Chalmers Johnson: USA must cut back on military spending and build green infrastructure or face ruin Pt2
Chalmers Johnson: “Something has happened to us comparable to what happened to the former USSR after 1989 … And that led finally to the dissolution of the USSR.”
Chalmers Johnson, Visionary Scholar on Empire and Decline of America Passes Away
The Nation / By John Nichols
Chalmers Johnson died on November 20, 2010.With one word, “blowback,” Chalmers Johnson explained the folly of empire in the modern age.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September11, 2001, true American patriots—as opposed to the jingoists and profiteers whose madness and greed would steer a republic to ruin—needed a new language for a new age. They got it from Johnson. His 2000 book, Blowback,: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (Macmillan), he took an old espionage term—which referred to the violent, unintended consequences of covert (and sometimes not so covert) operations that are suffered even by superpowers such as the United States—became an essential text for those who sought to explain the attacks and to forge sounder and more responsible foreign policies for the future.
Johnson, who has died at age 79, was no liberal idealist. He was the an old Asian hand who had chaired the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of California-Berkeley from 1967 to 1972 and then served as president and co-founder of the Japan Policy Research Institute. In other words, he was a man of the world who knew how the world worked. And what he tried to explain, to political leaders and citizens, was that the old ways of empire building (and maintaining) no longer worked in an age of instant communications, jet travel and doomsday weaponry. “In Blowback, I set out to explain why we are hated around the world,” Johnson explained in Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, another of his series of three books on imperialism and empire, which became best sellers in the period after the 9-11 attacks. “The concept ‘blowback’ does not just mean retaliation for things our government has done to and in foreign countries. It refers to retaliation for the numerous illegal operations we have carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public. This means that when the retaliation comes—as it did so spectacularly on September 11, 2001—the American public is unable to put the events in context. So they tend to support acts intended to lash out against the perpetrators, thereby most commonly preparing the ground for yet another cycle of blowback. In the first book in this trilogy, I tried to provide some of the historical background for understanding the dilemmas we as a nation confront today, although I focused more on Asia—the area of my academic training—than on the Middle East.” Johnson, a frequent contributor to The Nation in his later years, argued in his most impressive book, The Sorrows of Empire, that Americans needed to recognize something that their leaders denied: that the United States, a nation founded in opposition to empire, had become an empire.
“The Sorrows of Empire was written during the American preparations for and launching of the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq,” he explained. “I began to study our continuous military buildup since World War II and the 737 military bases we currently maintain in other people’s countries. This empire of bases is the concrete manifestation of our global hegemony, and many of the blowback-inducing wars we have conducted had as their true purpose the sustaining and expanding of this network. We do not think of these overseas deployments as a form of empire; in fact, most Americans do not give them any thought at all until something truly shocking, such as the treatment of prisoners a Guantanamo Bay, brings them to our attention. But the people living next door to these bases and dealing with the swaggering soldiers who brawl and sometimes rape their women certainly think of them as imperial enclaves, just as the people of ancient Iberia or nineteenth-century India knew that they were victims of foreign colonization.” Johnson, in his last years, became a hero to old-right conservatives and new-left radicals, who recognized the truth of his observations about “the sorrows (of empire that are) already invading our lives, which (are) likely to be our fate for years to come: perpetual war, a collapse of constitutional government, endemic official lying and disinformation, and finally bankruptcy.”
“The United States today is like a cruise ship on the Niagara River upstream of the most spectacular falls in North America,” Johnson warned. “A few people on board have begun to pick up a slight hiss in the background, to observe a faint haze of mist in the air on their glasses, to note that the river current seems to be running slightly faster. But no one yet seems to have realized that it is almost too late to head for shore. Like the Chinese, Ottoman, Hapsburg, imperial German, Nazi, imperial Japanese, British, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Soviet empires in the last century, we are approaching the edge of a huge waterfall and are about to plunge over it.” Johnson knew his history—not just the history of empires that had fallen, but of the American experiment. Many of his truest and most cherished reference points came from the republic’s founding. We shared a passion for a James Madison’s writings on the perils of imperialism in general. In particular, that passion took us to Madison’s great 1795 line from Political Observations: “Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the executive is extended… War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it. In war, the public treasuries are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them…” Chalmers Johnson, a true son of the wisest and best of the founding generation, spoke the language of James Madison, when he argued that a republic could not maintain more than 700 military bases on foreign soil and retain its own freedom. It was a Madisonian impulse that caused Johnson to warn us that: “As militarism, the arrogance of power, and the euphemisms required to justify imperialism inevitably conflict with America’s democratic structure of government and distort its culture and basic values, I fear that we will lose our country.”
It is a similarly Madisonian impulse, or what remains of it, that will cause genuine patriots to read Johnson as they do the founders for generations to come.
Last days of the American Republic?
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR,TRNN: Welcome back to the next segment of our series of interviews with Chalmers Johnson. We’re discussing the military-industrial complex and the current economic crisis. Mr. Johnson joins us from San Diego. Chalmers Johnson is author of the renowned Blowback trilogy and is a former adviser to the Central Intelligence Agency. Thanks for joining us again, Chalmers.
CHALMERS JOHNSON, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: It’s a pleasure to be here.
JAY: So, when we left off, we were talking about the road to bankruptcy, which there’s a lot of talk about right now. But let me give you the counter-argument about this recent military bill that was passed more or less without comment, some 600—what’s the phrase that Wall Street likes to use? North of $600 billion. I love the way “north” and “south,” by putting it like a compass, somehow softens the number. But at any rate, the counter-argument, I guess, would go like this. The economy is so precarious right now that not spending this money, having any kind of debate over this could throw Wall Street and the economy into more of a crisis. There’s already a run on banks, and people are afraid of a 1929 kind of unraveling. The other part of the argument would go that on the geopolitical side the last eight years has created such a strategic setback for US position in the world that you can’t have these kinds of conversations about pulling back, and I think from the leadership of the Democratic Party’s side, they’re even reluctant to talk about just how bad it is for fear of either scaring people or looking like they’re soft on defense by questioning, letting the world know the emperor has no clothes, as if the world can’t see it.
JOHNSON: That’s what the Cold War did for us. Well, it’s precisely that the meltdown of Wall Street means simply that the era of American global leadership, reaching back to the Second World War, is certainly over. Not even in our own backyard are we able to exercise our influence anymore. Hugo Chávez of Venezuela taunts us daily with complete impunity. Something has happened to us comparable to what happened to the former USSR after 1989 and led finally to the dissolution of the USSR.
JAY: You’re saying the Iraq War is something like what the Afghan War was to the Soviet Union?
JOHNSON: Yes, no question.JAY: So explain that.JOHNSON: It was the wrong war in the wrong place, it vastly overused resources, it’s been totally unsuccessful, and it is simply meaningless to sit around and talk about, you know, we have brought democracy to the Middle East or some other piece of poppycock that is as stupid as listening to members of Congress come out and say you have to vote for these defense appropriations out of respect for the troops. That was Senator Warner just this past week in the Senate debates—not paying attention to what was going on, misunderstanding the history of the end of the Cold War, failing to live up to the things that we agreed with with the former USSR at the very end of it all, in terms of not pushing NATO up to the borders of Russia, or things of this sort. The press these days is full of “Is your money safe? Will you be able to take care of it?” and things of that sort, whereas nobody seems to be the least bit interested in what happened to American global leadership, that it was already in very serious trouble thanks to law violations of the current administration and human rights violations at Guantanamo Bay, one thing after another. But now this does it; that is, if the collapse of the Soviet Union totally destroyed once and for all a well-known, political-economy model of how the economy might be run, namely Leninist, centrally directed communism, well, it looks to me like what’s happened this past week has just also discredited the second model—liberal capitalism of the Bill Clinton variety, we might say. That’s now over, and the nations that have maintained some elementary control over their financial markets, had fairly effective supervision of them with a strong governmental guidance within the economy, Japan, for example, will come out of this just fine.JAY: What do you say to people that would say at this point, especially with the economy so fragile, you can’t talk about demilitarization? And I guess the other side of the argument is is now is precisely the time to talk about infrastructure building, green infrastructure building. But even those people, like in the Democratic Party, and even some of the Republican, [inaudible] talk about some green infrastructure, nobody will touch with a ten-foot pole reduced spending on the military side.
JOHNSON: If that’s the case, then it’s a fairly easy equation. The subtitle of my latest book is, The Last Days of the American Republic. There is nothing on earth that says that we go on forever, or that we get over things easily, or that this is just a bump in the road. It is an extremely serious development that has been in the works for some time. I didn’t expect that it was going to happen in this way, but I’m still at the same time not the least bit surprised. The point that has to be made is that they’re linked, that we have the money to put people back to work to start correcting the infrastructure, to start providing health care for all citizens, for doing the things that government is supposed to do. And the money is there; we have to stop wasting it on rockets in outer space on the missile defense that we know scientifically doesn’t work.
JAY: So what essentially you’re saying is that if there’s going to be any real change here, it means taking on the military-industrial complex. There has to be a shift in the economy.
JOHNSON: Absolutely. In fact, the truth of the matter is I’m sure that this is exactly what people in the uniformed armed forces recognize and want to do. I just got sitting here on my desk a pile of papers from a group of very senior Pentagon officers, uniformed military officers, talking about the horrible situation that our military is in right now. We’re spending more money in inflation-adjusted dollars right now than at any time since the end of World War II, and we have fewer fighter planes, we have fewer fighting ships, we have fewer army brigades in the field.
JAY: So why is this? Why are we spending more for less?
JOHNSON: Because we aren’t paying attention to what we’re doing, to what the defense budget is supposed to do. We think it’s been alright to use it as a jobs program. As I say, the mother hens of the defense facilities subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee [sic] are the senators of the states with the two largest numbers of military bases, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Dianne Feinstein of California [actually members of the United States Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense]. These are the mother hens that would do anything in their power to keep the bases open. That’s their function. We have over 700 military bases around the world. They do not contribute one iota to our security. We can get along with 30 of them and still be a new Rome, but we keep building more. We just created a new—of all the things that we don’t need—an Africa command. Africa’s got enough troubles without having a bunch of American military officers in it.
JAY: Well, I guess it has to do with the preparation for vying with China for influence in Africa.
JOHNSON: Well, that is to say, you adjust to China. You’re not going to push them down or defeat them. I mean, just as China goes for its first space walk this week, we instead get pictures of the secretary of the Treasury on his knees, begging for cooperation from the Congress.
JAY: Well, it’s easy to call Wall Street greedy and throw stones at Wall Street now that that bubble has burst. But I think it’s very interesting, if you go visit around Pentagon City, several streets are called Patriot Street and Patriot Shopping Mall.
JOHNSON: That’s one of the things we are good at is to make the eagle scream, to wrap ourselves in the flag, to pretend that our motives are those of national security, to pretend that we do—. I mean, I served in the Navy in the Korean War. It was an obligation of citizenship then. You got your choice: you’d go in the Navy because it’s a little cleaner, but you had to stay longer; or you could go in the Army for the shortest time. But there was no way to avoid it. That’s not true. It’s not been true since the Vietnam War, when we realized the draft was hopelessly, inequitably applied, and in our wisdom [inaudible] and apply it equitably, we abolished it. And so we end up with a truly professional military today, unimaginably expensive, almost worthless for our real purposes. I mean, not two days ago, the secretary of defense, Gates, gave a speech to the Pentagon bureaucracy on “What’s wrong with you fools? You keep buying this stuff that doesn’t work and that we don’t need, whereas what I can’t get you to buy would be weapons that might save—armored personnel carriers that would protect our troops from roadside bombs.”
JAY: Not enough margins, I would guess, in those kinds of weapons. Listen, in the next segment of our interview, let’s discuss another piece of the bill that you pointed out in your article is quite disturbing, and that’s funding for a system of radar in the Czech Republic and what is this whole strategy about the encirclement of Russia about. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Chalmers Johnson.
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