October 17, 2007

Bacevich on Niebuhr

Bad timing for my recent stopover in Boston means I missed hearing this in person, but Professor Andrew Bacevich's lecture last week at Boston University, "Illusions of Managing History: The Enduring Relevance of Reinhold Niebuhr", is available for listening online. I recall the Niebuhr section in the "Ideas on American Foreign Policy" course I took with him as being somewhat inscrutable at the time, but Bacevich's lecture touches on a number of themes also present in much of his recent writing. From the BU Today writeup:

Bacevich, a conservative thinker who has become a harsh Iraq war critic, said Niebuhr stressed that history is not a simple narrative of good battling evil, and with American leadership, eventually triumphing around the world. Instead, Niehbuhr emphasized “the indecipherability of history” and warned of “the false allure of simple solutions.” And, said Bacevich, referencing the Bush administration’s push for invading Iraq in 2003, such an allure was particularly dangerous when the solution reached for was a military one.

“Egged on by pundits and policy analysts, [they] persuaded themselves that American power, adroitly employed, could transform the Greater Middle East,” said Bacevich. “The paths of progress,” he continued, quoting Niebuhr, “have turned out to be more devious and unpredictable than the putative managers of history could understand.” Bacevich warned also that a continuing failure to heed Niebuhr’s admonitions would tempt “further catastrophes.” And he didn’t point fingers only at Washington. In the final minutes of his lecture, Bacevich examined the struggle in Iraq from a cultural point of view. Specifically, he said, it was the American expectation for ever-greater material abundance that has led to an inherently expansionist foreign policy, such as our addiction to foreign oil and the bloody entanglements needed to ensure an unfettered supply of the fuel.

The current war in Iraq, Bacevich argued, was debased not just by delusional and arrogant foreign policy leadership, but by “the moral dissonance generated by sending soldiers off to fight for freedom in distant lands when freedom at home appears increasingly to have become a synonym for profligacy, conspicuous consumption, and frivolous self-absorption.”

The latter section particularly echoes arguments made by William Appleman Williams and Charles Beard, two historians whose work Bacevich cites in his book, The New American Militarism. I'll have to see if I can't dig up my notes from senior year to see what additional points we might have covered then on Neibuhr — I think the reading itself was a handout, as I don't spot The Irony of American History on my current shelves (which I am now reunited with after two years away in Japan). The follow-up Q&A session at Bacevich's talk, unfortunately, is not included in this audio, so I'm left wondering how the debate went afterwards.

Otherwise unrelated but continuing with the where-are-my-former-professors-now theme a little bit further, Professor Husain Haqqani, current director of BU's Center for International Relations, testified before the House Armed Services Committee on Pakistan recently: here is Video Part One and Video Part Two (Windows streaming formats). I've yet to watch the videos fully for lack of a good connection, but his prepared testimony can be read here (.pdf).

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