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“The Limits of Power” Book by Andrew Bacevich Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Dec 30th, 2021

Andrew Bacevich. Professor of International Relations

Andrew Bacevich’s book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism addresses the existing failures of our political machinery due to badly conceived notions of empire-building that have been prevalent since the end of World War II, and calls for the beginning of a distinctly American approach to repair the damages brought by these policy failures (Bacevich, 2008). He identifies three crises currently facing the country including economic problems, a government that suffers from an imperialist mindset, and endless wars to defend the present structure.

The author is a professor of international relations at Boston University and through his writing, expresses his firm opposition to past and present episodes of American expansionism abroad. Bacevich criticizes overseas military ventures including the Korean War, Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Lebanon, Star Wars, the Persian Gulf War of 1991, Somalia, Kosovo, and following 9/11, the protracted war unleashed on a nameless, faceless entity called Islamic terrorism (Bacevich, 2008). Bacevich believes participation in overseas ventures has not only been an exercise in futility but also violates fundamental American principles of non-interference in other’s (other nations’) affairs (Bacevich, 2008).

This argument sounds plausible but remains inconsistent because the author lost his son in the Iraq war and it can be seen that his book largely reads like a tirade on George W. Bush and neo-con policies unleashed by his administration. Excepting Bush, Bacevich spares criticism of Democrats and even past Republican presidents. The argument of non-intervention also fails to take into account the positive benefits of American intervention in Europe and East Asia in the past such as during the Second World War, which led to the destruction of the twin forces of Fascism and Nazism.

Moreover, Bacevich operates on the limiting belief that the age before World War II was a golden one due to American isolationism which is not factually correct. The US has been carrying out empire-building activities and overseas intervention, right since the end of the 19th century. Operations in the Philippines, Panama, Haiti, and participation in the First World War come to mind here.

However, Bacevich is right when he bases the expansionist political mindset on the premise of American Exceptionalism (Bacevich, 2008). This refers to the theory that the United States holds a special place among other nations due to the unique strength of its democratic institutions that operate on the principles of freedom, of which America wants to become a torch-bearer for the whole world. Bacevich argues that in recent decades, this quest for freedom has been confused with the consumption of more global resources, including oil and thus, the pretext to preach freedom to other nations does not add up.

Bacevich also advocates abolishing nuclear weapons and scaling back on the global warming problem, as evinced by his tirade against the expansionism mindset (Bacevich, 2008).

However, this is again where the author loses perspective. He criticizes the American war machinery to be based on lofty ideals of spreading peace and freedom worldwide while lacking in ground reality. Bacevich’s observations on successive governments lacking political realism are based on his self-beliefs as a theoretical realist. This is contradicted by his wrong notions on an isolationist utopia before World War II, and his frequent references to George W. Bush, as a war-monger (Bacevich, 2008). This argument lacks strength since we can’t blame one man for the incidents and episodes following 9/11 any more than we can pass Presidents who oversaw other challenges such as the Cuban Missile Crisis (John F. Kennedy), Vietnam War, and the Cold War.

Bacevich also frequently refers to American presidents with a clumsy moniker such as “emperor president” which takes away any credibility he may pose for being a sound realist (Bacevich, 2008).

As a solution to the current crises facing the country, Bacevich advocates healthy respect for the power and imposing limits on it, moving away from claims of exceptionalism and into firm reality, disavowal of force as a means to solve the problems facing the nation and living within one’s healthy boundary limits (Bacevich, 2008). Bacevich argues that if the United States ceased to invade foreign lands, supporting corrupt and undemocratic governments (an allusion to Pakistan that helped in the War on Terror), the government would not have to chip away at social programs to finance this war machinery (Bacevich, 2008).

Bacevich also argues that in the quest for oil through its presence in the Middle East, the USA is neglecting the development of renewable energy models which have seen a surge in popularity among European nations (Bacevich, 2008). This also has to change.

Again, despite the soundness of the last arguments on renewable energy growth, Bacevich fails to address the true implications of Global terrorism and severely undermines the importance of protecting the strategic interests of the country. Some of these ideas are too simplistic to work on a realistic note. They include the following.

Imposing limits on power seems plausible but different crises situations mandate different responses. For example, the 9/11 attacks left a critical impact on the perceptions of national security for ordinary Americans. Some critics will argue that finding a solution to the global terrorism problem is in the best interests of America, and for that, we have to work in conjunction with other countries.

In the same manner, disavowal of force as a means to achieve necessary objectives is also dependent on the situation at hand. Any usage of force in response to terrorist attacks or invasion on American soil, and the freedoms enjoyed by the American people, is legally valid as per International law.

As far as claims of exceptionalism go, not all policy decisions qualify as substantiation to the notes of exceptionalism. As has been argued in this essay, the United States was ethically right in the past few episodes where it intervened in wars in Europe and Asia on behalf of its allies, to destroy the twin forces of Nazism and Fascism. This was largely based on the premise of American exceptionalism so far as the nation took the mantle of protecting the freedoms of people around the world.

Had the forces of Hitler and Imperial Japan succeeded in their designs, the world would have been in a very different shape today. There is no doubt that the emergence of forces that oppose freedom has a direct bearing on the freedoms enjoyed by American citizens. Imposing checks and balances and limits on power is one thing – avoiding responsibility is quite another.


Finally, as judged by the inactions of past and present governments, Bacevich also fails to take into account corporations who have taken over the lives of ordinary Americans. It’s these corporations that directly or indirectly subsidize the overseas war efforts and should be equally taken to task for promoting the war effort, for their self-interests.


Bacevich, A. (2008). The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Metropolitan Books: New York.

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