Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope
by Chalmers Johnson (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010); 212 pages.
Most Americans would very likely deny that their government is a global empire, horribly destructive to national security, liberty, and wealth. But whatever we call this U.S. system of ubiquitous military bases, satellite regimes throughout the world, ever-growing “defense” budgets, and an ever-expansive international presence in military hardware and personnel, it is probably even more controversial to say that the whole apparatus cannot be sustained forever and that the pressing question is not whether it will be dismantled but whether its dismantling will happen disastrously and violently or deliberately and peacefully.
One of the greatest critics of U.S. empire in our time was Chalmers Johnson (d. November 20, 2010), whose entire Blowback trilogy — comprising Blowback (2000), The Sorrows of Empire (2004), and Nemesis (2007) — is must-read material for all students of American foreign policy. The first title in the series, published well before 9/11, introduced the public to the concept of foreign retaliation in response to U.S. intervention abroad. The term was coined by the CIA to describe such events as the Iran hostage crisis, a response to the 1953 CIA coup that ousted Mohammad Mosaddegh and put the shah back in power in Iran. The book seemed all the more relevant in the wake of the September 11 attacks, as its ominously prophetic warnings had gone tragically unheeded prior to those attacks. But to this day, most Americans ignore the lessons of blowback to the peril of American liberty and world peace.
Johnson’s latest book is Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope, a collection of his post–9/11 essays taking on the empire, the history of U.S. interventionism, and the military-industrial complex, and pleading with his fellow Americans to recognize that the whole system must come to an end.
The horror and folly of U.S. foreign policy
There is no more striking example of modern interventionist folly than the radical Islamists in Afghanistan who were financed and supported by the U.S. government late in the Cold War, only to turn around and attack Americans on 9/11. And whereas many still defend the earlier interventions as a means to combat the belligerent Soviet Union, Johnson sets the record straight: “It should by now be generally accepted that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979 was deliberately provoked by the United States.” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has written that U.S. aid to the guerillas began “six months before” the Soviet invasion, but Johnson quotes an interview of President Carter’s National Security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, from the late 1990s:
The reality, kept secret until now, [is that] on 3 July 1979 President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And on the same day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained that in my opinion this aid would lead to a Soviet military intervention.
It was in the midst of that mission that the CIA fostered ties to the radical Saudis, who were also financing mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan, as well as to the military dictatorship in Pakistan. Brzezinski even gave “a green light to Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons in return for assisting the anti-Soviet insurgency.”
In a review of Charlie Wilson’s War, a somewhat humorous book and movie about this episode of CIA meddling in Afghanistan, Johnson intones,
Charlie Wilson’s war … turned out to have been just another bloody skirmish in the expansion and consolidation of the American empire — and an imperial presidency. The victors were the military-industrial complex and our massive standing armies. The billion dollars’ worth of weapons Wilson secretly supplied to the guerillas ended up being turned on ourselves.
As for the CIA itself, Johnson critically discusses its 17,000 employees; its nearly $50 billion budget; its lack of accountability, especially since George W. Bush gutted the Intelligence Oversight Board; its tendency to lie about its military operations; its Cold War “Team B” that was designed to overestimate the military capacities of the Soviet Union (since the CIA’s typical overestimates weren’t grandiose enough); and the internal conflict between the agency’s two major camps: “Espionage and intelligence analysis seek to know the world as it is; covert action seeks to change the world, whether it understands it or not.” The CIA has become “the personal, secret, unaccountable army of the president,” which Johnson believes “has outlived any Cold War justification it once might have had and should simply be abolished.”
But it is not just the CIA or recent U.S. foreign policy whose activities have come back to haunt America. Johnson goes all the way back to World War I to expose the calamity of U.S. interventionism:
On the eve of our entry into World War I, William Jennings Bryan, President Woodrow Wilson’s first secretary of state, described the United States as “the supreme moral factor in the world’s progress and the accepted arbiter of the world’s disputes.” If there is one historical generalization that the passage of time has validated, it is that the world could not help being better off if the American president had not believed such nonsense and if the United States had minded its own business in the war between the British and German empires. We might well have avoided Nazism, the Bolshevik Revolution, and another thirty to forty years of the exploitation of India, Indonesia, Indochina, Algeria, Korea, the Philippines, Malaya, and virtually all of Africa by European, American, and Japanese imperialists.
Johnson also criticizes U.S. post–World War II treatment of Japan (Gen. Douglas MacArthur placed “officials from the industrial and militarist classes that ruled wartime Japan back into power”) and intervention in Korea, where the United States supported such anti-Communist strongmen as Syngman Rhee and Park Eunsik. The latter had been a collaborator with the Japanese occupiers of Korea. Although South Korea would eventually become a robust and relatively free democracy, “[these] achievements came from below, from the Korean people themselves, who liberated their country from American-backed military dictatorship.” Johnson has similarly harsh words for all the other U.S. wars for democracy in the postwar era:
The Federation of American Scientists has compiled a list of more than two hundred overseas military operations from the end of World War II until September 11, 2001, in which we were involved and typically struck the first blow…. In no instance did democratic governments come about as a direct result of any of these military activities.
But the United States has helped “install and then supported” dictators in Iran, Indonesia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile, and Congo-Zaire, “not to mention a series of American-backed militarists in Vietnam and Cambodia until we were finally expelled from Indochina.”
Imperial bases, imperial arrogance
America’s empire is not traditionally colonial, writes Johnson, but is constituted of satellite and client states, as was the USSR after World War II. The author takes aim at the U.S. “empire of bases.” As of 2003, there were officially 702 overseas bases. But such governmental figures do not include the garrisons in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, or Uzbekistan. Moreover, neither that number nor the half-million military personnel abroad fully expresses the size of the military presence. “Some of these bases are so gigantic that they require as many as nine internal bus routes.” There is a base in Iraq bigger than the Vatican and one of Okinawa’s 37 bases is larger than Central Park.
In Japan in particular, the locals are dissatisfied with the arrogance of U.S. personnel. The United States has imposed on Japan and other occupied populations conditions and “Status of Forces Agreements” (SOFAs) that exempt the U.S. armed forces from local environmental regulations and even criminal law:
[In] October 1953, the Japanese and American governments had signed a secret “understanding” as part of their SOFA in which Japan agreed to waive its jurisdiction if the crime was not of “national importance to Japan.” The United States argued strenuously for this codicil because it feared that otherwise it would face the likelihood of some 350 servicemen per year being sent to Japanese jails for sex crimes.
Since that time the United States has negotiated similar wording in SOFAs with Canada, Ireland, Italy, and Denmark.
On top of this imperial license to rape, there are many other instances of arrogant and unaccountable criminality. For example, U.S. occupying forces accidentally killed 20 skiers in Italy in 1998.
Other examples: “During the 1960s, the United States leased the island [of Diego Garcia] from Great Britain, which, on behalf of its new tenant, forcibly expelled the entire indigenous population, relocating the islanders some 1,200 miles away in Mauritius and the Seychelles.” Diego Garcia has since been used as a secret CIA prison and a transit point for detainees in the war on terrorism. The United States is building bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, claiming it is all to defend against Iran, but everyone knows Russia is the target.
These bases are not even necessary, says Johnson, to be able to deploy U.S. force practically anywhere: “The Air Force can shuttle troops and equipment or launch bombers from continental American bases using aerial refueling, which has been standard Strategic Air Command doctrine and practice since 1951.” The bases are not about national defense or even national offense, but mostly about flexing imperial muscle.
The arrogance of U.S. imperialism is perhaps most stark in the war in Iraq, and particularly in the nonchalance with which the United States engaged in one of the greatest destructions of cultural artifacts in world history. Johnson condemns
the indifference — even the glee — shown by Rumsfeld and his generals toward the looting on April 11 and 12, 2003, of the National Museum in Baghdad and the burning on April 14, 2003, of the National Library and Archives as well as the Library of Korans at the Ministry of Religious Endowments.
Paul Zimanksy, a Boston University archeologist, called it “the greatest cultural disaster of the last five hundred years.” Rumsfeld, however, simply remarked, “Freedom’s untidy…. Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes.”
Whereas George H.W. Bush had at least respected the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict agreement in his own war with Iraq, his son George W. Bush allowed this unspeakable mass looting to occur on his watch, while designating 2,000 troops to defend the precious oil fields. A million books and ten million documents were stolen, including some of “the earliest discoveries of writing itself.” Iraq had about 10,000 important archeological sites, many ruined as a result of the U.S. war. The United States dug up “more than 9,500 truckloads of dirt in order to build 350,000 square feet of hangars and other facilities for aircraft and Predator unmanned drones. They completely ruined the area, the literal heartland of human civilization, for any further archaeological research or future tourism.” On the 4,000-year-old ziggurat of Ur, Marines spray-painted their motto, “Semper Fi,” and the Air Force put up a Burger King nearby. At Babylon, “observers say that the dust stirred up by U.S. helicopters has sandblasted the fragile brick façade of the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II.” Johnson sums up the cultural destruction:
In AD 1258 the Mongols descended on Baghdad and pillaged its magnificent libraries. A well-known adage states that the Tigris River ran black from the ink of the countless texts the Mongols trashed, while the streets ran red with the blood of the city’s slaughtered inhabitants. The world has never forgotten that medieval act of barbarism, just as it will never forget what the U.S. military unleashed on the defenseless city in 2003 and in subsequent years. There is simply no excuse for what has happened in Baghdad at the hands of the Americans.
Who benefits from the U.S. empire? Johnson offers a powerful critique of the military-industrial complex, one that is especially important for libertarians to consider, but which also demonstrates that Johnson is a left- liberal, and not a free-market capitalist. The author calls the current ideology of imperial corporatism “military Keynesianism,” which he trenchantly defines as “the determination to maintain a permanent war economy and to treat military output as an ordinary economic product, even though it makes no contribution to either production or consumption.”
So far, so good. And what’s also welcome is Johnson’s pinning the military-industrial complex’s origins right where they belong:
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Roosevelt’s use of public-private “partnerships” to build up the munitions industry, and thereby finally overcome the Great Depression, did not go entirely unchallenged. Although he himself was an implacable enemy of fascism, a few people thought that the president nonetheless was coming close to copying some of its key institutions.
It is correct to blame Roosevelt, but libertarians would not call the wartime New Deal a success in ending the Great Depression. (See Robert Higgs’s indispensable Depression, War, and Cold War for more on this.) We might also take issue with the assumption that Roosevelt, who based much of his economic policy on the corporatism of Mussolini, was “an implacable enemy of fascism.”
Johnson also seems to blame business, and not government intervention, for the Great Depression: “In the formative years of the military-industrial complex, the public still deeply distrusted privately owned industrial firms because of the way they had contributed to the Great Depression.”
There are other examples of Johnson’s economic leftism that come through, perhaps more so than in his other recent books. He puts great emphasis on the importance of “reversing Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for the wealthy,” although those tax cuts are drops in the bucket compared with the expenditures on war and federal welfare.
He credits protectionism — “the primary economic policy of the United States from its founding until 1940” — without which “American economic wealth of the sort to which we have become accustomed would have been inconceivable.” He hits the nail on the head in condemning U.S. rhetorical hypocrisy regarding free enterprise but seems nonetheless to believe that the American establishment is devoted to “the idea of an unconstrained market guided by laissez-faire,” when in fact practically no mainstream economists or politicians — left, right or center — espouse a true free-market philosophy.
Johnson blames Wall Street for the financial collapse but says nothing about how the Fed and housing subsidies brought on the bubble. He seems to think that America could afford all its lavish domestic spending, and more, if only it ended the empire — but in fact, Social Security and Medicare are big parts of the financial problem, too.
Nevertheless, Johnson’s treatment of the military-industrial complex is a very strong one. It is decisively nonpartisan, as he makes clear that America’s “excessive military expenditures did not occur over just a few short years or simply because of the Bush administration’s policies.” In taking on corporatist “privatization,” he blames Bill Clinton for “the biggest private expansion into intelligence and other areas of government.”
The discussion of how defense-industry interests control members of Congress is very sharp. The frightening spectacle of the managing of Total Information Awareness — the dystopian surveillance state — by a government-corporate partnership is handled well. One can’t help but cheer when Johnson describes U.S. military spending as “not only morally obscene [but] fiscally unsustainable.”
One example of such unsustainable obscenity is highlighted in Johnson’s discussion of the Air Force’s beloved F-22 fighter jet. It comes across as a nearly half-billion-dollar hunk of flashy junk. Supposedly stealth, “once it turns on its own fire-control radar, which it must do in combat, it becomes fully visible to an enemy. The F-22 is able to maneuver at very high altitudes, but this is of limited value since there are no other airplanes in service anywhere that can engage in combat at such heights.”
And why would the United States even be thought to need such a plane? To meet the threat of F-16s, another American invention. The “argument went this way: We have sold so many F-16s to allies and Third World customers that if we ever had to fight one of them, that country might prevail using our own equipment against us.”
The empire will end — but how?
The United States can no longer “pay for its own elevated living standards or its wasteful, overly large military establishment.” Looking at the full cost of the U.S. empire — Johnson favorably cites Robert Higgs in noting that “figures on defense spending are notoriously unreliable…. Some 30 to 40 percent of the defense budget is ‘black’” — the U.S. “defense” budget is probably larger than the rest of the world’s combined. The spending continues because of a false patriotism and economic ignorance: “It is hard to imagine any sector of the American economy more driven by ideology, delusion, and propaganda than the armed services.” But “the estimated trillion dollars we spend each year on the military and its weaponry is simply unsustainable.”
So it will all end, but how? Will it be peaceful, as with the Soviet Union? Johnson writes that “the people of the British Isles chose democracy over imperialism.” Although we may point out that democracy and imperialism are not as mutually exclusive as left-liberals assume, he makes a good, if somewhat ominous, point. The British decided to scrap their empire after the devastation of World War II, which was perhaps more costly for Britain than it needed to be, since they had tried so hard to maintain their beloved empire. Johnson offers ten steps for liquidating the U.S. empire, with almost all of which libertarians can agree. In any event, if the United States does not end its empire peacefully, purposefully, and soon, then when the end does inevitably come, it will be most terrible.
This article originally appeared in the January 2011 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.