Bacevich Sees the Blind Leading the Decadent
Andrew Bacevich, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of international relations, discovered the guiding voice of his foreign policy beliefs at a garage sale a decade ago, in a book that he bought for a dime.
His inspiration, The Irony of American History, was written in 1952 by a Protestant theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr. In the book, which has been out of print for years, Niebuhr attacks an idea that many Americans have held dear since the nation’s beginnings — that America is more virtuous than other nations and that its influence in the world is inherently benign.
Last night, delivering Boston University’s 2007 University Lecture, Illusions of Managing History: The Enduring Relevance of Reinhold Niebuhr, Bacevich encouraged a crowd of several hundred at the Tsai Performance Center to begin a “Niebuhrian revival.” 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.”
One audience member, John Curran (COM’09), said he was engaged by Niebuhr’s ideas and intended to read some of his writings. But he was skeptical of a Niehburian revival among his fellow citizens.
“I love the ideas,” said Curran. “But I can’t see us making that big of a turn for our country.”
Other attendees were more hopeful. Khadijah Britton (LAW’10) recalled reading photocopies of Niebuhr’s out-of-print works at Harvard Divinity School.
“Younger writers and thinkers like myself need to read him and write about him,” said Britton.“He needs to be quoted and footnoted. His message is hard to swallow. He’s not polite and he’s not a politician, and so I’m more hopeful [of a revival] in the long term than in the short term.”
Bacevich never suggested that Niebuhr’s path of self-reflection and humility was easy to follow. In a question-and-answer period after the lecture, several audience members pointedly asked what Niebuhr would counsel America to do in the face of tyranny. Bacevich’s response was to note that even with all of Niebuhr’s calls for caution, self-assessment, and moral realism, the theologian was not an isolationist. Indeed, Niebuhr advocated American intervention in World War II.
“Niebuhr recognized that international politics are complex and perplexing and almost impossible to forecast,” Bacevich said in an interview, “but that doesn’t mean you don’t act as a nation state. It means that you act with care and with a great awareness of unanticipated consequences.”
Likewise, despite Bacevich’s long-standing criticisms of the Iraq war, he’s no dove. He fought in Vietnam and served in the Army for more than two decades before retiring as a colonel. In 2004, his son, Andrew J. Bacevich (CGS’01, COM’03) joined the Army and served in Iraq as a lieutenant with the third Brigade Combat Team, First Cavalry Division. He was killed in May.
Bacevich alluded to his family’s loss before beginning his lecture, thanking his wife and daughters, who were in attendance, for being “pillars of strength” in “a difficult time.” He also ended his lecture with a Niebuhr quote that he said would be fitting for a memorial “honoring those who sacrificed their lives in Iraq.”
“The ruthlessness of the foe,” Niebuhr wrote, was “only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause [was] that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle.”
Chris Berdik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.