The Limits of Power
The End of American Exceptionalism
by Andrew J. Bacevich
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt,
The hardheaded lawyers, merchants, farmers, and slaveholding plantation
owners gathered in Philadelphia that summer  did not set
out to create a church. They founded a republic. Their purpose
was not to save mankind. It was to ensure that people like themselves
enjoyed unencumbered access to the Jeffersonian trinity [life,
liberty, the pursuit of happiness].
In the years that followed, the United
States achieved remarkable success in making good on those aims.
Yet never during the course of America's transformation from a
small power to a great one did the United States exert itself
to liberate others ...
By the end of World War II, the country possessed nearly two-thirds
of the world's gold reserves and more than half its entire manufacturing
capacity. In 1947, the United States by itself accounted for one-third
of world exports. Its foreign trade balance was comfortably in
the black. As measured by value, its exports more than doubled
its imports.'° The dollar had displaced the British pound
sterling as the global reserve currency, with the Bretton Woods
system, the international monetary regime created in 1944, making
the United States the world's money manager. The country was,
of course, a net creditor. Among the world's producers of oil,
steel, airplanes, automobiles, and electronics, it ranked first
in each category. "Economically," wrote the historian
Paul Kennedy, "the world was its oyster."
And that was only the beginning. Militarily,
the United States possessed unquestioned naval and air supremacy,
underscored until August 1949 by an absolute nuclear monopoly,
affirmed thereafter by a permanent and indisputable edge in military
technology. The nation's immediate neighbors were weak and posed
no threat. Its adversaries were far away and possessed limited
For the average American household, World
War II had finally ended the Depression years. Fears that wartime-stoked
prosperity might evaporate with the war itself proved groundless.
Instead, the transition to peace touched off an unprecedented
economic boom. In 1948, American per capita income exceeded by
a factor of four the combined per capita income of Great Britain,
France, West Germany, and Italy. Wartime economic expansion-the
gross national product grew by 60 percent between 1939 and 1945-had
actually reduced economic inequality. Greater income and pent-up
demand now combined to create a huge domestic market that kept
American factories humming and produced good jobs. As a consequence,
the immediate postwar era became the golden age of the American
Many Americans remember the 1960s as the Freedom Decade-and with
good cause. Although the modern civil rights movement predates
that decade, it was then that the campaign for racial equality
achieved its great breakthroughs, beginning in 1963 with the March
on Washington and Martin Luther King's "1 Have a Dream"
speech. Women and gays followed suit. The founding of the National
Organization for Women in 1966 signaled the reinvigoration of
the fight for women's rights. In 1969, the Stonewall Uprising
in New York City launched the gay rights movement.
Political credit for this achievements
[of the civil rights movement] squarely with the Left. Abundance,
sustained in no small measure by a postwar presumption of American
"global leadership," made possible the expansion of
freedom at home. Rebutting Soviet charges of racism and hypocrisy
lent the promotion of freedom domestically a strategic dimension.
Yet possibility only k9 became reality thanks to progressive political
Pick the group: blacks, Jews, women, Asians,
Hispanics, working stiffs, gays, the handicapped-in every case,
the impetus for providing equal access to the rights guaranteed
by the Constitution originated among pinks, lefties, liberals,
and bleeding-heart fellow travelers. When it came to ensuring
that every American should get a fair shake, the contribution
of modern conservatism has been essentially nil. Had Martin Luther
King counted on William Buckley and the National Review to take
up the right against racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s,
Jim Crow would still be alive and well.
[Ronald Reagan's] real gift was a canny knack for telling Americans
what most of them wanted to hear.
During the Carter years, the federal deficit had averaged $54.5
billion annually. During the Reagan era, deficits skyrocketed,
averaging $210.6 billion over the course of Reagan's two terms
in office. Overall federal spending nearly doubled, from $590.9
billion in 1980 to $1.14 trillion in 1989. The federal government
did not shrink. It grew, the bureaucracy swelling by nearly 5
percent while Reagan occupied the White House. Although his supporters
had promised that he would shut down extraneous government programs
and agencies, that turned out to be just so much hot air.
The Reagan Revolution ... was never about fiscal responsibility
or small government. The object of the exercise was to give the
American people what they wanted, that being the essential precondition
for winning reelection in 1984 and consolidating Republican control
in Washington. Far more accurately than Jimmy Carter, Reagan understood
what made Americans tick: They wanted self-gratification, not
self-denial. Although always careful to embroider his speeches
with inspirational homilies and testimonials to old-fashioned
virtues, Reagan mainly indulged American self-indulgence.
Reagan's two terms in office became an
era of gaudy prosperity and excess. Tax cuts and the largest increase
to date in peacetime military spending formed the twin centerpieces
of Reagan's economic policy.
Whereas President Carter had summoned Americans mend their ways,
which implied a need for critical selfawareness, President Reagan
obviated any need for soul-searching by simply inviting his fellow
citizens to carry on. For Carter, ending American dependence on
foreign oil meant promoting moral renewal at home. Reagan-and
Reagan's successors-mimicked Carter in bemoaning the nation's
growing energy dependence. In practice, however, they did next
to nothing to curtail that dependence. Instead, they wielded U.S.
military power to ensure access to oil, hoping thereby to prolong
the empire of consumption's lease on life.
The defense policy of the States is based
on a simple premise: The United States does not start fights.
We will never be an aggressor. We maintain our strength in order
to deter and defend against aggression-to preserve freedom and
The most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy.
Illusions about military power first fostered by Reagan outlived
his presidency. Unambiguous global military supremacy became a
standing aspiration; for the Pentagon, anything less than unquestioned
dominance now qualified as dangerously inadequate.
... A new national security consensus
emerged based on the conviction that the United States military
could dominate the planet as Reagan had proposed to dominate outer
space. In Washington, confidence that a high-quality military
establishment, dexterously employed, could enable the United States,
always with high-minded intentions, to organize the world to its
liking had essentially become a self-evident truth. In this malignant
expectation-not in any of the conservative ideals for which he
is retrospectively venerated lies the essence of the Reagan legacy.
Just beneath the glitter of the Reagan years, the economic position
of the United States continued to deteriorate. Despite the president's
promise to restore energy independence, reliance on imported oil
soared. By the end of Reagan's presidency, 41 percent of the oil
consumed domestically came from abroad. It was during his first
term that growing demand for Chinese goods produced the first
negative trade balance with that country. In the same period,
Washington-and the American people more generally resorted to
borrowing. Through the 1970s, economic growth had enabled the
United States to reduce the size of a national debt (largely accrued
during World War II) relative to the overall gross national product
(GNP). At the beginning of the Reagan presidency, that ratio stood
at a relatively modest 31.5 percent of GNP, the lowest since 1931.
Reagan's huge deficits reversed that trend.
The United States had long touted its
status as a creditor nation as a symbol of overall economic strength.
That, too, ended in the Reagan era. In 1986, the net international
investment position of the United States turned negative as U.S.
assets owned by foreigners exceeded the assets that Americans
For members of the political class, serving, gaining access to,
reporting on, second-guessing, or gossiping about the emperor-president
(or about those aspiring to succeed him) has become an abiding
The imperial presidency would not exist
were it not for the Congress, which has willingly ceded authority
to the executive branch, especially on matters touching, however
remotely, on national security. As the chief executive achieved
supremacy, the legislative branch not only lost clout but gradually
made itself the object of ridicule. David Addington, chief of
staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, pungently described the philosophy
of the Bush administration this way: "We're going to push
and push and push until some larger force makes us stop."
Even under Democratic control, the Congress has not remotely threatened
to be that larger force. No one today seriously believes that
the actions of the legislative branch are informed by a collective
determination to promote the common good. For this very reason,
periodic congressional efforts to curb abuses of presidential
power are mostly for show and mostly inspired by a desire to gain
some partisan advantage.
The chief remaining function of Congress
is to ensure the reelection of its members, best achieved by shameless
gerrymandering, doling out prodigious amounts of political pork,
and seeing to the protection of certain vested interests. Testifying
to the spectacular effectiveness of these techniques, in 2006,
93 percent of senators and representatives running for reelection
won.' The United States has become a de facto one-party state,
with the legislative branch permanently controlled by an Incumbents'
Although relatively few legislators are overtly dishonest, the
sense of taking bribes or kickbacks, a subtler form of corruption
pervades both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The
Congress nay not be a den of iniquity, but it is a haven for narcissistic
hacks, for whom self-promotion and self-preservation take precedence
over serious engagement with serious issues.
Dissent, where it exists seldom penetrates the centers of power
in Washington. Principled dissenters ... remain on the political
fringes, dismissed as either mean-spirited (that is, unable to
appreciate the lofty motives that inform U.S. policy) or simply
naive (that is, oblivious to the implacable evil that the United
States is called upon to confront).
The ideology of national security persists not because it expresses
empirically demonstrable truths but because it serves the interests
of those who created the national security state and those who
still benefit from its continued existence.
In a famous book published over a half century ago, the sociologist
C. Wright Mills took a stab at describing [the] "power elite."
His depiction of an interlocking corporate, political, and military
directorate remains valid today, although one might amend it to
acknowledge the role played by insider journalists and policy
intellectuals who serve as propagandists, gatekeepers, and packagers
of the latest conventional wisdom. Although analysts employed
by the RAND Corporation or the Hudson Institute may not themselves
qualify as full-fledged members of the national security elite,
they facilitate its functioning. Much the same can be said about
columnists who write for the New York Times, the Washington Post,
or the Weekly Standard, the research fellows busily organizing
study groups at the Council on Foreign Relations or the American
Enterprise Institute, and the policy-oriented academics who inhabit
institutions like Harvard's Kennedy School of Government or Princeton's
To say that a power elite directs the
affairs of state is not to suggest the existence of some dark
conspiracy. It is simply to acknowledge the way Washington actually
works. Especially on matters related to national security, policy
making has become oligarchic rather than democratic. The policy-making
process is not open but closed, with the voices of privileged
insiders carrying unimaginably greater weight than those of the
From the late 1940s to the present day, members of the power elite
have shown an almost pathological tendency to misinterpret reality
and inflate threats. The advisers to whom imperial presidents
have turned for counsel have specialized not in cool judgment
but in frenzied overreacfion.
The ideology of national security underwrites a bipartisan consensus
that since World War II has lent to foreign policy a remarkable
consistency. While it does not prevent criticism of particular
policies or policy makers, it robs any debate over policy of real
Since World War II, Congress and the executive branch have collaborated
in creating a large, permanent, and ever-expanding national security
As soon as he entered office in January 1961, john F. Kennedy
jettisoned his predecessor's deliberate approach, which was at
odds with Kennedy's own temperament and with the image that his
administration wished to project. "New Frontiersmen"
cultivated a style that placed a premium on informality, flexibility,
and quickness. Kennedy and those around him believed that small
groups of really bright people-people like themselves-could reach
better decisions faster, if not encumbered by bureaucratic process.
Fancying themselves as not only smart but also creative, they
had little patience for the orthodoxies and conventions to which
the national security apparatus professed devotion.
If Kennedy nursed any lingering thoughts
of that apparatus proving itself useful, they did not survive
the debacle of the Bay of Pigs. When JFK became president, plans
to overthrow Cuba's Fidel Castro using a small force of CIA-trained
and -equipped Cuban exiles were well advanced. Kennedy just needed
to give the signal to launch the invasion. The new president hesitated,
however, directing General Lyman Lemnitzer, chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, to evaluate the plan's feasibility. When the
Chiefs endorsed the operation, Kennedy issued the order. An epic
It soon became apparent that the Chiefs
had supported the mission less because they expected it to succeed
than because they were counting on a CIA failure to pave the way
for a conventional invasion, their preferred option for eliminating
Castro. The Chiefs knew that Kennedy had no intention of ordering
direct U.S. intervention-he had said as much-but they were counting
on a presidentially-ordered CIA disaster to force his hand. Rather
than offering the president forthright professional advice, they
had diddled him.
In the history of the national security
state, the Bay of Pigs proved a turning point. A furious Kennedy,
convinced (not without reason) that he had been set up and betrayed
The Bay of Pigs [invasion of Cuba] convinced [John] Kennedy that
the joint Chiefs of Staff, however many ribbons and medals they
might have earned, were either stupid or untrustworthy.
former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger
[Joint Chiefs of Staff's advice] is generally
irrelevant, normally unread, and almost always disregarded.
For those who occupy the inner circle of power, the national security
state is an obstacle to be evaded rather than an asset to be harnessed.
Viewed from the perspective of a defense secretary or national
security adviser, professional military officers, career diplomats,
or intelligence analysts are not partners but competitors. Rather
than facilitating the exercise of executive power, the career
professionals complicate or even obstruct it, pursuing the favored
agendas of their own agencies instead. Yet because the institutions
comprising the national security apparatus provide the foundation
of executive power, the president-emperor is the person least
inclined to acknowledge publicly the defects inherent in that
apparatus. As a consequence, the American people remain in the
dark, persisting in the illusion that, whatever their faults,
institutions like the Joint Chiefs and the CIA remain indispensable
to the nation's safety and well-being.
And so the national security state perdures.
It does so not because its activities enhance the security of
the American people, but because, by its very existence, it provides
a continuing rationale for political arrangements that are a source
of status, influence, and considerable wealth. Lapses in performance
by this apparatus might logically raise questions about whether
or not the United States would be better off without it. Instead,
failures inspire new efforts to reorganize and reform, which almost
invariably translate into further institutional expansion. The
more the national security state screws up, the more sprawling
it becomes. In the meantime, presidents occupy themselves cultivating
ways to work around, ignore, or subvert those institutions.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Defense Department employees
on September 10, 2001, one day prior to the attacks of 9/11
The topic today is an adversary that poses
a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States
of America. This adversary is one of the world's last bastions
of central planning. It governs by dictating five-year plans.
From a single capital, it attempts to impose its demands across
time zones, continents, oceans and beyond. With brutal consistency,
it stifles free thought and crushes new ideas. It disrupts the
defense of the United States and places the lives of men and women
in uniform at risk.
Perhaps this adversary sounds like the
former Soviet Union, but that enemy is gone: our foes are more
subtle and implacable today. You may think I'm describing one
of the last decrepit dictators of the world. But their day, too,
is almost past, and they cannot match the strength and size of
The adversary's closer to home. It's the
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February
2003, General Eric Shinseki, the army chief of staff, expressed
the view that occupying Iraq might pose a daunting challenge and
could require several hundred thousand troops. This departed from
the Bush administration's vague but rosy predictions about the
war and its aftermath. Shinseki's candor elicited immediate rebukes
from Rumsfeld and his deputy. The general's estimate was "wildly
off the mark," an obviously annoyed Wolfowitz informed the
press. Shinseki became persona non grata and was soon ushered
Shinseki's fate offered an object lesson
to his peers. In Rumsfeld's Pentagon, generals did not ask questions;
they did not express independent views, even to Congress; they
did as they were told. No one got the word quicker than General
Tommy Franks the officer who as commander of U.S. Central Command
planned and implemented the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
When it came to pleasing Rumsfeld, Franks was nothing if not eager.
Asked by President Bush prior to the Iraq War to offer his own
views, the general replied, "Sir, I think exactly what my
secretary thinks, what he's ever thought, whatever he will ever
think, or whatever he thought he might think."
Secretary of State Dean Acheson
If you truly had a democracy and did what
the people wanted, you'd go wrong every time.
[Paul] Nitze served as the principal author of NSC 68, a highly
classified report drafted for President Truman and the National
Security Council in early 1950.
... according to NSC 68, the Soviet [Union
planned] "the complete subversion and forcible destruction
of the machinery of government and structure of society in the
countries the non-Soviet world and their replacement by an apparatus
and structure subservient to and controlled by the Kremlin."
[Paul] Nitze's proposed buildup called for massively increased
defense spending, with particular emphasis on accelerating the
development of a hydrogen bomb; increased security assistance
to train and equip the armies of friendly nations; efforts to
enhance internal security and intelligence capabilities; and an
intensification of covert operations aimed at "fomenting
and supporting unrest and revolt" inside the Soviet bloc.
National security had to rank first among the nation's priorities,
so NSC 68 called for curbing domestic expenditures. It also argued
for higher taxes to make available the resources needed to fund
rearmament. In effect, this "Nitze Doctrine" offered
a recipe for the permanent militarization of U.S. policy.
... the methods pioneered by Nitze in
1950 retain value. He demonstrated the advantages of demonizing
America's adversaries, thereby transforming trivial concerns into
serious threats and serious threats into existential ones. He
devised the technique of artfully designing "options"
to yield precooked conclusions, thereby allowing the analyst to
become the de facto decision maker. He showed how easily American
ideals could be employed to camouflage American ambitions, with
terms like peace and freedom becoming code words for expansionism."
Above all, however, Nitze demonstrated the inestimable value of
sowing panic as a means of driving the policy-making process.
When it came to removing obstacles to A and loosening purse strings,
the Nitze Doctrine worked wonders.
In the mid-1950s, with Nitze himself leading
the charge, there came reports of a dismaying "bomber gap,"
the Soviets said to be outstripping the United States in the production
of strategic bombers. Soon thereafter, rumors of a "missile
gap" made headlines, with the Soviets reportedly far ahead
of the United States in long-range rocketry. The ubiquitous Nitze
served as principal author of the Gaither Report that trumpeted
By the end of the decade, insiders worried
anxiously that Soviet strategic advantages were becoming so great
as to undermine the "delicate balance of terror." The
U.S. ability to deter its adversary was eroding and might soon
For [Paul] Wolfowitz, the ideology of national security served
as a sort of surrogate religion. He was a true believer, harboring
no doubts about history's purpose and America's assigned role
in accomplishing that purpose. Viewing American power as bountiful
and self-replenishing, Wolfowitz had always been keen to put that
power to work. If anything, the end of the Cold War only accentuated
this activist inclination. Wolfowitz shared in the view that victory
had vaulted the United States to a position of overwhelming preeminence.
"With so great a capacity to influence events," he wrote,
"comes a requirement to figure out how best to use that capacity
to shape the future. "
... In his own approach to shaping the
future, Wolfowitz assigned a central role to military power.
Just as [Paul] Nitze had seized upon the Soviet bomb, the Chinese
Revolution, and later the Korean War to argue for rebuilding American
military power, so [Paul] Wolfowitz ... seized upon the attack
by Al Qaeda to argue for unleashing American military might...
Iraq offered the means to that end.
... For [Paul] Wolfowitz, the main purpose
of the Iraq War was to establish new norms governing the use of
force. Nominally, the object of the exercise might be to eliminate
weapons of mass destruction, overthrow a brutal dictator, and
begin draining the terrorist "swamp." More fundamentally,
the objective was to lift any and all restrictions on the use
of armed force by the United States.
... The aim went beyond targeting would-be
terrorists themselves. The United States meant to deprive terrorists
of sanctuaries or "safe havens" by nothing less than
a policy of "ending states who support terrorism." In
NSC 68, Nitze had at least made a pretense of offering several
options for consideration. For Wolfowitz after 9/11, there existed
only a single option: open-ended global war.
... History will remember Paul Wolfowitz
as the intellectual Svengali who conjured up the Bush Doctrine.
In NSC 68, Nitze had rejected preventive war as "repugnant."
Wolfowitz now promoted it as permissible, essential, even inviting.
False security to which all men are tempted
is the security of power.
The Bush Doctrine represents the most momentous national security
initiative since the inauguration of the Manhattan Project that
built the first atomic bomb. Its implications far outstrip in
importance the eponymous doctrines of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower,
Nixon, Carter, or Reagan.
Needless to say, in formulating this doctrine
the Bush administration did not seek congressional assent. Nor
did it even go through the motions of consulting the American
people. A handful of Wise Men, led by Wolfowitz, saw a great opportunity
to revolutionize national security policy. They wasted no time
in exploiting that opportunity, selling the president on the merits
of their idea and then implementing it, essentially by fiat.
a senior Bush administration official famously remarked to the
journalist Ron Suskind.
We're an empire now, and when we act,
we create our own reality. We're history's actors ... and you,
all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
A reliance on volunteer-professionals places a de facto cap on
the army's overall size. The pool of willing recruits is necessarily
limited. Given a choice, most young Americans will opt for opportunities
other than military service, with protracted war diminishing rather
than enhancing any collective propensity to volunteer. It is virtually
inconceivable at any presidential call to the colors, however
impassioned, any PR campaign, however cleverly designed, or any
package of pay and bonuses, however generous, could reverse this
Furthermore, to the extent that an army
composed of regulars [volunteer-professionals] is no longer a
people's army, the people have little say in its use. In effect,
the professional military has become an extension of the imperial
presidency. The troops fight when and where the commander in chief
Finally, a reliance on professional soldiers
eviscerates the concept of civic duty, relieving citizens at large
of any obligation to contribute to the nation's defense. Ending
the draft during the waning days of the Vietnam War did nothing
to heal the divisions created by that conflict; instead, it ratified
the separation of army from society. Like mowing lawns and bussing
tables, fighting and perhaps dying to sustain the American way
of life became something that Americans pay others to do.
When Nixon pulled the plug on selective service [the Draft], the
system was already on life support. The American people killed
the draft. In the midst of a misbegotten war [Vietnam], they withdrew
from the federal government its hitherto widely accepted prerogative
of commanding citizens to serve... One serendipitous result was
to lay the basis for a new consensus, henceforth defining military
service as a matter of individual choice. In short order, liberals,
conservatives, and centrists all signed on, and the bargain became
... Today, with the possible exception
of conservative evangelicals, no significant segment of the electorate
will concede to the federal government the authority to order
their sons and daughters into uniform. Legislation mandating involuntary
service would almost certainly elicit the same reaction that Prohibition
induced back in the 1920s, only more quickly and on a larger scale:
The law would be unenforceable.
Granted, arguments that a draft might
correct the inequities inherent in our existing military system
have indisputable merit. To anyone with a conscience, sending
soldiers back to Iraq or Afghanistan for multiple combat tours
while the rest of the country chills out can hardly seem an acceptable
arrangement. It is unfair, unjust, and morally corrosive.
Yet seldom in American history have questions
of fairness or equitability played a decisive role in shaping
public policy. The present moment does not qualify as one of those
occasions; if it were, we would not tolerate the gaping disparities
between rich and poor in our society. Relying on a small number
of volunteers to bear the burden of waging an open-ended global
war might make Americans uneasy, but uneasiness will not suffice
to produce change. To salve the nation's conscience, the government
might augment our hard-pressed troops with pricey contractor-mercenaries,
but it won't actually trouble citizens to do anything. Indeed,
the privatization of war-evident in the prominence achieved by
armies-for-rent such as the notorious Blackwater suggests a tacit
willingness to transform military service from a civic function
into an economic enterprise, with money rather than patriotism
the motive. Americans may not like mercenaries, but many of them
harbor an even greater dislike for the prospect of sending their
loved ones to fight in some godforsaken country on the other side
of the world.
In short, although conscription will continue
to make a nice topic for angry op-eds and heartfelt letters-to-the-editor,
the chances of Congress actually enacting legislation to restore
the draft are nil. In this instance, the views of Congress reflect
the views of the American people. Whatever, its shortcomings,
the professional army created after Vietnam is here to stay.
Fighting a war to fix something works
about as good as going to a whorehouse to get rid of a clap.
Nothing in history is inevitable including
the probable. So long as war has not broken out, we still have
the possibility of avoiding it. Those who think that there is
little difference between a cold and a hot war are either knaves
It is not within the realm of moral possibilities
to ask a nation to be self-sacrificing.
The desire to gain an immediate selfish
advantage always imperils the [nation's] ultimate interests. If
they recognize this fact, they usually recognize it too late.
To the end of history, social orders will
probably destroy themselves in the effort to prove that they are