Tomgram: Chalmers Johnson, Ending the Empire
Way back in 1999, when I was still a Tomdispatch-less book editor, I read a proposal from Chalmers Johnson. He was, then, known mainly as a scholar of modern Japan, though years earlier I had read his brilliant book on Chinese peasant nationalism — about a period in the 1940s when imperial Japan was carrying out its “3-all” campaigns (kill-all, burn-all, loot-all) in the northern Chinese countryside. The proposal, for a book to be called “Blowback” — a CIA term of tradecraft that, like most Americans, I had never heard before — focused on the “unintended consequences” of the Agency’s covert activities abroad and the disasters they might someday bring down upon us. Johnson began with an introduction in which he reviewed, among other things, his experiences in the Vietnam War era when, as a professed Cold Warrior, a former CIA consultant, and a professor of Asian studies at Berkeley, he would have been on the other side of the political fence from me.
In that introduction, he recalled his dismay with antiwar activists who were, he felt (not incorrectly), often blindly romantic about Asian communism and hadn’t bothered to do their homework on the subject. “They were,” he wrote, “defining the Vietnamese Communists largely out of their own romantic desires to oppose Washington’s policies.” He added:
“As it turned out, however, they understood far better than I did the impulse of a Robert McNamara, a McGeorge Bundy, or a Walt Rostow. They grasped something essential about the nature of America’s imperial role in the world that I had failed to perceive. In retrospect, I wish I had stood with the antiwar protest movement. For all its naïveté and unruliness, it was right and American policy wrong.”
It was a reversal of sentiment to which no other American of his age and background, to the best of my knowledge, had admitted. It reflected a mind impressively willing to reconsider and change — and, as it happened, it also reflected a man on a journey out of the world of Cold War anti-communism and into the heart of the American empire. When Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire finally came out in 2000, it was largely ignored (or derided) in the mainstream — until, that is, September 11th, 2001. Then, “blowback,” and the phrase that went with it, “unintended consequences,” entered our language, thanks to Johnson, and the paperback of the book, now seen as prophetic, hit the 9/11 tables in bookstores across the United States, becoming a bestseller.
Johnson’s intellectual odyssey had begun when the Cold War ended, when the Soviet Union disappeared and the American imperial structure of bases (and policy) in Asia remained standing, remarkably unchanged and unaffected by that seemingly world-shaking event. An invitation, five years later, to visit the heavily American-garrisoned Japanese island of Okinawa, in turmoil over a case in which two U.S. Marines and a sailor had raped a 12 year-old Okinawan girl, also strongly affected his thinking. There, Johnson saw firsthand what our global baseworld looked like and what it did to others on this planet. (“I was flabbergasted by the 37 American military bases I found on an island smaller than Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands and the enormous pressures it put on the population there… As I began to study it, though, I discovered that Okinawa was not exceptional. It was the norm. It was what you find in all of the American military enclaves around the world.”)
Now, five and a half years after the 9/11 attacks, Johnson has reached the provisional end of his quest and the single prophetic volume, Blowback, has become “The Blowback Trilogy.” In 2004, a second volume, The Sorrows of Empire, arrived, focused on how the American military had garrisoned the globe and how militarism had us in its grip; and finally, this year, a magisterial third and final volume, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, appeared. No one should miss it. It lays out in chilling detail the ways in which imperial overstretch imperils the American republic and what’s left of our democratic system as well as the American economy.
Now, in a step beyond even his latest book, Johnson considers whether we can end our empire before it ends us. Tom
Evil Empire: Is Imperial Liquidation Possible for America?
By Chalmers Johnson
In politics, as in medicine, a cure based on a false diagnosis is almost always worthless, often worsening the condition that is supposed to be healed. The United States, today, suffers from a plethora of public ills. Most of them can be traced to the militarism and imperialism that have led to the near-collapse of our Constitutional system of checks and balances. Unfortunately, none of the remedies proposed so far by American politicians or analysts addresses the root causes of the problem.
According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, released on April 26, 2007, some 78% of Americans believe their country to be headed in the wrong direction. Only 22% think the Bush administration’s policies make sense, the lowest number on this question since October 1992, when George H. W. Bush was running for a second term — and lost. What people don’t agree on are the reasons for their doubts and, above all, what the remedy — or remedies — ought to be.
The range of opinions on this is immense. Even though large numbers of voters vaguely suspect that the failings of the political system itself led the country into its current crisis, most evidently expect the system to perform a course correction more or less automatically. As Adam Nagourney of the New York Times reported, by the end of March 2007, at least 280,000 American citizens had already contributed some $113.6 million to the presidential campaigns of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Mitt Romney, Rudolph Giuliani, or John McCain.
If these people actually believe a presidential election a year-and-a-half from now will significantly alter how the country is run, they have almost surely wasted their money. As Andrew Bacevich, author of The New American Militarism, puts it: “None of the Democrats vying to replace President Bush is doing so with the promise of reviving the system of check and balances…. The aim of the party out of power is not to cut the presidency down to size but to seize it, not to reduce the prerogatives of the executive branch but to regain them.”
George W. Bush has, of course, flagrantly violated his oath of office, which requires him “to protect and defend the constitution,” and the opposition party has been remarkably reluctant to hold him to account. Among the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that, under other political circumstances, would surely constitute the Constitutional grounds for impeachment are these: the President and his top officials pressured the Central Intelligence Agency to put together a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq’s nuclear weapons that both the administration and the Agency knew to be patently dishonest. They then used this false NIE to justify an American war of aggression. After launching an invasion of Iraq, the administration unilaterally reinterpreted international and domestic law to permit the torture of prisoners held at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and at other secret locations around the world.
Nothing in the Constitution, least of all the commander-in-chief clause, allows the president to commit felonies. Nonetheless, within days after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush had signed a secret executive order authorizing a new policy of “extraordinary rendition,” in which the CIA is allowed to kidnap terrorist suspects anywhere on Earth and transfer them to prisons in countries like Egypt, Syria, or Uzbekistan, where torture is a normal practice, or to secret CIA prisons outside the United States where Agency operatives themselves do the torturing.
On the home front, despite the post-9/11 congressional authorization of new surveillance powers to the administration, its officials chose to ignore these and, on its own initiative, undertook extensive spying on American citizens without obtaining the necessary judicial warrants and without reporting to Congress on this program. These actions are prima-facie violations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (and subsequent revisions) and of Amendment IV of the Constitution.
These alone constitute more than adequate grounds for impeachment, while hardly scratching the surface. And yet, on the eve of the national elections of November 2006, then House Minority Leader, now Speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), pledged on the CBS News program “60 Minutes” that “impeachment is off the table.” She called it “a waste of time.” And six months after the Democratic Party took control of both houses of Congress, the prison at Guantánamo Bay was still open and conducting drumhead courts martial of the prisoners held there; the CIA was still using “enhanced interrogation techniques” on prisoners in foreign jails; illegal intrusions into the privacy of American citizens continued unabated; and, more than fifty years after the CIA was founded, it continues to operate under, at best, the most perfunctory congressional oversight.
Promoting Lies, Demoting Democracy
Without question, the administration’s catastrophic war in Iraq is the single overarching issue that has convinced a large majority of Americans that the country is “heading in the wrong direction.” But the war itself is the outcome of an imperial presidency and the abject failure of Congress to perform its Constitutional duty of oversight. Had the government been working as the authors of the Constitution intended, the war could not have occurred. Even now, the Democratic majority remains reluctant to use its power of the purse to cut off funding for the war, thereby ending the American occupation of Iraq and starting to curtail the ever-growing power of the military-industrial complex.
One major problem of the American social and political system is the failure of the press, especially television news, to inform the public about the true breadth of the unconstitutional activities of the executive branch. As Frederick A. O. Schwarz and Aziz Z. Huq, the authors of Unchecked and Unbalanced: Presidential Power in a Time of Terror, observe, “For the public to play its proper checking role at the ballot box, citizens must know what is done by the government in their names.”
Instead of uncovering administration lies and manipulations, the media actively promoted them. Yet the first amendment to the Constitution protects the press precisely so it can penetrate the secrecy that is the bureaucrat’s most powerful, self-protective weapon. As a result of this failure, democratic oversight of the government by an actively engaged citizenry did not — and could not — occur. The people of the United States became mere spectators as an array of ideological extremists, vested interests, and foreign operatives — including domestic neoconservatives, Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi exiles, the Israeli Lobby, the petroleum and automobile industries, warmongers and profiteers allied with the military-industrial complex, and the entrenched interests of the professional military establishment — essentially hijacked the government.
Some respected professional journalists do not see these failings as the mere result of personal turpitude but rather as deep structural and cultural problems within the American system as it exists today. In an interview with Matt Taibbi, Seymour Hersh, for forty years one of America’s leading investigative reporters, put the matter this way:
“All of the institutions we thought would protect us — particularly the press, but also the military, the bureaucracy, the Congress — they have failed… So all the things that we expect would normally carry us through didn’t. The biggest failure, I would argue, is the press, because that’s the most glaring…. What can be done to fix the situation? [long pause] You’d have to fire or execute ninety percent of the editors and executives.”
Veteran analyst of the press (and former presidential press secretary), Bill Moyers, considering a classic moment of media failure, concluded: “The disgraceful press reaction to Colin Powell’s presentation at the United Nations [on February 5, 2003] seems like something out of Monty Python, with one key British report cited by Powell being nothing more than a student’s thesis, downloaded from the Web — with the student later threatening to charge U.S. officials with ‘plagiarism.'”
As a result of such multiple failures (still ongoing), the executive branch easily misled the American public.
Read the rest here.