The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism

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The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism

By Andrew J. Bacevich
Metropolitan Books, 2008
224 pp. $24.00
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In post-Cold War foreign policy debates, it has been the voice of the sober realist, pointing out the limits of U.S. power and counseling restraint, that has been the most faintly heard. In recent years, Bacevich has been among the most articulate of these realists -- and this is his manifesto. He sees the United States as having embarked on a disastrous career of empire building and military adventurism that is bankrupting and corrupting the country, all the while making it less secure. Well known for his criticism of the Bush administration's intervention in Iraq and "war on terror," in this book Bacevich seeks out the deeper "ambitions, urges, and fears" that drive the United States' long-standing efforts to confront the enemies of freedom and remake the world. What emerges is a rather distinctive and curious argument about the sources of U.S. empire. It is not, in Bacevich's view, business interests or old-style militarism that drives Washington's outward ambitions. Rather, it is the United States' expanding notions of freedom and the good life, which over the decades have stimulated growing "appetites" that can only be satisfied through a Pax Americana. But, Bacevich argues, a U.S.-run world of easy credit, abundant oil, and cheap consumer goods is not sustainable. Echoing the ideas of scholars such as Barry Posen, Ian Shapiro, and others, the book calls for a grand strategy of containment, reducing the United States' far-flung military commitments, and returning to a more modest foreign policy agenda. The important question Bacevich does not explore is about the nonimperial ways that the United States can lead the world without undermining its values and institutions.