Gene Lyons's Column from 9/17/2008
Posted on Wednesday, September 17, 2008
By actual count, Sen. John McCain has favored five of the last two
American wars. For the GOP presidential nominee, it’s evidently not
enough to have U. S. troops stalemated in Iraq and losing ground in
Afghanistan. If McCain had his way, we’d be at war with nations
stretching from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas. It’s legitimate to
wonder where he thinks the Pentagon would find the soldiers. Definitely
not at the “think tanks” where the neo-conservative loons who dreamed up
this grandiose scheme of world domination hang out, that’s for sure.
Dubious readers should examine a world map. Since 9/11, McCain, who’s
rarely seen a bombing target he doesn’t like, has not only vigorously
advocated attacking Iraq, a conflict he championed a year before
President Bush caught the fever, but also has proposed to deal with the
Middle East’s 1,200-year-old Sunni-Shiite schism by giving both sides an
ultimatum to “stop the bull ****.”
Now comes his excellent vice-presidential nominee, Alaska’s 1984 Miss
Congeniality, to suggest war with Russia, a nation whose remote Siberian
arctic is dimly visible from the Aleutian Islands. Gov. Sarah Palin
imagines that this qualifies her as a foreign policy thinker. Meanwhile,
it’d be interesting to know if she’s heard of Napoleon Bonaparte or
Adolf Hitler, who actually tried invading Russia.
Readers who suspect exaggeration are mistaken. Sarcasm, yes;
overstatement, alas, no. In the waning years of the American empire,
grandiose bluster about waging war against the theological concept of
evil masquerades as “tough.” Seduced by bombastic slogans like “global
war on terror,” “ shock and awe, ” and “full-spectrum dominance,” much
of the public holds an instinctive belief in the myth of American
invincibility that makes sensible election year discussion of foreign
policy impossible. Anything hinting at geopolitical realism draws
accusations of cowardice and defeatism from hairy-chested patriots.
Don’t I know the world is full of evildoers? Yes, and I also know that
history is replete with the collapse of empires that became overextended
militarily and overwhelmed by debt.
Andrew J. Bacevich defines the problem in his astringent new book, “The
Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.” A West Point
graduate and retired U.S. Army colonel, Bacevich teaches international
relations at Boston University. Although he’s reluctant to talk about it
in the context of his book, his son, 1st Lt. Andrew J. Bacevich, died
serving in Iraq last year.
Bacevich argues compellingly that America’s most dangerous problems
begin at home. By “exceptionalism,” he means the myth that the U.S. won
both world wars almost single-handed due to the innate superiority of
our economic system and the American warrior spirit, and—people like
Palin insist—because we’re uniquely favored by God.
It takes nothing from the heroes of Normandy and Iwo Jima to observe
that the gods are always on the emperor’s side. Until they aren’t
Bacevich basically thinks that America has grown fat, dumb and lazy.
“The pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism,” he
writes, “has induced a condition of dependence on imported goods, on
imported oil and on credit. The chief desire of the American people is
that nothing should disrupt their access to these goods, that oil and
that credit. The chief aim of the U.S. government is to satisfy that
desire, which it does in part through the distribution of largesse here
at home, and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad.”
Borrowing a phrase from historian Charles Maier, he writes that since
World War II, the U.S. has become an “empire of consumption” instead of
production, rendering Americans “no longer masters of their own fate.”
Where Franklin D. Roosevelt enjoined citizens to make sacrifices, Bush
urged them to go shopping and visit Disneyland; hence, we find ourselves
reacting to the insane criminal conspiracy that is al-Qa’ida by
launching a grandiose, ultimately doomed effort to remake the Middle
East by force.
Even Gen. David Petraeus’ masterful handling of “the surge” —more a
combination of diplomacy, police work and bribery than warfare—has been
misinterpreted by McCain as a military triumph enabling the U.S. not to
exit Iraq but to go blundering ever wider and deeper into the folly
conservatives once derided as nation-building. Bacevich endorses neither
presidential candidate. Given the decayed state of the Republic, he
recently told Bill Moyers, “People run for the presidency in order to
become imperial presidents.” Under new leadership, however, there’s some
chance of a gradual return to reality. Elect McCain and we’re due for a
—–––––•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and
recipient of the National Magazine Award.