by Chalmers Johnson
American leaders and intellectuals are truly distressed over our
role in the world and the loathing our policies have elicited in
virtually every country on Earth. These four books provide important
confirmation that they have good reason to be.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a West Point graduate, Army officer for 23
years, Vietnam veteran, self-described "Catholic conservative"
and today a professor at Boston University. Until the election of
2000 he wrote for such neo-conservative journals as Commentary and
the Weekly Standard. Today, he observes in The
New American Militarism, "My disenchantment with what
passes for mainstream conservatism, embodied in the present Bush
administration and its groupies, is just about absolute." He
contends that Operation Iraqi Freedom was a "war launched in
a spasm of strategic irrationality" and that the "war
on terrorism" is camouflage for a scheme to steal oil from
the countries that have it.
the past 50 years, Stanley Hoffmann has been a senior professor
of international relations at Harvard, long-time book reviewer for
the Council on Foreign Relations and doyen of establishmentarian
foreign policy intellectuals. In Gulliver
Unbound, he finds that "Bush is more than a little
devious and often vindictive. He doesn't hesitate to lie, either
in domestic or in foreign policy." On Iraq, Hoffmann argues
that it is "an absurd situation: War had been declared in the
name of the world struggle against terrorism, and victory has favored
the installation of terrorism in Iraq."
Rieff (son of the late Susan Sontag, to whom At
the Point of a Gun is dedicated) used to be a "humanitarian
interventionist" who passionately argued that the United States,
as the world's richest and most powerful country, had a moral
responsibility to intervene in Bosnia and Kosovo to protect the
Muslims and the Albanians from Milosevic's brutal ethnic cleansing.
He also deplored the Clinton administration's failure to send
troops to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, observing that "The
genocide of the Tutsis in 1994 claimed more lives more quickly than
any campaign of mass murder in recorded history." Today, he
has changed his mind. He now finds that humanitarian intervention
is only a clever propaganda cover for American imperialism. This
book is his confession of disillusionment.
Soderberg has had a long career as a Democratic Party staffer, assisting
both the Mondale and Dukakis campaigns and working for six years
on the foreign policy staff of Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Under President Clinton, she served for five years as an official
of his National Security Council and for three years as a member
of the U.S. mission to the United Nations. The
Superpower Myth, while not a wholly persuasive defense of
Clinton's foreign policy, is a condemnation of Bush's. "While
Clinton used force to get parties back to diplomacy," she writes,
"President Bush, buying into the superpower myth, primarily
used diplomacy to justify force."
The jewel in this collection is Bacevich's The New American
Militarism. He has a very important story to tell and tells
As a result of defeat in Vietnam, he contends, the American military
profession was thoroughly discredited and even dishonored by such
events as the My Lai massacre and the high command's attempts
to cover it up. In the 15 years following Vietnam, the officer corps
undertook to reform our military. "For American officers,"
Bacevich writes, "the starting point for retrieving professional
legitimacy lay in avoiding altogether future campaigns even remotely
similar to Vietnam. ... American officers responded to failure in
ways reminiscent of German officers during the 1920s and 1930s.
... Even as the agony of Vietnam was playing itself out, the Arab-Israeli
wars of 1967 and 1973 provided American military officers with a
template for how wars were supposed to be fought. ... At its core,
the new U.S. doctrine was a throwback. It was blitzkrieg, invented
decades earlier by the Germans, more recently refurbished by the
Israelis, now dressed up with somewhat longer range, somewhat more
accurate, and somewhat more lethal weapons."
The debut of the new, post-Vietnam military was the first Iraq war
of 1991. It "served as a dramatic announcement that efforts
to reconstitute American power had succeeded – indeed had
surpassed the expectations of the officer corps itself."
But, "In the end, the effort to rebuild American military power
while restricting its use, initiated by [Gen.] Creighton Abrams
and carried to its fruition by [Gen.] Colin Powell, failed. Or,
more accurately, because that effort generated a capacity for global
power projection surpassing anything the world had ever seen, reticence
about how and where to use that power soon went by the board."
Powell tried strenuously to restrict the post-Vietnam use of force
to matters of vital national interest, to wars with concrete and
achievable objectives, in which the United States had strong popular
and Congressional support, where the use of force was a last resort,
where there was a clear "exit strategy" and a determination
to employ overwhelming force. This so-called "Powell Doctrine"
went down to defeat in 1993 when U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright
openly asked Gen. Powell, "What's the point of having this
superb military that you're always talking about if we can't
use it?" The general had no answer.
had taken the officer corps fifteen years, from 1975 to 1990, to
recover from Vietnam," Bacevich writes. "It took another
fifteen years, from 1990 to 2005, to fritter away most of what the
reform project had wrought. By the time of [Gen. Wesley] Clark's
botched Kosovo campaign, cracks in the edifice were clearly becoming
visible. It was left to the administration of George W. Bush to
complete the demolition."
Bacevich concludes that "The war that the officer corps prepared
itself to fight was the war in which the prospects of actually having
to fight were most remote." The use of our armed forces to
intervene in civil wars, ethnic cleansings and nation-building operations
(for example, in Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan and
Iraq) exposed how inappropriate an instrument they actually were
for the foreign policy problems the United States faces. Worse,
"the Abu Ghraib [torture of captives] debacle showed American
soldiers not as liberators but as tormentors, not as professionals
but as sadists getting cheap thrills." In light of the defeat
in Vietnam and its effects, one shudders to think what the fallout
will be from the Iraq disaster.
Bacevich's main argument, only briefly outlined here, is the
most powerful and compelling part of his highly original analysis.
He also has chapters
on the role of neo-conservative thought, Christianity and militarism,
the baneful influence of civilian strategists (such as Albert Wohlstetter,
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's teacher at the
University of Chicago), and what he calls "World War IV,"
the attempt by the United States to dominate the Middle East in
order to guarantee our oil supplies. He concludes with a chapter
on what to do, which is utterly sound if politically impossible.
Every thoughtful American should read this book.
Stanley Hoffmann's short book is a colloquy between himself
and the French historian and former Hoffmann student, Frédéric
Bozo, concerning the 2003 American-French contretemps over Bush's
intention to invade Iraq. Hoffmann endorses the policy of French
president Jacques Chirac and foreign minister Dominique de Villepin,
whereas Bozo questions whether Franco-American relations need have
been so severely ruptured if the French side had been more flexible.
These positions are not surprising. Although born in Vienna in 1928,
Hoffmann lived, was educated and taught in France from 1929 to 1955,
when he joined the Harvard faculty, whereas Bozo was educated in
the United States. The result is a lively, intelligent exchange
that often brings to light hitherto poorly understood aspects of
prewar diplomacy. For example, ever since December 2002, Washington
knew that France was willing to send substantial troops to Iraq
if there was an agreement on a joint military operation. However,
France wanted to pursue the U.N.'s inspections before any resort
to force, whereas the United States wanted to put an end to those
inspections and start military operations at once.
Hoffmann and Bozo usefully conclude by outlining what they think
should be done now in the Middle East and in Iraq. They recommend
reforming "the struggle against terrorism by giving priority
to the fight against Islamic jihadists," "spending far
more energy on a permanent solution to the Palestinian problem,"
"a statement by the coalition of its intention to withdraw
its forces [from Iraq] by a certain date," "a 'normalization'
of the size and nature of the U.S. Embassy" in Baghdad, "elimination
of formal U.S. advisers in [Iraqi] ministries," "granting
the Iraqi government the right to ask for military operations"
plus "a commitment not to launch any [military operations]
unless they are so requested" and "no foreign bases [to]
be established in Iraq."
Unbound" can be read in one sitting and contains a great deal
of wisdom, not least of which is the observation that "Iraq
has become a trap for the Americans and a godsend for the terrorists."
David Rieff's volume is a collection of 13 of his previously
published articles, five from the New York Times Magazine
during 2003 and 2004, with short commentaries on them. He says,
"This book is ... an argument with some of the positions I
have taken in the past."
Unfortunately, his earlier defenses of humanitarian intervention
are not particularly well informed, and his current reappraisals
even less so. For instance, he makes no mention at all of the report
of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty,
entitled "The Responsibility to Protect" (Ottawa, 2001),
which would answer most of his questions about when and how a nation
such as the United States can legitimately violate another nation's
sovereignty in order to defend innocent civilians from imminent
attack. These are precisely the problems posed today by the genocide
being perpetrated by the government of Sudan in Darfur. Rieff is
so disappointed by earlier U.N. interventions in the Balkans and
Africa that he declares, "I am no longer an interventionist."
One wants to say, "So what?" This does not solve any of
the difficult problems posed by genocide and ethnic cleansing, and
Rieff's petulant positions are of little consequence. His book
is a waste of time.
Nancy Soderberg's The Superpower Myth is another matter.
Her work is a long, detailed insider's narrative of Clinton's
foreign policy and an outsider's critique of Bush II's.
Scholars will welcome it, but should use it with caution. Its value
lies in its comprehensive coverage of American foreign policy since
the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the present time; its
weaknesses are its platitudinous premise that Clinton was effective
– "By 2000, the U.S. was accepted by most nations as
working for, and an indispensable leader in, the search for progress"
– and its utter orthodoxy on matters that remain highly controversial.
Give her credit in one respect: She devotes a chapter to the United
States' and other nations' failure to do anything at the
time of the genocide of close to a million Rwandans, and says forthrightly,
"Those of us involved in the events at the time still struggle
with understanding our actions."
Of the range of issues covered by these authors, the most important
is American militarism. It is the handmaiden and unavoidable consequence
of U.S. imperialism, which alienates peoples and nations around
the world. We were warned against it by George Washington in his
farewell address ("Overgrown military establishments are under
any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded
as particularly hostile to Republican liberty," 1796) and by
Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell address ("In the councils
of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted
influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial
complex," 1961). Militarism accelerates the hollowing out of
American democracy, and, as Bacevich puts it, "If history is
any guide, it will end in bankruptcy, moral as well as economic,
and in abject failure."
One need look no further than President Bush's proposed budget
for 2006, in which he cuts civilian expenditures across the board
but raises outlays for the military to a record $419.3 billion –
not including costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, spending
on nuclear weapons or support of our retired and wounded veterans.
This calamitous state of affairs threatens not only our own lives
but is capable of inflicting unimaginable harm on the rest of the
The New American Militarism:
Several decades after Vietnam, in the aftermath
of a century filled to overflowing with evidence pointing to the
limited utility of armed force and the dangers inherent in relying
on military power, the American people
have persuaded themselves that their best prospect for safety
and salvation lies with the sword. Told that despite all of their
past martial exertions, treasure expended, and lives sacrificed,
the world they inhabit is today more dangerous than ever and that
they must redouble those exertions, they dutifully assent. Much
as dumping raw sewage into American lakes and streams was once
deemed unremarkable, so today "global power projection"
a phrase whose sharp edges we have worn down through casual
use, but which implies military activism without apparent limit
has become standard practice, a normal condition,
one to which no plausible alternatives seem to exist. All of this
Americans have come to take for granted: it's who we are and
what we do.
Excerpt from Gulliver Unbound:
wholly good can come out of a war that resulted from a mix of
self-deception and deliberate deception, waged in part of the
world in which alien control has for a long time fostered turmoil
and tragedy. The presence of terrorism is not an invitation
to empire, but an incentive for finding policies
that reduce its appeal, and for pursuing the terrorists in ways
that do not help them multiply. In the case of the Middle East,
an exit from Iraq, combined
with a new effort by the U.S., the U.N., the EU and Russia to
end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian
lands and to create a livable Palestinian state, would mark a
return to reality, to good sense, and to morality.
piece was first published by the San
Diego Union-Tribune, and is reprinted
with permission of the author.
Johnson [send him mail]
is the author of Blowback:
The Costs and Consequences of American Empire and The
Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic.
© 2005 San Diego Union-Tribune