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Is God on Our Side?


Nearly every day it seems, a new book, a magazine article, or a broadcast pundit assesses the war in Iraq — its origins, its impact on America and its place in the world, and its fallout. But for Andrew Bacevich, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of international relations, the most important voice on these matters comes from the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr more than half a century ago.

In 1952, Niebuhr wrote the book The Irony of American History, which assailed the enduring idea of America as exceptionally virtuous among nations, favored by God to guide world history according to his plan. Niebuhr instead argued for moral realism and statecraft conducted with an awareness of history’s moral ambiguity, the limits of power, and possible unanticipated consequences of global ambition.   

Bacevich, a conservative military veteran and a harsh critic of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, regards Niebuhr as a prophet whose ideas not only explain America’s struggle in Iraq, but also offer a palliative to a national self-righteousness that Bacevich considers illusory and ultimately self-destructive.

Bacevich will call for a “Niebuhrian revival,” in Boston University’s 2007 University Lecture, Illusions of Managing History: The Enduring Relevance of Reinhold Niebuhr, tonight at the Tsai Performance Center. Established in 1950 to honor faculty engaged in outstanding research, the University Lecture is an opportunity for the members of the BU community and the public to hear a distinguished scholar discuss a topic of recognized excellence.     

Bacevich, who fought in Vietnam and retired as an Army colonel after more than 20 years of service, first read Niebuhr’s book a decade ago. “I was immediately struck that it was the most profound interpretation of American foreign policy that I’d ever read,” he says. “And the insights that it contains were directly relevant to the problems we face in the post–Cold War, and now in the post-9/11, world.”

Bacevich acknowledges that Niebuhr’s ideas — that America is not predestined, as John Winthrop said, to be a “city upon a hill,” that our nation’s influence, particularly of the military sort, is not inevitably virtuous — are heresy to those who believe in national themes that have endured for centuries and have been amplified in the speeches of political leaders from every party. He points out that while The Irony of American History is a fixture on the reading list for his class Ideas in American Foreign Policy, the book has been out of print for years.

Nevertheless, says Bacevich, despite all Niebuhr’s words of caution and moral realism, the theologian was no isolationist.

“Niebuhr recognized that international politics are complex and perplexing and almost impossible to forecast,” he says, “which 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.”

Bacevich has echoed Niebuhr’s philosophy in criticizing Bush and the doctrine of preventive war to remake the Middle East, criticism that began before the Iraq invasion.

“If, as seems probable, the effort encounters greater resistance than its architects imagine,” he wrote in a Los Angeles Times opinion article last March, “our way of life may find itself tested in ways that will make the Vietnam War look like a mere blip in American history.”

The violence that the Iraq war has unleashed became tragically personal for Bacevich this spring when his 27-year-old son, First Lieutenant Andrew J. Bacevich (CGS’01, COM’03), was killed by a bomb blast in Iraq. 

Indeed, the realities of war, Bacevich says, can lead people to make “the argument that ideas today don’t play a significant role in foreign affairs.” Nevertheless, he says, “to the extent that ideas do matter, I think there is a growing appreciation of Niebuhr’s relevance to our times.”

The Irony of American History is not a “prescription of what U.S. policy should be with regard to Iraq or Islamic radicalism,” he says. “You read the book to recognize the extent to which Americans over time have not been fully aware or fully honest about the motivations behind our nation’s actions. You read it as a cautionary tale.”

The 2007 University Lecture, which is free and open to the public, is today, October 9, at 6:30 p.m. at the Tsai Performance Center, 685 Commonwealth Avenue.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.