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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Andrew J Bacevich: The Limits of Power

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[Welcome Andrew Bacevich, and Chris Hedges.  As a reminder, please take off-topic discussions to a different thread. thanks – bev]

War, as Andrew Bacevich knows, is a poison.  It is a poison that nations and groups must at times ingest to ensure their survival.  But, like any poison, it can kill you just as surely as the disease it is meant to eradicate.  The poison of war, he argues in The Limits of Power, courses unchecked through the body politic of the United States.  He argues, as does his intellectual mentor the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, that just because we have the capacity to wage war we do not have the right to wage war.  He warns us of the dangerous self-delusion that tells us we are on a providential mission to save the rest of the world from itself, to implant our virtues – which we see as superior to all other virtues — on others, and that we have a right to do this by force.  This self-delusion, he writes, has corrupted Republicans and Democrats. 

Barack Obama and those around him embrace, as does John McCain, the folly of the “war on terror.”  The Obama administration may want to shift the emphasis of this war to Afghanistan rather than Iraq, but this is a difference in strategy not policy.  By clinging to Iraq and expanding the war in Afghanistan the poison will continue in deadly doses.  Bacevich warns us that these wars of occupation are doomed to failure.  We cannot afford them.  The rash of foreclosures, the mounting job losses, the collapse of banks and the financial services industry, the poverty that is ripping apart the working class, our crumbling infrastructure and the killings of hapless Afghans in wedding parties and Iraqis by our iron fragmentation bombs are neatly interwoven.  These events form a perfect circle.  The costly forms of death we dispense on one side of the globe are hollowing us out from the inside at home. 

The “war on terror” is an absurd war against a tactic.  It posits the idea of perpetual, or what is now called “generational,” war.  It has no discernable end.  There is no way to define victory.  It is, in metaphysical terms, a war against evil, and evil, as Bacevich writes, will always be with us.  The most destructive evils, however, are not those that are externalized.  The most destructive are those that are internal.  These hidden evils, often defined as virtues, are unleashed by our hubris, self-delusion and ignorance.  Evil masquerading as good is evil in its deadliest form. 

America’s most dangerous enemies are not, in the end, Islamic radicals but those who promote the perverted ideology of national security that, as Bacevich writes, is “our surrogate religion.”   If we continue to believe that we can expand our wars and go deeper into debt to maintain an unsustainable level of consumption, we will dynamite the foundations of our society.

“The Big Lies are not the pledge of tax cuts, universal health care, family values restored, or a world rendered peaceful through forceful demonstrations of American leadership,” Bacevich writes in hi book.  “The Big Lies are the truths that remain unspoken: that freedom has an underside; that nations, like households, must ultimately live within their means; that history’s purpose, the subject of so many confident pronouncements, remains inscrutable.  Above all, there is this: Power is finite.  Politicians pass over matters such as these in silence.  As a consequence, the absence of self-awareness that forms such an enduring element of the American character persists.” 

The Limits of Power is an extraordinary book that combines insightful analysis about our national security state, our decline as a nation and imperial power, the wars we are now waging and the moral consequences of our refusal to confront our decline.  I finished it this afternoon on the way back from the Miami Book Festival and cannot praise it or its author too highly. 

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