Friday, August 21, 2009

The Limits of Power, by Andrew J. Bacevich

This is kind of embarrassing to admit, but here goes. I was just doodling on the Internet at work, and brought up the Amazon website. You know how Amazon ‘remembers’ what items you’ve looked at recently. Well, it had this list of ‘recommended’ books that I read, and The Limits of Power, by Andrew J. Bacevich was one of them.

Anyhoo, I read briefly one of the Amazon reviews, and it talked about how the author layed a lot of blame for America’s current situation at the feet of the electorate. Myself, I’ve often had a theory that the quality of the vote equals the quality of the politician. When people whinge about how bad their politicians are I often think, well, that’s easily solved. Stop voting for them, and actively demand better ones.

I totally loved The Limits of Power. Bacevich is a professor of history and ex-army man. Tragically, he lost his only son, Andrew John Bacevich, First Lieutenant U.S. Army to the Iraq war in 2007.

Bacevich puts forth his argument under three main themes: the profligacy that is built into America’s consumer economy (which even affects political decision making); the overreach of American foreign policy and its snake oil merchant leaders (most notably Ronald Reagan); and its military crisis, over run by civilian ‘experts’ obsessed with technocratic solutions (prime example here is Donald Rumsfeld.)

There’s no beating around the bush in this pithy 182 page book. Bacevich doesn’t waste the reader’s time. It’s a relief when you read these books and know that the author has spent a long time figuring out in his or head what they are on about before committing it to paper. Bacevich has obviously thought deeply and at length on what he writes about. This is someone who writes out of genuine conviction and concern.

For all of that, Bacevich’s program is a pretty simple one. The Limits of Power is a book that really begs for the reinstatement of common sense in politics and policy making. In economics, he calls for nothing less than the nation to live within its means. America is in a state of chronic over-reach, thinking that controlling Middle Eastern oil, and global geo-politics in general, will make the country happy and prosperous. Bacevich points out that this is in fact having the opposite effect.

My favourite part of the book was where he held up as an example of useful common sense President Jimmy Carter’s exhortation to the country to use less oil and start thinking about conservation. This was during the oil shocks of the 1970s, when OPEC raised prices sky high. (Please note, Bacevich is also critical of Carter’s performance as president.)

This policy of conserving energy was unpopular. Then comes along Ronald Reagan who says Americans deserve to be able to consume as much energy as they want, whatever the cost. (Didn't Reagan remove the solar panels Carter had installed at the White House as soon as he got in?)

This is what allows Bacevich to be so critical of the American public. They embraced Reaganomic with all of its fake, glitzy glamour.

Once again, the overall tone of this book is common sense. It’s not making the US any happier a country by being so over extended – Americans consume too much and try to control too much of the world in the deluded belief that this will make them happy. It’s not.

This is a good book for anyone living in a decadent democracy living beyond its means. For anyone fed up with the West’s empty consumer culture. For anyone sick of smooth talking technocratic politicians who don't speak in plain English.

The ABC’s Background Briefing program recently ran a podcast of a talk by Bacevich on the Afghanistan war. It’s worth a listen here.

No comments: