Americans have long believed that the very notion of empire is an offense against our democratic heritage, yet in recent months, these two words — American empire — have been on everyone’s lips. At this moment of unprecedented economic and military strength, the leaders of the United States have embraced imperial ambitions openly. How did we get to this point? And what lies down the road?
By Jim Ash in the Asis Times
The United States is a country convinced of its own greatness. And while many would argue this claim, one thing that truly does make America great is its tradition of free expression, and its corresponding capacity for critical self-examination. Although other countries also have legal protections on free speech, none of them have the same anything-goes ethos of pushing the boundaries artistically, and speaking truth to power politically. Even though artists and thinkers who challenge the dominant corporate-state worldview are increasingly sidelined out of mainstream American culture, they continue to keep this tradition alive, and it is difficult to imagine them ever being silenced.
But one of these challenging voices was lost in November, when Chalmers Johnson died at the age of 79. Johnson was a former University of California historian most famous for a trilogy of books on American militarism and imperialism: Blowback: the Costs and Consequences of American Empire (2000); Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (2004); and Nemesis: the Last Days of the American Republic (2007). In his latest and last book, a collection of essays called Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope, Johnson encapsulates many of the main themes of his earlier trilogy in a short and very readable format.
The author argues that the United States has been running an empire that spans the globe since soon after the end of World War II, and that the clock is running out on this “American century”. Being in the empire business has destroyed American democracy, Johnson maintains, and is in the process of bankrupting the nation. There is also the fact that the US hegemon is constantly creating enemies anew around the world through “blowback”, which Johnson defines in an essay in Dismantling the Empire called “Empire v Democracy”:
I had set out to explain how exactly our government came to be so hated around the world. As a CIA term of tradecraft, “blowback” does not just mean retaliation for things our government has done to, and in, foreign countries. It refers specifically to retaliation for illegal operations carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public. [italics in original] These operations have included the clandestine overthrow of governments various administrations did not like, the training of foreign militaries in the techniques of state terrorism, the rigging of elections in foreign countries… as well as the torture or assassination of selected foreigners.
For Johnson, the most pernicious feature of blowback is not the damage that these retaliatory actions do to the US or its allies; it is the way in which the public is too ignorant to put them into context. The September 11, 2001 attack was the classic example of this, with most Americans incapable of seeing that US policy – both overt and covert – had filled the pond of hatred which then spawned al-Qaeda. Even worse, opportunistic American policymakers were then able to fool and frighten the electorate into backing what had until then been only neo-con fantasies: the “Bush Doctrine” of pre-emptive warfare; an endlessly expensive Pentagon drive for “full-spectrum dominance”; and an attempt to remake the Middle East as a Western-style democracy.
These post-9/11 responses have only exacerbated other side effects of imperialism that Johnson identifies: the massive constellation of US bases overseas, which create resentment and potential for blowback around the globe; and the hijacking of the American economy by runaway military spending, which Johnson calls “military Keynesianism”.
On the base front, Johnson points out that the Pentagon has more than 700 in 130 foreign countries. Some of these bases are the size of small cities, with their own internal bus systems taking off-duty soldiers to transplanted Burger King and Starbucks franchises. According to Johnson, most of the locals in the lands that host these bases take a dim view of having a little America grafted onto their country. In particular, they resent the Status of Forces Agreements that the US military forces the host countries to sign.
These agreements generally exempt American servicemen from the laws of the country they are based in. Thus, when an American soldier rapes a local woman – something that happens an average of twice per month in Japan, according to Johnson – the local police can’t touch him. In theory, the American offender will face harsh justice for the crime from the American military, but Johnson argues that in practice, US soldiers often get only a slap on the wrist for committing heinous crimes overseas.
In “Peddling Democracy”, Johnson examines the dismal US record of promoting democracy in South Korea, another country that hosts large numbers of US soldiers. In the author’s view, South Korea has become one of the most truly democratic countries in Asia despite US efforts, not because of them. He explains how Washington has backed anti-democratic strongmen in Seoul since the Southern state’s founding. In one particularly shameful episode in 1980, the American ambassador encouraged South Korean dictator Major General Chun Doo-hwan to crush a student pro-democracy movement, and South Korean troops under US command were then released to Chun so he could do so. The resulting massacre at Kwangju killed thousands of demonstrators.
Mainstream Western media largely ignored the incident, Johnson says, a task that was made easier by the fact that Washington did everything in its power to stymie a 1989 investigation of the violence by the Korean National Assembly. He contrasts this Western media indifference to the brutality of a US client state with its lavish – and damning – coverage of Beijing’s 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen demonstrators. How, Johnson asks, can Americans have an honest debate about US imperialism when they aren’t even aware of it, or understand its consequences if it comes back to haunt them in the form of blowback?
All of this base-building and throwing of American weight around abroad has its cost, which is another of Johnson’s key points in Dismantling the Empire: that the empire business is beggaring the United States, and may lead to the country’s demise. The huge deficits and astronomical debt load that the US economy is carrying are not supportable, Johnson argues, and things that can’t go on forever won’t. Borrowing money to finance its empire is a suicide option for America, the author argues, and the country must either change course or go the way of the Roman Empire, which collapsed under a similar mixture of hubris and unaffordable military adventures.
You might think that with a subtitle like America’s Last Best Hope, Johnson’s book would offer some optimism about America’s future, but in reality his prognosis is grim. In the book’s final essay, “Dismantling the Empire”, he does offer some concrete solutions, such as getting out of Afghanistan and bringing the troops home from garrisons around the world, and taking steps to check the Pentagon’s enormous influence on the US economy and political system. But it seems that at the end of his life, Johnson had little hope that any of this would actually happen. As he writes in “Empire v. Democracy”:
Whatever future developments may prove to be, my best guess is that the United States will continue to maintain a facade of constitutional government and drift along until financial bankruptcy overtakes it. Of course, bankruptcy will not mean the literal end of the United States any more than it did for Germany in 1923, China in 1948, or Argentina in 2001-2002. It might, in fact, open the way for an unexpected restoration of the American system – or for military rule, revolution, or simply some new development we cannot yet imagine.
Many critics of the US have been predicting for years that its empire would lead to financial collapse, but the hegemon is still standing for now. Perhaps Johnson was wrong and imperial America can keep operating indefinitely. US policymakers had better hope so. They continue to double down on the empire option, as if the possibility it’s a losing hand doesn’t even exist. The ruins of all the empires past point to the folly of such arrogance.
Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope by Chalmers Johnson. Metropolitan Books (August 17, 2010). ISBN-10: 0805093036. Price US$25, 224 pages.
Jim Ash is a Canadian writer and editor.