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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.