May 19, 2009

The Limits of Bacevich

The moment I heard Andrew Bacevich had written a new book on foreign policy, I rushed out to buy a copy. I even planned to write a review of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. But I ended up deciding against it … and for rather cowardly reasons: I found myself disagreeing with much of what Bacevich had to say about economics and American empire and knew that I?d have to write about this. Since I (more or less) concur with Bavecich?s policy proscriptions, why should I bother needling him about money, debt, and imperial finance?

Of course, getting it right is important, and I was glad to see that David Gordon has articulated many of my objections in an article on Bacevich for the Mises Review

In Bacevich?s telling of modern history, America took a turn for the worse with the presidency of Ronald Reagan. His ?libertarian? background not withstanding, The Gipper was a budget-busting spendthrift, and he oversaw America?s transition from creditor to biggest-debtor-in-world-history status. Worse still, when Reagan said, ?It?s morning in America,? most Americans heard, ?Just go out there and buy stuff!? and such rhetoric became a precursor to the ?Fight Terrorism?Go Shopping? dynamic of the Bush years (which Bacevich has written about so powerfully.)

All of this is spot on; however, as David points out, behind Bacevich’s Reagan revisionism ?lies a dubious thesis on which the author insists.?

Given the bad consequences of unlimited intervention and empire, why have American policymakers adopted this policy? Americans, it seems, demand more and more material goods. These goods cannot be secured without access to energy, in particular to oil. America’s aggressive policy in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere is ultimately motivated by our refusal to restrict consumption:

The first protracted economic downturn since World War II [in the 1970s] confronted Americans with a fundamental choice. They could curb their appetites and learn to live within their means or deploy dwindling reserves of U.S. power in hopes of obliging others to accommodate their penchant for conspicuous consumption. (p. 30)

Bacevich may deplore ?conspicuous consumption,? but his Veblenesque theory does not account for our bellicose foreign policy. If the American economy requires oil, there is no need to use military measures to secure it. Countries with oil have every incentive to trade with us. Hostile countries are no exception. Ivan Eland has pointed out that even if Saddam Hussein had taken over the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia,

his control over a greater market share of world-wide oil production and reserves would have allowed him to drive oil prices higher by cutting production somewhat. Yet, according to [economist David] Henderson, those price increases would have amounted to less than one-half of 1 percent of U.S. Gross National Product. (Ivan Eland, The Emperor Has No Clothes [Independent Institute 2004, p. 249.])

The American foreign-policy elite has indeed sought control of foreign resources, but this reflects its own quest for power and profit rather than an attempt to fulfill the demands of the rapacious consumer.

David isn’t merely quibbling, for in countless instances in Power, Bacevich argues that America?s unquenchable appetite for consumption is financed (or guaranteed, or something) through Washington?s imperial military project. Here?s one example from many:

Whether the issue at hand is oil, credit, or the availability of cheap consumer goods, we expect the world to accommodate the American way of life. The resulting sense of entitlement has great implications for foreign policy. Simply put, as the American appetite for freedom [defined by Bacevich as binge shopping] has grown, so too has our penchant for empire. The connection between these two tendencies is a causal one. [emphasis added]

Bacevich seems to believe that this ?causal? link is recognized by the Pentagon and State Department planners, who act according to the ?unspoken assumption ? that profligate spending on what politicians euphemistically refer to as ?defense? can sustain profligate domestic consumption of energy and imported goods.? Americans shall, eventually, have to pay an enormous price for their debt-and-empire-financed totally awesome lifestyle, but Bacevich thinks Washington can delay this day of reckoning almost indefinitely. Indeed, one of central motives for launching the Iraq war was to ramp up the imperial project after signs of an economic breakdown began to show during the recession of 2001-02.

Here and elsewhere, Bacevich appears almost like a photographic negative of Niall Ferguson, Deepak Lal, Philip Bobbit,Michael Mandelbaum and other neo-imperialists boosters who claim that an intergalactic American military presence is a necessary condition for economic globilization and the free flow of goods.

Of course, under close inspection, both negative and positive versions of the argument are patently wrong: As Gordon highlights, oil would flow more easily and cheaply without America bombing and occupying Middle Eastern countries all the time, and the great manufacturing engine of China is a land where American military influence is close to nil. (And does anyone actually think that the Japanese are manufacturing and selling us their products only because of Washington?s base in Okinawa?)

Bacevich, it seems, wants to avoid the banal truth about America?s great empire?that its sole purpose is to enhance the power of Washington bureaucrats, the military Top Brass, and influential lobbies. Particular firms, like Haliburton and Blackwater, might profit from warmaking, but the nation as a whole is left poorer?less able to afford all that Wallmart junk, less able to indulge in out-of-control lifestyles. The empire is itself conscious consumption. One might view the Iraq war as less of a total boondoggle if soldiers actually were dying so the rest of us could buy flatscreens and Tickle-me-Elmoes. But this is simply not the case.

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