Will the Empire End?
by Anthony Gregory: From
Waco to Libya: 18 Years of Humanitarian Mass Murder
the Empire: Americas Last Best Hope
by Chalmers Johnson (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010); 212 pages.
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
One of the
greatest critics of U.S. empire in our time was Chalmers Johnson
(d. November 20, 2010), whose entire Blowback trilogy
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.
latest book is Dismantling the Empire: Americas 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.
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 Carters National Security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski,
from the late 1990s:
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 Pakistans development of
nuclear weapons in return for assisting the anti-Soviet insurgency.
In a review
Wilsons War, a somewhat humorous book and movie about
this episode of CIA meddling in Afghanistan, Johnson intones,
Wilsons 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 CIAs typical overestimates
werent grandiose enough); and the internal conflict between
the agencys 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 Wilsons first secretary of state, described the
United States as the supreme moral factor in the worlds
progress and the accepted arbiter of the worlds 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.
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:
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.
bases, imperial arrogance
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 Okinawas 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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
a Boston University archeologist, called it the greatest cultural
disaster of the last five hundred years. Rumsfeld, however,
simply remarked, Freedoms untidy.... Free people are
free to make mistakes and commit crimes.
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 citys 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.
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 whats also welcome is Johnsons pinning the
military-industrial complexs origins right where they belong:
In the late
1930s and early 1940s, Roosevelts 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 Higgss
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.
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.
other examples of Johnsons economic leftism that come through,
perhaps more so than in his other recent books. He puts great emphasis
on the importance of reversing Bushs 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.
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.
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.
Johnsons treatment of the military-industrial complex is a
very strong one. It is decisively nonpartisan, as he makes clear
that Americas excessive military expenditures did not
occur over just a few short years or simply because of the Bush
administrations policies. In taking on corporatist privatization,
he blames Bill Clinton for the biggest private expansion into
intelligence and other areas of government.
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 cant help but cheer when
Johnson describes U.S. military spending as not only morally
obscene [but] fiscally unsustainable.
of such unsustainable obscenity is highlighted in Johnsons
discussion of the Air Forces 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.
will end but how?
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 worlds 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.
from The Future of Freedom Foundation.
Gregory [send him mail]
is a research analyst at the Independent
lives in Oakland, California. See his
webpage for more articles and personal information.
© 2011 Future of Freedom Foundation
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