The prophet, the president, and American exceptionalism

July 4 weekend is a good time to think about great Americans. And if there's a great American thinker in 2009, I nominate Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who now teaches international relations at Boston University. Not only did Bacevich serve the nation in Vietnam and elsewhere around the globe, but his family made the ultimate sacrifice when his son -- also named Andrew Bacevich, a first lieutenant  -- was killed in Iraq by an IED in 2007. By then, Bacevich, a self-described "Catholic conservative," had already been highly critical of the U.S. invasion, and the increasing role that militarism -- as opposed to diplomacy -- and a quest for American domination was playing in our national life.

I've kind of overdosed on Bacevich lately -- I was just finishing his outstanding book, "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism," this week when I heard most of his hour-long interview on WHYY's "Radio Times" (which you can listen to here). His writing speaks truly to neither classical, locked-in liberalism or conservatism, but seeks to find a rational role for America in the 21st Century, as opposed to untenable policies based on cheap oil and long -- endless, in fact -- wars.

"The Limits of Power" was written at the very start of the 2008 campaign and was published last summer. In its conclusion, Bacevich wrote something strikingly prophetic for 2009, when President Obama has been disappointing in several key areas in delivering the change he promised, sometimes because of external forces and sometimes for reasons that are self-inflicted.

Here's what he wrote last year, with hyperlinks from 2009 to illustrate the power of his prophecy:

The (Obama) agenda is an admirable one.Yet to imagine that installing a particular individual in the Oval Office will produce decisive action on any of these fronts is to succumb to the grandest delusion of all. The quadrennial ritual of electing (or relecting) a president is not an exercise in promoting change, regardless of what the candidates may claim and ordinary voters believe. The real aim is to ensure continuity, to keep intact the institutions and arrangements that define present-day Washington. The veterans of past administrations who sign on as campaign advisers are not interested in curbing the bloated powers of the presidency. They want to share in exercising those powers. The retired generals and admirals who line up behind their preferred candidate don't want to dismantle the national security state. They want to preserve it and, if possible, expand it. The candidates who decry the influence of money in national politics are among those most skilled in courting the well-heeled to amass millions in campaign contributions.
No doubt the race for the presidency matters. It just doesn't matter as much as the media's obsessive coverage suggests. Whoever moves into the White House on Jan. 20, 2009, the fundamental problem facing the country -- a yawning disparity between what Americans expect and what they are willing to pay -- will remain stubbornly in place.
The subtitle of Bacevich's book is "The End of American Exceptionalism." That sure sounds like a downer, especially as we prepare for the pomp and fireworks of another Independence Day. But the truth is that it all depends on how you define "exceptionalism." I believe that all people are created equal with equal rights, regardless of which particular slab of this rock they're born onto. I don't think any nation is entitled to an outsized claim on the world's resources, for example, nor is empire something that is desirable or that has ever worked for very long in the history of humankind. But I do believe that America, and Americans as a people, have done some exceptional things over 233 years and can be even more exceptional in the future, by continuing to create a more perfect union that values human rights and freedom in a way that others will envy and copy. That is the eternal American quest that we celebrate on July 4 -- and every other day.

Have a great holiday weekend.

(Associated Press photo)