Thursday, August 21, 2008

Attention Shoppers

There’s a man on television trying to get your attention. But he’s not trying to sell you a great new gadget or a snazzy new car. He’s trying to tell you something important about your buying habits. He’s saying people are hurting, people are dying, because our passion for amassing great collections of stuff is fueling the fires of war.

“We refuse to live within our means. We continue to think that the problems that beset the country are out there beyond our borders. And that if we deploy sufficient amount of American power we can fix those problems, and therefore things back here will continue as they have for decades,” this very distinguished-looking guy on TV said to Bill Moyers.

“The big problem … with the current crisis in American foreign policy, is that unless we do change our ways, the likelihood that our children, our grandchildren, the next generation is going to enjoy the opportunities that we've had, is very slight, because we're squandering our power. We are squandering our wealth.”

That’s Andrew J. Bacevich talking, summarizing the main point of his new book, The Limits of Power. That point, in a nutshell, is that our American way of life, which so much of humanity has been attracted or urged to emulate, is the engine of impending disaster.

“The United States today finds itself threatened by three interlocking crises. The first of these crises is economic and cultural, the second political, and the third military. All three share this characteristic: They are of our own making,” writes Bacevich, a retired army colonel who teaches international relations at Boston University. “The collective capacity of our domestic political economy to satisfy [America’s] appetites has not kept pace with demand. As a result, sustaining our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness at home requires increasingly that Americans look beyond our borders. 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….

“With Americans, even in war time, refusing to curb their appetites,” he adds, “the Long War [in Iraq and Afghanistan] aggravates the economic contradictions that continue to produce debt and dependency…. The Iraq War deserves our attention as the clearest manifestation of these three crises, demonstrating the extent to which they are inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing. That war was always unnecessary. ... Of perhaps even greater significance, it is both counterproductive and unsustainable,” writes Bacevich, whose 27-year-old son died in a military operation in Iraq last year.

Bacevich, a West Pointer who fought in Vietnam, rejects the Bush administration’s claim that the war in Iraq is defending freedom and saving the world. "The pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit. The chief desire of the American people," Bacevich writes, "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 of through the distribution of largesse here at home, and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad….

“Rather than insisting that the world accommodate the United States, Americans need to reassert control over their own destiny, ending their condition of dependency and abandoning their imperial delusions,” Bacevich states. “Of perhaps even greater difficulty, the combination of economic, political, and military crisis summons Americans to reexamine exactly what freedom entails. Soldiers cannot accomplish these tasks, nor should we expect politicians to do so. The onus of responsibility falls squarely on citizens.”

In his recent PBS interview with Bill Moyers, Bacevich added: “We look to the President, to the next President. You know, we know that the current President's a failure and a disappoint—we look to the next President to fix things. And, of course, as long as we have this expectation that the next President is going to fix things then, of course, that lifts all responsibility from me to fix things.”

But, having lost his son in a war to feed gas-guzzling American appetites, Bacevich is not letting the public wriggle off the hook. “We're going to have a long argument about the Iraq War. We, Americans. Not unlike the way we had a very long argument about the Vietnam War. In fact, maybe the argument about the Vietnam War continues to the present day. And that argument is going to … cause us, I hope, to ask serious questions about where this war came from.

“How did we come to be a nation in which we really thought that we could transform the greater Middle East with our army? What have been the costs that have been imposed on this country? Hundreds of billions of dollars. Some projections, two to three trillion dollars. Where is that money coming from? How else could it have been spent? For what? Who bears the burden?”

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