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The end of American Exceptionalism”

Andrew Bacevich

Extended Book Review and commentary

Bacevich is that rare military man who is able to understand and appreciate the roles armed services play or should play in society within nations and between societies among nations. This book, by an acclaimed conservative historian, is a must-read for those who aspire to understand conflict in a global perspective and the role of politics. At the same time, it is an excellent primer for voters who despair of the same old promises, promises, and yet more promises that come endlessly out of the mouths of politicians only to die unkept, forgotten. Finally, and unusual for a professor of history and international relations, Bacevich offers solid suggestions with both feet planted firmly on the terra firma. Platitudes are not part of this man’s lexicon. His is a clinical world of ebb and flow of events, each affecting events that follow, just not in ways expected or desired by the actors of the moment.

Bacevich is a patriot of the first order in that he goes beyond the superficial, the villain in the White House, or the inept CEOs and military commanders of our era. He looks deeply at the delusions and their origins that have captured our imaginations and thereby crippled all of us. Our leaders, especially, have fallen victims to the point where they confuse ideology with strategy, a condition that arose slowly over the last eight decades or so but which exploded into new life with 9/11.

What Justin Frank, MD. is for Mr. Bush, Andrew Bacevich is for American society. In each case, events of long ago have come back to haunt us in ways not easy to appreciate even now. The origins of our present imperial presidency go back some 16 administrations, each building on and handing off to the next, Republican and Democrat alike. In short, he captures political evolution that could easily lead to dictatorship, the creeping kind that you are not aware of until it becomes a fact.

Our government is now an oligarchy of elite rulers concentrated in the Executive Branch and who are effectively above the law and even the Constitution. Like creeping inflation, this all happened so gradually that it never surfaced in our national conscience, until now. Bacevich contends that the next incumbent in the White House will be unable to reverse this trend, so pervasive has it become. He will be unable, simply because he is human. He cannot be all-knowing, nor can he avoid seeking counsel from the elite, for only they know the ways of Washington well enough to get things done. But he can try, and have some effect; it is just that Bacevich gives him little chance of accomplishing any long-lasting basic change or even effect a turning point. We can only hope that the person who redefined the primary election procedure will have the wisdom to go beyond transparency and forge a new, effective and lasting relationship among the three branches of our government. Converting to a Parliamentary system is too much to expect, but that style of governance seems better equipped to handle the stress and strains of modernization of our times.

We quote:

      “No doubt the race for the presidency matters. It just doesn’t matter nearly as much as the media’s obsessive coverage suggests. Whoever moves into the White House on January 20, 2009, the fundamental problem facing the country--a yawning disparity between what Americans expect and what they are willing or able to pay--will remain stubbornly in place. Any presidential initiative aimed at alleviating the crisis of profligacy, reforming our political system, or devising a more realistic military policy are likely, at best, to have marginal effect.”

      “...For the abused wife, a condition of dependence condemns her to continuing torment. Salvation begins when she rejects that condition and asserts control over her life. Something of the same can be said of the American people.

We could not agree more. It is up to us--we, the people, on the street and in our own back yards, who can force change via the voting booth. Candidates with similar minds need to know they can count on us as we count on them. If the current financial crisis, and the manner in which we are "fixing" it means anything, it is that our system us not working. Checks and Balances have gone by the wayside. There are feedback loops that tell us how things are--in theory. But the Elite, those guys in power, obfuscate the information channels for various reasons, the most common being the built-in conflicts of interest inherent in our system. Until we address these issues surgically instead of applying turniquets, or Band Aids, and unless we address the root problems of what ails us, we will live under incompetent leadership while going the way of Rome to an unnecessary demise. We say unnecessary, because the average Joe and Jane America are not so imperial, even if the Psychopaths among us are.

To discover our options, we can first of all look within ourselves and ask, "Why do we play the sucker?" Of course most of us are conventional. Some of us live to kick butt. Our culture rewards those who seek high stats and control over others, qualified or not. These three traits make us vulnerable to the propaganda that began way back there after WWII when politicians realized they could scare us into most anything. These three traits also make up the composite personality known as Authoritarian.

Of course we want to live a little longer. Of course we want to live the good life. Of course we hide behind feel-good euphemisms that stand in for dirty deeds against others, and of course we buy into demonizing others. We are Authoritarians because these traits are built into our genes. These instincts worked against Hitler and Hirohito. But we forget, that these two men were Authoritarians of the highest degree. Hitler was self-made. Hirohito inherited his position. Hilter was so psychopathic and mesmerizing, he sold a proud people on the proposition that they were inherently superior--with fatal results. He demonized the Jews and escalated genocide to a new high. Never mind that survivors of that holocaust demonized the Palestinians in turn.

Since 9/11, especially, but before that, too, Americans have developed a psyche where it is we who are most important in this world. And we can be as profligate as we please. It is our template and it works. Except that it doesn't

With respect to other nations, the US is no longer the elephant in the living room. If Iraq has anything to teach us, it is that there are indeed limits to our power. And that alone should drive some national introspection in these times. As Bacevich suggests, we can come to grips with reality in economics, governance, and the roots of conflict. We can recognize fear mongering and punish the perpetrators, instead of rewarding them with yet another term in office. We can recognize ideology when we see it, and not just in religion, for it is everywhere. Ideology is pervasive; it permeates many elements of American society; its practitioners are no wiser than the rest of us.

We will have options in November. Will we vote for change or the status quo? We have a great military. But we now know it is not, and cannot be, an agent of change, the means to remake or even save the world. The fact is, our military cannot solve all problems, least of all can it bring peace on earth. Our worldview does not even matter.

For millennia, war has not worked.
Is it not time we tried something else?
Can we start in the voting booth?

Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
Bob Dylan


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