Bill Moyers and Prof. Andrew J. Bacevich on The Limits of Power

Andrew J. Bacevich, retired Army colonel and Boston University professor, is interviewed by Bill Moyers.

Former Army colonel Bacevich urges us ‘to take a step back and connect the dots between U.S. foreign policy, consumerism, politics, and militarism’
August 15, 2008

See video of interview on Bill Moyers’ Journal, below.

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.

Reinhold Niebuhr

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 beligerant 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.”

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.


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.]

Source / Bill Moyers Journal

The Common Good, Andrew J. Bacevich interviewed by Bill Moyers

Read the full introduction to The Limits of Power.

Read or watch Bacevich’s lecture on Niebuhr, ILLUSIONS OF MANAGING HISTORY.

Thanks to Thomas Cleaver / The Rag Blog

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2 Responses to Bill Moyers and Prof. Andrew J. Bacevich on The Limits of Power

  1. Anonymous says:

    Dr Becevich expresses with great eloquence, most of the doubts so many of us have felt about the paths chosen by so many administrations in America I am
    amazed That such men have so poor a following.

  2. Denis says:

    Andrew Bacevich’s words should echo not only in Congress and in the White House of whoever becomes our next president, but across the nation, especially so listening to John McCain’s foreign policy view that America’s power is a force to make the world better. Thank you to Bill Moyers and Andrew Bacevich for such a riveting coversation.

    “History is the best andidote to illusions of omnipotence and omniscience. It should forever remind us of the limitations of our passing perspectives. It should strengthen us to resist the pressure to convert monentary interests into moral absolutes. It should lead us to a profound and chastening sense of our frailty as human beings – to a recognition of the fact, so often and sadly demonstrated, that the future will outwit all our certitudes and that the possibilities of history are far richer and more various than the human intellect is likely to conceive…A nation informed by a vivid understanding of the ironies of history is, I believe, best equipped to live with the temptations and tragedy of power. Since we are condemned as a nation to be a superpower, let a growing sense of history temper and civilize our use of that power.
    Sometimes, when I am particularly depressed, I ascribe our behavior to stupidity – the stupidity of our leadership, the stupidity of our culture. Thirty years ago we suffered a military defeat – fighting an unwinnable war against a country about which we knew nothing and in which we had no vital interests at stake. Vietnam was bad enough, but to repeat the same experiment thirty years later in Iraq is a strong argument for a case of national stupidity.
    In the meantime, let a thousand
    historical flowers bloom. History is never a closed book or a final verdict. It is always in the making. Let historians not forsake the quest for knowledge, however tricky and full of problems that quest may be, in the interests of an ideology, a nation, a race, a sex, or a cause. The great strength of the practice of history in a free society is its capacity for self-correction.”
    – Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
    History and National Stupidity
    New York Review of Books
    April 27, 2006

    Andrew Bacevich is one such blooming historical flower!!!

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