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Bill Moyers Interviews Andrew J. Bacevich
Limits of Power
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August 15, 2008

As campaign ads urge voters to consider who will be a better "Commander in Chief," Andrew J. Bacevich — Professor of International Relations at Boston University, retired Army colonel, and West Point graduate — joins Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL to encourage viewers to take a step back and connect the dots between U.S. foreign policy, consumerism, politics, and militarism.

Bacevich begins his new book, THE LIMITS OF POWER: THE END OF AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM, with an epigraph taken from the Bible: "Put thine house in order." Bacevich explained his choice to Bill Moyers:

I've been troubled by the course of U.S. foreign policy for a long, long time. And I wrote the book in order to sort out my own thinking about where our basic problems lay. And I really reached the conclusion that our biggest problems are within.

I think there's a tendency in the part of policy makers — and probably a tendency in the part of many Americans — to think that the problems we face are problems that are out there somewhere beyond our borders, and that if we can fix those problems, then we'll be able to continue the American way of life as it has long existed. I think it's fundamentally wrong. Our major problems are here at home.

Bacevich sees three crises looming in the United States today, as he explains in the introduction to THE LIMITS OF POWER.

The United States today finds itself threatened by three interlocking crises. The first of these crises is economic and cultural, the second political, and the third military. All three share this characteristic: They are of our own making. In assessing the predicament that results from these crises, THE LIMITS OF POWER employs what might be called a Niebuhrean perspective. Writing decades ago, Reinhold Niebuhr anticipated that predicament with uncanny accuracy and astonishing prescience. As such, perhaps more than any other figure in our recent history, he may help us discern a way out.
>>Read the full introduction to THE LIMITS OF POWER

Reinhold Niebuhr

Limits of Power
Reinhold Niebuhr, whose 20th century work related theology to modern society and politics, is important in Bacevich's analysis, and in a university lecture at Boston University, Bacevich presented Niebuhr as a prophet with stern warnings for modern America:
As prophet, Niebuhr warned that what he called "our dreams of managing history" — dreams borne out of a peculiar combination of arrogance, hypocrisy, and self-delusion — posed a large and potentially mortal threat to the United States. Today we ignore that warning at our peril.

Since the end of the Cold War the management of history has emerged as the all but explicitly stated purpose of American statecraft. In Washington, politicians speak knowingly about history's clearly discerned purpose and about the responsibility of the United States, at the zenith of its power, to guide history to its intended destination.

A key message Bacevich takes from Niebuhr is one of humility. Not only must we understand the limits of what a government — and its military — can accomplish, but we must resist the temptation to guide history towards some perceived purpose or end:

In Niebuhr's view, although history may be purposeful, it is also opaque, a drama in which both the story line and the dénouement remain hidden from view. The twists and turns that the plot has already taken suggest the need for a certain modesty in forecasting what is still to come. Yet as Niebuhr writes, "modern man lacks the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management."

Such humility is in particularly short supply in present-day Washington. There, especially among neoconservatives and neoliberals, the conviction persists that Americans are called up on to serve, in Niebuhr's most memorable phrase, "as tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection."

And so, Bacevich concludes, we cannot solve our problems by simply electing a new president, or removing a belligerant foreign regime. To address our triplet crises, we must first confront our core misconceptions. Which we do, Bacevich explains, by confronting our consumerism and

...giving up our Messianic dreams and ceasing our efforts to coerce history in a particular direction. This does not imply a policy of isolationism. It does imply attending less to the world outside of our borders and more to the circumstances within. It means ratcheting down our expectations. Americans need what Niebuhr described as "a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of [history's] perplexities."

>>Read or Watch Bacevich's lecture on Niebuhr, ILLUSIONS OF MANAGING HISTORY

Andrew J. Bacevich

Andrew J. Bacevich is Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University. A graduate of the U. S. Military Academy, he received his Ph. D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University. Before joining the faculty of Boston University in 1998, he taught at West Point and at Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Bacevich is the author of THE LIMITS OF POWER: AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM (2008). His previous books include AMERICAN EMPIRE: THE REALITIES AND CONSEQUENCES OF U. S. DIPLOMACY (2002), THE IMPERIAL TENSE: PROBLEMS AND PROSPECTS OF AMERICAN EMPIRE (2003) (editor), THE NEW AMERICAN MILITARISM: HOW AMERICANS ARE SEDUCED BY WAR (2005), and THE LONG WAR: A NEW HISTORY OF US NATIONAL SECURITY POLICY SINCE WORLD WAR II (2007) (editor).

His essays and reviews have appeared in a wide variety of scholarly and general interest publications including THE WILSON QUARTERLY, THE NATIONAL INTEREST, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, FOREIGN POLICY, THE NATION, THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE, AND THE NEW REPUBLIC . His op-eds have appeared in the NEW YORK TIMES, WASHINGTON POST, WALL STREET JOURNAL, FINANCIAL TIMES, BOSTON GLOBE, LOS ANGELES TIMES, and USA TODAY, among other newspapers.

Published August 15, 2008.

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References and Reading:
By Andrew J. Bacevich

"Russia's Payback"
Andrew J. Bacevich, THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE August 15, 2008. "NATO disrespected Russia for too long. Now the Alliance must regroup." Bacevich weigns in on the situation in Georgia.

"Illusions of Victory"
Andrew J. Bacevich, THE NATION, August 12, 2008. An article based on THE LIMITS OF POWER.

"Sycophant Savior"
Andrew J. Bacevich, THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE October 8, 2007. Prof. Bacevich critiques General Petraeus approach to Iraq and Washington, D.C.

"I lost my son to a war I oppose. We were both doing our duty."
Andrew J. Bacevich, THE WASHINGTON POST, May 27 2007. Prof. Bacevich's OpEd about losing his son in Iraq.

"The American Tradition"
Andrew J. Bacevich, THE NATION, July 10, 2006. Prof. Bacevich critiques Peter Beinart's THE GOOD FIGHT and the idea of a non-empirical, "usable" history favored by pundits on the right and left.

"Why read Clausewitz when Shock and Awe can make a clean sweep of things?,"
Andrew J. Bacevich, THE LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS, June 8, 2006. Review of COBRA II, by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor about the Iraq War.

"Prophets and Poseurs: Niebuhr and Our Times,"
Andrew J. Bacevich, WORLD AFFAIRS JOURNAL, Winter 2008. The continuing relevance of Reinhold Niebuhr.

"Present at the Re-Creation,"
Andrew J. Bacevich, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, July/August 2008.Prof. A critique of Robert Kagan's article in the NEW REPUBLIC, in which Kagan, an influential neo-conservative, claims to be turning to realism.

"The Semiwarriors," Andrew J. Bacevich, THE NATION, April 5, 2007.
How James Forrestal's concept of "semiwar" has changed US foreign policy and help create an imperial presidency.

"What Isolationism?," Andrew J. Bacevich, LA TIMES, February 2, 2006.
Bacevich argues there are no isolationists in the US.

Andrew Bacevich on Charles Maier (pdf)
In his interview with Bill Moyers, Bacevich references Maier's term "Empire of Consumption". Here, Bacevich is on a roundtable discussing the book in which Maier outlines the term.

The US and Foreign Policy

"When I'm 64... Living through the Age of Denial in America" Tom Engelhardt
Tom Engelhardt, editor of the AMERICAN EMPIRE PROJECT and Bacevich's THE LIMITS OF POWER, reflects on his life and the path of American military policy from World War II to today.

Council on Foreign Relations: Campaign 2008
Guide to the 2008 election from CFR point of view.

"The Next President"
Richard Holbrooke, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, September/October 2008. Former US Ambassador to the UN and chair of the Asia Society, Richard Holbrook makes the case that the next U.S. President will inherit a more difficult set of international challenges than any predecessor since World War II.

Published August 15, 2008

Also This Week:

ANDREW J. BACEVICH
Is an imperial presidency destroying what America stands for? Bill Moyers sits down with history and international relations expert and former US Army Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich who identifies three major problems facing our democracy: the crises of economy, government and militarism, and calls for a redefinition of the American way of life.

THE LIMITS OF POWER
Read an excerpt from Bacevich's new book THE LIMITS OF POWER: THE END OF AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM.

ANDREW J. BACEVICH ON HISTORY, POLITICS AND REINHOLD NIEBHUR
Read a speech on the "Illusions of Managing History: The Enduring Relevance of Reinhold Niebuhr."

THE UNITED STATES AND THE MIDDLE EAST
Get a primer on the United States involvement with the Middle East.

MOYERS ON 2008
Add your voice or our election year map. Plus, get perspective on pressing election-year issues from JOURNAL guests.

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