Andrew Bacevich: Save Us From Washington’s Visionaries, In (Modest) Praise of a Comforting Mediocrity

By Andrew J. Bacevich, who is writing a military history of America’s War for the Greater Middle East. His most recent book is Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country. Originally published at TomDispatch

En route back to Washington at the tail end of his most recent overseas trip, John Kerry, America’s peripatetic secretary of state, stopped off in France “to share a hug with all of Paris.” Whether Paris reciprocated the secretary’s embrace went unrecorded.

Despite the requisite reference to General Pershing (“Lafayette, we are here!”) and flying James Taylor in from the 1960s to assure Parisians that “You’ve Got a Friend,” in the annals of American diplomacy Kerry’s hug will likely rank with President Eisenhower’s award of the Legion of Merit to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza for “exceptionally meritorious conduct” and Jimmy Carter’s acknowledgment of the “admiration and love” said to define the relationship between the Iranian people and their Shah.  In short, it was a moment best forgotten.

Alas, this vapid, profoundly silly event is all too emblematic of statecraft in the Obama era.  Seldom have well-credentialed and well-meaning people worked so hard to produce so little of substance.

Not one of the signature foreign policy initiatives conceived in Obama’s first term has borne fruit. When it came to making a fresh start with the Islamic world, responsibly ending the “dumb” war in Iraq (while winning the “necessary” one in Afghanistan), “resetting” U.S.-Russian relations, and “pivoting” toward Asia, mark your scorecard 0 for 4.

There’s no doubt that when Kerry arrived at the State Department he brought with him some much-needed energy.  That he is giving it his all — the department’s website reports that the secretary has already clocked over 682,000 miles of travel — is doubtless true as well.  The problem is the absence of results.  Remember when his signature initiative was going to be an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal?  Sadly, that quixotic plan, too, has come to naught.

Yes, Team Obama “got” bin Laden.  And, yes, it deserves credit for abandoning a self-evidently counterproductive 50-plus-year-old policy toward Cuba and for signing a promising agreement with China on climate change.  That said, the administration’s overall record of accomplishment is beyond thin, starting with that first-day-in-the-Oval-Office symbol that things were truly going to be different: Obama’s order to close Guantanamo.  That, of course, remains a work in progress (despite regular reassurances of light glimmering at the end of what has become a very long tunnel).

In fact, taking the president’s record as a whole, noting that on his watch occasional U.S. drone strikes have become routine, the Nobel Committee might want to consider revoking its Peace Prize.

Nor should we expect much in the time that Obama has remaining. Perhaps there is a deal with Iran waiting in the wings (along with the depth charge of ever-fiercer congressionally mandated sanctions), but signs of intellectual exhaustion are distinctly in evidence.

“Where there is no vision,” the Hebrew Bible tells us, “the people perish.”  There’s no use pretending: if there’s one thing the Obama administration most definitely has not got and has never had, it’s a foreign policy vision.

In Search of Truly Wise (White) Men — Only Those 84 or Older Need Apply

All of this evokes a sense of unease, even consternation bordering on panic, in circles where members of the foreign policy elite congregate.  Absent visionary leadership in Washington, they have persuaded themselves, we’re all going down.  So the world’s sole superpower and self-anointed global leader needs to get game — and fast.

Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently weighed in with a proposal for fixing the problem: clean house.  Obama has surrounded himself with fumbling incompetents, Gelb charges.  Get rid of them and bring in the visionaries.

Writing at the Daily Beast, Gelb urges the president to fire his entire national security team and replace them with “strong and strategic people of proven foreign policy experience.”  Translation: the sort of people who sip sherry and nibble on brie in the august precincts of the Council of Foreign Relations.  In addition to offering his own slate of nominees, including several veterans of the storied George W. Bush administration, Gelb suggests that Obama consult regularly with Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and James Baker.  These distinguished war-horses range in age from 84 to 91.  By implication, only white males born prior to World War II are eligible for induction into the ranks of the Truly Wise Men.

Anyway, Gelb emphasizes, Obama needs to get on with it.  With the planet awash in challenges that “imperil our very survival,” there is simply no time to waste.

At best, Gelb’s got it half right.  When it comes to foreign policy, this president has indeed demonstrated a knack for surrounding himself with lackluster lieutenants.  That statement applies equally to national security adviser Susan Rice (and her predecessor), to Secretary of State Kerry (and his predecessor), and to outgoing Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel.  Ashton Carter, the technocrat slated to replace Hagel as defense secretary, comes from the same mold.

They are all “seasoned”  — in Washington, a euphemism for bland, conventional, and utterly unimaginative — charter members of the Rogers-Christopher school of American statecraft.  (That may require some unpacking, so pretend you’re on Jeopardy.  Alex Trebek:  “Two eminently forgettable and completely forgotten twentieth-century secretaries of state.”  You, hitting the buzzer:  “Who were William Rogers and Warren Christopher?”  “Correct!”)

Members of Obama’s national security team worked long and hard to get where they are.  Yet along the way — perhaps from absorbing too many position papers, PowerPoint briefings, and platitudes about “American global leadership” — they lost whatever creative spark once endowed them with the appearance of talent and promise.  Ambition, unquestioned patriotism, and a capacity for putting in endless hours (and enduring endless travel) — all these remain.  But a serious conception of where the world is heading and what that implies for basic U.S. policy?  Individually and collectively, they are without a clue.

I submit that maybe that’s okay, that plodding mediocrity can be a boon if, as at present, the alternatives on offer look even worse.

A Hug for Obama

You want vision?  Obama’s predecessor surrounded himself with visionaries.  Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz, products of the Cold War one and all, certainly fancied themselves large-bore strategic thinkers.  Busily positioning the United States to run (just another “i” and you have “ruin”) the world, they were blindsided by 9/11.  Unembarrassed and unchastened by this disaster, they initiated a series of morally dubious, strategically boneheaded moves that were either (take your pick) going to spread freedom and democracy or position the United States to exercise permanent dominion.  The ensuing Global War on Terror did neither, of course, while adding trillions to the national debt and helping fracture great expanses of the planet.  Obama is still, however ineffectually, trying to clean up the mess they created.

If that’s what handing the keys to big thinkers gets you, give me Susan Rice any day.  Although Obama’s “don’t do stupid shit” may never rank with Washington’s Farewell Address or the Monroe Doctrine in the history books, George W. Bush might have profited from having some comparable axiom taped to his laptop.

Big ideas have their place — indeed, are essential — when the issues at hand are clearly defined.  The Fall of France in 1940 was one such moment, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized.  So too, arguably, was the period immediately after World War II.  The defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had left a dangerous power vacuum in both Europe and the Pacific to which George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and their compatriots forged a necessary response.  Perhaps the period 1968-1969 falls into that same category, the debacle of Vietnam requiring a major adjustment in U.S. Cold War strategy.  This Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger undertook with their opening to China.

Yet despite the overwrought claims of Gelb (and others) that America’s very survival is today at risk, the present historical moment lacks comparable clarity.  Ours is not a time when we face a single overarching threat.  Instead, on several different fronts, worrisome developments are brewing.  Environmental degradation, the rise of China and other emerging powers, the spread of radical Islam, the precarious state of the global economy, vulnerabilities that are an inevitable byproduct of our pursuit of a cyber-utopia: all of these bear very careful watching.  Each one today should entail a defensive response, the United States protecting itself (and its allies) against worst-case outcomes.  But none of these at the present moment justifies embarking upon a let-out-all-the-stops offensive.  Chasing after one problem would necessarily divert attention from the rest.

The immediate future remains too opaque to say with certainty which threat will turn out to pose the greatest danger, whether in the next year or the next decade — and which might even end up not being a threat at all but an unexpected opportunity.  Conditions are not ripe for boldness.  The abiding imperative of the moment is to discern, which requires careful observation and patience.  In short, forget about strategy.

And there’s a further matter.  Correct discernment assumes a proper vantage point.  What you see depends on where you sit and which way you’re facing.  Those who inhabit the upper ranks of the Obama administration (and those whom Leslie Gelb offers as replacements) sit somewhere back in the twentieth century, their worldview shaped by memories of Munich and Yalta, Korea and Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Berlin Wall, none of which retain more than tangential relevance to the present day.

You want vision?  That will require a new crop of visionaries.  Instead of sitting down with ancients like Kissinger, Scowcroft, Brzezinski, or Baker, this president (or his successor) would be better served to pick the brain of the army captain back from multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, the moral theologian specializing in inter-religious dialog, the Peace Corps volunteer who spent the last two years in West Africa, and the Silicon Valley entrepreneur best able to spell out the political implications of the next big thing.

In short, a post-twentieth century vision requires a post-twentieth century generation, able to free itself from old shibboleths to which Leslie Gelb and most of official Washington today remain stubbornly dedicated.  That generation waits in the wings and after another presidential election or two may indeed wield some influence.  We should hope so.  In the meantime, we should bide our time, amending the words of the prophet to something like: “Where there is no vision, the people muddle along and await salvation.”

So as Obama and his team muddle toward their finish line, their achievements negligible, we might even express a modicum of gratitude.  When they depart the scene, we will forget the lot of them.  Yet at least they managed to steer clear of truly epic disasters.  When muddling was the best Washington had on offer, they delivered.  They may even deserve a hug.

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  1. Claud Alexander

    Could I ask other readers an entirely peripheral question?

    Does anybody know when it was that The Daily Beast become the house organ of the Council of Foreign Relations apparat? Hasn’t Anthony Lake been using it for his serial calls to not-take-war-off-the-table with Syria-ISIS-Russia?

    Perhaps this function just “came with the house” when Newsweek was fused with the DB?

  2. TG

    Gelb urges the president to fire his entire national security team and replace them with “strong and strategic people of proven foreign policy experience.”

    Oh barf. (Visualize this reviewer sticking two fingers down throat and hurling).

    After all this time, and all these betrayals, how can so many people still just not get that Obama is scum? That he is exactly what he appears to be? A whore to the rich and powerful. A stone-hearted grifter who will do anything for money. Obama talks like FDR, but walks like Marie Antoinette. Only not as pretty.

    This apparent willingness to accept empty verbiage as fact, surely this is the sign of a totally corrupt culture. When Madison Avenue replaces critical thought surely we are doomed…

    1. ambrit

      Muddling through was the motto of most of the British Empire. If you might think , So what?, remember that we are communicating in English, along with about one and a half billion other persons around the world. Ditto for the Spanish. Not bad for two washed up old empires. As for China, they look to be starting up their empire again even as we speak, and while Mandarin becomes the foreign language of choice for schoolchildren in Britain to learn.
      The willingness to accept empty verbiage as fact has always bedeviled humans. It is when the ruling elites fall into that trap that we face ruin. Critical thinking skills are still around, only not very prominently in the field of governance today.
      Sorry to say, you are right about our beloved leader.

      1. Clive

        Yes, America, please do take this tip from the British mentality: “don’t just do something, sit there”.

        1. ambrit

          And please don’t think that where you sit has any meaning. After all, Marx thought that the proletarian revolution would start in England or Germany. Thanks to those activist Imperial German General Staff functionaries, it sort of did start in Germany. England hung back. The rest is history.
          The Defense rests.

          1. susan the other

            But wait. I loved this analysis by Bacevich. I’ve always been frustrated that Obama could not establish a good social spending policy, but that was not in the cards. Reactionary cards and stacked to the hilt. But, even tho’ he has not established any secure domestic allies or trading partners doesn’t mean he has failed. Failure is success. As far as I’m concerned a big failure of TPP and TTIP would be his greatest achievement, followed closely by the clearly observable fact that he has succeeded by not letting us slip into WW3. So, beware Jeb Bush. And curiously Bacevich has been borne out, yesterday, by Raoul Castro’s scathing castigation of the USA, demanding reparations for the last 50+years of embargo and demanding we get the hell out of Guantanamo. No doubt because the USA is so arrogant as to cut a secret deal with Russia (Crimea and eastern Ukraine for Cuba) and then do all sorts of agitprop and send in NATO “foreign Legionaires” with “lethal weapons” and etc. Negotiations break down.

  3. PlutoKun

    Nice take on the issue. I must admit that one of the many things which has upset/baffled me about the Obama administration is just how inept they have been in international affairs. Its not been as obvious as it was with Bush as their lack of imagination means they haven’t made too many gigantic howlers, but the long term impact of their failure to make any progress whatever in any significant issue will be very serious. To Bacevich’s list I could add the complete failure to engage in any way with the more progressive and radical new governments in South and Central America, the strange neglect of positive engagement in Africa, and the failure to engage and help support democracy in SE Asia. Sometimes, watching John Kerry talk, he seems to have the air of a conscientious if rather dull public servant, trying to do his best, but finding himself reluctantly implementing policies he knows deep down are stupid.

    Some of it seems to be an intellectual failure. I’ve read some of Samantha Powers writings and they are bafflingly empty, it was like reading an essay written by an earnest 19 year old. How on earth did she get to be acknowledged as some sort of foreign policy expert? There must (I would hope) be thousands of people out there with a stronger grasp of international issues.

    I suppose it is an improvement over the bug eyed psychopaths who were running things under Bush. But I think future historians will be very harsh on Obama – a whole string of opportunities have been ignored, and poisonous problems have been left to fester and have been made worse by drone attacks and the US’s terrible defence of Israel’s activities in the Gaza Strip, which is something (I think many Americans do not realise this) that has made millions around the world deeply cynical about America’s role in international affairs (and not just left leaning liberal types). Obama had a huge opportunity to make a clean break with past bad policies and he completely threw it away.

    1. JTMcPhee

      Maybe measurement of success depends on where you sit. Looks like the corporate and “investor” types who are on the way to owning, having “legal title” to, pretty much everything, are sitting pretty, in position to rent all of it back to the rest of us. The Global Interoperababble Network-Centric Battlespace thing is enormous and growing, with an apparent goal of a trans-supra-network of connected militaries and “national police forces” all “in charge of” their root nations and ready to “interoperate” with that other clumsy mass that is the nominal “US” profitable-self-advancing military thingie. Many laughed at Bush and the “Mission Accomplished” moment, but there ain’t no more “Iraq” and the Empire freely ignores the silly map lines demarcating national boundaries in furthering the globalization (sic) project. And the imperial actors and worker bees have done a pretty good job of diffusing and defusing any concentration of recognition of and public sentiment and organizing-in-seriousness against the forced changes that are stripping the planet and impoverishing almost all of the rest of us.

    2. vidimi

      i don’t think opportunities have been ignored so much as refusal to clean up the existing mess rendered it impossible to even consider them in most cases. obama is limited by what he refused to do. looking forward is contingent on the perspective from where you stand, and obama is standing on a shaking mountain of corpses and people whose backs were broken by poverty. no wonder the future does not look good.

  4. Andrew Watts

    Numerous actions taken by the Obama administration has broken the president’s own rule of “Don’t do stupid sh*t”. Everything from the bombing of Libya and overthrow of Gaddafi, which provided even more fertile soil for the Islamic State to expand it’s Caliphate, while sponsoring an insurrection in Ukraine that fractured that country and pushed Russia into the open arms of China. Nobody in the present administration has apparently learned a thing from the experience of shattering the Iraqi state.

    If these examples were the only disasters the Obama administration was guilty of perpetuating they would be enough to condemn it. But they aren’t which makes Bacevich’s defense of Obama all the more nauseating. On a personal level Obama is crippled by his privileged upbringing. Frequently he equivocates in a vain search for an ideal outcome when all he has is a series of bad options. It’s almost as if Barry is waiting for somebody to tell him what the right decision is to make. (e.g. the AUMF against IS)

    We live in an age of decline that is defined by a lack of creative ideas to solve novel problems. It’s why that fool Gelb is looking to the past for answers. An idealized vision of the past doesn’t contain any answers for the future. Nor does a naive faith in the romanticized resolution of our collective misfortunes.

    Where exactly are these visionaries who allegedly exist in this country?

    1. grizziz

      The US Dept. of State? Are the color revolutions simply not the most glamourous ways of redecorating the interior ministries of countries seeking status within the English speaking world? Is not English Law the most superlative way of redistributing productive resources into the hands of those most able to use property properly?
      Look to Libya, Hillary seems to know how to rack’m and crack’m via Moon of Alabama

  5. 1 Kings

    Sprinting away from Iraqi was Obama’s ultimate incompetence. Yes, the war was a crime, unnecessary, a cash-cow for defense and Washington looters, but just walking away(claiming victory) was beyond immoral. Nature abhors the vacuum etc, a crime even more despicable than the Cheney/Bush presidency. Now, if that action was a ‘bug’ inside…wait, probably was. Never mind…

    1. Killing Joke

      Your suggesting that leaving Iraq and the Iraqi people to their own competent devices is a crime greater than the initial invasion and mass murder of the civilian population. Obama took the overt troops out of a region where they caused immense suffering, now he’s sending them back and you’d have to be awfully dim to believe it’s solely about ISIS.

  6. Steve H.

    How is spending five billion dollars to start a neo-nazi coup that results in a top rival retaking their only warm-weather military quality port while refocusing their geopolitical focus to form an alliance with our only other top rival and…

    (taking a breath)

    How is that not doing stupid shit?

    1. Dino Reno

      Stupid shit in the extreme, and on a grander scale with more potential for disaster than anything Bush ever imagined. Today the Russians ominously warned that this situation is headed for castetrophy unless the West backs off.

      Sorry to say that Bacevich has officially lost it with the publication of this piece. I was a great admirer of his throughout the war in Iraq and sorry for the loss of his son in that misadventure. His sanguine view of this administration as one that just muddles through lacking direction is belied by the resumption of the Cold War, not as just an idea, but as a material fact laid on the doorstep of now our Greatest Enemy. This will be his Legacy. For him, it will be like sinking the winning shot (all net) from the half court line with two seconds on the clock. For us, it will be like two seconds from Midnight.

      1. James Levy

        Depends on how one defines “clean up.” I’ve heard Bacevich talk and answer questions. He is a bright man but a conventional one–a devote Catholic, an American patriot (or chauvinist, or however you want to label someone for whom the United States is vastly more important than any other polity and who wants to see that polity stronger than any other polity), and a relatively conservative Democrat. He is brave enough to take on the entrenched stupidities of current policy, but not the structures of state and society that formulate those policies–very few people are. Therefore, he is to an extent tilting at windmills, because the policies flow from the structures of American financial and military power and the mindset born of that power, the idea of the United States as Exceptional, which was grafted onto an earlier Protestant notion of America as being Elect (“a city on a hill”). After World War II America’s vision of itself as being special and above history and other nations dovetailed with the reality of American power and wealth. The entire political/military/economic elite in this country are wedded to that vision. Until that elite is dethroned, they will keep formulating policies in line with that vision–we are wise, we are better than you, we were put here on this Earth to “lead”, so do what we say or we will destroy you economically or materially. In order for the human race to transition to a better place, that mentality must be cast aside. If it is not, then the US elite will take the human race down with them rather than see their image of themselves destroyed. If we are the last best hope of mankind, what matters if humanity survives past the fall of America? All that would lie ahead would be darkness anyway.

    2. Damian

      “How is that not doing stupid shit?”….. well said!

      The Title for the administration’s history book should be: “Obama doing World Class Stupid Shit” –
      it could be coffee table quality!

      I put forth the proposition: what was any / the “significant” foreign policy achievement in this coming end to 8 long years?

      1. JTMcPhee

        Not stupid by his personal and family lights, which seem to be the only measures most of our Rulers apply.

        Obama and the rest of the Important People that populate the Village Bubble are fixed for life. They have no worries about any of the massive failures and collapses that seem to be eventuating. Just like the rest of the Elite to which he has earned admission by service and allegiance, he and the people who may matter to him get to live out their lives in opulent comfort, unbothered by the poverty, pain and death they have brought to the most of us. He gets to live large, write his faux memoirs, and watch as his personal pyramid, the “presidential library,” packed with trophies like that Nobel Peace Prize, goes up. And then he and the other Blessed in their Elysium will “pass gently on,” free from immune in their impunity from any consequences, to eventually die of whatever illness or dysfunction that the best possible medical care, from people who actually CARE about the condition of their fellow humans, can’t cure or defer any further. Free of any fear of the Rabble, the Mob, the sans-culottes. All they have to do is play along with the game.

        Let’s remember, too, that the Very Few are working really hard with all the wealth they have scarfed up to prolong their lives indefinitely —

  7. ProNewerDeal

    What about the utter incoherence of the US elites on China?

    1 manufacturing & 2B2F Bank$ta oligarchs (like private equity vulture Mint RawMoney) supporting mass job outsourcing to China to increase short-term quarterly profits, which increases China’s economic power, & thus China’s geopolitical overall power

    2 Military Industrial Complex oligarchs & CXO execs/Generals, & their fellating subservient workers like 0bama/Hellary/John Kerry, support demonizing China, “encircling China with the pivot to Asia”, etc, which decreases China’s geopolitical overall power.

    3 The general US PTB overclass, be it oligarchs or elected poli-trick-ians like Obama/Bush/John Boner/etc, not realizing the myopic non-strategy of strenuously supporting #1 & #2 simultaneously.

    1. pdx

      ” … Military Industrial Complex oligarchs & CXO execs/Generals, & their fellating subservient workers like 0bama/Hellary/John Kerry … ”

      I think the fellating goes the other way.

    2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      There have been plenty of foreign Sons of Heaven who ruled China without knowing Mandarin…the some rulers of the Yuan dynasty, or the Xianbei rulers, some even had red hair (I once read it somewhere) earlier following the dissolution of the West Jin dynasty.

      So, we need, or rather, our elites need to engage China, make them feel comfortable, make them get used to, kowtowing to foreign capital. Then, the take-over (Pivot to Asia = plan B, or at least to strengthen our bargain position – unconditional or less unconditional handover?) will be less troublesome. It helps we have a lot of US-brainwashed, sorry, US educated, local collaborators, sorry, native friends, in place already.

      1. Jack

        The Mongols would have known Mandarin. The entire philosophy of the Yuan dynasty was to integrate themselves by being more Chinese than the actual Chinese. Didn’t work, obviously, but they did leave significant marks on Chinese history. The Forbidden City started as the sealed-off enclave where the Yuan rulers could let their hair down and act Mongol.

  8. TarheelDem

    Are we yet at the climacteric year of the Truman foreign policy and national security framework? Is the American Century now officially over?

    Or will it take the action of the rest of the world to bring the US to its senses?

    Can we now start envisioning what a post-US-dominated global system of politics looks like?

    Can we now ask again what institutions we really need for US national security? Because the bloated current ones have so much internal crosstalk that they are missing clear external realities and being surprised yet again by events in the world.

  9. Jim Haygood

    ‘Gelb urges the president to fire his entire national security team and replace them with “strong and strategic people of proven foreign policy experience.” Translation: the sort of people who sip sherry and nibble on brie in the august precincts of the Council of Foreign Relations.’

    No, that is not the correct translation. Gelb’s proposal is to replace them with neocons, for which Bacevich insists on substituting the euphemism ‘visionaries.’

    Their vision was set out in the Project for a New American Century … and these folks will be all in our face again starting March 1st, as the AIPAC conference beats the war drums against Iran for the 17th year in a row.

    And we’re all supposed to pretend not to quite notice the affiliations of this crowd? That’s an excellent recipe for ensuring the continuance of the status quo, which may have been Bacevich’s point.

  10. linda amick

    The creation of chaos globally as paid for by US taxpayers via a Trillion dollar a year defense budget is not a bug. It is the objective. Creating chaos confuses the majority thus enabling the few corrupt predators to swoop in and offer stability which includes creation of temporary jobs associated with grabbing resources.

    Scare the majority via violence and death and they will accept feudal rule. THAT is the trajectory.

    The only hope is that Russia/China are not “in” on the route. Time will tell.

  11. Northeaster

    “Obama is still, however ineffectually, trying to clean up the mess they created.”

    Says who?

    Reading The NDAA and parts of The Budget, when/if Killary walks into office in 2016, we’re going to get even more war – it’s written in black & white for anyone to read (see air base expansion). I left that hell hole 25 years ago, and nothing has changed over there except the amount of bodies being shipped back to Dover A.F.B. Killary is a war mongering, power hungry hideous human being. My plan is to divert my children, who will be of military age during Killary’s term(s), from ever going near the military. /crosses-fingers

    1. ambrit

      One thing my wife and I are starting to consider in our “mythical retirement paradise”, other than the tame unicorns and daily rainbow show, is relationship to fallout patterns from strategic targets. Some interesting stuff covered by that innocuous phrase. (The commentary about “Targeted Nuclear Strikes” versus “MAD full exchange” can get quite intense on some prepper sites. Some of the commenters there seem to have inside information or have worked in the military departments tasked with exactly this function. I hesitate to imagine what a full blown policy war inside the government about nukes looks like. Rather scary really.)

  12. sevenleagueboots

    Comforting Mediocrity defines not only little sambo, but unrestrained western capitalism minus any semblance
    of participatory governance. A tiny island of visionaries reside electronically and count for nothing. We affect
    each other and little else. Labor is dead and buried. A state of sameness exists in America, wherein every check
    and balance has been corrupted, as all public and private entity’s are now surveilled.

    And this is just the beginning.

    1. ambrit

      I am amazed. Just when I thought that I was the poster child for pessimism. You give me positive hope.

  13. Oil Dusk

    Your essay provided a more balanced perspective on our political landscape than anything I’ve read in recent memory.

    However, it seems to me that the whole “vision” thing has become a somewhat improbable and perhaps even an undesirable focus of our political system.

    First, the fragmentation of our news sources means that everyone is able to get their little piece of news or entertainment from a wide range of mostly web-based sources with little agreement on what is important. There is no way to focus the nation’s attention on three major news broadcasting networks as was once the case. With all the great movies, games, and electronic gizmos, who actually even focuses on the news anymore?

    Secondly, the increased polarization of our major political parties and specific news outlets have greatly reduced the willingness of the members of the other major political party to accept or tolerate what could pass for a modest vision. Obstructionism is the order of the day.

    Thirdly, the nature of the world is such that the complexity and specialization required in so many directions simultaneously is such that perhaps only specialists are capable of articulating a vision for their particular fears or concerns related to their field.

    Here’s an example of how energy specialists in particular might see the world:

    Energy seems to be the core source of wealth of our species. A planet that has transformed from 1 billion to over 7 billion people in 100 years seem vulnerable to Malthusian possibilities when some of the energy sources thin out.

    I co-wrote a book entitled Oil Dusk almost 10 years ago (about the same time that the US was building facilities to import natural gas) that described a world of energy scarcity and imbalance. It posited an oil-addicted society partly deprived of oil from limited supplies and partly from a “run on the bank” related to its government’s reckless fiscal behavior. It seemed to me that an energy vision was badly needed.

    To some extent, it seemed that Dick Cheney’s vision to push the US into a war in Iraq after 911 was a variant of this same concern about a global oil shortage; he was not mistaken in that assessment and by 2020 Iraq may be able to produce an additional 6 million barrels of oil a day into the world oil markets. So much for the timing of that vision!

    It wasn’t that both Dick Cheney and I (as custodians of the oil patch) missed the impacts of shale technology on our industry, it was that we both underestimated economic consequences from market signals that were outside our control.

    The impact of a world where oil prices were set artificially high (by OPEC) in recent years, essentially induced a sizeable supply response from the global oil producers that is now coming into production simultaneously. For a few years now, there will be the ability for the world to provide more oil than will support the recent oil price level and lots of economic incentives for producers and OPEC members not to want to do so. Perhaps all these players can act in their mutual interest by agreeing to a lower price threshold than what we are currently witnessing, but perhaps not. Also, the ability to transition the transportation industry away from oil and into natural gas means that the eventually peak oil events will likely be replaced by another fossil fuel for the near future.

    Unless of course, global warming issues become paramount, and all energy bets are off the table.

    The point is where does having a “vision” even prove useful in this single industry diatribe I’ve just outlined for you? It’s not the vision, but the vision at the right time that is useful. Call it a “just in time” vision to achieve some outcome that many of us might agree with.

    Perhaps what we truly need is a leader with compassion, true empathy, and a Buddha or Gandhi-like focus on “loving kindness”. Such a leader might see the problems with drones and torturing, but such a leader might seriously find a way to engage the rest of occupants on earth on a more profound level (Perhaps those would be the insights of the “moral theologian specializing in inter-religious dialog” that you mentioned). He could put aside religious differences and find a way to really resonate with other cultures and societies. Alas, such a leader is not electable and such an agenda is not capable of being transmitted in 15 second sound bites. So muddling through, as your article describes, is pretty much inevitable.

  14. TedWa

    The MIC appears in control and they just aren’t very smart, but they are a powerful and scary enough crew to cow any efforts at reform or cut backs from their “vision”. Couple them with all the failed banksters, also not very smart, and you have a massively powerful mediocrity giving the orders. The MIC needs every problem to be a nail so they can be the hammer and the media is more than happy to oblige. The end of the cold war is where these problems started because without war the MIC would cease to exist. So they create problems globally that they know the solutions for, a bloated cost hammer.

    1. TedWa

      To illustrate how pervasive this is, In my profession, the mediocre have been raised to the level of respected professionals thanks to the banksters.

    2. Synoia

      I suggest one of two algorithms for establishing the collective intelligence of a committee:

      1. Average IQ of participants/number of participants

      2. IQ of most senior manager to who committee reports/number of levels on management below said manager.

      Both numbers are asymptotic to zero as the organization increases in size.

      1. hunkerdown

        IQ is just a measurement of participation in bourgeois ideals. Hasn’t that class been running things for quite long enough?

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          They need more than intelligence. Some courage would be nice and some humility as well. And it never hurts to have some compassion.

  15. Keith Howard

    The estimable Andrew Bacevich never fails to offer clarity and concision. To his list of major 21st century worries, however, the rise of radical Christianity should surely be added. It takes two to tango.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      With as much money to spend as it can print, it’s hard to envision such limitations.

  16. Brooklin Bridge

    John Kerry: peripatetic A walk about sort of guy with a pedantic bent?

    Every now and then it sort of comes over me. I worry that if the wolf blows hard enough, the house I live in will blow away and so I look around for the biggest 10 or 20 or 30 penny nail I can find to secure it. Peripatetic has got to be up there; 30 or maybe even 40 penny, but not so heavy that I can’t even lift it.
    And speaking of the wolf and the wind, the idea of bag of wind Kerry being compared to Aristotle, no matter how obliquely, does bother me, but If I can find a way to bang a few peripatetics into the sills, using the huff and puff of big words against that of nature so to speak, perhaps the house can weather what ever the angry gods of climate change throw at us and the benefit will make up for the sour after taste of that comparison – then again maybe not.

  17. Brooklin Bridge

    worrisome developments are brewing. Environmental degradation, the rise of China and other emerging powers

    Worrysome developments???? Environmental degradation???? How about major life threatening events probably already too far along to stop. Or imminent environmental collapse.

    And as to the rise of China and other emerging powers, the notion of some superficial semblance of balance of power is worrysome?

  18. Brooklin Bridge

    Yet at least they managed to steer clear of truly epic disasters.

    No, that won’t stand. The health care fiasco is epic, it will be a generation before we can get back to solving that problem. The unnecessary suffering that will occur in the meantime as we scurry down for profit rat holes is epic.

    Drones killing people 6 thousand miles away on the word of the President with virtually no judicial review, no due process other than self serving legal chimera, that is epic.

    The total lack of legal penalties for the bankers heist of middle class America’s value in their homes, the illegal foreclosure of thousands upon thousands of families from their own homes; my god – that is epic.

    Legitimizing perpetual war by carrying on all the worst possible military escapades and their total failure Barbeque Bush initiated with his henchman of death, Cheney; that is epic. The whole world is paying dearly for it and they are only now starting to realize that yes, USA has really turned bad this time.

    Imprisoning, threatening with legal nightmares and chasing whistle blowers abroad that have given up everything to carry on one of the best American traditions (there used to be), that of bringing transparency and thus accountability to government failures and corruption. That’s Obama and that is truly epic.

    I don’t know what one has to do to get on the epic train for this author, but as far as my definition goes, Obama has given us more epic disasters in actions and precidents than all other presidents combined.

  19. SmithRita

    2. If the author names the rise of China and other developing nations as a threat ag which US has to protect itself and its allies – well isn’t that exactly the kind of twisted mind frame of ‘us v them’ that has led to so many currents conflicts?! Whatever happened to trying to develop a more cooperative world – particularly, since the environmental changes will require all of us to respond jointly? And 3. Obama is not just muddling – he is causing real damage, particularly in relations w Russia – moving in a very dangerous direction. Or ask the drone victims… And the people he recommends as advisers? Oh my, why wld we want to talk to a US soldier? How ab an Afghani instead? Unfortunately, the worldview expressed here is not too much different from that of the people the author pans and deviates only very little from the full spectrum domination doctrine.

  20. Jackrabbit

    Pro-Establishment drivel and Obama apologist tripe dressed up by a clever essayist.

    Anyone who sees “mediocrity” isn’t paying attention to the exceptional! greed and propaganda; and anyone who finds comfort in the crony neolibcon ‘kick the can’ while we grab some more stewardship of the Obama Administration should have their head examined.

    Funny how this appears just as Greek anger and intransigence boils over.

    H O P

  21. Jackrabbit

    Bacevich is anti-war. Partly on principle and partly because he lost his son in the Iraq War. As a result, he supported Obama in 2008. Perhaps he thinks of the GOP as more of a “War Party” so he wants to whitewash Obama’s failures.

    His substantive complaint – that Obama’s advisors are elderly strikes me as clueless. He ignores a younger group of close advisors: Susan Rice, Samantha Powers, Valerie Jarret, etc. and the fact that the elderly advisors are there for a reason. What we are left with is a ‘no harm no foul’ message that ends in suggesting a ‘hug’ for Obama. Just another in a long line of unwarranted adoration and inexcusable excuses for Obama.


    PS this was meant to go under my earlier comment.

  22. JTMcPhee

    …but you’ve got to give him extra credit for advancing women to high places, which at least has demonstrated clearly that women are at least as good as men…

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