The End of America?

Consumerism, expansionism undermine democratic way of life, Bacevich says.One week after the September 11 terrorist attacks, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was quoted as saying, “We have a choice. Either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or change the way they live. We choose the latter.”

During his lecture last night before a packed audience at the Metcalf Ballroom in the George Sherman Union, Andrew Bacevich, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of international relations and history, argued that it was time for Americans to abandon that thinking and instead look inward. We must change the way we live before it’s too late, the retired U.S. Army colonel urged.

“These are precarious times, even frightening times,” he said. “The United States really does seem to be teetering on the brink of an abyss, and worse, our political system seems ill-prepared and desperately ill-equipped to respond effectively.”

Rampant consumption bolstered by increasing debt, a quasi-imperial executive branch unchecked by a weak Congress, and a nation largely unmobilized in the face of two wars and an open-ended global campaign against terror, Bacevich said, are all threats to the foundations of American life.

“Every war back to the War of 1812, when the U.S. has entered into a conflict, the first thing government does is to expand the federal army,” he said. “The Bush administration explicitly urged the American people to carry on as if there was no war, and I have to say, we did as instructed.”

Speaking as part of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center’s Ready to Vote series, Bacevich drew on themes from his latest book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, part of Metropolitan Books’ The American Empire Project, a series of books on American aspirations at home and abroad by leading writers and thinkers.

The long-held American foreign policy of expansionism — beginning with the acquisition of territory, opening of markets, and establishment of colonies — has run its course, he said. The strategy enhanced U.S. power and material abundance, but was “not a morally uplifting enterprise.”

Bacevich, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, who served in Vietnam, argued that transforming the greater Middle East is beyond our capacity and has only bred bitter anti-American sentiment — at the cost of nearly a trillion dollars and more than 4,000 American lives. Looking abroad to preserve our way of life no longer makes sense, he said.

“Can anyone possibly think at this stage that changing the way ‘they’ live is plausible or affordable?” he said. “To persist on the course that we are following will only lead to ever-greater debt and ever-greater dependence.”

The American economy has since become import- and credit-driven, he said, drawing on outside forces to support an increasingly consumeristic lifestyle. Bacevich said that he felt this distinct shift in values when Black Friday, the first day of the holiday shopping season, became a prime indicator of economic health rather than exports and savings accounts. He called for a new strategy, grounded in realism, “to see the world as it is, and ourselves as we really are.”

As for the presidential campaign, Bacevich said that the election should be a referendum on U.S. foreign policy, but he views both candidates as implicitly endorsing the open-ended global war on terror as the essential core of that policy and only disagreeing on operational approaches. “The election is more likely to yield continuity than the much-touted change,” he said.

During a question-and-answer period after the speech, Natasha Cohen (CAS’12) asked Bacevich how internal change might be brought about.

“We need to live within our means, as individuals in our households and in terms of the services provided for by government at various levels,” he answered. “I’m no economist, but I do believe there is no free lunch. Everything has to be paid for.”
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