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What You Can Learn from Reinhold Niebuhr

Ronald Reagan has a special place in Bacevich’s rogue’s gallery. He is a “faux-conservative” and “the modern prophet of profligacy” who encouraged the fantasy that credit had no limits and bills would never come due. He had a “canny knack for telling Americans what most of them wanted to hear” and presided over eight years of “gaudy prosperity and excess” based on cheap credit and cheap oil. Bacevich remarks that Reagan’s beliefs “did as much to recast America’s moral constitution as did sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” By 1990 the United States imported 41 percent of its oil and was embroiled in the Islamic world as a result. Deficits and the national debt had soared, and the United States was no longer a creditor country. “Americans have yet to realize,” Bacevich writes, “that they have forfeited command of their own destiny.”

Operation Desert Storm, which ejected Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, also created a permanent US military presence in the Gulf, which, in Saudi Arabia, provided the proximate cause for the birth of al-Qaeda. After September 11, 2001, the United States was plunged into an orgy of exceptionalism—disdain for its allies and the UN, contempt for international law, and a new and unwarranted enthusiasm for preventive war, a concept that had been shunned by previous administrations.2 The very real limits of US power soon became clear.

As for George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, Bacevich remarks that it was originally supposed to be the first step in “a breathtakingly ambitious project of near global domination.” Of Bush’s posturing as commander in chief in a nation at war he comments bitterly, “Washington may have fancied itself to be at war; the nation most assuredly was not.”

Bacevich maintains that, starting in 1947, an informal national security elite has caused an “atmosphere of seemingly permanent crisis” and has deprived Congress of most of its responsibilities except ensuring the reelection of its own members, whom he refers to as “narcissistic hacks.” The ideological conviction of this extra-constitutional group—that America’s destiny and obligation is to ensure the triumph of freedom worldwide—adds “a moral gloss that can be added to virtually any initiative by insisting that…the United States is also acting to advance the cause of freedom and democracy.”

James Forrestal and Paul Nitze were founding members of this elite and of its mindset—“sounding the alarm at the drop of a hat” and favoring the worst-case scenario. In 1950 Nitze wrote NSC 68, “one of the foundational documents of postwar American statecraft.” NSC 68 finds the US, then at the peak of its power and influence, in “deepest peril” and “in greater jeopardy than ever before in our history,” with the possibility of “the destruction not only of this Republic but of civilization itself.” The long-expected Chinese Revolution and the first Soviet nuclear tests apparently induced this doom-laden mood. Succeeding generations of the elite, sometimes referred to as Wise Men, have also seen the United States as perennially beset by hideous threats, often inflated and based on a misinterpretation of reality. One recalls with embarrassment Condoleezza Rice’s smoking gun as mushroom cloud and other Saddam Hussein fantasies.

The resulting permanent militarization of US policy produced ever-increasing military budgets and persistent fearmongering, which, in Bacevich’s phrase, became “the stock-in-trade of Wise Men from Nitze’s day to the present.” Bacevich pronounces the national security elite ideology, with its reliance on the false security of military power, as “American exceptionalism in its most baleful form.”

As a soldier, Bacevich regards the overexpectations of America’s forces after September 11 as puerile. When the Iraq war went sour, “the ills afflicting our political system, including a deeply irresponsible Congress, broken national security institutions, and above all an imperial commander-in-chief not up to the job, became all but impossible to ignore.” A vast gap existed between what George W. Bush “called upon America’s soldiers to do and what they were capable of doing….” Bacevich is withering about the quality of current American generals, starting with Tommy Franks. He maintains that no general since Marshall and Eisenhower has understood Winston Churchill’s dictum that “at the summit true politics and strategy are one,” and writes that strategy is now a lost art, confused by civilians with ideology, by soldiers with operations. Post–cold war US military supremacy has produced—as may now be the case in Afghanistan—the prospect of open-ended conflict rather than enhanced security.

America doesn’t need a bigger army,” Bacevich writes. “It needs a smaller—that is, more modest—foreign policy….” Instead of the “war on terror,” containment should be tried in order to allow the Islamist threat to wither away. Efforts should be concentrated on major goals like the abolition of nuclear weapons or the reversal of climate change. His conclusion is fatalistic: “Americans appear determined to affirm Niebuhr’s axiom of willful self-destruction.”


In The Freedom Agenda, James Traub eschews both the grand prophetic style of Niebuhr and the sometimes biblical thunder of Bacevich. His book is an even-tempered but critical study of America’s self-imposed obligation to bring freedom and democracy to the world. The post–September 11 doctrine known as the “Freedom Agenda” derives from George W. Bush’s highly debatable assertion, in his second inaugural address, that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” The Bush administration’s promotion of the Freedom Agenda was not a success.

Bush’s Freedom Agenda, Traub points out, was the latest restatement of the venerable idea that Providence had chosen Americans to ensure the blessings of liberty for all. From the occupation of the Philippines in 1898, he traces the policies and experiences that tried to make a reality of this long-held and noble belief. He discusses many basic questions, with vivid practical examples. At what stage of development can democracy be usefully introduced? Is prosperity an essential prerequisite for democracy? Can freedom exist without democracy? How important is tradition or the building of liberal institutions? How much can outsiders really help in the process of democratization? How is the United States supposed to deal with essential but autocratic allies? How did the Bush administration’s encroachments on an open society at home affect the credibility of the US as a promoter of democracy abroad?

Traub’s excellent book presents a fascinating account of the progress, or lack of it, of liberty. He is an imperturbable ironist, brilliantly portraying long-standing American dilemmas like copious freedom rhetoric at home alongside expedient support of repressive autocratic states abroad. He shows how education, potential prosperity, existing public and nongovernmental institutions, and, in some cases, previous experience of democratic government favor the poster states of successful democratization—Germany, Japan, and the Eastern European countries. He describes, among many fascinating examples, the failure to promote democracy in Russia and its unexpected success in Serbia.

Traub describes the “vast and frustrating undertaking” of building up failed states like Somalia, Bosnia, or East Timor. “The arc of democratic development…,” he writes, “was vastly longer than the arc of international attention.” African states, with virtually none of the prerequisites for democracy, present, and will continue to present, a particular problem for the promoter of democracy. Traub contrasts the often short-lived nature of “electoral” democracy with the hardier variety of “liberal democracy,” where the recognition of individual rights is already enshrined in law.

In a chapter called “Realism Died on 9/11,” Traub describes the way in which the Iraq war would forever define, and discredit, Bush’s Freedom Agenda, because it seemed to prove that “the president and his team of neocons believed that democracy was something that could be imposed at gunpoint….” He gives a fascinating account of the administration’s doomed efforts to persuade President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to be more democratic, a cautionary tale of Washington’s perennial difficulty with so-called “liberal autocracies” that are also vital allies.

Another democratic mishap with violent consequences was the 2006 Gaza election on which, against all advice, the Bush administration insisted, and which gave Hamas a lawful majority over Fatah. During the recent war in Gaza, we did not hear much about Hamas being democratically elected; except for Egypt, nobody concerned would even talk to its leaders. To paraphrase George Orwell, some lawful democratic elections are evidently more lawful than others. The Iraq war certainly diminished other Middle East countries’ enthusiasm for democratization, Bush-style. It had, a reporter in Syria told Traub, accomplished what President Bashir al-Assad “had been unable to do by himself; silence public demands for democratic reforms here.”

Another of Traub’s striking case histories concerns Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries, which, against all probability, clings to its own version of democracy, in which, in addition to national elections, village elders are capable of settling local disputes peaceably in the shade of the mosque. Traub’s comments on Africa and China, whose “new type of strategic partnership” in African countries offers a less moralistic approach to aid for Africans, are particularly valuable in stressing how much prolonged assistance in development and poverty reduction will be needed before African democracy can take hold.

James Traub has written a thoughtful and splendidly informed book on a vast subject that in the wrong hands can very easily become elusive, even boring. As he writes in conclusion, “Liberty at home may not depend on liberty abroad, but it surely depends on a sense of hope and possibility abroad.” His book is very much in tune with the content and the tone of the new administration’s ideas, and it should be a valuable guidebook for those working on them. It can also be read with enjoyment and great interest by anyone hoping for ways to make the world more livable for all its inhabitants.


The excellence, in their different ways, of these three books raises the tantalizing question of how books can help or inspire leaders and others in public life. Reinhold Niebuhr has been a strong influence for many years. Andrew Bacevich’s brilliantly expressed perceptions should clarify and invigorate the minds of busy politicians at a critical moment in history. James Traub’s assessment of the state of America’s self-imposed mission to spread freedom and democracy should be of great practical value to all who work in this controversial and complex field.

In a democracy the people need to be informed if they are to fulfill their duties as citizens. May we now be entering a renewal of participatory American democracy? If we are not, we shall be in even greater trouble than we are now.

The fatalism of Bacevich’s final sentence about Americans being firmly set on self-destruction is deeply disturbing, as no doubt it was intended it to be. Since his book was published, the presidential election has shown how intelligent use of the Internet can bring together an enthusiastic and disciplined body of volunteers and bring young people in large numbers back into politics. There is now talk of using the Obama campaign’s online network to foster support for his legislative program and presidential initiatives. Brilliant and essential political analysis by writers like the three reviewed here could be a useful part of such initiatives.

Bacevich suggests that the acknowledgment of the truth of the following Niehbuhr principle would be a useful standard for election or appointment to public office: “The whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management.” That might also be a good start for a renaissance of knowledgeable democratic participation.

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    In a more recent book, The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009), the British journalist and historian of America Godfrey Hodgson writes, from his long experience in the US:

    My thesis is not that American exceptionalist thought is intrinsically corrupting or that it was destructive in the past, but that what has been an essentially liberating series of beliefs has been corrupted over the last thirty years or so by hubris and self-interest into what is now a dangerous basis for national policy and for the international system.

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