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The Diagnosis of a Dying Republic, Part 1

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Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic
by Chalmers Johnson (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), 368 pages; $26.

About 10 years ago, we libertarians were accustomed to hearing constitutionalist conservatives voicing our shared concern about the American Republic’s dissolution into a social democracy. The Constitution, the more engaging and informed conservatives would say, had been enervated by a string of unconstitutional federal programs, especially concerning social welfare, which “liberal” politicians had superimposed onto the economy. Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security, Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare, Jimmy Carter’s Department of Education, and Bill Clinton’s loyalty to a steadily growing domestic leviathan were seen as the grand threat to America’s constitutional order. None of these programs so beloved on the center-left was authorized by Article 1, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution, as the more daring and radical right-wing critics of Clinton would correctly say. Surely, if America were to preserve any semblance of republican governance, the long-neglected limits on federal power crafted by the Framers would have to be dusted off and brought back into force. Along with such restored limits, we could expect more economic prosperity and even a renewed morality in civil life. Above all, we could renew the promise of America as a free country.

What most conservatives and all too many libertarians failed to consider in all this condemnation of the welfare state could be summed up in a three-letter word: war. The warfare state has always been the greatest single threat to American constitutional liberty. James Madison understood this when he proclaimed that war “comprises and develops the germ of every other” threat to freedom. Conscription, standing armies, consolidated power in the executive branch, crushing taxes, and mass death and injury accompany an expansive warfare state, and, along with all such germs of tyranny, we could expect a steady decline in the freedom of the individual and a perpetual growth of the central state. Perpetual war, Madison said, would mean the death of American liberty. Unfortunately, the U.S. empire has been at war nearly steadily for more than a century.

As for economic prosperity, empire is never a good deal for most people. At best, it enriches the few at the expense of the many. Regarding public morality, nothing inspires hatred, bigotry, and civil unrest like a war. Consider the lynchings of German-Americans during World War I or the murderous draft riots during the Civil War (which Abraham Lincoln squashed with his own acts of mass violence against civilians) and you see the effect on civil society a war can bring about. As it turns out, Clinton’s lies about sexual relations might have been a bad example for America’s youth, as conservatives argued, but, in terms of fostering a public sense of morality, they simply do not compare with the current president’s lies about, and support for, a war of aggression and a program of torture.

From republic to empire

No, the wartime despotism, the explosion of power in the hands of the executive branch, the subservience of Congress, the public’s apathy toward foreign atrocities or even their own civil liberties — such heinous developments that come along with empire surely impede any efforts to restore the American republic more than any welfare-state programs so reviled by the 1990s Right. Indeed, to have an empire and republic at the same time is a contradiction, and it is quite the irony that this basic truth seems altogether lost on most conservatives, who claim to understand the limits of human nature, the corruptibility of government power, the failures of bureaucracy, and the lessons learned from an all-to-recent history riddled with the bones and skulls of totalitarianism’s victims.

It seems that, as it concerns the unsurpassed dangers to liberty presented by the U.S. empire, we can these days often get a more realistic, prudent, and historically mindful treatment from the intellectuals on the Left than we can from those on the Right. When it comes to actually being republicans and not utopian imperialists, prudential guardians of America’s most cherished traditions rather than revolutionaries who wish to overturn many of the Anglo-Saxon legal traditions that have been around for centuries, today’s conservatives and Republicans fail where thinkers to the Left of center often succeed quite well.

Chalmers Johnson is such a patriotic republican thinker. His latest book, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, the third installment of his somewhat unintended Blowback trilogy, is a crucial contribution to the growing literature on the decline of the United States from shining commercial republic to the military hyperpower it is now. Johnson’s diagnosis is not good. He says the American republic is not just in trouble, but in crisis. It would be fair to say he thinks it is dying. And it is imperialism that’s killing it.

Johnson’s book is, in particular, needed reading for libertarians who do not see the full immediacy and importance of the issues of war and peace and the U.S. empire in general. From a libertarian standpoint, well more than 95 percent of Johnson’s views are agreeable or at least worth considering. There are some unfortunate economic misunderstandings in the book, as we might expect, and, although sparse and few, they are somewhat significant, so they are worth discussion and thought. First off, however, we should reflect on some of the hard truths Johnson’s readers must face as they work their way through Nemesis.

The imperial corruption of America

In the first chapter especially, but also throughout the book, we see example after example of how the modern empire has overturned America’s republican principles and corrupted our supposed values as a free nation. Indicative of this disturbing trend is the common acceptance of the new euphemism “collateral damage,” as a way of brushing off the many civilians slaughtered in U.S. warfare. Johnson defines the term as the United States’s “killing of civilians and destruction of private property while allegedly pursuing one or another of its unilaterally declared acts of ‘liberation.’” This doctrine, however, “is nowhere recognized, or even mentioned, in humanitarian international law.”

In a chilling section on the bombing of Iraq in the first Gulf War and the post–Gulf War sanctions imposed on Iraq throughout the 1990s, Johnson shows the heights of moral perversity to which the doctrine of “collateral damage” can lead. He writes,

[The] United States dropped some ninety thousand tons of bombs on Iraq in the space of forty-three days, intentionally destroying the civilian infrastructure, including eighteen of twenty electricity-generating plants and the water-pumping and sanitation systems.

In conjunction with wrecking Iraq’s water infrastructure, “documents state that the sanctions imposed after the war explicitly embargoed the importation of chlorine in order to prevent the purification of drinking water.” Pretty much all authoritative estimates indicate these trade sanctions, which are very likely the most comprehensive and brutal in all of human history, led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, mostly children and other weak members of society. “Collateral damage,” some might call it. Madeline Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the UN, said the attempt to overthrow Saddam made this brutality “worth it.” But American tolerance of such atrocity is understandably seen in the Arab world as cold and uncaring. Indeed, an Iraqi mother who lost her baby to such calculated American violence could understandably use a different word to describe U.S. policy toward Iraqi civilians — terrorism.

Aside from “collateral damage,” the U.S. government has other euphemisms to describe its horrific acts overseas. It avoids referring to its treatment of so-called enemy combatants as “torture.” As Johnson narrates,

When, on May 6, 2004, the press questioned Rumsfeld about the responsibility for widespread military torture in Afghanistan and Iraq, he replied, “My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture…. Therefore I’m not going to address the torture word.”

As others have done, Johnson shows how the incidents of torture revealed in the Abu Ghraib photos leaked to the public in 2004 were not anomalous crimes conducted by a “few bad apples” but rather examples of the very wartime policy of the U.S. government, originating in Justice Department and Pentagon memos and ultimately with the presidency itself. More disturbing, perhaps, is the general apathy or even acceptance we see from most Americans when it comes to a policy of torture, which would seem self-evidently unbecoming of the country the United States claims to be.

One other example of the corruption of America that Johnson focuses on is the general American attitude toward the wholesale destruction and looting of the ancient archeological treasures in Iraq following the U.S. invasion.

At a conference on art crimes held in London a year after the disaster, the British Museum’s John Curtis reported that at least half of the 40 most important stolen objects had not been retrieved and that, of some 15,000 items looted from the museum’s showcases and storerooms, about 8,000 had yet to be traced. Its entire collection of 5,800 cylinder seals and clay tablets, many containing cuneiform writing and other inscriptions, some of which go back to the earliest discovery of writing itself, was stolen.

As U.S. forces invaded, they were much more concerned with protecting the oil fields than such ancient treasures. Perhaps the starkest example of U.S. disregard for Iraq’s — and, given that it is the cradle of civilization, the world’s — cultural heritage can be seen in one very symbolic act:

At the six-thousand-year-old Sumerian city of Ur with its massive ziggurat, or stepped temple tower (built in the period 2112–2095 BC), the marines spray-painted their motto, Semper Fi (semper fidelis, “always faithful”), onto its walls.

Talk about disrespect for the past; but did the Bush conservatives complain about this?

In a wonderful chapter comparing America with Imperial Rome and the British Empire, Johnson shows how a republic, in becoming an empire, can lose its inner soul. Just as the United States sees itself as an international force for civilization, enlightenment, and liberalization — a force for advanced culture pit against the darker, more primitive reactionary enemies of civilization throughout the world — so too did Rome and Britain see themselves.

A brief but fascinating account of Rome’s succession of emperors and the corruption of Britain’s decency as it came to try to “civilize” the heathens in the African and Asian hearts of darkness present some interesting parallels to the American experience: Rome was a republic whose legislative branch became too beholden to the executive, thus leading to dictatorial executive power and a destruction of its foundational political liberties; Britain, in claiming to eradicate barbarism in the darker corners of the globe, adopted the very savagery it claimed to oppose. As for the common argument that Britain and America have spread economic benefits to their conquered satellites, Johnson shows the deep flaws with this outlook, which will probably persist, nevertheless: “Though the idea does not survive close scrutiny,” he writes, “it has proved a powerful ideological justification of imperialism.” Libertarians, ever admiring the Anglo-Saxons’ great contributions to economic liberty, ought to keep this in mind, for the imperial legacy of America and Britain is not so admirable.

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    Anthony Gregory is research fellow at the Independent Institute, a policy adviser to the Future of Freedom Foundation, author of The Power of Habeas Corpus in America (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and a history graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.