Excerpt: “The Short American Century”

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Excerpted from the final chapter of The Short American Century: A Postmortem

The problem for the United States today is that sanitizing history no longer serves U.S. interests. Instead, it blinds Americans to the challenges that they confront. Self-serving mendacities — that the attacks of September 11, 2001, reprising those of December 7, 1941, “came out of nowhere” to strike an innocent nation — don’t enhance the safety and well-being of the American people. If anything, the reverse is true. The Disneyfication of the Iraq War — now well advanced by those depicting “the surge” in Iraq as an epic feat of arms and keen to enshrine General David Petraeus as one of history’s Great Captains — might discreetly camouflage, but cannot conceal, the irreversible collapse of George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda,” predicated on expectations that the concerted application of American military power will democratize or at least pacify the Islamic world. The conviction that “the remoralization of America at home ultimately requires the remoralization of American foreign policy”— wars waged to incorporate dark quarters of the Islamic world into the American Century fostering renewal and revitalization at home — has likewise proven baseless and even fanciful. Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, the revival of waterboarding and other forms of torture, and the policy of so-called extraordinary rendition have left the “incandescent moral clarity” that some observers attributed to U.S. policy after 9/11 more than a little worse for wear.

The argument here is not to invert the American Century, fingering the United States with responsibility for every recurrence of war, famine, pestilence, and persecution that crops up on our deeply troubled planet. Nor is the argument that the United States, no longer the “almighty superpower” of yore, has entered a period of irreversible “decline,” pointing ineluctably to retreat, withdrawal, passivity, and irrelevance. Rather, the argument, amply sustained by the essays collected in this volume, is this: To further indulge old illusions of the United States presiding over and directing the course of history will not only impede the ability of Americans to understand the world and themselves but may well pose a positive danger to both. Faced with a reality that includes, within the last decade alone,

an inability to anticipate, whether the events of 9/11, the consequences of invading Iraq, or revolutionary upheaval in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world;

an inability to control, with wars begun in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, along with various and sundry financial scandals, economic crises, and natural disasters, exposing the limits of American influence, power, and perspicacity;

an inability to afford, as manifested by a badly overstretched military, trillion dollar annual deficits, increasingly unaffordable entitlement programs, and rapidly escalating foreign debt;

an inability to respond, demonstrated by the dysfunction pervading the American political system, especially at the national level, whether in Congress, at senior levels of the executive branch, or in the bureaucracy; and

an inability to comprehend what God intends or the human heart desires, with little to indicate that the wonders of the information age, however dazzling, the impact of globalization, however far reaching, or the forces of corporate capitalism, however relentless, will provide answers to such elusive questions, Americans today would do well to temper any claims or expectations of completing the world’s redemption. In light of such sobering facts, which Americans ignore at their peril, it no longer makes sense to pretend that the United States is promoting a special message in pursuit of a special mission. Like every other country that confronts circumstances of vast complexity and pervasive uncertainty, the United States is merely attempting to cope. Prudence and common sense should oblige Americans to admit as much.

Electronically reproduced by permission of the publisher from The Short American Century: A Postmortem, edited by Andrew Bacevich. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2012 The President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Andrew Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. A graduate of the US Military Academy, he received his PhD in American diplomatic history from Princeton University. Before joining the faculty of Boston University, he taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins University.
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  • yonnie

    For some years I have wondered about our egotistical view of ourselves (the US) and why it’s important for some to wear blinders in the face of our mistakes.  I love my country, my ancestors died in military conflict, I cherish my freedoms, but its  past the time for all of us to lose the  pompous, self-righteous attitudes.

  • Carmen-SF

    what else would you expect from the ” neo-clowns” at “this newspaper” to not mention Andrew Bacevich’s  “The Short American Century” book.  hardly the ” happy talk” put forward by the uber-capitalist authors highlighted.


  • Unsanitorial

    Notice that our newest weapons are really old ideas, terrorist devices of desperation employed by a failing state. Drones and cluster bombs and burn rays are not smart, in fact they’re retarded and cowardly, just as bad as IEDs, except they cost billions. Now counter-terrorism bears down on dissenters and complainers at home, making the police a colonial army and every fearful dope an informant. Community can’t survive under these conditions. Look for wholesale rights violations at the party conventions this summer. The National Security State is preparing a boffo presentation. Some desperate weapons and techniques will be demonstrated. It’s like a car show without the models. Red (pink slimed) corporate meat!

  • Unsanitorial

    The film “Bob Roberts” (1992) starring Tim Robbins anticipates the false flagged attack of 9/11 when the crooked corporate politician fakes an assassination attempt and paralysis to avoid scrutiny and win sympathy. I was working on a ladder when 9/11 came on TV. I finished my work and never saw it as unusual. I never felt sorry for a country that would shoot itself in the foot to avoid the truth. It will come out, but I can’t predict when. How long was it before Romans knew Nero started the fires?

  • Anonymous

    I believe in that decline. We were leaders in industry and standard of living. Both are gone, more because of the money that politicians can get from corporations. Politicians chase the buck, sell their vote and influence, and have let the country decline. Our railroads are antiques in comparison to other countries. Strip mining in the Appalachians, poisoned waters, killed trees that turn CO2 to Oxygen. Now fracking will destroy more ground water. Politicians sucker us into wars to line their pockets because that is what corporations want. and on and on. , , , What we need is another march on Washington and a complete clean out of the fat, dead wood in congress. They are not representing anyone, and do not give a damn about our country, our future, education, infrastructure, water, air; Patriotism is a joke to these jackals!

  • Anonymous

    None of that indicates the start of an inevitable nor an unavoidable decline. What it does indicate is that we are awakening to the fact that we never should have been and must not try to be the world’s morals-keeper. We can let go of the world-ruler position and take our rightful place in a more realistic hierarchy of world powers, none of whom is ever completely right or completely wrong. Once we let go of the myth of American superiority we can start to breathe and discover who we really are.

  • Russell Scott Day

    “Muddling through.”

  • Anonymous

    The inability to learn from past mistakes.