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The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (American Empire Project)
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From an acclaimed conservative historian and former military officer, a bracing call for a pragmatic confrontation with the nation's problems

The Limits of Power 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; U.S. 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 of us, Republicans and Democrats. If the nation is to solve its predicament, it will need the revival of a distinctly American approach: the neglected tradition of realism.

Andrew J. 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.

Customer Reviews:

  • Behind the Curtain of Our Foreign Policy
    I just finished this book and promptly sent an email recommending it to my friends.

    The authors most insightful thoughts were in regard to the demonizing of those around the world who are different than us or treat us in a perceived disrespectful manner. In effect, our government seems bent on portraying anyone who speaks ill of the United States as a mortal threat justifying not only our defense budget, but on occasion an intervention or occupation in the name of "freedom".

    Mr. Bacevich explains plainly we can no longer afford this type of arrogant imperialism. We need to discern real threats from imaginary before we break the bank, and the backs of our military.

    I also thought his observations on our consumer society forcing our hand around the world were intriguing. I agree with the author that if we continue to import oil from the Middle East, and money from China and Japan to fund our deficits, our foreign policy will be largely dictated to us.

    Although some of the concepts in the book were not new, the back story of how we got to our current circumstance, and the author's insights on the implications of our current path were. Great book.
    ...more info
  • The State of Our American Democratic Experiment
    "Set thine house in order." With this biblical passage, Andrew Bacevich begins his short but powerful exposition of the three crises facing the American nation today. In Bacevich's view, these problems are of our own making.

    These three crises are economic, political and military, and the underlying reason for all three emergencies "comes from within." The economic crisis is a "crisis of profligacy." Given the choice, Americans have given in to living beyond their means. The gap between requirements and means is ever-expanding, requiring us to look beyond our shores to sustain a frankly unsustainable American way of life. The political crisis of the United States is one of where the government is managed in a wartime-minded national security state whose primary attribute is dysfunction. This is a situation where Congress--more concerned with its reelection than anything else--has willfully abdicated its power to the executive branch, effectively ending the democratic republic.

    The third crisis stems from the first two but is one that has metastasized since the onset of the Global War on Terror, the military crisis. In sum, we have too much war for too few warriors, and those few warriors are led by mediocre generals who no longer understand nor grasp the lost art of strategy. Bacevich scours the military establishment and their widely held belief that Americans have reinvented war and warfare. Nothing about war's nature has changed, he argues, and American leaders are drawing all the wrong lessons from our current conflicts.

    Andrew Bacevich's "Limits of Power" takes an unflinchingly hard look at the state of our American democratic experiment. While his predictions are dire and his economic outlook has largely come to pass, he does offer solutions that won't be easy for the American people: we must learn to live within our means, for one. The "Limits of Power" exposes the vacuous shell of our democracy, and insists that only our citizenry that can fix the mess. But it will not be easy.

    ...more info
  • 2012 Third party platform
    A call to arms to the majority of Americans who pay their bills, and everyone else's, through taxes and higher prices for insurance and bailouts. Neither candidate has called for significant sacrifice, or true reflection on how we have diminished as a country, as we waste our material and cultural wealth. IF Obama cites Bacevich in his Inaugural address, he can truly unite us. We can't afford not to follow Bacevich's lead....more info
  • If you only read one book about the present crisis in the US, read this one
    I first heard of this book through a streamed interview that the author gave on the Bill Moyers show. That interview was impressive, and I'm not someone who is easily impressed, least of all by Americans.

    But the book is something else entirely. The author explains the history of the present in about 196 pages, and boy does he make a truly excellent job of it! His written style is fluent, succinct, concise, intelligent but never boring or dry. He is a Professor of International Relations at Boston University, and his students must love him! Not only that, but he is a West Point graduate who served in Vietnam, and subsequently served in the US Army for 22 years.

    He survived Vietnam, but ironically and very poignantly, he lost his son, a 1st Lieutenant, in Iraq. The book is dedicated to his son's memory. And it is an immensly worthy dedication. He writes with intelligence, passion and clarity. He shoots from the hip but, like the Zen archer, hits all his targets without fail; at the same time he doesnt hit anything he's not aiming at. Though it is an academic work, there is an almost spiritual profoundness and power about it, together with an almost military realism. He knows what he is about, and is not afraid to say it, no matter whose toes get trodden on.

    If I had a million pounds (2 million dollars) I would buy every copy of this book I could find, and distribute it for free on every university and college campus in the US. It is that good an investment, and that important.

    This is the same review as I wrote for Amazon.uk, with this addition.

    Prof. Bacevich writes about Limits of Power from the perspective of constitutionally legitimate and legitimised power, which is both legally and in practical terms limited.

    However, the very existential nature of the present crisis in terms of impending shortages of primary resources, could very well lead the 'powers-that-be-' in the US in particular, and in the Western world in general, to adopt forms of govermental authority that are less legitimate, but that would become 'legitimised' by the existential nature of the crisis. If this were to happen, the Limits of Power that Prof Bacevitch writes about, might very well become redundant.

    ...more info
  • Important but Flawed
    In defense of this book, I agree with the main contention, that America cannot afford to go from war to war, not to mention that even if we could afford it, it would not change the fact that these wars have simply not been successful and will likely (Afghanistan comes to mind) not produce better outcomes in the future.

    Having said that, as others have pointed out, the self-righteous tone of the book comes across more often than not as score settling and filled with self-poisoning venom. For instance, on page 105, he describes Forrestal's wife as "a floozy and a drunk". This description may or may not be accurate, but why is it necessary? It adds nothing to our understanding of the subject matter Unfortunately, it is not unrepresentative of the tone of most of the book.

    On page 155, the author in criticizing the moral character of the country uses as proof the "gaping disparities between rich and poor in our society". How would the author have us alleviate this gap? Spread the wealth? Tax only the rich? Perhaps he prefers outright socialism? This is one of the off-handed holier-than-thou statements that litter the book and detracts from the main point with which I agree. There is also an endorsement here of global warming which in conjunction with the implied call for socialism makes me highly suspicious of the core beliefs of the author. Although he rants about the deficits caused by military spending, he heaps no similar criticism on the monstrous deficits caused by the government's social programs and the unintended consequences of that spending.

    Finally, after lambasting the government and the military leadership for 99% of the book (again, not without cause), I kept waiting for the Bacevich solution. How do we deal with the threat or challenge of militant Islam for instance? All of a sudden the author's rant goes virtually silent. His stratgey for this is limited to one very vague paragraph where he supports "containment", with "surveillance of Islamist activity combined with sustained, multilateral police efforts to prevent terrorist attacks and root out terrorist networks. It should also deny Islamists both the sanctuaries and the wherewithal...to puruse their agenda"

    Let's examine this "policy" a bit more closely. What happens if no other country wants to help out with this multilateral effort? What happens if France for instance is so heavily influenced by its own Islamist population that it refuses to help and other countries cannot afford or simply refuse to help? How do we deny Islamists the "sanctuaries" the author mentions. Isn't that the rationale for going into Afghanistan for instance? Do we simply scold countries that harbor terrorists? I don't have the answer, but it's not at all clear that the author has a clue as to how to deal with the threat and this after he has relentlessly excoriated the policy, strategy and intellect of others throughout the entire book. He comes up empty-handed.

    In conclusion, I gave the book three stars because I believe his main thesis is correct and this would be a five star book if that were the only criteria. Unfortunately, the tone of the tirade, the socialist slant and the lack of any real plan on how to deal with the challenges posed by militant Islam caused me to pull two stars....more info
  • McArthur Was Right
    General Douglas McArthur was right when he said, at the end of World War II: "It must of the spirit if we are to save the flesh...."

    We Americans have not a real problem, but real "problems" today,and most of them stem from the way we have come to define "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness..."

    In this day and time, "the pursuit of happiness" has come to mean "give us what we want when we want it..." And that attitude has caused seemingly unsolvable economic, political and military problems. Our system of government has strayed and our whole national psyche seems to be geared toward "give us what we want when we want it..." And it can't go on forever.,

    This is not a book bashing the Republicans or the Democrats. It is a book taking a realistic look at some of the very real problems facing our country today. And they won't be solved simply or overnight. Consider the following passages from the book (hardback version):

    Pae 172-73-"At four-year intervals, ceremonies conducted to install a president reaffirm this inclination (to gloss over our real problems). Once again, at the anoited hour, on the steps of the Capitol, it becomes "morning in America." The slate is wiped clean. The newly inaugurated president takes office, buoyed by expectations that history will be soon be restored to its proper trajectory and the nation put back on track. There is something touching about these expectations, but also there is something pathetic, like the battered wife who expects that this time her husband will actuallly keep his oft-violated vow never again to raise his hand against her..."

    And from pages 170-171: "...to imagine that installing a particular individual in the Oval Office will produce decisive actions on any of these fronts is to succumb to the grandest delusion of all..."

    The real problem is our present-day definition of "the pursuit of happiness." It has to change.

    And McArthur was right, "It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh (the country)..."

    This is an important, though alarming book.

    Yet, this is America where there is always hope. Yet, hope alone won't solve our problems. They are not going away of their own accord, and they will be solved only by some fundamental changes in our expectations from government and from ourselves....more info
  • Thought provoking
    An excellent and thought provoking analysis of how America got to the present low point. Highly recommended!...more info
  • "Limits of Power
    I have found this book very readable and
    researched. It was a book I did not want to put
    down. I think the information should be known
    and read by everybody who is interested in the US.
    BIll FORST...more info
  • Two Parties One Power Structure
    In no uncertain terms Andrew Bacevitch describes our two political parties as having similar motivations and similar goals. He exposes our political leader's desires to participate within the power structure of the wealthiest campaign contributors, and move our country in a direction that benefits those who possess the most power. It's a must read for those who desire to understand the forces at work that determine our countries future....more info
  • read this book
    One of the best books on current affairs I have read.Should be a requirement for high school seniors....more info
  • Right on.
    Like other thinking military leaders, it appears that his fresh voice was squelched causing Col. Bacevich to look elsewhere for employmnet. The speak truth to power was definitely not in favor under the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld era, when the focus was "produce only intelligence to please." If it doesn't please, and is not in comic-book format, you are dismissed.

    I am proud of the fact that the author served. I am also proud that he could walk away and teach as he does now....more info
  • An excellent overview of how we got here and a bo0ld look in the mirror!
    The book gives a well though out perspective on the state of our country; its citizens and leaders. It is an objective and well documented look at our nation and its policies, its people and agenda from 1945 to the present. It is a must read for any thinking American regardless of political persuasion....more info
  • Limits of power
    I enjoyed reading this thoughtful account of our nation's dilemma regarding its use and exploitation of military force.
    We need a radical change to redirect our international efforts away from attempting to democratize the world and focus on furthering peaceful relationships through non-violent dialogue and smart diplomacy.
    Over the long haul if not sooner, the notion of gaining global power through colonialism will only lead to our own demise and self destruction. I hope and pray that President Obama will provide the leadership and that we the people will have the courage to end our imperialistic ambitions onc and for all. ...more info
  • Provocative, and worthwhile
    Depending on who you talk to the United States is on the decline,has its best days ahead of it, or somewhere it between.Bacevich makes a compelling argument that the United States is actually on the decline in many ways. From the financial meltdown, to the mismanaged war policies, the United Stats is in trouble, and potentially stands to decline as a world power.

    Strafor's George Friedman seems the think the U.S. will be a power for some time, or at least doesn't think the situation is as dire--he has a good argument as well--I digress. Who's right? Is Friednman right that the U.S. going to be a power for some time to come. Is the situation as dire as Bacevich say it is? Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between. Stay tuned. ...more info
  • Sharp rebuke of citizens, politicians, and generals (3.5 *s)
    This somewhat tedious and not entirely consistent polemic, written by a retired colonel, excoriates the United States, especially the imperial Bush II presidency, for its zeal in imposing American economic and political ideals on noncompliant parts of the world through high-tech military means, which can supposedly be accomplished quickly and precisely with few complications. Of course, recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate the complete fatuity of those martial actions. But the author also contends that our hyper-consumeristic society, in which freedom has morphed into self-indulgence, virtually requires that the world satisfy our appetites for oil, credit, etc, and basically gives tacit approval of political and military aggressiveness to secure the world for our needs.

    The US certainly had some international military presence before WWII, but the author contends that the expansion of the executive branch to include national security bodies, precipitated by the rise of the Russians and Chinese Communists, was transforming to the nature of US governance, especially in a willingness to intercede internationally. The secretiveness of the NSC, the CIA, the Pentagon, etc and the marginalization of Congress permitted policy positions that were frankly based on paranoid delusions of the extent of Communistic power and capabilities, best exemplified by Paul Nitze's NSC 68 report in 1950, which to this day still has immense influence among neo-conservatives. Parallel to the development of these formal structures has been the reliance of presidents since JFK on a select group of Wise Men or advisors, who operate independently of accountability or need to comport with reality. Many global misadventures lie at their feet.

    The author, in more than a little axe-grinding, suggests that recent top military commanders have been mostly incompetent. There is also a fuzzy debate about whether generals have been excessively constrained by civilian tampering - by the Wise Men. One can wonder if - and it is a big if - the US had been militarily successful in Iraq and Afghanistan, would this book have been written.

    While the author dates the exaggeration of our enemy's capabilities back to Nitze, its current manifestation is best demonstrated by neo-conservative Paul Wolfowitz, the principal advocate of preemptive war. The author is not entirely consistent in his claims that the US foreign policy has been characterized mostly by pragmatism before Bush II, but now is ideologically driven, given the continuity of a national security apparatus prone to distorted views. What he does make clear is that the high tech capability of our military has made its use become very appealing since the Clinton years, the thinking being that a problematic foreign regime can be carefully excised through precision bombing without collateral civilian damage. The miscalculations in Kosovo alone should have given the Bush II administration some pause.

    The author's views on freedom are extremely limited. There has always been the notion that material prosperity is an element of freedom, but the run-up of huge personal debts and national trade imbalances of recent years has created dependencies being played out globally. However, in a democracy, freedom has to be gauged on the ability or even desire of citizens to have a voice in political affairs. But in the national security state, citizens are propagandized rather than allowed to provide input and oversight. The author makes no call for citizen empowerment. In fact, American reliance on an all volunteer army, in the author's eyes, calls into question American interest in civic affairs.

    This book is one of several written by the author over the last ten years that criticizes the US turn to establishing an empire through military means. The author is certainly correct that it is not possible financially or from a manpower standpoint to dominate the world militarily, not to mention the philosophical problems. He invokes the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr throughout the book to condemn American arrogance and sanctimony in its thinking that empire can be established almost benignly. He points out that war always has unintended and devastating consequences, yet we seem to be at a point where we cannot stop ourselves on our self-destructive path. There are limits to power.

    As far as solutions to counteract our national hubris, or belief in American exceptionalism, the author can suggest only indirect measures such as eliminating nuclear weapons, achieving independence from foreign oil, and controlling global warming. But there are no suggestions as to how to start the process. He is definitely not a democrat (little `d'), so he does not call for citizen empowerment to put us on the correct path. In fact, he criticizes the American belief that electing candidates that espouse change can work, when there is no underlying movement by voters to alter their ways of life. The forces for continuity are subtle and significant. Basically the book is more or less a continuation of the author's, shall we say, need to scold the US, the imperial Presidency and especially the military, for its hubris in attempting to dominate the world. It's doubtful that this latest book breaks much new ground and some may find the curmudgeonly tone a bit off putting.
    ...more info
  • Limits of Power
    Andrew Bacevich presents an engrossing and compelling historical analysis of causative factors in the development of the current profligacy of unsustainable consumption besetting the United States today. This irresponsible and pervasive quest for the good life has wreaked havoc on the country's economic, social, and political institutions, leaving its democracy is serious jeopardy. He did all this most profoundly in less than 200 pages.

    ...more info
  • Truth tellers are never late!
    When I was 19 (I'm 40 now)and in college in the West, I had told my girlfriend that from what I had seen on the other side of the World (Africa in this case) there was a direct correlation between how we indulged in our desires and immediate demands, and the chaos seemingly far away that plagued other parts of this one planet. All that to say that on 9-12, I was already yearning for the truths Andrew Bacevich reveals, to be told. It would have been the proper seizing of the great opportunity, that the tragedy of the day before had provided. So when I showed signs of impatience in the following months, my father said:" People are still traumatized!".
    Now, my hope is that trauma has subsided enough for a critical number of Americans to explore unwanted reflections of Self from the mirror. For indeed, Mr. Bacevich has provided a compelling, deep, honest reflection that can serve the emergence of a very noble way to live amongst one another....more info
  • Amen to Limits
    Excellent study, though I have to take exception on some key points, most notably Mr. Bacevich's take on Reagan and Afghanistan. He writes: "Reagan's policy toward Afghanistan...a seemingly brilliant success that within a decade gave birth to a quagmire...The billions that Reagan spent funneling weapons...to the Afghan mujahideen were as nothing compared to the $1.2 trillion his administration expended modernizing US military forces." Partly true, but the author allows himself to be carried away into inaccurate history.

    First, it was not Reagan who spent billions funneling the weapons, but a liberal congressman named Charlie Wilson. Reagan merely gave political support to the program. Secondly, it in no way led to a quagmire. It led to the departure of the Soviet Union, which led to anarchy in Afghanistan, which led to the Taliban taking control, which led to O. bin Laden taking up residence in Afghanistan. To suggest that Sept 11 and our subsequent invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is due to Reagan and Wilson's support of people who were defending themselves against Soviet invaders is facile. The 19 hijackers were not successful because of any calisthenics they did in the desert at an al Qaeda camp. They did the bulk of their training and planning in Germany and the US.

    More to the point, our involvement today is not and need not be a quagmire. And this speaks of a missing theme, the absence of which I noticed often in reading Bacevich's otherwise very good book. Our military is not a police force. Our military is not a relief organization. Our military is not a nation-building agency. Our military is the best in the world at attacking and defending against other militaries. Saddam and his army are vanquished. The Taliban were run out of power a long time ago. It's time for us to go. Yes, bin Laden escaped, but that is no reason for us to stay. Hunting him now would seem to be a good task for the CIA, working together with the Pakistani intelligence service. Similarly, how much better it would have been for the US military to leave Iraq immediately after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Yes, much had to be rebuilt, but why not let the Iraqis do it among themselves in 2004 instead of 2011? Why not support Hamid Karzi in the way we supported the mujahideen, ie., from a safe distance?

    Bacevich correctly identifies the solution in his title: our power is great, but there are limits. The problem is political megalomania which sees no limits to what our military can accomplish. The story has been remarkably similar in this respect in Korea and Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan, but people like Lyndon Johnson and GW Bush continually hearken back to Japan and Germany as the model. If Barak Obama is as astute as he appears, he'll follow the lead of President Eisenhower in Korea, and not President Nixon in Vietnam.


    ...more info
  • Concise Patriotic Book: No Jingoism Here
    Andrew Baceich is a West Point graduate, who teaches at Boston University. He has a straight forward, lucid style that comes form a militarily informed perspective, but guided by history, and in this case, personal tragedy. Our book club just handled another of his books, "The Rise of American Militarism" when this book was released, and Bill Moyers interviewed Mr Bacevich on public television. Unlike the Pentagon-aware "news analysts" common to both Fox news and CNN, Bacevich knows, teaches and enlightens recent history, but refuses to peddle Pentagon propaganda or toe an ideologic line, right or left. He shines a light on American Exceptionalism, as a doctrine naturally following Manifest Destiny. He pin-points when we transformed from a "creditor nation to a debtor nation; a nation of producers to a nation of consumers living beyond our means and needs. He revisits the Presidencies from Kennedy to Bush II without the ideologic slant of either Fox News or MSNBC, no hagiography or ax-grinding here, simple truths historically validated - he's a straight shooter with dead aim at the unlikely and oft missed political target ...the truth. He slaps Congress with the indictment that they have abandoned their "Constitutional mandate" to check the growing, unchecked power of the White House. He clearly outlines some courageous styands by some presdients held in ignominy, and shows the clay feet of others that are widely adored, but in fact spoke one way telling the people what they wanted to hear, and acted another. The book is dedicated to his son, who was killed in Iraq, a fact not given much discussion in his hour long interview with Bill Moyers on Public television, but even this military hardened veteran could not hide the emotion of a child lost in an inglorious war. This is a masterful view of America present and past, with blunders in the military revealed, gutting the concept of pre-emptive war, including the memorable quote from Norman Mailer: "Trying to solve a problem with war is like trying to cure the clap by going to a whore house." This is quick, punchy, clever read for non-fiction readers that want to clarify their minds about history and where the USA is going. This is an enjoyable, erudite, thoughtful book. ...more info
  • Every American should read this
    This is one of the finest books I have read. All Americans should understand the importance of the views Bracevich presents to our future as a nation. We cannot continue the way we are. This book does not provide a solution to the problems we face but rather an understanding. Without that we can never develop the solutions. Absolutely a must read!!!

    I am buying this for those I love and respect....more info
  • A Missed Opportunity
    Red meat for the blue masses. Although all sides are subjected to significant incoming, the heaviest salvos are directed at the red targets. Justified or not, neither side will listen to a perceived bias. To me this was a missed opportunity. ...more info
  • Do America need some serious soul searching?
    The limits of power by Andrew Bacevich is indeed a fine book and makes an X-ray of the current American administration and its military. It is written in a truly sincere fashion that calls for the need to have a doubl take towards its policy failures, especially of the Bush administration and his book utterly exposes the arrogant and corrupt motives of the American military.

    Bacevich advocates the need on the part of America's policy makers to have a softer and considerate approach towards the outside world instead of degrading the lofty American values propunded by its founding fathers.

    However, it is easy to write in a somewhat holistic fashion than to place oneself in the role of the president and the policy makers. Nevertheless, he is justified in demanding a reconsideration of America's hawkish and imperialist political perceptions.

    This is a marvellous book in which historical accounts are so well narrated that would definitely help general readers, too. This book is extremely interesting and justifies the views of the author who has sacrificed a lot for his country and whose opinion is not those of an arm-chair politcian. It is a must read book.

    Gautam Maitra
    Author of 'Tracing the Eagle's Orbit: Illuminating Insights into Major US Foreign Policies since Independence.'...more info