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Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic
by Chalmers Johnson (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), 368 pages; $26.
The full extent of the American Empire is shown in great clarity throughout Nemesis. In terms of the imperial, hyperpowerful executive branch, perhaps nothing better exemplifies the problem than the CIA, or “the president’s private army,” as Johnson puts it. Not a blind Democratic partisan by any means, the author lays down a sketch of the history of presidential covert operations as a dismal bipartisan legacy, from the Bay of Pigs disaster to the overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected Allende and the installation of military dictator Pinochet in his stead.
Perhaps the most chilling example — and the cause of “the worst instance of blowback among all of America’s secret wars” — was the “CIA’s covert operations in Afghanistan from 1979 to the victory of the Taliban in 1996,” which ultimately paved the way to “al-Qaeda’s attack on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.” This CIA intervention under Jimmy Carter is often still defended as a Cold War necessity, a heroic defense of Afghans against the Soviets, yet this perspective neglects some important facts:
The Carter administration deliberately provoked the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which occurred on Christmas Eve 1979. In his 1996 memoir, former CIA director Robert Gates acknowledges that the American intelligence services began to aid the anti-Soviet mujahideen guerillas not after the Russian invasion but six months before it. On July 3, 1979, President Carter signed a finding authorizing secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime then ruling in Kabul. His purpose — and that of his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski — was to provoke a full-scale Soviet military invasion. Carter wanted to tie down the USSR and so prevent its leaders from exploiting the 1979 anti-American revolution in Iran.
And that 1979 anti-American revolution in Iran, of course, was itself ultimately blowback arising from the CIA’s installation of the shah in 1953. The CIA is, unfortunately, sacred to most conservatives and misunderstood by many libertarians. Chapter 3 in Nemesis is a good way to begin remedying this blind spot.
If the CIA best represents the covert side of the U.S. empire, nothing is a better symbol of its ubiquitous and conspicuous nature than the military base. In a couple of chapters, Johnson presents painstaking research on the (at last count) 737 official bases and many off-the-book bases in the foreign lands of the American imperium. Despite the propaganda that the United States intends to leave Iraq when the fighting stops, it is constructing very permanent bases around the country.
The new U.S. embassy is as permanent a base as they come. Located in a 104-acre compound, it will be the biggest embassy in the world — ten times the size of a typical American embassy, six times larger than the U.N., as big as Vatican City, and costing $592 million to build. It will be defended by blast walls and ground-to-air missiles.
What possible nonimperial purpose can this serve?
Some will argue that the U.S. government has bases all over the world because the people of those countries want them. Not so. The governments of those countries have been pressured, bribed, or forced to accept a heavy U.S. military presence, but often the people quite resent it. Johnson shows this convincingly, with such examples as how the Bush administration recently manipulated Paraguay into allowing a new U.S. military installation there for purposes including military training, but his most troubling accounts can be seen in his chapter on U.S. bases in Japan. The Japanese national government tolerates them for its own questionable, nondefensive reasons, but concentrates them on the island of Okinawa to minimize the public outrage nationwide. The locals almost all resent the bases, however, as U.S. servicemen stationed there have often been implicated in crimes against the civilian population nearby, including rapes, kidnappings, and beatings — including, in one high-profile case, the rape of a 12-year-old girl. The jurisdictional dilemma, whereby local Japanese law clashes with U.S. law and imperial dominance, has led to protest and ever-growing resentment at the U.S. presence. The only solution, it would seem, would be to get the heck out of there and finally leave Japan to defend itself, six decades after the end of World War II.
The militarization of space
Johnson goes further than indicting the empire as it is. He warns of its future plans toward the militarization of space. In one of the best treatments of the subject I have seen, he shows the folly of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI — dubbed “Star Wars”), that Reaganite fantasy to which even many libertarians cling, as enormously expensive science fiction at best and a threat to global peace at worst. He warns about the danger of cluttering up the Earth’s orbit with “space junk” resulting when satellites and space weapons collide and spread their debris beyond the outer edges of the atmosphere. That would interfere with the functioning of commercial satellites. Missile-defense systems have other problems, such as identifying fake missiles or being unable to respond within the crucial minutes of an aggressive launch.
Originally planned as a defense against Soviet Russia, the currently envisioned system is more geared toward stopping stray weapons from rogue states and would be no match for post–Soviet Russia’s Topol-M, which was developed rapidly in response to the death of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Among the weapon’s
features are high-speed solid-fuel rockets that rapidly lift the missile into the atmosphere and make boost-phase interception inconceivable unless a defense system were located practically next door to the launcher; hardening and reflecting coatings to protect it against laser weapons; up to three independently targetable warheads and four sophisticated decoys; an ability to maneuver to avoid midcourse or terminal-phase missile attacks; and a range of over 6,250 miles. There is no known defense against such a weapon, Diplomacy and deterrence are the only means to ensure that it will never be used, and the Bush administration has repeatedly rejected diplomacy as a useful tool of American foreign policy.
Because of the institutional inertia of the military-industrial complex, U.S. plans to weaponize space continue to cost taxpayers billions. Congress doesn’t seem interested in the impossible logistics of these programs, leading Johnson to wonder whether they are “only interested in plausible public relations cover for using the defense budget to funnel huge amounts of money to the military-industrial aerospace corporations.” Unfortunately, such corruption is more than economically costly; it inspires America’s potential rivals to build such demonic weapons as the Topol-M in the first place. As Johnson points out, however, to the extent such systems have any practical chance of “working,” they will be much more offensive than defensive in practice.
Chalmers Johnson displays a brilliant capacity to look at the actual workings of U.S. foreign policy and the military-industrial complex, the ways political rhetoric retreats from reality, and the government’s frequent tendency to elevate itself above or completely beyond the law. In his conclusion, he discusses the ominous implications of the secret and illegal NSA spying program as well as the horrors of “extraordinary renditioning.” He sees the dangers of disregarding America’s checks and balances and separation of powers to so great an extent.
On the other hand, like many on the Left, he betrays a typical misunderstanding of economics. He sees the irony of the pretended loyalty of the Right to free markets when he critiques the ways U.S. imperialism protects corporate interests: “If Mexican corn farmers are driven out of business by heavily subsidized American growers and then the price of corn makes tortillas unaffordable, that is just the global free market at work,” he quips. “But if poor and unemployed Mexicans then try to enter the United States to support their families, that is to be resisted by armed force.”
Of course, libertarians will sympathize with his frustration with right-wing corporatist hypocrisy here, but how do we explain the following? He criticizes the “steadfast advocacy of radical free-market capitalism that, when implemented by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, have invariably left Latin American countries more indebted and poverty stricken than they were before.”
Radical free-market capitalism? Surely, he should know that the IMF, the World Bank, and WTO are not radically free-market, even if, by some Marxoid definition, they are capitalistic in that they prop up capital artificially. Johnson should know better, seeing that, for one thing, the IMF and World Bank, for all their free-market rhetoric, originated as Keynesian institutions in the 1940s with Keynes’s direct involvement, and on pages 270–73 Johnson describes the legacy of Keynsianism as a statist approach to economic central administration.
Johnson’s understanding of Keynesianism’s resurrection as a right-wing military doctrine under Reagan is even fairly sound, as far as it goes, though he does fall for the common fallacy that the United States spent itself out of Depression in World War II and that Keynesianism has somehow kept us afloat ever since. He should perhaps read more work by Robert Higgs, whom he cites favorably in his final chapter, and whose highly relevant book, Depression, War, and Cold War, I reviewed in this publication last December and this past January.
Why would someone such as Johnson, so obviously attuned to the crushing violence of the state, fall for a designation of the World Trade Organization as radically free-market? Unfortunately, part of the reason is a failure on the part of libertarians to distance themselves and the ideology of free markets from the rhetoric of right-wing and statist organizations such as the WTO and IMF. For too long, free-market advocates have often hurt their own cause by favorably referring to the World Bank, for example, as a capitalist institution, often in reaction to leftists’ condemnations of it as one. But just as libertarians are more correct on theory, occasionally the Left is more correct in its observations. The U.S. empire and such international organizations are not, contra the conservative propaganda and Leftist misunderstanding, institutions of liberty or free markets; instead they are imperial and statist and do in fact through government means violently impose policies to protect some economic interests at the expense of others. That is not free-market capitalism, but neo-mercantilism, and we libertarians must oppose it.
The more astute Left has at times been far better at criticizing the ins and outs of the U.S. empire than typical libertarians, often because the latter group, in opposition to the Left and socialism, has incorrectly defended the U.S. government as some sort of paragon of freedom and capitalism. The Left is still, however, blind to the power of markets to do good and to the evils of domestic economic intervention. In order to forge ahead with a better critique of, and alliance in opposition to, the total state, we libertarians must be aware of how much we can learn from the Left in such books as Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. In so doing, we should also try to teach the Left about economics in terms they will better understand and with earnest acknowledgment of some of the true economic injustices, perpetrated in the name of “capitalism,” that the Left perpetuates and even worsens.
Even if leftists remain stubborn and devoted to socialism in some form, libertarians should learn from them, where possible. Certainly, given the post–9/11 orientation of the Right, which has long ago abandoned its love of the republic in exchange for imperial ambitions, our attempts to learn from and teach the Left can’t be any more futile than were some of the similar relationships we tried to forge with the Right in the 1990s. If we are to save the dying republic and ever have full liberty, we will need to redouble our efforts to show the Left the connection between limitless government at home and abroad.
At any rate, as unquestionably crucial as domestic leviathan is — and Bush and the Republicans have certainly done nothing but accelerate its growth — the even bigger issue right now is the U.S. empire, which Johnson realistically notes might collapse only under the weight of insoluble debt, and it’s time to take the dangers we face seriously. “History is instructive on this dilemma,” Johnson writes in his conclusion.
If we choose to keep our empire, as the Roman Republic did, we will certainly lose our democracy and grimly await the eventual blowback that imperialism generates. There is an alternative, however. We could, like the British Empire after World War II, keep our democracy by giving up our empire.
The American republic is dying, and there is precious little time to save it. If you doubt the situation is dire, read Nemesis. If you are like me, you will be frustrated but as determined as ever to do what you can to show your fellow Americans what is happening in the hope of reversing course, ending the empire and restoring the American republic.
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