No less than in 1776, a passion for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness remains at the center of America’s civic theology. The Jeffersonian trinity summarizes our common inheritance, defines our aspirations, and provides the touchstone for our influence abroad.

Yet if Americans still cherish the sentiments contained in the Declaration of Independence, they have radically revised their understanding. For the majority of contemporary Americans, the essence of those “inalienable rights” centers on a relentless quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors.

Others have bemoaned the cultural implications of this development. Few, however, have considered how an American preoccupation with “more” has affected U.S. relations with the rest of the world. Yet the foreign-policy implications of our self-indulgence are almost entirely negative. Over the past six decades, efforts to satisfy spiraling consumer demand have given birth to a condition of profound dependency. The ethic of self-gratification saddles us with costly commitments abroad that we are increasingly ill-equipped to sustain while confronting us with dangers to which we have no ready response. As the prerequisites of the American way of life have grown, they have outstripped the means to satisfy them.

The restless search for a buck and the ruthless elimination of anything standing in the way have long been central to the American character. Touring the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville noted the “feverish ardor” of its citizens to accumulate. Yet even as the typical American “clutches at everything,” the Frenchman wrote, “he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications.”

To quench their ardor, Americans looked abroad, seeking to extend the reach of U.S. power. The pursuit of fresh gratifications expressed itself collectively in an urge to expand territorially and commercially. This expansionist project was well begun when Tocqueville’s Democracy in America appeared, most notably through Jefferson’s acquisition of the Louisiana Territory and through ongoing efforts to remove (or simply eliminate) Native Americans.

Preferring to remember their story somewhat differently, Americans look to politicians to sanitize their past. When, in his 2005 inaugural address, George W. Bush identified the promulgation of freedom as “the mission that created our nation,” neoconservative hearts beat a little faster, as they did when he went on to declare that America’s “great liberating tradition” now required the U.S. to devote itself to “ending tyranny in our world.” But Bush was simply putting his own gloss on a time-honored conviction ascribing to the United States a uniqueness of character and purpose. From its founding, America has expressed through its behavior a providential purpose. Renewing this tradition of American exceptionalism has long been one of the presidency’s primary extraconstitutional obligations.

Yet to credit the United States with possessing a liberating tradition is equivalent to saying that Hollywood has a “tradition of artistic excellence.” The movie business is just that—a business. If a studio occasionally produces a film of aesthetic value, that may be cause for celebration, but profit, not revealing truth and beauty, defines the purpose of the enterprise.

The same can be said of the enterprise launched on July 4, 1776. The hardheaded lawyers, merchants, farmers, and plantation owners gathered in Philadelphia did not set out to create a church. They founded a republic. Their purpose was not to save mankind. It was to ensure that people like themselves enjoyed unencumbered access to the Jeffersonian trinity.

In the years that followed, the U.S. achieved remarkable success in making good on those aims. But never during the course of America’s transformation from a small power to a great one did the United States exert itself to liberate others absent an overriding perception that the nation had security or economic interests at stake. From time to time, although not nearly as frequently as we like to imagine, some of the world’s unfortunates managed as a consequence to escape from bondage. The Civil War did produce emancipation. Yet to explain the conflagration as a response to the plight of enslaved African-Americans is to engage in immense oversimplification. Near the end of World War II, GI’s did liberate the surviving inmates of Nazi death camps. Yet for those who directed the American war effort, the fate of European Jews never figured as more than an afterthought.

Crediting the United States with a great liberating tradition distorts the past and obscures the motive behind U.S. foreign policy. To insist that the liberation of others has never been more than an ancillary motive of U.S. policy is not cynicism; it is a prerequisite to self-understanding

If the young United States had a mission, it was not to liberate but to expand. “Of course,” declared Theodore Roosevelt in 1899, “our whole national history has been one of expansion.” TR spoke truthfully. The founders viewed stasis as tantamount to suicide. From the outset, Americans evinced a compulsion to acquire territory and extend their commercial reach.

Depending on the circumstances, the U.S. relied on diplomacy, hard bargaining, bluster, chicanery, intimidation, or naked coercion. We infiltrated land belonging to our neighbors and proclaimed it our own. We harassed, filibustered, and launched full-scale invasions. We engaged in ethnic cleansing. At times, we insisted that treaties be considered sacrosanct. On other occasions, we jettisoned agreements that had outlived their usefulness.

As the methods varied, so did the rationales. We touted our status as God’s new Chosen People, erecting a “city upon a hill” to illuminate the world. We acted at the behest of providential guidance or responded to the urgings of our “manifest destiny.” We declared our obligation to spread the Gospel or to “uplift little brown brother.” With Woodrow Wilson as our tutor, we shouldered our responsibility to “show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.” Critics who derided these claims as bunkum—the young Lincoln during the war with Mexico, Mark Twain after the imperial adventures of 1898, Sen. Robert La Follette amid “the war to end all wars”—scored points but lost the argument. Periodically revised and refurbished, American exceptionalism only gained currency.

From expansion came abundance. Out of abundance came substantive freedom. Documents drafted in Philadelphia promised liberty. Making good on those promises required a political economy that facilitated the creation of wealth on an enormous scale.

Writing over a century ago, historian Frederick Jackson Turner made the essential point. “Not the Constitution, but free land and an abundance of natural resources open to a fit people,” he wrote, made American democracy possible. William Appleman Williams found an even tighter correlation. For Americans, he observed, “abundance was freedom and freedom was abundance.”

In short, expansion fostered prosperity, which in turn created the environment within which Americans pursued their dreams of freedom even as they argued about just who deserved to share in that dream. The promise—and reality—of ever-increasing material abundance kept that argument within bounds. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, Americans came to count on an ever larger economic pie to anesthetize the unruly and ameliorate tensions related to class, race, religion, and ethnicity. Money became the preferred lubricant for keeping social and political friction within tolerable limits. Americans, Reinhold Niebuhr observed, “seek a solution for practically every problem of life in quantitative terms,” certain that more is better.

This relationship between expansion, abundance, and freedom reached its apotheosis in the aftermath of World War II. Assisted by the fratricidal behavior of the European powers and reckless Japanese policies that culminated in the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. emerged as a global superpower, while the American people came to enjoy a standard of living that made them the envy of the world. By 1945, the “American Century” forecast by Henry Luce only four years earlier seemed miraculously at hand. The United States was the strongest, the richest, and—in the eyes of its white majority at least—the freest nation in the world.

It possessed nearly two-thirds of the world’s gold reserves and more than half its manufacturing capacity. As measured by value, its exports more than doubled its imports. The dollar had displaced the British pound sterling as the global reserve currency, making the United States the world’s money manager. Among the world’s producers of oil, steel, airplanes, automobiles, and electronics, it ranked first.

Militarily, the United States possessed unquestioned naval and air supremacy, underscored until August 1949 by an absolute nuclear monopoly, affirmed thereafter by an indisputable edge in military technology. Immediate neighbors were weak and posed no threat. Adversaries were far away and possessed limited reach.

The two decades following World War II marked the zenith of what historian Charles Maier called the Empire of Production. Unquestioned economic superiority endowed the United States with a high level of strategic self-sufficiency, translating into remarkable freedom of action. In his Farewell Address, George Washington dreamed of the day when the U.S. might acquire strength sufficient “to give it, humanly speaking, the command of its own fortunes.” Strength, the first president believed, would allow the nation to assert real independence, enabling Americans to “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.” In the wake of World War II, that moment had emphatically arrived.

It soon passed. Even before 1950, the United States had begun to import foreign oil. At first, the quantities were trifling. Over time, they grew. Yet the U.S. continued churning out a never-ending array of goods, its preeminence seemingly beyond challenge.

In the 1960s, however, the empire of production began to come undone. Within another 20 years—thanks to permanently negative trade balances, a crushing defeat in Vietnam, oil shocks, stagflation, the shredding of a moral consensus that could not withstand the assaults of Elvis Presley, “the pill,” and the counterculture, along with news reports that God had died—it had become defunct. In its place, according to Maier, there emerged a new Empire of Consumption. Just as the lunch-bucket-toting factory worker has symbolized the empire of production in its heyday, the teenager, daddy’s credit card in her blue jeans and headed to the mall, now emerged as the empire of consumption’s emblematic figure.

We can fix the tipping point with precision. Prior to the Vietnam War, efforts to expand American power to promote American abundance usually proved conducive to American freedom. After Vietnam, efforts to expand American power continued; but when it came to either abundance or freedom, the results became increasingly problematic.

In retrospect, the economic indicators signaling an erosion of dominance seem obvious. The costs of the Vietnam War—and President Johnson’s attempt to conceal them while pursuing his vision of a Great Society—destabilized the economy, as evidenced by deficits, inflation, and a weakening dollar. In August 1971, Nixon tacitly acknowledged the disarray by devaluing the dollar and suspending its convertibility into gold.

That was only the beginning. Prior to the 1970s, because the U.S. had long been the world’s producer of petroleum, American oil companies determined the global price of oil. In 1972, domestic production peaked and began its irreversible decline. The year before, the prerogative of setting the price of crude had passed to a new producer’s group, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

With U.S. demand for oil steadily increasing, so did reliance on imports. In 1971, after decades in the black, the United States had a negative trade balance. In 1973, and again in 1975, exports exceeded imports in value. From then on, it was all red ink; never again would American exports equal imports.

By the late 1970s, a period of slow growth and high inflation, the still-forming crisis of profligacy was already causing distress. The first protracted economic downturn since World War II confronted Americans with a fundamental choice. They could curb their appetites and learn to live within their means or deploy dwindling reserves of U.S. power in hopes of obliging others to accommodate their penchant for conspicuous consumption. They opted for the latter.

Here lies the true pivot of contemporary American history, far more relevant to our present predicament than events like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of the Soviet Union. Between the summer of 1979 and the spring of 1983, “global leadership,” the signature claim of U.S. foreign policy, underwent a subtle transformation. Although the United States kept up the pretense that the rest of the world could not manage without its guidance and protection, leadership became less a choice than an imperative. The exercise of global primacy offered a way of compensating for the erosion of dominant economic position. Yet whatever deference Washington was able to command could not conceal the extent to which the U.S. was becoming beholden to others.

On July 15, 1979, Jimmy Carter delivered the first of two pivotal speeches. Although widely regarded as a failed president, Carter, in this instance at least, demonstrated remarkable foresight. He not only appreciated the looming implications of dependence but anticipated the implications of allowing this condition to fester.

In the summer of 1979, inflation had reached 11 percent, 7 percent of American workers were unemployed, and the prime lending rate stood at 15 percent and was still rising. Worse yet, in January, Iranian revolutionaries ousted the shah, resulting in a second “oil shock.” If Carter hoped to win a second term, he needed to turn things around quickly.

The president had originally intended to speak on July 5, focusing his address exclusively on energy. At the last minute, he decided to postpone it. Instead, he spent ten days sequestered at Camp David, using the time “to reach out and listen to the voices of America.” The speech he delivered bore little resemblance to the one he had planned to give ten days earlier. The energy crisis, he suggested, was a symptom of a far greater crisis: “I want to speak to you first tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.”

Carter then proceeded to kill any chance of re-election. In American political discourse, fundamental threats are by definition external. Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, or international communism could threaten the United States. That very year, Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries had emerged to pose another such threat. That the actions of everyday Americans might pose a comparable threat amounted to heresy. Yet Carter dared to suggest that the real danger to American democracy lay within.

The nation was experiencing “a crisis of confidence,” he announced. “It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” This erosion of confidence threatened “to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”

Americans had strayed from the path of righteousness. “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God,” the president continued,

too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

The American crisis of confidence was an outward manifestation of an underlying crisis of values. Carter implied that he was merely voicing concerns that his listeners already shared: that average Americans viewed their lives as unsatisfying rituals of buying and longed for something more meaningful.

“We are at a turning point in our history,” Carter announced.

There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility.

The continued pursuit of this idea of freedom was “a certain route to failure.” The alternative—a course consistent with “all the traditions of our past [and] all the lessons of our heritage”—pointed down “another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values.”

As portrayed by Carter, the mistaken idea of freedom was quantitative: it centered on the never-ending quest for more while exalting narrow self-interest. His conception of authentic freedom was qualitative: it meant living in accordance with permanent values. At least by implication, it meant settling for less.

How Americans dealt with the question of energy, the president believed, would determine which idea of freedom would prevail. With this in mind, Carter outlined a six-point program designed to end what he called “this intolerable dependence on foreign oil.” Although he expressed confidence that the United States could one day regain energy independence, he acknowledged that in the near term “there [was] simply no way to avoid sacrifice.” Implicit in Carter’s speech was the suggestion that sacrifice just might be a good thing. For the sinner, penance must necessarily precede redemption.

As an effort to reorient public policy, Carter’s appeal failed completely. Americans showed little enthusiasm for the president’s brand of freedom with its connotations of virtuous austerity. Not liking the message, Americans shot the messenger.

Carter’s speech did enjoy a long and fruitful life—chiefly as fodder for his political opponents. The most formidable was Ronald Reagan. He portrayed himself as conservative but was, in fact, the modern prophet of profligacy—the politician who gave moral sanction to the empire of consumption. Beguiling his fellow citizens with talk of “morning in America,” Reagan added to America’s civic religion two crucial beliefs: credit has no limits, and the bills will never come due. Balance the books, pay as you go, save for a rainy day—Reagan’s abrogation of these ancient bits of folk wisdom did as much to recast America’s moral constitution as did sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

When it came to confidence, the former governor wanted it known that he had lots of it. In a jab at Carter, he alluded to those “who would have us believe that the United States, like other great civilizations of the past, has reached the zenith of its power” and who “tell us we must learn to live with less.” Reagan rejected these propositions. He envisioned a future in which the U.S. would gain even greater power while Americans would enjoy ever greater prosperity. The sole obstacle was the federal government. His solution was to pare down the bureaucracy, reduce federal spending, and cut taxes.

On one point at least, Reagan agreed with Carter: “The only way to free ourselves from the monopoly pricing power of OPEC is to be less dependent on outside sources of fuel.” Yet Reagan had no interest in promoting energy independence through reduced consumption. When it came to energy, he was insistent: “We must decide that ‘less’ is not enough.”

History remembers Reagan as a fervent Cold Warrior. Yet, in announcing his candidacy, he devoted little attention to the Soviet Union. His language was measured, not belligerent. He did not denounce the Soviets for being “evil.” He made no allusions to rolling back communism. In outlining his views on foreign policy, he focused on his vision of a “North American accord,” an economic union linking the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

He approvingly quoted Tom Paine on Americans having the power to “begin the world over again.” He endorsed John Winthrop’s charge that God had commanded Americans to erect “a city upon a hill.” And he cited (without attribution) Franklin D. Roosevelt’s entreaty for Americans to keep their “rendezvous with destiny.” Reagan did not call on Americans to tighten their belts. He saw no need for sacrifice. He rejected Carter’s dichotomy between quantity and quality. Above all, he assured his countrymen that they could have more.

Despite the advantages of incumbency, Carter suffered a crushing defeat. Reagan carried all but four states and won the popular vote by well over eight million. It was a landslide and a portent.

Reagan’s inaugural address served as an occasion to recite conservative bromides. He made a show of decrying the profligacy of the recent past: “For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children’s future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals.” He vowed to put America’s economic house in order: “You and I, as individuals, can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but for only a limited period of time. Why, then, should we think that collectively, as a nation, we’re not bound by that same limitation?” Reagan reiterated an oft-made promise “to check and reverse the growth of government.”

He would do none of these things. In each case, he did just the reverse. During the Carter years, the federal deficit had averaged $54.5 billion annually. During the Reagan era, deficits skyrocketed, averaging $210.6 billion over the course of Reagan’s two terms. Federal spending nearly doubled, from $590.9 billion in 1980 to $1.14 trillion in 1989. The federal government did not shrink. It grew, the bureaucracy swelling by nearly 5 percent.

To call Reagan a hypocrite is to miss the point. The Reagan Revolution was never about fiscal responsibility or small government. Far more accurately than Carter, Reagan understood what made Americans tick: they wanted self-gratification, not self-denial. Although always careful to embroider his speeches with inspirational homilies and testimonials to old-fashioned virtues, Reagan mainly indulged American self-indulgence.

There was a revolution; it just had little to do with the tenets of conservatism. The true nature of the revolution becomes apparent only in retrospect. Reagan unveiled it in remarks that he made on March 23, 1983. History remembers this as the occasion when the president announced his Strategic Defense Initiative. Embedded in Reagan’s remarks were two radical propositions: the minimum requirements of U.S. security required a status akin to invulnerability and modern technology was bringing this utopian goal within reach. Star Wars introduced into mainstream politics the proposition that Americans could be safe only if the United States enjoyed permanent global military supremacy. Here was Reagan’s preferred response to the crisis that Carter had identified. Here, too, can be found the strategic underpinnings of George W. Bush’s global war on terror.

Whereas Carter had summoned Americans to mend their ways, Reagan obviated any need for soul-searching by inviting his fellow citizens to carry on. For Carter, ending American dependence on foreign oil meant promoting moral renewal at home. Reagan—and Reagan’s successors—mimicked Carter in bemoaning the nation’s growing energy dependence but did next to nothing to curtail that dependence. Instead, they wielded U.S. military power to ensure access to oil, hoping thereby to prolong the empire of consumption. Carter had portrayed quantity (the American preoccupation with what he had called “piling up material goods”) as fundamentally at odds with quality (authentic freedom as he defined it). Reagan reconciled what was, to Carter, increasingly irreconcilable. In Reagan’s view, quality (advanced technology converted to military use by highly skilled soldiers) could sustain quantity (a consumer economy based on the availability of cheap credit and cheap oil).

A consensus emerged based on the conviction that the American military could dominate the planet as Reagan had proposed to dominate outer space. In Washington, confidence that a high-quality military establishment, dexterously employed, could enable the U.S., always with high-minded intentions, to organize the world to its liking became a self-evident truth. In this malignant expectation—not in any of the conservative ideals for which he is retrospectively venerated—lies the essence of the Reagan legacy.

By the end of his presidency, 41 percent of the oil consumed domestically came from abroad. It was during his first term that growing demand for Chinese goods produced the first negative trade balance with that country. In the same period, Washington—and the American people more generally—resorted to borrowing. The U.S. had long touted its status as a creditor nation as a symbol of overall economic strength. That, too, ended during the Reagan era. Even as the United States began accumulating trillions of dollars of debt, the inclination of individual Americans to save began to disappear. For most of the postwar era, personal savings had averaged a robust 8-10 percent of disposable income. In 1985, that figure began a slide toward zero.

American profligacy during the 1980s had a powerful effect on foreign policy. On one hand, Reagan’s willingness to spend without limit helped bring the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion. On the other, American habits of conspicuous consumption drew the U.S. ever more deeply into the vortex of the Islamic world, saddling an increasingly debt-ridden and energy-dependent nation with commitments it could neither shed nor sustain.

Yet it would be a mistake to imply that there were two Reagans—the farsighted statesman who won the Cold War and the chucklehead who bollixed up U.S. relations with the Islamic world. Cold War policy and Middle Eastern policy did not exist in separate compartments. Reagan-era exertions undertaken to win “World War III” inadvertently paved the way for “World War IV,” while leaving the United States in an appreciably weaker position to conduct that struggle.

Reagan never questioned the proposition that the American way of life required ever larger quantities of energy. Since satisfying American demand by expanding domestic oil production was never anything but a mirage, Reagan instead crafted policies to alleviate the risks associated with dependency. The splendid army he helped create found eventual employment not in defending the West against totalitarianism but in trying to impose an American imperium on the Persian Gulf.

Whatever their professed ideological allegiance, Reagan’s successors have all adhered to the hallowed tradition of decrying America’s energy dependence without taking any meaningful action to address this addiction. That Americans might shake the habit by choosing a different course is a possibility few are willing to contemplate. After all, as George H.W. Bush declared in 1992, “The American way of life is not negotiable.”

The presidents who followed have relied increasingly on military power to sustain that way of life. The unspoken assumption has been that profligate spending on what politicians euphemistically refer to as “defense” can sustain profligate domestic consumption of energy and imported manufactures. That the antidote to our ailments might lie within rather than on the other side of the world received no consideration at all.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001 only hardened this disposition. Donald Rumsfeld summarized the prevailing view: “We have two choices. Either we change the way we live, or we must change the way they live. We choose the latter.”

As it trained its sights on modifying the way “they” lived, the Bush administration looked to America’s Armed Forces as its agent of change. Through a war of liberation, the United States intended to convert Iraq into what Paul Wolfowitz termed the first Arab democracy. Yet, as they prepared for a showdown with Saddam, Wolfowitz and others in the administration were looking beyond Baghdad. Iraq only qualified as an interim objective. The ultimate purpose was to transform a huge swath of the Islamic world from Morocco through Pakistan and Central Asia to Indonesia and the southern Philippines. Here was an imperial vision on a colossal scale, a worthy successor to older claims of “manifest destiny” or an American mission to “make the world safe for democracy.”

One might have thought that implementing such a vision would require sustained and large-scale national commitment. “War costs money,” Franklin D. Roosevelt reminded his countrymen after Pearl Harbor. “That means taxes and bonds and bonds and taxes. It means cutting luxuries and other non-essentials.” At the outset of its war on terrorism, the Bush administration saw things differently. Even as the U.S. embarked on a global conflict expected to last decades, the president reduced taxes. Rather than asking Americans to trim their appetite for luxuries, he called on them to carry on as if nothing had occurred. Barely two weeks after the World Trade Center collapsed, the president was prodding citizens to “Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida.” As late as December 2006, with the situation in Iraq looking grim, the wartime president noted with satisfaction that the holiday spending binge was off to “a strong beginning.” Yet he summoned Americans to make even greater exertions: “I encourage you all to go shopping more.”

The role allotted to the American people was to pretend that the conflict did not exist. Despite claims that his would be a generational struggle, the president never considered restoring the draft. Nor did he expand the size of the Armed Forces. This guaranteed that the 0.5 percent of the population that made up the all-volunteer force would bear the brunt of any sacrifice. With only a handful of dissenters, the remaining 99.5 percent of Americans happily endorsed this distribution of effort.

Predictably, as the scope of military operations grew, so did the level of military spending. During the Bush years, the Pentagon’s budget more than doubled, reaching $700 billion by 2008. Unlike in Operation Desert Storm when Germany, Japan, and friendly Gulf states ponied up tens of billions, the burden fell entirely on Washington.

Less predictably, although perhaps not surprisingly, spending on entitlements also rose in the years after 9/11. Abetted by Congress, the administration conducted a war of guns and butter, including huge increases in Medicare and Social Security. The federal budget went into the red and stayed there.

In the name of preserving the American way of life, President Bush and his lieutenants committed the nation to a breathtakingly ambitious project of near global domination. Hewing to a tradition that extended at least as far back as Jefferson, they intended to expand American power to further the cause of American freedom. Freedom assumed abundance. Abundance seemingly required access to cheap and abundant oil. Guaranteeing access to that oil demanded that the U.S. remove all doubts about who called the shots in the Persian Gulf.

Yet that way of life, based for at least two generations on an ethic of excess, drastically reduced the resources available for such an all-encompassing imperial enterprise. Encouraged by President Bush to attend to their personal priorities, Americans lost no time disengaging from the war he had launched. While soldiers fought, people consumed. With the United States possessing less than 3 percent of the world’s known oil reserves and Americans burning one out of every four barrels of petroleum produced worldwide, oil imports reached 60 percent of daily national requirements and kept rising. The personal-savings rate continued to plummet. In 2006, total public debt topped $9 trillion, nearly 70 percent of the gross national product.

In February of that year, a provocative article in the New York Times Magazine posed the question, “Is freedom just another word for many things to buy?” Through their actions after 9/11, as before, tens of millions of Americans answered in the affirmative. Given the extent to which consumption had become the driveshaft of the global economy, the Bush administration welcomed the average citizen’s inclination to ignore the war and return to the mall.

Yet once the Iraq War demonstrated the shortcomings of shock and awe, there was no obvious way to reconfigure the empire of consumption into an empire of global liberation. The horrors of Sept. 11 notwithstanding, most Americans subscribed to a limited-liability version of patriotism, one that emphasized the display of bumper stickers in preference to shouldering a rucksack.

As conditions in Iraq worsened, the disparity between pretensions and capacities became painfully evident. A generation of profligacy had produced strategic insolvency. The administration had counted on the qualitative superiority of U.S. forces compensating for their limited numbers. The enemy did not cooperate. And although the United States is a wealthy nation with a population of over 300 million, closing the gap between means and ends posed a daunting task. By February 2005, Max Boot was suggesting that the armed forces “open up recruiting stations from Budapest to Bangkok, Cape Town to Cairo, Montreal to Mexico City.”

The United States had a shortage of soldiers; it also lacked funds. The longer the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raged, the more costly they became. By 2007, to sustain its operations the U.S. command in Baghdad was burning through $3 billion per week. That same year, the overall costs of the Iraq War topped the $500 billion mark, with some estimates suggesting that the final bill could reach $2 trillion.

Although these figures were widely reported, they had almost no political impact in Washington, indicating the extent to which habits of profligacy had become entrenched. Congress responded to budget imbalances not by trimming spending or increasing revenues but by raising the debt ceiling by $3.015 trillion between 2002 and 2006. Future generations could figure out how to pay the bills.

All this red ink finally began to generate nervous speculation about a coming economic collapse comparable in magnitude to the Great Depression. Americans continued to insist, however, that the remedy to the nation’s problems lay in the Persian Gulf rather than at home. The slightest suggestion that the United States ought to worry less about matters abroad and more about setting its own house in order elicited from the political elite shrieks of “isolationism,” the great imaginary sin to which Americans are allegedly prone. Yet beginning to put our house in order would be to open up a whole new array of options, once again permitting the United States to “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”

Long accustomed to thinking of the U.S. as a superpower, Americans have yet to realize that they have forfeited command of their own destiny. The reciprocal relationship between expansionism, abundance, and freedom—each reinforcing the other—no longer exists. If anything, the reverse is true: expansionism squanders American wealth and power, while putting freedom at risk. As a consequence, the strategic tradition to which Jefferson and Polk, Lincoln and McKinley, TR and FDR all subscribed has been rendered not only obsolete but pernicious.

Rather than confronting this reality, American grand strategy since the era of Reagan, and especially throughout the era of George W. Bush, has been characterized by attempts to wish reality away. Policy-makers have been engaged in a de facto Ponzi scheme intended to extend indefinitely the American line of credit. The fiasco of the Iraq War and the quasi- permanent U.S. occupation of Afghanistan illustrate the results and prefigure what is yet to come if the crisis of American profligacy continues unabated.    
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Andrew J. Bacevich teaches international relations at Boston University. This essay is adapted from The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew J. Bacevich. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2008 by Andrew J. Bacevich. All rights reserved.