Sharp rebuke of citizens, politicians, & generals May 21, 2009
This somewhat tedious and not entirely consistent polemic, written by a retired colonel, excoriates the United States, especially the imperial Bush II presidency, for its zeal in imposing American economic and political ideals on noncompliant parts of the world through high-tech military means, which can supposedly be accomplished quickly and precisely with few complications. Of course, recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate the complete fatuity of those martial actions. But the author also contends that our hyper-consumeristic society, in which freedom has morphed into self-indulgence, virtually requires that the world satisfy our appetites for oil, credit, etc, and basically gives tacit approval of political and military aggressiveness to secure the world for our needs.
The US certainly had some international military presence before WWII, but the author contends that the expansion of the executive branch to include national security bodies, precipitated by the rise of the Russians and Chinese Communists, was transforming to the nature of US governance, especially in a willingness to intercede internationally. The secretiveness of the NSC, the CIA, the Pentagon, etc and the marginalization of Congress permitted policy positions that were frankly based on paranoid delusions of the extent of Communistic power and capabilities, best exemplified by Paul Nitze’s NSC 68 report in 1950, which to this day still has immense influence among neo-conservatives. Parallel to the development of these formal structures has been the reliance of presidents since JFK on a select group of Wise Men or advisors, who operate independently of accountability or need to comport with reality. Many global misadventures lie at their feet.
The author, in more than a little axe-grinding, suggests that recent top military commanders have been mostly incompetent. There is also a fuzzy debate about whether generals have been excessively constrained by civilian tampering – by the Wise Men. One can wonder if – and it is a big if – the US had been militarily successful in Iraq and Afghanistan, would this book have been written.
While the author dates the exaggeration of our enemy’s capabilities back to Nitze, its current manifestation is best demonstrated by neo-conservative Paul Wolfowitz, the principal advocate of preemptive war. The author is not entirely consistent in his claims that the US foreign policy has been characterized mostly by pragmatism before Bush II, but now is ideologically driven, given the continuity of a national security apparatus prone to distorted views. What he does make clear is that the high tech capability of our military has made its use become very appealing since the Clinton years, the thinking being that a problematic foreign regime can be carefully excised through precision bombing without collateral civilian damage. The miscalculations in Kosovo alone should have given the Bush II administration some pause.
The author’s views on freedom are extremely limited. There has always been the notion that material prosperity is an element of freedom, but the run-up of huge personal debts and national trade imbalances of recent years has created dependencies being played out globally. However, in a democracy, freedom has to be gauged on the ability or even desire of citizens to have a voice in political affairs. But in the national security state, citizens are propagandized rather than allowed to provide input and oversight. The author makes no call for citizen empowerment. In fact, American reliance on an all volunteer army, in the author’s eyes, calls into question American interest in civic affairs.
This book is one of several written by the author over the last ten years that criticizes the US turn to establishing an empire through military means. The author is certainly correct that it is not possible financially or from a manpower standpoint to dominate the world militarily, not to mention the philosophical problems. He invokes the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr throughout the book to condemn American arrogance and sanctimony in its thinking that empire can be established almost benignly. He points out that war always has unintended and devastating consequences, yet we seem to be at a point where we cannot stop ourselves on our self-destructive path. There are limits to power.
As far as solutions to counteract our national hubris, or belief in American exceptionalism, the author can suggest only indirect measures such as eliminating nuclear weapons, achieving independence from foreign oil, and controlling global warming. But there are no suggestions as to how to start the process. He is definitely not a democrat (little ‘d’), so he does not call for citizen empowerment to put us on the correct path. In fact, he criticizes the American belief that electing candidates that espouse change can work, when there is no underlying movement by voters to alter their ways of life. The forces for continuity are subtle and significant. Basically the book is more or less a continuation of the author’s, shall we say, need to scold the US, the imperial Presidency and especially the military, for its hubris in attempting to dominate the world. It’s doubtful that this latest book breaks much new ground and some may find the curmudgeonly tone a bit off putting.