of social policy. While I still admire those goals, I'll admit I'm feeling somewhat cheated by the lack of depth and substance to much of what the left DOES. I am moved by this post, Jay, and will read these authors. Thank you for your thoughtful reflections and for reawakening my spirit.

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  2. Thanks, Bruce. There are thoughtful and reflective members of the left, as there are on the right (though they have seemed curiously silent in the last decade).

    The one area that they both converge on is in their trenchant criticism of the country's embrace of imperialism. I do not buy into the popular media, pundit, and talk radio noise that there can be no common ground between progressives and conservatives. That makes for great ratings, but is morally corrosive to the health of our common life together.

    Those on the left and right have a common interest in resisting the imperial temptation to which our nation has succumbed. But, as Bacevich demonstrates, we continue in that temptation because we as citizens continue to permit it.

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