Andrew Bacevich: America on the Downhill Slope

Yves here. When I was a young thing back in business school, George Lodge, son of Henry Cabot Lodge, taught a course called Business, Government, and the International Economy. Lodge the younger told us he could still remember the day in 1968 when it dawned on him that the US could not fight a ground war in Asia, try to end poverty, and send a man to the moon at the same time, meaning there were limits to what America could do.

It’s striking how many have held to delusions otherwise, particularly Project for the New American Century crowd who promulgated the notion that the US could shape the world in its image.

Bacevich says he realized the world he thought he knew was “gone for good” in November 2016. I’m surprised it took him so long.

One telling part of this article, and Tom Engelhardt’s intro, is their caustic criticism of Biden’s foreign policy moves. From Engelhardt:

Though he’s seldom thought of that way, Joe Biden was, to my mind, Trumpian in his first global trip as president.  After all, he delivered a fantasy to much of the world, as well as his own citizenry. In a phrase, it was: America is back!  We once again have an alliance beyond compare, an “updated” version of the Atlantic Charter, with that crucial queen of powers, Great Britain (now, as it happens, heading for the Brexit version of the subbasement of history).  NATO is again ours in a world in which a united Europe will ready itself, however dutifully, to face off against the Soviet Union — whoops, my mistake, Russia — and a China that’s been rising all too unnervingly fast. And yes, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a Trumpian figure of the first order, played along.  (Why wouldn’t he?  His country needs help bad!) And “our” European allies did indeed welcome a Trump-less America back by falling modestly into line, while secretly worrying that the Biden presidency was just part of a holding pattern for Trumpian-style horrors still to come. Think of those initial Biden-esque days abroad, all in all, as the hydroxychloroquine of global diplomacy.

Bacevich also has not much nice to say about Biden’s international moves. We’re two months past Biden’s FDR-evoking 100 days. The reality that, by design, Biden would stand for continuity is sinking in

By Andrew Bacevich. Originally published at TomDispatch

“I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”
— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

Kurt Vonnegut’s famous novel about the World War II bombing of the German city of Dresden appeared the year I graduated from West Point. While dimly aware that its publication qualified as a literary event, I felt no urge to read it. At that moment, I had more immediate priorities to attend to, chief among them: preparing for my upcoming deployment to Vietnam.

Had I reflected on Vonnegut’s question then, my guess is that I would have judged the present to be both very wide and very deep and, as a white American male, mine to possess indefinitely. Life, of course, was by no means perfect. The Vietnam War had obviously not gone exactly as expected. The cacophonous upheaval known as “the Sixties” had produced considerable unease and consternation. Yet a majority of Americans — especially those with their hands on the levers of political, corporate, and military power — saw little reason to doubt that history remained on its proper course and that was good enough for me.

In other words, despite the occasional setbacks and disappointments of the recent past, this country’s global preeminence remained indisputable, not just in theory but in fact. That the United States would enjoy such a status for the foreseeable future seemed a foregone conclusion. After all, if any single nation prefigured the destiny of humankind, it was ours. Among the lessons taught by history itself, nothing ranked higher or seemed more obvious. Primacy, in other words, defined our calling. 

Any number of motives, most of them utterly wrong-headed, had prompted the United States to go to war in Vietnam. Yet, in retrospect, I’ve come to believe that one motive took precedence over all others: Washington’s fierce determination to deflect any doubt about this country’s status as history’s sole chosen agent. By definition, once U.S. officials had declared that preserving a non-communist South Vietnam constituted a vital national security interest, it became one, ipso facto. Saying it made it so, even if, by any rational calculation, the fate of South Vietnam had negligible implications for the wellbeing of the average American.

As it happened, the so-called lessons of the Vietnam War were soon forgotten. Although that conflict ended in humiliating defeat, the reliance on force to squelch doubts about American dominion persisted. And once the Cold War ended, taking with it any apparent need for the United States to exercise self-restraint, the militarization of American policy reached full flood. Using force became little short of a compulsion. Affirming American “global leadership” provided an overarching rationale for the sundry saber-rattling demonstrations, skirmishes, interventions, bombing campaigns, and large-scale wars in which U.S. forces have continuously engaged ever since.

Simultaneously, however, that wide, deep, and taken-for-granted present of my youth was slipping away. As our wars became longer and more numerous, the problems besetting the nation only multiplied, while the solutions on offer proved ever flimsier. 

The possibility that a penchant for war might correlate with mounting evidence of national distress largely escaped notice. This was especially the case in Washington where establishment elites clung to the illusion that military might testifies to national greatness.

Somewhere along the way — perhaps midway between Donald Trump’s election as president in November 2016 and the assault on the Capitol in January of this year — it dawned on me that the present that I once knew and took as a given is now gone for good. A conclusion that I would have deemed sacrilegious half a century ago now strikes me as self-evident: The American experiment in dictating the course of history has reached a dead-end.

How could that have happened over the course of just a few decades? And where does the demise of that reassuring present — arrangements that I and most other Americans once took to be fixed and true — leave us today? What comes next?

Inflection Point

So it goes.” As Vonnegut recounts the journey of his time-traveling protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, in Slaughterhouse-Five, that terse phrase serves as a recurring motif. It defines Vonnegut’s worldview: fate is arbitrary, destiny inexplicable, history a random affair. There is no why. Whatever happens, happens. So it goes. 

Such sentiments are deeply at odds with the way Americans are accustomed to thinking about past, present, and future. Since the founding of our republic, if not before, we have habitually imputed to history a clearly identifiable purpose, usually connected to the spread of freedom and democracy as we understand those concepts. 

Yet as crises without easy solutions continue to accumulate, Vonnegut’s cynicism – tantamount to civic blasphemy — might warrant fresh consideration. “So it goes” admits to severe limits on human agency. While offering little in terms of remedies, it just might offer a first step toward recovering a collective sense of modesty and self-awareness. 

Because he’s president, Joe Biden must necessarily profess to believe otherwise. By any objective measure, Biden is a long-in-the-tooth career politician of no particular distinction. He is clearly a decent and well-meaning fellow. Yet his prior record of substantive achievement, whether as a long-serving senator from Delaware or as vice president, is thin. He is the Democratic Party’s equivalent of a B-list movie actor honored with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in tribute to his sheer doggedness and longevity. 

That said, some Americans entertain high hopes for the Biden presidency. Especially in quarters where Trump Derangement Syndrome remains acute, expectations of Biden single-handedly charting a course back from the abyss toward which his predecessor had allowed the nation to drift are palpable. So, too, is the belief that he will thereby reconstitute some version of American political, economic, and military primacy, even in a world of Covid-19, climate change, a rising China, and a host of other daunting challenges. Despite this very tall order, “so it goes” can have no place in Biden’s lexicon. 

During its decades-long interval of apparent global dominion, American expectations about the role presidents were to play grew appreciably. Commentators fell into the habit of referring to the occupant of the Oval Office as “the most powerful man in the world,” presiding over the planet’s most powerful nation. The duties prescribed by the U.S. Constitution came nowhere near to defining the responsibilities and prerogatives of the chief executive. Prophet, seer, source of inspiration, interpreter of the zeitgeist, and war-maker par excellence: presidents were expected to function as each of these. 

In 1936, Franklin Roosevelt boosted the morale of Depression-era Americans by assuring them that they had a “rendezvous with destiny.” At the very moment when he entered the White House in 1961, John F. Kennedy thrilled his countrymen with a pledge to “pay any price, bear any burden, [and] meet any hardship” to prevent the extinction of liberty itself globally. In his second inaugural address, delivered in the midst of two protracted wars, George W. Bush announced to his fellow citizens that “ending tyranny in our world” had become “the calling of our time.” Even today, tyranny shows no signs of disappearing. Even so — and notwithstanding four years of Donald Trump — the delusion that presidents possess visionary gifts persists. And so it goes.

As a result, whether he likes it or not — and he probably likes it quite a lot — observers are looking to Biden to demonstrate similarly prophetic gifts. Even though expressing himself in less than soaring terms, he’s sought to oblige. According to the president, the United States — and by implication the world as a whole — has today arrived at an “inflection point,” a technocratic tagline that’s become a recurring motif for both him and his administration.  

That “inflection point” conveys little by way of poetry in no way diminishes its significance. Quite the opposite, it expresses Biden’s own sense of the historical moment. Implicit in the phrase is a sense of urgency. Also implicit is a call to action: “Here we are. There is where we need to go. Follow me.” Consider it the very inverse of “so it goes.”

Three Vectors

Given both Biden’s advanced age and his party’s precarious majority in Congress, not to mention the legions of Americans hankering to return Donald Trump to the White House, the opportunity to act on this imagined inflection point may well prove fleeting at best, nonexistent at worst. If Republicans gain control of the Senate or House of Representatives next year, “so it goes” may become the mournful refrain of a lame-duck presidency. Hence, Biden’s understandable determination to seize the moment, before rising inequality at home, a rising China abroad, rising seas everywhere, and a potentially resurgent Trumpism swamp his administration.

So even though the Biden team is not yet fully in place, the inflection point already finds expression in three distinct commitments. Together, they give us a sense of what to expect from this administration — and what we should worry about.

The first commitment bears the imprint of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. It assumes that vigorous government action under Washington’s benign and watchful eye can indeed repair a battered and broken economy, restoring prosperity, while redressing deep inequities. Given the necessary resources, that government can solve problems, even big ones, has for more than a century been a central precept of American liberalism. To demonstrate liberalism’s continued viability, Biden proposes to spend trillions of dollars to “build back better,” while curbing the excesses of a neoliberalism to which his own party contributed mightily. The spending and the curbs inevitably elicit charges that Biden has embraced socialism or something worse. So it goes in American politics these days. 

The second commitment that derives from Biden’s inflection point centers on the culture wars. Its progressive purpose is to supplant a social order in which white heterosexual males (like Biden and me) have enjoyed a privileged place with a new order that prizes diversity. Creating such a new order implies expunging the non-trivial vestiges of American racism, sexism, and homophobia. Given trends within late modernity that emphasize autonomy and choice over tradition and obligation, this effort may eventually succeed, but rest assured, such success will not come anytime soon. In the meantime, Biden will catch all kinds of grief from those professing to cherish a set of received values that ostensibly formed the foundation of the American Experiment. So it goes.

The third commitment deriving from that inflection point relates to America’s once-and-future role in the world. Suffused with nostalgia, this commitment seeks to return the planet to the heyday of American dominion, putting the United States once more in history’s driver’s seat. Reduced to a Bidenesque bumper sticker, it insists that “America is back.” With decades of foreign policy experience to draw on, the president appears committed to making good on that assertion. 

His much ballyhooed first trip abroad put this aspiration on vivid display, while also revealing its remarkable hollowness. As a start, Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued a vapid revision of the 1941 Atlantic Charter, in essence posing as ersatz versions of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Few who witnessed the charade were fooled. 

Then Air Force One delivered the president to Brussels where he cajoled the members of NATO into tagging China as a looming threat. Doing so meant ignoring the ignominious failure of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan and disregarding French President Emmanuel Macron’s reminder that “NATO is an organization that concerns the North Atlantic,” whereas China just happens to be located on the other side of the world. 

The pièce de résistance came when Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a nearly substance-free “summit” in Geneva. Possessing neither the drama of Kennedy vs. Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, nor the substance of Ronald Reagan’s encounter with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, it proved an empty show, even if it did play to a full theater.

Still, the entire trip and the bloated media coverage it generated were instructive. They illuminated what Biden’s inflection point truly signifies for America’s role in the world. The Biden administration yearns to reinstall familiar verities dating from World War II and the Cold War as the basis of U.S. policy. Many members of the press corps share that yearning. Hence the inclination to define the present age in terms of a new Cold War version of great-power competition, while paying little more than lip service to the need for fresh thinking and vigorous action on matters like climate change, environmental degradation, refugee flows, and nuclear proliferation.

Modeled at least in part on a New Deal that Americans remember fondly but inaccurately, Biden’s economic policies will in all likelihood promote growth and reduce unemployment. Even taking into account the risk of unintended consequences such as inflation, the effort is probably worth undertaking. 

By wading into the culture wars, Biden might also bring the country closer to fulfilling the aspirations expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. No doubt arguments about the proper meaning of freedom and equality will continue. But the correct goal is not utopia. Merely reducing the gap between professed ideals and prevailing practice will suffice. Here, too, the effort is at least worth undertaking.

When it comes to America’s role in the world, however, it becomes difficult to profess even modest optimism. If Biden clings to a calcified and militarized conception of national security — as he appears intent on doing — he will put his entire presidency at risk. Rather than restoring American primacy, he will accelerate American decline. 

Harkening back to where the nation was when I received my commission in 1969, I’m struck today by how little we Americans learned from our Vietnam misadventure. Pain did not translate into wisdom. That we have learned even less from our various armed conflicts since appears only too obvious. When it comes to war, Americans remain willfully and incorrigibly ignorant. We have paid dearly for that ignorance and will likely pay even more in the years ahead. So it goes.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Christopher Horne

    (Sigh). Well, the author might be labelled a ‘thoroughly modern Bacevich.”
    What were our choices, last election? Did he want to bring back Hillary
    (speaking of a ‘Bacevich’). Some decisions are wrong, others are are
    ‘wronger’ by country mile. The object of the electorial exercise was, first
    and foremost, to remove a noted malignancy from the Pennsylvania Ave
    public housing residency. Mission (almost) accomplished. I would argue
    that America is just about ungovernable at this point, and ‘stability’ was the
    only achievable goal. It’s true, Biden is probably the Democratic equivalent
    of ‘Poppy’ Bush, another mediocre but honorable man. Soooo, apart from
    carping about some imaginary ‘Great Leader’, I honestly do not see
    the author’s point. What do you want us to do, sir?

    1. urblintz

      Poppy Bush, an honorable man?

      He was head of the CIA and Gulf War I was arguably as much a war crime as sonny boy’s 15 years later…

    2. GramSci

      What was “honorable” about Poppy Bush? Engineering the October Surprise? Sucker-punching Saddam Hussein? The turkey shoot in the desert?

      1. KLG

        “Honorable” means having an indoor voice, just like the Bush Family of Kennebunkport or the Kennedy Family of Hyannisport. Trump Derangement Syndrome, both the Left and Right strains” have confirmed this.

      2. ObjectiveFunction

        For the Big Guy is an honorable man,

        [So are they all, honorable men]

        I know actual honorable men, and even knew of a few in Washington. Smirking Joe is not one of them.

    3. John Emerson

      The diagnostician does not have to offer a cure, and Bacevich’s target audience is not us. He’s billed as a conservative. A more realistic foreign policy with less overreach is his goal, but the media, leadership groups of the two parties, and the other established powers all adamantly oppose this.

  2. a fax machine

    On “culture wars”, what’s missing in America is respect for industrial culture and industrial society’s needs. Things like equipment and tools and people to use them. Biden has to make these people and make them happy if he wants to undo the damage American society has endured. In my view, this means picking up on problems we encountered during the energy crisis. If America can build it’s own energy, it can probably find enough high-paying jobs to keep everyone housed, happy, and off drugs. If we look at this from a larger perspective 1970-2020, we can see general energy and electrical policy dwindle as computers, software and finally webservice policies grew. This was part and parcel of the push to de-industrialized and divest from America’s economy with global capitalism, it’s dividend is Trump’s cult. PG&E cannot even power Silicon Valley through the summer anymore.

    If there is room for guarded optimism, it’s if Biden can muster the resources to at least answer hard questions on energy especially nuclear power. For example, building the Yucca Mtn project or building the Desertron (America’s unbuilt CERN equivalent). ITER is expected to start initial testing around ’25, if Biden can build more and better fusion reactors we are on the right track. Even Clinton got a fusor – the NIF which is used to cert bomb components. It was massively expanded a few years ago in preparation for New START’s demise, which is still probable if Russia relations continue on their present downward trajectory. Science should be used for peaceful purposes, not weapons of war. The US government has invested in the latter since Nixon. It’d also render a lot of debates moot – with such power everyone could build an M60 equivalent using spare conduit and nails with the weight of a handgun. It’d also start the long process of detoxifying the planet from three centuries of global capitalism.

    Of course, this is just small parts of a greater picture. It’s easy to build physical objects, it’s harder to build trust which is what Biden must do. That problem stems from the media’s intentional campaigns to distract everyone from real change. As the legacy media which created the 20th century finally dies over the next decade, something new must fill that vacuum. Newspapers are gone, most local broadcast is gone, theaters are gone from Covid, leaving only cable TV which dwindles every year.

    1. john steinbach

      Fusion has always been 20 years away. Nukes take a lot of time & enormous resources & time society doesn’t have. The writing is on the wall for hitting the Jackpot in the near future. One way or another Yves is correct about radical conservation.

      1. a fax machine

        I mention it merely because it’s a goal. If society had it’s priorities in order, fusion research would not yield much debate and would just be done. If even 1% of our GDP was dedicated solely to it, we would get much further than present. Instead, we are spending upwards of 3% on just the military. Congress expects to spend around a Trillion on our nuclear triad again. We are building a bad future full of weapons and violence not a good future of advancement and progress. Same for fission power, which can be done in a way that does not hurt people or the environment (as it occasionally did in the past).

        The energy issue has been around for at least five decades now with no clear answer given. We need that answer if we ever want any hope of doing anything else. If even tricky dick can admit that America has a foreign oil dependency problem, why not Biden or Trump?

        And going to my other point: at some point portable electric power will become good enough to yield practical railguns. At this point, the power truly does return to the people as every power tool battery would become capable of weaponization. When this happens, I’d certainly hope society would be ready for it rather than crash into violence and revolution.

  3. JBird4049

    This analysis while it has some good parts is superficial as it mainly describes the country’s condition and some of its problems. The causes for their existence is what needs to be described.

    I think it is the hollowing out of the country, the literal consumption of the infrastructure for profit, the replacement of the economy as well as in areas like science, art, education, charities, unions, volunteer groups and government with grifts filled with grifters, the destruction of the unions, the Left and the various socialist and communists parties, the transformation of the police and national security into an internal police state along with Forever Wars all for the benefit of the elites that is the real story; elites who have forced forgetfulness on to the American nation to make it stupid, weak, and easily controllable with a vast propaganda campaign, which included the destruction of the very meanings of words like communism, patriotism, loyalty, and so on. There is even an American Gulag Archipelago that has trouble makers and reformists sent there as well as slave labor. I do not think that the active campaign of political assassinations that occurred in the 60s is happening again, but who knows. There is always the future prospect for it. These are the reason for our state and unless we see all this, and consciously remove the grifters from power, it will not end.

    The country of my childhood, which intersects with the writer’s college years, had potential to become a truly great nation and country, but the foolish, the paranoid, the small minded, the small souled, the power hungry, and the parasitical all combined to kill that potential either fearing what it become or because it was profitable to do so. If we are extremely lucky, we might have another chance to have that potential and actually bloom, but there will have to be an overhaul, if not a complete transformation of the political economy. The current establishment will not good easily into retirement and they really do not care for or even understand what I think both Andrew Bacevich ( I do hope I am not putting words in mouth that he does not believe) and myself miss and dream of.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      I think the country, if “the country” can be condensed into a single point of view, has taken itself too seriously and turned history into a slogan. The reality has been far more about greed and power than about freedom or the equality of humankind. There have indeed been moments where nobler motives prevailed, but unfortunately those have not defined or even seriously altered the actual trajectory of our history.

    2. Telee

      JBird4049 I agree with you. Bacevich always delivers criticism light. He straddles the fence. After this statement: “He is clearly a decent and well-meaning fellow” I was unable to take anything else he said seriously. Is it a universal truth that Biden is a decent and well-meaning fellow? This is contradicted by his stance on healthcare, student loans, recycled assets, 150% support of the Iraq War, his crime bill which resulted from his collaboration with opening racist democratic senators which punished blacks, his role in putting Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, unwavering support for the finance capitalism, lack of support of combating global warming etc. He is in office to insure the power structure that there will be no fundamental change. Yet we are to believe he is decent and well-meaning!!!!!!!! We had to vote for the lesser evil because that was all that was offered. The democratic establishment circled the wagons after Sanders had early primary victories and we got the leftovers.

  4. VietnamVet

    Andrew Bacevich was an officer in the US Army from Vietnam to Desert Storm. He bears responsibility for his participation in the privatization of the US military. After retirement at a Colonel, he ended up as a historian at Boston University. The end of government by and for the people was part and parcel of the rise of the Western Empire and the invasion of Iraq that he protests. He is a meritocracy critic who avoids revealing or simply doesn’t realize how deep the rot is. The two decades of unwinnable wars and the 17 month long coronavirus pandemic are the result. Not too different from a building inspector who for money or job reasons ignores or just doesn’t see an ocean front high rise’s rusted-out steel rebars and crumbling concrete that make the building’s collapse inevitable.

    1. The Rev Kev

      His criticism of US policy may stem from a more person part of his life. Back in 2007, his son – First Lieutenant Andrew John Bacevich – was killed in action by an IED while serving in Iraq. He has three other daughters but no other son.

      1. Dave in Austin

        Sigh… The personal is the political. Our multigenerational military sees things from a different prespective. I’m reminded of French, British and German military families, who’s members usually made general if, as the saying goes, “they make it through the brave Lt. and couragous Captain phase”. I remember the description of General Kelley (y?) and Donald Trump on a Memorial Day standing next to the grave of Kelley’s son and the honest gap of incomrehension which stood between the two men. Bacevich is an honest man trying to understand what has happened to him… and his son.

        Thanks to Rev Kev for finding the personal history.

    2. synoia

      Somewhere along the way — perhaps midway between Donald Trump’s election as president in November 2016 and the assault on the Capitol in January of this year — it dawned on me that the present that I once knew and took as a given is now gone for good.

      Bacevich appears a little slow based on the date, 11/2016. Many arrived at this conclusion during Clinton/s presidency, when the US was determined to ship as many good union jobs to China, under the cover of “free trade”.

  5. topcat

    The continental USA was blessed with an abundance of natural resources which have been used up over the last 200 years, now they are gone and they are not coming back. Climate change is bringing the dust-bowl to California hence wiping out a major chunk of the US economy. It seems to me that if the American people all got together and decided to really cut back on everything, that it would be possible for all to live reasonably well. I see no chance of this whatsoever. And so it goes.

  6. dave

    Not sure that, looking at Joe Biden’s Senate record, we can conclude that he’s a “decent and well-meaning fellow”.

  7. Brooklin Bridge

    “Biden is a long-in-the-tooth career politician of no particular distinction. He is clearly a decent and well-meaning fellow.”


    “Modeled at least in part on a New Deal that Americans remember fondly but inaccurately, Biden’s economic policies will in all likelihood promote growth and reduce unemployment.”

    I quibble that Biden is “clearly” a decent and well-meaning fellow and that his economic policies will promote growth and reduce unemployment. I do agree that Biden is the epitome of mediocrity but to me it plays out in his life as a series of petty self serving (inherently selfish) moves that by their nature invariably -if clumsily- further the interests of the few at the expense of the many. My understanding of his “stimulus package” is that it fits this description like a glove; nothing but another give-a-way to private enterprise.

    Beyond my quibble, the article is simply excellent, the whole thing is so well written, and is a much needed reassessment of what the “American Experiment” is and has been and (what ever that may be) the important notion that it is quite likely spent, over and done. The use of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and particularly the phrase, “and so it goes.”, couldn’t better evoke the starkness that it just might not matter all that much. Not only is the “American Experiment” not the apotheosis of a golden age in humanity, but it could just as well be but a footnote in humankind’s race to extinction.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      I want to amend, “might not matter all that much” to “might not matter all that much except for the suffering; the needless suffering. The latter being unbearable whether in Dresden or here and, I imagine, something Vonnegut struggled with. I wonder if he intentionally made it all the more unbearable to try and deal with by the cruelly harsh persspective of, “and so it goes.”

      1. Susan the other

        Yes, this was a very solemn Andrew Bacevich today. He’s gone Zen. It would help us all to do so as well. But this is the heaviest question – How deep and secure is the present? Because we all know it isn’t secure at all. It is the very definition of “fleeting.” It hardly exists except in thought. And at the same time it is relentless and oppressive if we do not have something constructive to accomplish. I’d be willing to speculate that that is the entire reason we come together. The “Present” is a crazy thing. The German word is “Gegenwart” – that against which we wait. Even the English word seems to imply a state of pre-sense, that we know things are fleeting and not within our grasp. So this is a very deep and basic plea Bacevich is making here. To come to our senses. I like it. Because… “there’s no time like the present” to put it another way. To be constructive; to create the future. But definitely not to bomb it, and starve it and gaslight it.

  8. stefan

    My father–who grew up in Soviet Russia, was exiled to the gulag for eleven years, and eventually came to America at the behest of the CIA–once told me that he knew the American effort in Vietnam was lost when he heard personnel at the agency referring to the Vietnamese people as “gooks.”

  9. Don Midwest

    Bruno Latour mentions Bacevich in this lecture from April 8, 2021. 1969 was also the year that Bruno published his breakthrough book “We Have Never Been Modern”

    The topics of this lecture are The Critical Zones (the onion skin around the earth a few miles up in the air and a few miles down into the rocks) and the pandemic. He has struggled for years against the blue marble, the cantaloupe globe which is a view from nowhere, struggled and worked with artists to develop a diagram showing The Critical Zone.

    His challenge is for humans to return to earth, to understand and appreciate how we are enfolded in atoms, cells, bodies, technology, etc. and to develop a politics that respects and cares for Gaia. His book “Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime” makes the case that Gaia is the most important political actor.

    His co-curated exhibit at KZM in Germany titled “The Critical Zones” has been in mothballs for over a year but is now open and will be open until Jan 9, 2022. I am looking forward to attending.

    Annual Lecture : Bruno Latour, “From One Lockdown to the Next: A Change in Cosmology.”

  10. PlutoniumKun

    Historically, it should be remembered that many Empires survived (and even occasionally thrived) for centuries after they first showed signs of decay and rot. Its relatively rare for an empire to fall apart quickly unless there is a massive external shock (such as how the Great Depression and WWII wiped out the French and British empires). So I would not rule out that sheer momentum can carry the US for a long period, even if it goes into decline, which I don’t think is necessarily inevitable. The US still has enormous strategic advantages in a wide range of technologies and natural resources and the relative rise of China/Russia/EU or anyone else is not a given. Its only a few decades ago where it was considered inevitable that Japan would eclipse the US and the West. Now the Japanese are barely ahead of the South Koreans.

    We also can’t forget that with a fair wind, there would be a President Sanders now. Of course he would have struggled with the weight of the establishment against him, but it is still possible that the right individual, at the right time, can make a difference. It can be a matter of luck as to whether you have a Lincoln or FDR at the right time, or… well… the opposite.

    I’ve a fascination for trying to judge what the ‘blobs’ in various countries think from seeing what they are spending their military and soft power money on. The Germans have given up on anything but the EU. The British are still trying to wave the flag on the high seas in an increasingly pathetic manner. The French grimly cling on to their sphere of influence while sensibly not going too far in overstepping their bounds. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia and India have been steadily building up their independent military and strategic capacities separate from their ‘official’ international roles. Even the Gulf States seem to have belatedly decided that its more sensible to settle things the old fashioned way (talking) than to try to use the US as a big stick to keep various Sheikhdoms in power.The response to Trump simply accelerated a process that was already well underway – i.e. countries sticking with the US, while slowly planning for a post US and post-UN world. Whether they see this as inevitable, or just a sensible means of hedging their bets, I don’t really know.

    1. Acacia

      “goes into decline”? You don’t think it’s already in decline? The signs are palpable, I’d say. E.g., the manufacturing base is gone. The republic is pretty much gone, replaced by an oligarchy. The political system and parties are deeply corrupt and full of grifters. Society is fragmented, there is open speculation about civil war (doubtful but the fact that people discuss it is a clear symptom of rot), and socio-economic inequality is headed for something like Brazil. Etc. Etc.

      As Yves noted above, it says a lot that it took Bacevich until late 2016 to see that “the world he thought he knew” was gone for good. That takes a special kind of obliviousness to the writing on the wall.

    2. Michaelmas

      PlutoniumKun wrote: Historically, it should be remembered that many Empires survived … So I would not rule out that sheer momentum can carry the US for a long period, even if it goes into decline, which I don’t think is necessarily inevitable

      But, for instance, the British empire, for all its ‘lions led by donkeys’ episodes and blunders, was in the end never led by psychopathic morons so greedy and arrogant that they thought they could stiff their own population and transfer all their competitive advantage — manufacturing and technology — overseas to their most obvious potential competitor, China, so as to have a cheap work-force, and then still have an empire. Or a country for that matter.

      And that’s why the American empire has lasted less than seventy-five years and been one of the most moronic empires in human history.

  11. Stillfeelinthebern

    “I’ve a fascination for trying to judge what the ‘blobs’ in various countries think from seeing what they are spending their military and soft power money on.”

    Would love to read more on this. It’s very hard to gauge the overall foreign activities of other countries and what that means for the future.

  12. schmoe

    Ironic that this is published the day after US airstrikes in retaliation for attacks on US bases in Iraq which were in retaliation for the US illegally occupying Iraq in violation of Iraq’s parliament’s vote, which arose out of the killing of Solemni and another prominent iraqi Shia figure which was in retaliation for a US mercenary’s killing which was in retaliation for US strikes on Iraqi Hebzabollah forces which was in retaliation for their fighting against ISIS.

  13. Tom Stone

    More than a few flaws in the article, among them is no mention of the fact that the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident” never happened.
    It was a lie.
    And I’m still angry about that and all the wars since started on the basis of lies.
    Air force one needs a new bumper sticker
    “Random acts of Cruelty, Senseless acts of Violence”.
    The stupidity and incompetence of America’s leaders during my lifetime is astounding, as is the complete lack of awareness they have displayed.
    It’s a heck of a show.

  14. The Rev Kev

    As much as I have enjoyed reading articles by Andrew Bacevich, I am going to have to disagree with much of what he says. I could start with where he says ‘(Biden) is clearly a decent and well-meaning fellow.’ but that would make this far too long a comment and so will just say that he is not who Bacevich thinks he is. Not even close. Bacevich grew up in a time when America was ascendant. At home, it had the legacy of infrastructure of dams, highways, electricity grids, etc. to grow a solid economy. Economic competitors were few, most having being destroyed in WW2 and an American workforce churned out a cornucopia of goods to the world. Wages were mostly good enabling a consumer society that encouraged home and car ownership & all the paraphernalia that went with it. But of course that was another time.

    But as far as his three vector are concerned, I am not optimistic about any of them. The first is about a rebuilding of America’s infrastructure but the warning signs are already there that what this would amount is a transfer of public infrastructure to private corporations and probably at giveaway prices – like happened with the UK’s Royal Mail. And I doubt that many people are looking forward to a totally privatized infrastructure.

    Then there is the commitment to the culture wars. Biden has done as much to stoke the culture wars as any prison in Washington. Somebody remind me how many minority people he had sent to prison through his Crime Bill because he did not want to ‘live in a jungle’? The whole point of stoking a racism, sexism, and homophobia war is so that they do not all join together in a class war against the oligarchs. The culture wars ware not being fought to unite Americans. They are being fought to keep them disunited.

    And as far as America’s place in the world, it amounts to a doubling down in a deteriorating situation. The planned ability to do a first strike on Russia as a threat died when Russia developed new counter weaponry that restored the balance again. So what we are getting is Cold War 2.0 where the world’s countries are being told that either you are for us or against us. They can’t actually bomb places like China, Russia or Russia so instead just keep using the military to keep in their faces and trying to destroy all three countries with a steady ramping up of sanctions. It won’t work but Washington & Biden are unwilling to entertain any other way of doing things.

    1. michael hudson

      Good comment, Rev.
      What’s bizarre is all this talking about “Biden” instead of the Democratic Party and its DNC. Biden is just a front for the pro-Wall Street, anti-labor establishment that intends to block anything remotely “FDR-like” that Biden might propose. Watch his infrastructure plan get gutted even as a PPP giveaway. Watch the evictions when the rent and mortgage moratoria run out this summer. The Democratic Party is indeed the Republican Party’s guard-dog, and Biden’s administration looks like Trump 2.0 — given his assignment of authority to Blinken, Sullivan, tandem and the cookie lady.
      The upshot may be a lot of non-voters in the 2022 local elections, leading to a Democratic demise that seems to be the covert aim of the DNC.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        As a mere layman, am I even qualified to wonder if the 2022 local and hyperlocal elections are the most important elections there are in 2022, and precisely the wrong elections for citizens to lose interest in?

        If survival is local and successful local survival is locally planned for, the pro-survival-planning and acting officeholders at the local and microlocal might be the most important people we can elect or fail to elect.

    2. Keith Newman

      Totally agree Rev, especially re the “culture wars”.
      In terms of re-establishing western pre-eminence that train has left the station. Elsewhere it has been pointed out that the NATO+ countries amounted to two thirds of the world economy a few decades ago but only amount to one third today. Dean Baker has a revealing graph on how the Chinese economy equaled the size of the US on a purchasing power parity basis in 2017 and is now about 20 percent larger. By 2030 (?) it’ll be 80% larger. Further, since the US elites won’t jettison dominance by finance, Big Health and the military the country will continue to increasingly lag China.
      By the way I think your sentence “They can’t actually bomb places like China, Russia or Russia” should read “They can’t actually bomb places like China, Russia or Iran”.

      1. The Rev Kev

        Agreed on that blooper. Was getting ready for bed (local time) when I wrote that comment.

    3. Randy G

      Rev Kev — Perfect summary in response to Bacevich’s meanderings. Bacevich is probably a decent and well-meaning fellow but still in denial.

      Biden as a “decent and well-meaning fellow”? This is frankly delusional. Look at Biden’s political history: supporting bigots; enacting a draconian crime bill to lock up the underclass; his opposition to a humane and affordable national health care system; his cruel efforts, in servitude to Wall Street and the Credit Card companies, to make bankruptcy difficult; his hostility to student debt relief; his grotesque cheerleading for all wars — including the Iraq invasion.

      The fact that Biden is now a Pope in the “woke” religious wars is amusing and ironic, but this is just more theater to distract the 99% from the unrelenting neoliberal economic wars.

      The infrastructure plan seems primarily an engineering project to sluice more cash to the donor class — and I notice the Pentagon got a raise, not the working class, and it was more than $15 bucks an hour.

      Empires do last past their sell by dates, but History, with climate catastrophe and technological transformation smashing into our societies, appears to be accelerating not “ending” as the Inspector Clouseau of philosophers, Francis Fukuyama, insisted.

      Would not be surprised to spot Lord Humungous bivouacking on the White House lawn in the not too distant future.

    4. juliania

      Thank you, Rev Kev: “…The whole point of stoking a racism, sexism, and homophobia war is so that they do not all join together in a class war against the oligarchs. The culture wars ware not being fought to unite Americans. They are being fought to keep them disunited…”

      And I would go back,( far back for some), to way before election campaigns from 2000 on when Ralph Nader was not allowed to participate in the Democratic Party debates – to way before the war on democracy that has been visibly occurring every electoral season since, with no opposition other than such phony ‘culture wars’ being aggressively promoted as a distraction from the criminal behavior of our ‘leadership parties’.

      Decline? How about the Supreme Court calling a halt to the recount? How about when Jill Stein was tied to a chair? How about the Citizens United decision?

      Yes, I’d go back before those things, which I guess you can’t really call ‘so it goes’. They were, when they happened, unprecedented. As were three horrible jolts – three murders of three good men out there in the public arena of this then widely admired country. I was young then.

      That, that was the beginning of it all.

      It’s been downhill ever since. I’d call it a war on goodness. I really would.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Both Jeff Wells and David Emory theorise ( and explain why) that the war on goodness you reference began when America’s crypto-Nazi Overclass Elite brought as many Nazis into America ( and elsewhere in the Western World over various ratlines) in order to hide them deep within government in order to functionally Nazify the government from within and above, and the 3 good men ( plus many others) were assassinated by the Deep AmericaNazi State actors because they were conducting counter-AmericaNazification activities.

        Does it escape historical memory that America’s ruling elite was pro-Nazi and pro-Hitler for absolutely as long as they could get away with it?

        Here is a blogpost by Jeff Wells about just one little part of the initiation of the early war on goodness.

  15. LAS

    American history has always been full of self-serving actions, corruption in power and horrors against population after population. And wasted opportunities to come straight. That’s not new. It’s standard. It’s usual. Nothing has changed. It’s not particularly worse. The only thing different perhaps is that new or different individuals have become dis-illusioned and realized the impact affects them, too.

    “What has grown up historically can only die out historically … ” (George Eliot – in her essay on the anthropologist Wilhem Heinrich von Riehl)

  16. meadows

    Living and breathing in the cloistered world and rarified air of the military world requires dumbing down of rationality and exercising of the intellect.

    Militarism is always the enemy of peace and hence, the enemy of the people. The military mind is the bluntest of hammers and the generals are dumber than a bag of hammers.

    When the author was grauating West Point I was getting my conscientious objector status. Even as an 18 year old I could smell the BS. I didn’t need decades to acknowledge my country’s decadence.

  17. Susan the other

    I’m not so sure it is a sad and tragic thing to be on the “downhill slope” from decades of greed, graft, treachery, murderous incursions, arrogant imperialism, willful stupidity and complete economic incompetence. Asinine Ideologies come and go – but civilization abides. So let us all just make a list of the things we want to protect – things like food, water, wildlife, air, oceans, human health – but not abstractions like a totally conflicted concept of “freedom and equality” and obsessions with a “value” of money that has nothing whatsoever to do with any value we actually hold. Let’s all just get on with it.

  18. Phil in KC

    Col. Bacevich correctly identifies Vietnam as the first symptom of American decline from our acme in 1945. Where he leave off, his near-contemporary, Col Larry Wilkerson, ret. takes off. Wilkerson, similar to Bacevich, believes the U.S. to be in the early stages of decline. For Wilkerson, the question is how to manage the decline, how to lengthen the glide path to avoid the pain and turmoil that comes with sudden collapse.

    The British decline is instructive. Although some noted the waning of enthusiasm for the imperial enterprise in the immediate aftermath of the Boer War, the aftermath of the Great War saw many more who were willing to abandon the Empire. The appetite for imperial adventure was further diminished after WW II, which exhausted the nation financially. Britain’s disengagement from empire was certainly not smooth or seamless–consider the Malay emergency of 1948-1960–but it was deliberate, albeit rushed. There are lessons to be learned from this history in both what to do and what not to do.

    Bacevich’s characterization of Biden’s foreign policy ventures as essentially nostalgic for the era of 1945-1970 is only partly correct. Our disengagement from Afghanistan is signal. American presidents since Bush II (who campaigned in 2000 promising a more “humble” foreign policy) have been toying with disengagement for two decades, but getting it wrong far more times than right. America may be back, but with soft, not hard power. Our challenge is to not leave a political vacuum as we withdraw from engagements with the world. Ideally we want to leave behind self-governing dominions like a New Zealand, not failed states like Somalia. Sadly, we likely will leave behind more of the latter than the former, meaning a less stable world. So it goes.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      If any country or group-of-countries not part of the US want or wants to survive as a self-governing dominion after America’s disappearance from their lives, they will have to plan for it themselves. They should probably try stealth-planning, hiding their “separate survival” planning and actions in plain sight.
      Because the current evil rulers of the DC FedRegime are insanely jealous and envious at the thought that any other separate survival center might outlast their own demise, and they will try every way they can to turn every country they realize they can no longer influence . . . into a Syria or a Somalia or an Afghanistan or a Former Yugoslavia.

      EUrope could be a Separate Survival Autarkazone, for example. And if Russia were semi-involved with the EUro Autarkazone, EUrope and Greater Russiastan together could be an autarkazone-and-a-half, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The successful completion of Nordstream II would be a sign that the DC FedRegime can no longer prevent the emergence of a successful separate-survival EUrope-and-Russia Autarkazone.

  19. Altandmain

    Like many of the other commentators, I think that Biden gets too much credit from Bacevich – Biden does not strike me as a well meaning and decent fellow at all.

    Biden played a key role in creating many of the current problems, such as the student loan crisis.

    He voted for the Iraq War, in 1993 gave a speech about predators while pushing a crime bill that disproportionately hurt African Americans, etc.

    At the end of the day, he is just another empty suit of the Deep State representing the interests of Wall Street, the corporation America, and the rich as a whole. He was installed as a counter to Bernie Sanders so that the Establishment could run and in that sense, it has “worked”.

    The stimulus and the attempt for a modest New Deal are just what the ruling class is hoping is the bare minimum that they can get away with to prevent an even larger crisis of confidence. It isn’t anything near the level of structural reform that the US urgently needs and the rich are trying hard to avoid.

    In each case, there is an ulterior motive. The infrastructure bill has a lot of parts that will result in privatization. The culture wars serve as a weapon of mass distraction to prevent the working class from unifying against the rich. The new “Cold War” is an attempt to keep the money flowing to the military industrial complex and seems like an increasingly desperate attempt to hold US hegemony in a face of a rising China.

    The irony is that the worst enemy of the elite is themselves. A rapidly rising China would not have happened if the ruling class hadn’t outsourced so many manufacturing jobs, transferred so much industrial know how, and destroyed the livelihoods of workers for short term profit. Likewise, the current level of political instability would not have occurred had the rich not outsourced so many jobs, and gotten so greedy – if they had kept the living standards high and only skimmed some of the wealth, the backlash would have been more moderate.

    Biden cannot fix any of those things – if anything he was picked because he intends not to fix those issues. Actually the person seems quite senile himself, the really important matter is who is really pulling the strings among the really rich here.

  20. Sound of the Suburbs

    How does free trade actually work?

    There were three groups in the capitalist system in Ricardo’s world (and there still are).
    Workers / Employees
    Capitalists / Employers
    Rentiers / Landowners / Landlords / other skimmers, who are just skimming out of the system, not contributing to its success

    Identifying the unproductive group at the top of society didn’t go down too well.
    They needed a new economics to hide the discoveries of the classical economists, neoclassical economics.
    It confuses making money and creating wealth, which hides rentier activity in the economy.
    Rentiers make money, they don’t create wealth.

    What does this mean for free trade?
    The interests of the capitalists and rentiers are opposed with free trade.
    This nearly split the Tory Party in the 19th century over the Repeal of the Corn Laws.
    The rentiers gains push up the cost of living.
    The capitalists want a low cost of living as they have to pay that in wages.

    The UK knew how to prepare for free trade in the 19th century because they used classical economics.
    The West didn’t how to prepare for free trade in the 20th century because they used neoclassical economics.

    How did the UK prepare to compete in a free trade world in the 19th century?
    They had an Empire to get in cheap raw materials; there were no regulations and no taxes on employees.
    It was all about the cost of living, and they needed to get that down so they could pay internationally competitive wages.
    UK labour would cost the same as labour anywhere else in the world.

    Disposable income = wages – (taxes + the cost of living)
    Employees get their money from wages and the employers pay the cost of living through wages, reducing profit.

    Ricardo supported the Repeal of the Corn Laws to get the price of bread down.
    They housed workers in slums to get housing costs down.
    Employers could then pay internationally competitive wages and were ready to compete in a free trade world.
    That’s the idea.
    You level the playing field first; then you engage in free trade.

    Of course, that’s why it’s so expensive to get anything done in the West.
    It’s our high cost of living.
    Disposable income = wages – (taxes + the cost of living)
    Employees get their money from wages and the employers pay the cost of living through wages, reducing profit.
    Off-shore from the West ASAP to maximise profit.
    The cost of living is way too high.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      We could all live like homeless people. That would be a lower-cost living. Is that what you have in mind for all 350 million of us? Is that what you are recommending?

  21. Sound of the Suburbs

    Neoclassical economics brought the US economy to its knees in the 1930s.
    “Why don’t we give it another whirl?” US policymakers
    It was asking for trouble.

    The economics of globalisation has always had an Achilles’ heel.
    The 1920s roared with debt based consumption and speculation until it all tipped over into the debt deflation of the Great Depression. No one realised the problems that were building up in the economy as they used an economics that doesn’t look at debt, neoclassical economics.
    Not considering private debt is the Achilles’ heel of neoclassical economics.

    1929 and 2008 stick out like sore thumbs.
    At 18 mins.

    In the 1930s, the Americans found margin lending and share buybacks had artificially inflated the markets and this had lead to the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
    What lifted US stocks to 1929 levels in 1929?
    Margin lending and share buybacks.
    What lifted US stocks to 1929 levels in 2019?
    Margin lending and share buybacks.
    A former US congressman has been looking at the data.

    US policymakers asked for trouble and they got it.

Comments are closed.