The Limits of Power The End of American Exceptionalism

American Empire Project

Andrew Bacevich

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224 Pages



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In The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich identifies a profound triple crisis facing America: the economy, in remarkable disarray, can no longer be fixed by relying on expansion abroad; the government, transformed by an imperial presidency, is a democracy in form only; United States involvement in endless wars, driven by a deep infatuation with military power, has been a catastrophe for the body politic. These pressing problems threaten all Americans, Republican or Democrat. If the nation is to solve its predicament, Bacevich writes, it will need the revival of a distinctly American approach: the neglected tradition of realism.

Bacevich, uniquely respected across the political spectrum, offers a historical perspective on the illusions that have governed American policy since 1945. The realism he proposes includes respect for power and its limits; sensitivity to unintended consequences; aversion to claims of exceptionalism; skepticism of easy solutions, especially those involving force; and a conviction that the books will have to balance. Only a return to such principles, Bacevich argues, can provide common ground for fixing America’s urgent problems before the damage becomes irreparable.


Praise for The Limits of Power

“This compact, meaty volume ought to be on the reading list of every candidate for national office in November's elections. In an age of cant and baloney, Andrew Bacevich offers a bracing slap of reality. The Limits of Power is gracefully written and easy to read . . . chockablock with provocative ideas and stern judgments. Bacevich's brand of intellectual assuredness is rare in today's public debates. Many of our talking heads and commentators are cocksure, of course, but few combine confidence with knowledge and deep thought the way Bacevich does here. His big argument is elegant and powerful.”—The Washington Post

“Strongly felt and elegantly written . . . The Limits of Power is painfully clear-sighted and refreshingly uncontaminated by the conventional wisdom of Washington, D.C.”—The Economist

"Andrew Bacevich is a devoted disciple of Niebuhr, and his latest book is very much in the Niebuhrian spirit, which he applies with great skill and originality to the problems, mostly of our own making, that now beset the United States . . . Bacevich's style is compounded of military clarity, great eloquence, and invigorating overtones of Oliver Cromwell, Savonarola, and other inspired reformers. His book is highly readable and enormously worth reading."—Brian Urquhart, The New York Review of Books

"Andrew Bacevich is the real deal: Professor of Military History at Boston University, author of many well-respected books, a West Point graduate, conservative Catholic and Vietnam War veteran, he is an expert at war from its bloody, messy grass roots to its ethereal heights of grand strategic debate. And in the internal chaos of America’s pundit’s paradise of self-important, confident, ignorant talking heads, Mr. Bacevich has been a quiet, cool voice of sanity for decades with his spare, rigorous and unfailing honest analyses of America's role in the world and deepening strategic predicaments. This latest work, however, stands apart: Even the timing of its publication is uncanny. Mr. Bacevich in his text, obviously written many months before our current fiscal meltdown erupted, even anticipates a Wall Street financial crisis on the scale of 1929 and what that would mean to the fantasies of global suzerainty and empire that U.S. policymakers have remained obsessed upon. The Limits of Power certainly stands tall in the rapidly growing tradition of serious intellectual criticism of unlimited U.S. military and political engagement around the world that has especially proliferated since the war in Iraq started to go sour five years ago. But it also joins the by-now bulging bookshelves of devastating indictments of the Bush administration and what they have done wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving effectively unwinnable wars and nightmarish withdrawal scenarios for their successors to deal with . . . [Bachevich] traces the burgeoning powers of the Imperial Presidency that were only briefly and superficially reined in after the setbacks of Vietnam and Watergate, reviving to expand more relentlessly than ever in the decades that followed. He documents how the heady rhetoric of American exceptionalism, virtue and divine approval led smoothly into the Bush-neoconservative vision of remaking the Islamic world in America's own, virtuous, democratic and free market image, undeterred by the mountains of evidence that such a project was impossible and utterly divorced from any sane conception of reality. Finally, Mr. Bacevich remorselessly piles on the evidence why the projects of global empire and the remaking of the world in America's image are destined to fail because they are inherently unachievable. Further, he argues, the pursuit of empire has fatefully weakened the real mainsprings of both freedom and prosperity at home. This has dire implications for the long-term health and possibly even survival of American democracy, Mr. Bacevich argues, because from the very beginning, the success of democracy and political freedom within the United States was predicated on the economic abundance and security necessary to assure it. Nor does Mr. Bacevich hold out much hope from Mr. Bush's successors. He documents repeated statements from Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama that could have been taken out of the Bush speechmaking lexicon at random—and no doubt were. Mr. Bacevich's point, of course, is that just as Mr. Bush was no aberration from an American policymaking norm of strategic over-extension and hubris that was generations in the making, beyond the superficial cosmetics of politics, his successor, be he Mr. Obama or Sen. John McCain, will remain wedded to the same assumptions as well. Taken individually, few of Mr. Bacevich's arguments and documentations in this book are new. But I know of no work that is so compelling and succinct in synthesizing them into a single, overarching and cohesive argument. This book should be essential reading for every National Security Council staffer in the next Washington administration, be it Republican or Democratic. (Having lectured too many audiences of such policymakers over the past three years in various capacities, I have consistently found their levels of knowledge and basic facts about the essential vulnerabilities of the United States to be staggering). In any sane political system, Mr. Bacevich would be immediately recruited to run intelligence and research at the State Department or policymaking at the Pentagon. It is a grim judgment on the lack of integrity or basic competence in our political system that such an appointment from either party remains inconceivable. Mr. Bacevich, however, has appealed above the head of the Permanent Policymaking Class in Washington to bring his arguments and his cool, lucid prescriptions for limited sane policies in international relations, national security and economic affairs to the general public. This book is destined to stand as a lonely classic signpost pointing the way to any future hope of renewed international and political security for the American people."—Martin Sieff, The Washington Times

"Bachevich explains how the military has failed since George W. Bush declared war on terror. With twenty-three years of experience in the army to his credit, he makes his case, particularly in his criticism of the war of Iraq . . . This book is compelling and will give the reader much to think about."—Pamela Crossland, Political Affairs

"Drawing on the insights of Reinhold Neibuhr, William A. Williams and C. Wright Mills, Andrew Bacevich delivers a harsh sermon to his fellow Americans. His focus is a set of dysfunctional behaviour patterns and institutions that he believes impel the United States on a self-defeating course . . . Bacevich mercilessly dissects the workings of a self-perpetuating national-security bureaucracy that predisposes Washington to seek military solutions, and of a deep-seated 'ideology of national security' (incorporating the idea of a mission to spread freedom) that serves to legitmate executive action. So-called 'wisemen' (from James Forrestal and Paul Nitze to Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz have 'repeatedly misconstrued and exaggerated existing threats, with perverse effects.' It is hard to disagree. Bacevich is particularly incisive in drawing the military lessons of recent experience."—Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

"This compact, meaty volume ought to be on the reading list of every candidate for national office—House, Senate or the White House—in November's elections. In an age of cant and baloney, Andrew Bacevich offers a bracing slap of reality. He confronts fundamental questions that Americans have been avoiding since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. First of all: What is the sole superpower's proper role in the world? Bacevich is not running for office, so he is willing to speak bluntly to his countrymen about their selfishness, their hubris, their sanctimony and the grave problems they now face. He scolds a lot, but does so from an unusual position of authority. He is a West Point graduate who served his country as an Army officer for more than 20 years, retiring as a colonel with a reputation as one of the leading intellectuals in our armed services. Bacevich describes an America beset by three crises: a crisis of profligacy, a crisis in politics and a crisis in the military. The profligacy is easily described: What was, even in the author's youth several decades ago, a thrifty society whose exports far outdistanced its imports has become a nation of debtors by every measure. Consumption has become the great American preoccupation, and consumption of imported oil the great chink in our national armor . . . Bacevich describes the military crisis with an insider's authority. He dissects an American military doctrine that wildly overstates the utility of armed force in politically delicate situations. He decries the mediocrity of America's four-star generals, with particular scorn for Gen. Tommy Franks, original commander of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He calls the all-volunteer Army, isolated from the society it is supposed to protect, 'an imperial constabulary' that 'has become an extension of the imperial presidency' . . . The Limits of Power is a dense book but gracefully written and easy to read. It is chockablock with provocative ideas and stern judgments. Bacevich's brand of intellectual assuredness is rare in today's public debates. Many of our talking heads and commentators are cocksure, of course, but few combine confidence with knowledge and deep thought the way Bacevich does here . . . Elegant and powerful."—Robert G. Kaiser, Houston Chronicle

"Taking neither sides nor prisoners, Andrew Bacevich's The Limits of Power should be read by everyone."—Chauncey Mabe, Orlando Sentinel

"Finally, an attack on the citizens of this country! Bacevich examines the ways in which We the People have been complicit in the breakdown of American ideals, the war, political chicanery, and our desire to have it all. Citing numerous sources and piecing together a fascinating historical analysis, Bacevich hits the nail on the head."—ML van Valkenburgh, Charleston City Paper

"This is a book very much worth reading. One would like to think it found its way into the hands of those who have just moved into positions of power."—James J. Sheehan, Commonweal  

"A powerful . . . critique of America in the world today. A West Point graduate, 23-year army veteran and retired colonel now teaching at Boston University, Bacevich is a Niebuhr scholar. His book (which reached the No. 1 spot on the Amazon best-seller list) draws heavily on Niebuhr's analysis of the political world of uncertainty, confusion and fear in the 1930s—which, Bacevich observes, happens to be comparable to our own. Following in Niebuhr's tracks, Bacevich challenges Americans on three counts: a crisis of profligacy, a crisis in politics and a crisis in the military."—Bruce van Voorst, The Christian Century

"Bacevich's new book The Limits of Power, attempts a deeper historical and theoretical examination of the U.S.'s current woes, suggesting that the excesses of recent foreign are far more deeply rooted in the U.S. character than its critics have been willing to acknowledge . . . His story features an unlikely hero and villain—the former being Jimmy Carter, who warned futilely that the U.S. must learn to live within its means, the latter being Ronald Reagan, who reassured the U.S. citizenry that they could have their cake and eat it too . . . Bacevich identifies Eisenhower-era strategist Paul Nitze as the key architect of this shift, but correctly sees the militarisation of U.S. foreign policy as a constant drive that transcended individuals, administrations, and parties. While the Bush Doctrine of preventive war may have been the most extreme manifestation of these tendencies, they were equally visible in the administrations of supposedly more dovish presidents such as Carter and Clinton . . . Bacevich is particularly good on the current fad towards viewing counterinsurgency doctrine as universal panacea for the U.S. military's woes. Without disparaging the successes of counterinsurgency as developed by strategists such as David Petraeus, he argues persuasively that 'small war' techniques cannot take the place of a serious assessment of what the U.S.'s strategic interests are, and what its military should do. . . . The Limits of Power is short and briskly argued . . . Bacevich central arguments are too important to pass over, and his book provides a much-needed challenge to what has become an ideologically rigid and historically ignorant foreign policy consensus."—Daniel Luban, Inter Press Service News Agency

“Andrew Bacevich speaks truth to power, no matter who’s in power, which may be why those of both the left and right listen to him.”—Bill Moyers

“In this utterly original book, Andrew Bacevich explains how our ‘empire of consumption’ contains the seeds of its own destruction and why our foreign policy establishment in Washington is totally incapable of coming to grips with it. Indispensable reading for every citizen.”—Chalmers Johnson, author of the Blowback Trilogy

"A clear-eyed look into the abyss of America's failed wars, and the analysis needed to climb out. In Andrew Bacevich, realism and moral vision meet."—James Carroll, author of House of War

“In The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich takes aim at America’s culture of exceptionalism and scores a bulls eye. He reminds us that we can destroy all that we cherish by pursuing an illusion of indestructibility.”—Lieutenant General Bernard E. Trainor United States Marine Corps (Ret.), co-author of The General’s War and Cobra II

“Andrew Bacevich has written a razor sharp dissection of the national myths which befuddle U.S. approaches to the outside world and fuel the Washington establishment’s dangerous delusions of omnipotence. His book should be read by every concerned US citizen.”—Anatol Lieven, author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism

“In The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich delivers precisely what the Republic has so desperately needed: an analysis of America's woes that goes beyond the villain of the moment, George W. Bush, and gets at the heart of the delusions that have crippled the country's foreign policy for decades. Bacevich writes with a passionate eloquence and moral urgency that makes this book absolutely compelling. Everyone should read it.”—Mark Danner, author of Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror

"A retired U.S. Army colonel makes the case for a more modest American posture on the world stage, including less use of the military. The United States' recent tendency to flex its muscle is misguided and goes against national tradition, argues Bacevich. The American armed services are stretched too thin and have been sent on too many missions that should not have been launched. Citing theologian and social thinker Reinhold Niebuhr, who favored realism and humility as the guideposts of policymaking, the author finds the approach of many recent presidents, especially George W. Bush, sorely lacking in both. The Bush administration, in his view, has affirmed an 'ideology of national security' that sees the United States as the embodiment of freedom in the world and believes that we can only be secure when liberty prevails across the globe. This inflated view of America's importance has dangerous consequences at home and abroad, Bacevich writes: 'It imposes no specific obligations. It functions the way ideology so often does-not to divine truth or even to make sense of things, but to provide a highly elastic rationale for action. In the American context, it serves principally to legitimate the exercise of executive power . . . It certainly does not prevent American policymakers from collaborating with debased authoritarian regimes that deny basic freedoms like Hosni Mubarak's Egypt or Pervez Musharraf's Pakistan.' The author . . . ably synthesizes existing scholarship. In spare prose, with rarely a wasted word, he examines and convincingly refutes many conservativeforeign-policy tenets, including those that make the case for preemptive war, which Bacevich finds abhorrent. He does not include references to his own military career and never makes his argument in emotional terms; although the book is dedicated to his son, readers only learn in the acknowledgments that Lieutenant Andrew John Bacevich was killed in action in Iraq. Well-reasoned and eloquently argued."—Kirkus Reviews

"In this caustic critique of the growing American 'penchant for empire' and 'sense of entitlement,' Bacevich examines the citizenry's complicity in the current 'economic, political, and military crisis.' A retired army colonel, the author efficiently pillories the recent performance of the armed forces, decrying it as 'an expression of domestic dysfunction,' with leaders and misguided strategies ushering the nation into 'a global war of no exits and no deadlines.' Arguing that the tendency to blame solely the military or the Bush administration is as illogical as blaming Herbert Hoover for the Great Depression, Bacevich demonstrates how the civilian population is ultimately culpable; in citizens' appetite for unfettered access to resources, they have tacitly condoned the change of 'military service from a civic function into an economic enterprise.' Crisp prose, sweeping historical analysis and searing observations on the roots of American decadence elevate this book from mere scolding to an urgent call for rational thinking and measured action, for citizens to wise up and put their house in order."—Publishers Weekly

In the Press

Book Review - 'The Limits of Power - The End of American Exceptionalism,' by Andrew J. Bacevich - Review -
Andrew J. Bacevich plays the prophet for a fat, self-indulgent America.
Speaking Truth to a Superpower
Search Washington, DC area books events, reviews and bookstores from the Washington Post. Features DC, Virginia and Maryland entertainment listings for bookstores and books events. Visit http:www.washingtonpost.comwp-dyncontentprintbookworld today.
A critical American view: Lost sheep | The Economist
Don't ask for more, says Mr BacevichKalman Zabarsky REPENT ye! cries Andrew Bacevich. With the fervour of the prophet Jeremiah, but with more wit, he denounces...

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Chapter One 

The Crisis of Profligacy

Today, no less than in 1776, a passion for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness remains at the center of America’s civic theology. The Jeffersonian trinity summarizes our common inheritance, defines our aspirations, and provides the touchstone for our influence abroad.

Yet if Americans still cherish the sentiments contained in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, they have, over time, radically revised their understanding of those "inalienable rights." Today, individual Americans use their freedom
Read the full excerpt



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    Boston University Professor of History and International Relations and former U.S. Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich discusses the global war on terror seven years after 9/11 in his bestselling book, The Limits of Power.

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    Andrew Bacevich, author of the bestselling book The Limits Of Power discusses the end of the American century.

  • The Limits of Power by Andrew J. Bacevich--Audiobook Excerpt

    Listen to this audiobook excerpt from Andrew Bacevich's book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. An immediate New York Times bestseller, The Limits of Power offers an unparalleled examination of the profound triple crisis facing America: an economy in disarray that can no longer be fixed by relying on expansion abroad; a government transformed by an imperial presidency into a democracy in name only; and an engagement in endless wars that has severely undermined the body politic.



  • Andrew Bacevich

  • Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, retired from the U.S. Army with the rank of colonel. He is the author of The New American Militarism, among other books. His writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. He is the recipient of a Lannan award and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

  • Andrew Bacevich