Reining in the "Imperial Presidency"?

Very interesting interview with Andrew Bacevich, author of a new book entitled “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism”. About Bacevich:  After 23 years in the Army, the West Point graduate retired as a colonel and has been teaching international relations and history at Boston University.  Here he makes a point that I think voters of both parties should consider:

BILL MOYERS:  Do you expect either John McCain or Barack Obama to rein in the “imperial presidency?”

ANDREW BACEVICH: No. I mean, people run for the presidency in order to become imperial presidents. The people who are advising these candidates, the people who aspire to be the next national security advisor, the next secretary of defense, these are people who yearn to exercise those kind of great powers.

They’re not running to see if they can make the Pentagon smaller. They’re not. So when I – as a distant observer of politics – one of the things that both puzzles me and I think troubles me is the 24/7 coverage of the campaign.

Parsing every word, every phrase, that either Senator Obama or Senator McCain utters, as if what they say is going to reveal some profound and important change that was going to come about if they happened to be elected. It’s not going to happen.

I think we’ve gotten a hint of this lately with McCain’s aggressive comments with regard to Russia’s actions in Georgia, but I have no doubt Obama & team yearns to likewise wield government powers (perhaps in a slightly different way than McCain would, but in the end not so different).  Ambitious people rarely take any pleasure in dismantling things, even when they clearly aren’t working very well.

Well worth reading the whole interview.

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  • Jim  On August 21, 2008 at 7:59 am

    This interview is a self congratulatory discussion between a elititst journalist who was in the limelight in the ’60’s as Johnson’s White House Press Secretary and is frustrated because of his inability to get back in the limelight with center right governments, so has spent his career undermining those governments from his lectern at PBS


    an elitist professor who is benefiting greatly from a career spent in the activity he now criticizes – I would love to know his retirement from his 20+ years as a military officer – and promotes diplomacy at all times in lieu of military action, and who is more frustrated by the loss his son in 2007 in Iraq (God Bless Him) who obviously must not have agreed with his father; and who believes his progeny should not follow his path.

    Two comments on their discussion:

    I would like an example of our “Imperial Presidency” which I believe is a creation of the left. Just one, please! I would offer Japan, Germany and Korea, as well as several smaller actions by our military since the 1950’s which are examples of a “Non Imperial Presidency”.

    Why will the left not allow that 9/11 was an attack on the United States? They simply gloss over the deaths of 3000 innocent Americans by part of the Jihad. Their negative comments on Bush and other members of his administration equating this Jihad to the Second World War are just silly – they have clearly said only that this is as serious as the Second World War, not that it should be fought in the same way as they seem to believe would follow if our admisistration was not so dumb!

    Re the last comment: many very bright analysts believe history will show the following: 1) the First World War; 2) the Second World War – a direct result of the First; 3) the Third World War – the cold war which Reagan won in 1989 with totally different tactics than #1 and #2; and we are now in the Fourth World War which will require different tactics than #1, #2 or #3.


  • Curt  On August 22, 2008 at 12:17 am

    Where to start? Lots of issues here…

    1. I have to say I dislike the use of the epithet ‘elitist’; it’s easy to throw out, hard to define or defend against, and mostly because I don’t see how it advances any real argument.

    2. You claim that Bacevich “promotes diplomacy at all times in lieu of military action” – I don’t see that in the interview. What he does say is “We should return to the just war tradition. Which sees force as something that is only used as a last resort. Which sees war as something that is justifiable for defensive purposes.” So he does presumably believe that we need to start with diplomacy and other ‘soft’ actions rather than force.

    3. On 9/11 – Bacevich says: “It is a real threat. It’s not an existential threat.” One can argue about whether it is an existential threat or not, but it seems to me he acknowledges that it was an attack. The nature of that attack was not a state-based military attack, but an underground, covert operation conducted by quite a small number of people. The question is what is the best strategy to fight against such attacks in the future; what actions will provide the best trade-off of security versus cost?

    4. On the WWII comparison: the main point Bacevich is making is in this line: “One of the most striking things about it is that there was no effort made to mobilize the country”; that if this is as serious as WWII, then he seems to have expected more to have been asked from the general citizenry. Now perhaps it’s just not economically necessary in the way that it was in WWII, and perhaps the whole issue is quite a different proposition when you have a so-called ‘professional army’ rather than a draft. Maybe a ‘silly’ point but I do think there is some kind of psychological disconnect here that keeps this point alive.

    5. On ‘imperial presidency’ – Bacevich seems to come at this from a pretty bipartisan viewpoint – as he says “this is not a Republican thing, or a Democratic thing” and takes things back as far as Kennedy. Clearly though FDR would have to be a leading figure in the expansion of power of the presidency. Since WWII the U.S. has built up a massive military force (we spend some 10 times more on military than any other country, I believe), and has troops stationed all over the world, and most presidents have seen fit to use that military force at one time or another. I think it’s fair to question whether this is a fully effective strategy, and whether we can continue to afford to do it indefinitely (and of course also assess what is the cost/danger of scaling it back?).

    6. Is this the Fourth World War? Perhaps it is, or at least that is how the current administration has defined it. Was it the only possible response to the attack of 9/11? Is it the best approach? I think these are still open questions, but what’s done is already done, and can’t be taken back, so we have to work with the situation we have on our hands now. The tactics will of course shift, and what has worked in previous wars probably won’t work the same this time. There will be a mix of military force, policing, security enhancements, etc. My sense of Bacevich’s message is simply that military force alone cannot solve our problems; as he puts it, “Recognize that force has utility, but that utility is actually quite limited.” That doesn’t seem particularly controversial to me.

  • Jim  On August 22, 2008 at 8:07 am

    The Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus, I think the best dictionary/thesaurus extant, says this about elitism:

    “1. advocacy of or reliance on leadership or dominance by a select group. 2. a sense of belonging to an elite.”

    It has become my favorite epithet for the left – a term you also do not particularly favor – since it is a precise definition of their goals: government (the elite left if they win) controls our lives – healthcare, pay rates, etc. etc. etc. Sustainability, by the way, fits this elite definition quite well! It is necessary to know this in order to advance the argument!

    Leadership and Dominance replace the free market. And that is fine if that is what you want. I say to the left: “Admit your desires and your elitist positions!.”

    Side bar: an Obama ad I heard yesterday implied the elitism of McCain because he owns so many houses. That is not elitism, that is rich. Obama only owns 1 house and is worth only 4 or 5 million instead of McCains 100 million or so, but he is the elitist!

    My comment that Bacevich “promotes diplomacy at all times…” comes from the fact that he is against our actions is Iraq – as I assume you are – and if a person cannot see the justification for action after Saddams belligerence between the Gulf War and the U.N. approval for action in 2003, then he will never favor military action (of course we all favor military action if our country is directly attacked militarily, because we have no choice!).

    And this leads me back to why 9/11 seems so insignificant to the left elites! Forget who attacked – they did and action needed to be taken as best we could, and Afghanistan seemed clearly appropriate with Iraq following for a much broader reason.

    More later!

  • Curt  On August 23, 2008 at 7:32 am

    Going by the definition, in my opinion there’s nothing there than indicates any particular style of leadership – it says advocacy of “leadership or dominance by a select group”. So in my reading of it, anyone running for president or actively campaigning is an elitist. As far as I’m concerned, one side calling the other ‘elitist’ is the pot calling the kettle black. Both sides think they are best qualified to provide the leadership this country needs; if McCain wins, many of the current ‘select group’ will remain in power, if Obama wins, some new ‘select group’ will take the reins.

    (At least the word ‘left’ does indicate something about a philosophy of governing, but I don’t see a monolithic Left as you seem to, nor do I see a monolithic Right. I see most people leaning Left on some issues, leaning Right on others, with extremists on both ends who are loud but not very numerous).

    Sure, there’s a bit more reliance on markets on the right, but not that much practically speaking. Going back the the original quote that I pulled out, I believe both sides are deeply committed to big government, and that whoever wins, we’ll see mostly the same results. One thing that a President can do (despite the notion that Congress is supposed to be the body declaring war) is use the military resources, and most of them find it irresistable.

  • Jim  On August 25, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    We need clarity!

    “1. advocacy of or reliance on leadership or dominance by a select group.”

    Re your comments – let’s compare our “reading of it”: the definition is not referring to the political parties which I think is how you are defining it – they of course want to “lead” and “dominate” – as does a company president, a movie director, etc. etc. etc. That is simply our social structure.

    Elitist is quite different and I will give you my understanding in an area you will relate to:

    ” The main driver of direct impacts on land, sea and air is the human demand for food, energy, materials and water …. It is management of consumer demand for these basic resources that is now a major study area for sustainability science.”

    This is a quote on Sustainability in Wikipedia. Believers in Sustainability are probably less than .5% of the world population (30,000,000 – I think I am being generous!) and they’re studying “management of consumer demand for these basic resources” for the rest of the population. This is true elitism!!

    Nancy Pelosi’s refusal to vote on drilling offshore when all polls show the majority of people in the U.S. want to drill is another very current example of elitism.

    Democracy – or Republicanism – by definition is the oposite of Elitist!

    I’ll stop now and let you react. Then we will tackle left and markets. You do not have to agree, but you must understand where I am coming from.

  • Curt  On August 26, 2008 at 8:54 am

    Well, in general I think this proves my point that it’s hard to define ‘elitist’. You refer to the ‘social structure’ and I would agree that in general we as a society believe in a certain type of elitism – that the ‘elite’ in each field are probably best qualified to make judgements and decisions, whether it be in business, sports, economics, etc.

    But it seems to me that we cry ‘elitist’ when we sense that some ‘expert’ is disrespectful or disregarding of public opinion. So an elitist could be a gourmet who would not eat at McDonalds or a classical music conductor who disdains all pop music, etc. If we believe that we understand an issue and we disagree with a decision-maker, then we might believe that the decision-maker is elitist, as you have with Pelosi.

    But let me give you a counter-example:

    From an excerpt of an interview with Dick Cheney a while back, on Iraq:

    Raddatz: Two-third of Americans say it’s not worth fighting.

    Cheney: So?

    Raddatz: So? You don’t care what the American people think?

    Cheney: No. I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls. There has, in fact, been fundamental change and transformation and improvement for the better. That’s a huge accomplishment.

    Is this not also elitist? (Or at least readily taken to be elitist by some people?)

    My point is simply that leaders do not always follow public opinion, and are thus may be considered ‘elitists’ – and those leaders can be from either party.

  • Jim  On August 26, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    Clarity will be difficult. The difference between your view and mine is whether the elitism is “forced” by events/position or “created” by personal views. Decisions forced by events or position (for instance I am President and therefore make decisions that appear to be “elitist”) are not “elitist” in my opinion. That is the social structure I referenced.

    Your example in my opinion is the former – as is the examples you refer to above in my response – and my examples are the latter. This is very clear to me, and I suspect not to you.

    Cheney, with W et al, has been forced into action by 9/11 and the beligerence of Saddam Husseinl.

    Sustainability is an open question – I hope you would agree with that, though I suspect you don’t – and likewise with Pelosi and her decision which is driven by an open question. You and Pelosi, a very small segment of humanity, are convinced you must tell 6 billion human beings what they must do to survive, when it is not proven you are right. That is elitist.

    As soon as the 6 billion people agree with your analysis of the open question, then you will move from “elitist” column into the prescient!

  • Curt  On August 27, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    I think that we’ve proved that there are many aspects to ‘elitism’! I take your points, but can’t help feeling that at least some portion of ‘elitism’ is in the eye of the beholder…

    But let me comment on sustainability. I definitely think sustainability is an open question – it’s in fact hard to even state what it really means! (In the strict sense, anything which is unsustainable will by definition not last, so perhaps there’s nothing to worry about). But in general I think it’s worth thinking about how we are using resources, in particular important resources (necessities) which could become scarce. For example, is it sustainable for Americans (3% of world population) to use some 25% of the world’s oil (not exact figures, but close enough)? If that’s not a sustainable position, and I don’t think it is, then I think it’s worth studying what might be done to ease a transition to some other state of affairs.

    I think there is a wide range of approaches to the field – some are into technological innovation, some are into conservation, some are into novel economic approaches. Some want to ‘save the world’ and others are just looking for an market/economic edge that will help keep them in front of the competition.

    There probably are some sustainability advocates who take a very elitist position that in effect some set of experts should decide on some system of quotas (for example). But my sense is that many more sustainability advocates have an understanding of how economic incentives and markets can be very powerful sources of change. The rise in oil prices already appears to be motivating changes in behavior and decisions.

    The defining quote you found: studying “management of consumer demand for these basic resources” – I read this not as a mandate for some kind of central control of the economy, but to understand the economic systems that are in place today (for many important resources supply and demand is very muddied by subsidies, cartels and monopolies, taxes, etc.). For example, many U.S. water companies actually charge less per cubic foot of water the higher the volume of water used… is that really a good way to manage what’s becoming a less available resource (ie. the correct incentive to provide to water consumers)?

  • Jim  On September 12, 2008 at 8:37 am

    Re-read all of the above and it comes down to:




    I say let the market work. It is a bit slower and a bit unpredictable, but in the long run you get the right answer and do not get a bunch of elitists making money along the way!

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