March 3, 2004
Chalmers Johnson, Author of "The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic"
Will the Bush Cartel Preside Over the Implosion of American Democracy and the American Empire?
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
In "The Sorrows of Empire," Chalmers Johnson, acclaimed author of "Blowback," details why a Neo-Con vision of empire, if not halted, will undo civil democracy as we know it.
As Johnson concludes, "Militarism and imperialism threaten democratic government at home just as they menace the independence and sovereignty of other countries. Whether George Bush and his zealots can bring about 'regime change' in a whole range of other countries may be an open question, but they certainly seem in the process of doing so in the United States."
In short, the very "success" (although short-lived) of the radical pre-emptive military imperial mindset of the Bush Cartel depends upon the ultimate diminution of democracy in America. That is why Johnson quotes Hannah Arendt who said: "Although tyranny, because it needs no consent may successfully rule over foreign peoples, it can stay in power only if it destroys first of all the national institutions of its own people."
Johnson has penned a "big picture" book that fleshes out, in 2004, the worst fears that Dwight Eisenhower had about the growing military-industrial complex at the end of his presidency. Is it too late to turn back the clock? Johnson thinks that it may very well be.
"We have a strong civil society," Johnson writes, "that could, in theory, overcome the entrenched interests of the armed forces and the military-industrial complex. At this late date, however, it is difficult to imagine how Congress, much like the Roman senate in the last days of the republic, could be brought back to life and cleansed of its endemic corruption. Failing such a reform, Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and vengeance, the punisher of pride and hubris, waits patiently for her meeting with us."
This is a challenging, brilliant, sobering book.
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BuzzFlash: Recently I traveled to Rome for the first time, and it was surreal to walk amongst the remnants of a faded empire. In your new book, The Sorrows of Empire, you argue that the United States is on a fateful trajectory parallel to Rome or the Soviet Union, where our Republic will inevitably descend into an empire. Would you label the United States an empire today? Have we crossed that line?
Chalmers Johnson: Yes, I think we have. I believe that the 725 military bases that we have all over the world, from Greenland to Latin America, from Australia to Iceland, constitute an empire. The equivalent of what used to be colonies in old empires are now military bases. We have hundreds of thousands of troops, dependents and families, Department of Defense civilians, and contractors, deployed in well over 130 countries.
The Roman Republic, which ended in 27 B.C., was somewhat comparable to ours in that many of the precedents in our government were derived from Rome -- fixed election dates, a balance of power among those branches of the government, term limits of various sorts. You'll remember that Madison and Jay -- and others writing in defense of the Constitution in The Federalist Papers -- always signed them "Publius." Publius Agricola was, of course, the first Roman consul. What happened to the Roman Republic is that it rather inadvertently acquired an empire around the Mediterranean, and then discovered that the inescapable accompaniment of empire is militarism. They then needed a standing army.
And over time the standing army and military of Rome developed interests of its own, grievances against the conservative establishment in Rome, against the Senate, and gave rise to military populism, to figures like Julius Caesar, and ultimately Octavian, who became Augustus Caesar. It seems to me that something comparable is happening to us right now.
Our Senate and House are beginning to look about as bleak as the Roman Senate did when it simply gave up power and established a military dictatorship. To remind you, after the military dictatorship of Augustus Caesar, he was followed by Tiberius, who retreated to an island with a covey of small boys to enjoy himself. He was followed then by Caligula, followed then by Claudius, and finally, of course, by Nero. This is not exactly what you'd call good government. These Roman military dictators were among the most repressive figures on earth -- something that is well known to Christians who remember the history of the martyrdoms of the time.
I'm not saying that the parallels are exact at all, but they are quite suggestive. The further point is to say the empire -- the military dictatorship that was created by Augustus -- lasted some 300 years before it was overwhelmed by a world of enemies against it. But collapses of empire are coming now much, much faster. The thousand-year Reich of the Nazis lasted 12 years, from 1933 to the sack of Berlin by the Red Army in 1945. The Soviet empire collapsed in two years, between 1989 and 1991. And it does seem to me that Americans should be forewarned that our empire right now -- our empire of military bases -- is certainly generating the militarism that the two most famous generals who were ever presidents warned us of in the strongest possible terms.
In George Washington's farewell address, he pointed out that the rise of a standing army would ultimately unbalance our government in favor of the imperial presidency. And then, of course, most famously, Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address in 1961, in which he used the phrase "military industrial complex."
BuzzFlash: Many Americans, especially the media, said that the world changed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. However, you disagreed with that assessment and wrote, "It would be more accurate to say that the attacks produced a dangerous change in the thinking of our leaders, who began to see our republic as a genuine empire, no longer bound by international law, the concerns of allies, or any constraints on the use of military force." Do you believe that 9/11 was the galvanizing event that tipped the United States into an empire?
Chalmers Johnson: I think it was the event that allowed people within our government -- we may call them neo-conservatives, or war lovers, or chicken hawks -- to pursue a unilateralist military agenda. They've been there since the Reagan and first Bush administrations. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, I believe they made a disastrous error in concluding and proclaiming that we had won the Cold War.
Paul Wolfowitz, just before he left the government in 1992, began to proclaim that we were a new Roman empire that was a colossus, and no one could possibly match us, and that our policy should be the military dominance of the world. Most of these neo-conservatives -- now senior officials in the Pentagon at the present time -- said repeatedly that they did not believe that they had the public behind them in implementing the policies that they had in mind, unless some catalytic event comparable to Pearl Harbor occurred. It then seems to be perfectly obviously that that catalytic event was Sept. 11, 2001. Condoleezza Rice called a meeting of the National Security Council almost at once, to ask the question: How could we use this event to change the direction of American foreign policy?
BuzzFlash: What would you predict as the consequences if the United States was ever faced with another terrorist attack, or weapons of mass destruction attack, or if such a tragedy happened elsewhere in the world? Do you think that our limited and fragile democracy would survive? In November, General Tommy Franks said that he didn't think our Constitution would survive if there were a WMD or nuclear attack, and a military government would be set up.
Chalmers Johnson: I'm very taken with the brilliant speeches being given to an empty Senate chamber by Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Byrd is sort of our version of Cicero warning about the enormous dangers to the Constitution. James Madison, easily the most important author of the Constitution, wrote in The Federalist Papers that the single most important article in the Constitution was that the right to go to war had to be in the hands of the elected representatives of the people. It should never be given to a single man under any circumstances. The responsibility was too great. Well, in October of 2002, our Congress voted to give that power to a single man, on his own personal initiative, including the use of nuclear weapons if he chose. And the following year, he exercised that authority without any form of international or, for that matter, domestic sanction, and went to war in Iraq.
It is difficult to argue that the structure of government outlined in the Constitution of 1787 is still intact in Washington, D.C. Whether it would survive a further attack? I'm not Cassandra. She was one of the greatest predictors of the future who ever came along. You should indeed beware of Greeks bearing gifts. But the analysis that I find and present in The Sorrow of Empire does suggest that we have already crossed the Rubicon. It will take more than just the change of an election of any sort to begin to reverse the concentration of powers in the Pentagon, in the military industrial complex, in the secret intelligence agencies. If for no other reason, Congress -- even if it were honest and interested -- could not possibly do oversight on the Pentagon, since 40 percent of its budget is secret, and the budgets of the intelligence agencies are entirely secret.
BuzzFlash: Based on your knowledge and research of history, what would you say causes most empires to fall? What specifically will doom the American Empire, if we continue at the rate we're going?
Chalmers Johnson: If we just examine the case of the Soviet Union and what brought it down in 1991, we now know that the United States had nothing to do with it. It had nothing to do with Star Wars or things like that. It had three main reasons. One was extreme ideological rigidity in its domestic and economic institutions. Second, the Soviet Union suffered from imperial over-stretch -- it was simply stretched too far for a fairly small economy, compared to that of the United States. Third, the failure to adopt reforms. Mikael Gorbachev certainly attempted to reform the Soviet Union. He acquiesced in the breaching of the Berlin Wall, in order to improve relations with France and Germany. But he was stopped cold by vested interests in the old Cold War system.
It seems to me that in America today we see signs of domestic rigidity in our economic institutions, in cases like Enron and corruption in Wall Street, and the mutual funds' scandal, and the looting of pension funds. Imperial over-stretch is precisely what I'm out to try and demonstrate in discussing the military bases throughout the world. And as for the vested corporate and military interests in our society, could they stop a reform for a genuine peace dividend? To ask the question is to answer it. Right now, well-connected capitalists are making enormous profits off of support for our military operations around the world that are extremely lucrative.
I conclude the book by basically saying there are four styles of empire that are likely to occur. One is perpetual warfare, just as in the case of the Roman Empire. Secondly, the end of the republic; that is, the breaching of our structure of divided government that was created two centuries ago. Third, lying and disinformation from the government in speaking to the public, which are precisely the biggest issues in the country right now over the justification for war with Iraq, and Colin Powell's deceitful speech to the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5 of last year. And fourth, and perhaps most obviously, bankruptcy and economic collapse. We are now going into huge debt. We have conservatives in America declaring the President to be the most fiscally irresponsible President we've ever had. As Herb Stein once said when he was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, "Things that can't go on forever, don't." We lavishly spend $400 billion on defense budgets, not including Iraq, Afghanistan operations and occupation.
BuzzFlash: The foundation of the American empire goes beyond a typical liberal-conservative analysis. Even Democrats running for office state their support for maintaining current defense spending levels. A lot of them will even say they support increasing the military budget. And this, of course, is largely based on politics and perception, because right now, nuclear submarines, aircraft battle groups, and space-based weapons don't protect us from terrorism or weapons of mass destruction. It's a paradox, this political game that Americans play. We funnel hundreds of billion dollars into military projects that won't protect us, but are, in fact, bankrupting the country, and will probably be a reason for our downfall. How would you explain this twisted logic?
Chalmers Johnson: I agree with you. I would also say one other major constraint on the empire is we're running out of soldiers. The service in the Armed Forces today is a career choice. It is not an obligation of citizenship and has not been since 1973. Many people are serving in the Armed Forces as a route of social mobility out of some dead end in our society. That's one of the reasons why African-Americans are twice as well represented in the Army as they are in the population. Fifty percent of the women in the Armed Forces are national minorities. These people did not intend to be shot at when joining the Armed Forces.
PFC Jessica Lynch, when asked why did she join the Army, said that she couldn't even get a job at Wal-Mart in West Virginia, and that she joined the Army as a way of trying to improve herself economically. All of these constraints are piling up rapidly and suggest to me that the crumbling of the American empire could happen as suddenly and as swiftly as it did with a catalytic event in November of 1989 -- the Germans' breaching of the Berlin Wall. That event brought down the whole Soviet empire and ultimately led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
I entirely agree that one of the most appalling things about our political situation is that the Democratic contenders have yet to offer us any kind of an alternative plan and alternative conception on what the country does need in the way of national defense. We need someone to state unequivocally that the Department of Defense today is not about defense. It is an alternative source of government on the south bank of the Potomac and is expanding its power and influence daily, though it palpably was unable to defend us on Sept. 11.
Secretary Rumsfeld, in his long, hard slog memo of October, said that we lack a method, he calls it -- a measure of our progress in the war on terrorism. I think he's just wrong. Between 1993 and 2001, including the attacks of Sept. 11, Al Qaeda managed to execute about five major bombing incidents worldwide over a period of eight years. In the two years since then, down to and including the suicide attack on Istanbul on the British Consulate and the HSBC Bank, they've carried out 17.
We know with precision from numerous historical examples that the use of a high-tech armed force like ours in trying to combat terrorism is the wrong strategy. In fact, military over-reaction is one of the things the terrorists anticipate in resorting to terrorism, in the belief that that then will generate more activists and increase the movement, which so far you'd have to say Al Qaeda has succeeded beyond its wildest imagination.
BuzzFlash: Most people don't remember this, but on Sept. 10 of 2001, Donald Rumsfeld stated that he was declaring war on wasteful spending at the Pentagon. It came out that there were $2.3 trillion dollars worth of spending from the Pentagon but no receipts to account for the money and how it was spent.
Chalmers Johnson: Yes, and it was more than the Bush tax cuts.
BuzzFlash: There has been an almost spontaneous anti-war movement and anti-globalization movement that is fundamentally calling for the U.S. to cease acting as an empire. Can you foresee a massive peaceful, domestic and international movement that is capable of systemically transforming the American empire before it collapses? Is that even possible or am I being overly optimistic?
Chalmers Johnson: It's important you raise the question. One of the sources of optimism in the world is precisely that a year ago, in February of 2003, some 10 million people in every major democracy on earth came together to protest the oncoming war in Iraq -- 400,000 people in New York City, the largest demonstration in British history brought 2 million to protest in London, a million people in Berlin, Madrid and in Rome.
These people are still around. This is a movement that started with the amazing demonstrations against the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Seattle in November of 1999. And despite a very bad press establishment in America, these protestors demonstrated to the world that among the most anti-democratic institutions on earth are three economic international organizations that are dominated by the U.S. Treasury. That movement is still there. I believe that the emergence of a global anti-war, anti-Bush movement is as significant as the potential rise of another superpower attempting to confront and balance the power of the United States.
At the same time, one is reminded when Adlai Stevenson was running for President, some questioner said to him, "You have the support of all the intellectuals in the country." And Stevenson replied, "That's nice, but what I need is a majority." And we will find out whether this mass movement, this democratic uprising from civil society against this trend of events, and the warfare state, whether it is powerful enough to thwart the plans of the people who dominate the Pentagon today.
BuzzFlash: Mr. Johnson, you stated earlier that there are over 725 American military bases outside of the United States. On the occupied island of Okinawa, Japan, there are at least 38 separate bases that, as you describe it, occupy the choicest 20 percent of the island. How did your time spent in Okinawa have an impact on how you viewed this concept of the United States as an empire?
Chalmers Johnson: One of the events that led me to write a previous book published in 2000 called Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire was my first visit to Okinawa, even though I'd spent my adult life studying Japan as a professor, and writing about it. Okinawa is the equivalent of Puerto Rico, the southernmost island in the Japanese chain. It was annexed into the Japanese empire in the late 19th Century, just as was Puerto Rico to ours. It's been used as a dumping ground by the Japanese to maintain the Japanese-American security treaty. They want to put the Americans down there so that they don't have contact with mainland Japanese, who would use their political power to get rid of them. They don't like having foreign troops based there, for now well over 50 years.
I was there in 1996, invited by the Governor of Okinawa, because of the fierce reaction that occurred to the event of Sept. 4, 1995, when two Marines and a sailor from Camp Henson in central Okinawa abducted, beat and raped a 12-year-old girl. It led to the biggest demonstrations against the United States since the security treaty had been signed. I began to study these incidents. I discovered that this was not an exceptional incident at all; the rate of sexually violent crimes committed by our troops in Okinawa leading to court martial averages about two per month, and has for half a century. The people of Okinawa are boiling like a volcano over the cost to them of living cheek-by-jowl with 38 American military bases, environmental pollution, prostitution and a whole range of problems.
My first reaction was that I was appalled by Okinawa. My reaction was that it must be exceptional -- that it's just simply off the beaten track. But as I began to study other bases around the world, I had to conclude, unfortunately, that it's not that Okinawa was exceptional or unique. It was far too typical of the conditions that exist around our military bases.
BuzzFlash: Mr. Johnson, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Chalmers Johnson: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
otherwise noted, all original