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Why US Won't Elect a Saviour

Chalmers Johnson on America's addiction to war.

By Crawford Kilian 26 Jun 2007 |

Crawford Kilian is a frequent contributor to The Tyee. For more information on Chalmers Johnson, visit Wikipedia and The American Empire Project.

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Author Chalmers Johnson.
  • Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic
  • Chalmers Johnson
  • Metropolitan Books (2006)

One unexpected consequence of the Internet's avalanche of online information has been the rise of the book -- especially in the field of politics.

Day-to-day news increasingly appears on the web, massively annotated by bloggers and their readers. A given person or event may pop to the surface of the flood and then disappear -- only to reappear days or weeks later, in a totally different context.

Other events, like the war in Iraq, are always on the surface. But today's car bombings differ from yesterday's only by the body count. They turn from information into white noise, while Paris Hilton's sorrows take the foreground.

The computers that distribute all this information also permit the remarkably rapid writing, printing, publication and marketing of books. So we now have a flood of books on recent events. We need them, because neither the newspapers nor the electronic media can effectively concentrate data on a given topic.

The turbulence has been especially intense in American politics since 9-11, when almost everything changed: laws, institutions, even what you have to do to get on an airliner. The Bush-Cheney administration has seemed, to most observers, to have stampeded the U.S. into a revolution.

Whether to oppose this revolution or to support it, countless books have come out on 9-11 itself, on the run-up to the Iraq war, on the war and the occupation, and on a host of related subjects -- from the nature of Islamic fundamentalism to the issue of peak oil.

Throw the rascals out?

Most of the counter-revolutionary books have been both critical and analytical: they document the corruption and incompetence of the present American regime, both domestically and overseas. They also try to explain these failures: the State Department's post-invasion plans were ignored by the Pentagon, for example, or Paul Bremer's disbanding of the Iraqi army was a mistake.

So books like Fiasco, The Assassins' Gate, and The Looming Tower offer very prompt indictments of the U.S. failure in Iraq, in both concept and execution.

Thanks in some small part to these books, most Americans now reject the neo-conservative agenda and its domestic and foreign disasters. As citizens of a democracy, they naturally consider how to remedy the situation.

The routine in a free country is to throw the rascals out, and this meant giving the Democrats control of the House and Senate last fall. The next step would of course be the election of a new president mandated to undo the damage.

The Democrats in Congress, however, have failed to get the U.S. out of Iraq. Their hearings into administration malfeasance seem scarcely to have embarrassed Bush and Cheney, let alone forced a change in their conduct.

No saviours in sight

As for finding a saviour in the next president, the odds look poor. The Republicans are competing to see who's the most religious. The Democrats aren't much better. Hillary Clinton voted for the war. Barack Obama and John Edwards look like prime targets for swiftboating.

The most attractive candidate, Al Gore, isn't even running. His global-warming documentary showed us an attractive new side of him, and he's now published an instant bestseller, The Assault on Reason, that I gather is a major attack on the administration. It's easy to forget that as vice-president, Gore went along with the sanctions against Iraq that punished the Iraqis for the crimes of their leader, and that he ran a seriously inept campaign in 2000.

In effect, it doesn't matter who runs in 2008, or who wins. The U.S. will continue on its present course for the foreseeable future. We can't even count on that statistical comfort, regression to the mean, which would pull us back to normal from the present extreme.

But it's not extreme. For over 60 years, this kind of military adventurism has been the foundation of American power and prosperity. The Americans can't regress to some more humane condition because adventurism is all they know. Bush has not launched a revolution; he has simply continued the "military Keynesianism" that began under FDR and Truman.

A radical perspective

This is the argument of Chalmers Johnson's new book, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. It forms the third volume of a trilogy that began with Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire, and it provides yet more perspective on the rush of events in the past decade, and from the most radical perspective.

Those who have read the first two books will find some familiar issues here: the arrogant unfairness of the Status of Forces Agreements that other countries must accept as the price of allowing U.S. bases on their soil; the worldwide empire that those bases constitute; the astounding cost of maintaining U.S. armed forces' personnel and technology.

But Johnson is not just exploring the origins of our present world in the covert operations of the 1950s, as he did in Blowback. Nor is he reprising the problems he discussed in Sorrows of Empire. Now he examines American imperialism as an essentially irreversible process, as Roman imperialism had become by the time Caesar crossed the Rubicon.

Analogies with ancient Rome are familiar arguments, but Johnson makes his persuasive. The CIA is the president's own private army, a Praetorian Guard. The present American standing army is analogous to the imperial legions that replaced the short-term citizen-armies of the early Roman republic. Perhaps most importantly, the American founding fathers consciously modeled themselves on pre-imperial Rome. Knowing how Rome had failed, they built checks and balances to preserve their new republic.

It wasn't enough. "Over any fairly lengthy period of time," Johnson writes, "successful imperialism requires that a domestic republic or a domestic democracy change into a domestic tyranny. That is what happened to the Roman Republic; that is what I fear is happening to the United States as the imperial presidency gathers strength at the expense of the constitutional balance of governmental powers and as militarism takes even deeper root in the society."

Hiding in plain sight

Much of this book is an exploration of that thesis, and it does not make for happy reading. In fact, it is depressing in part because everything Johnson states is in the public record, available for his copious citations. Like I.F. Stone before him, Johnson simply examines the documents that journalists ignore in their hurry to get to the press conference or photo op.

It's not a conspiracy. Scores of millions of Americans are happily and publicly taking part in the destruction of their republic, from immigrants serving in the armed forces to the political dynasts competing for power at the top. (How did a third of a billion people end up with a choice of rulers from a handful of families like the Clintons, Gores, and Bushes?)

Just as "Little Englanders" in the 19th century opposed a world in which the sun never set on the British flag, some Americans -- the true conservatives -- resist what their democratic republic has become. They seem to have two choices: to go public like Cindy Sheehan, and be ground to powder by the imperial media, or to keep quiet and become "inner émigrés" like millions of decent Germans in the Third Reich.

Chalmers Johnson doesn't offer them a third choice, only the hope that their empire will implode much faster than Augustus Caesar's.

Imperialism with a human face

The Democrats, as they have shown since regaining congressional power last year, offer only imperialism with a human face, and with maybe fewer soldiers in Iraq. They aren't about to walk away from Democrat-inspired policy that beat the Soviet Union and sustained American prosperity for the last 60 years.

No one on the Republican side is strongly supporting Bush and Cheney. Nor are they rejecting the policies that made them the party of white racists, evangelical Christians, and the rich.

And no one is going to call for ending the military Keynesianism that has brought taxpayer-funded jobs to every congressional district in the U.S.A. Those B-1 bombers and cruise missiles may not really be needed to defend America, but they ensure the prosperity of millions of voters.

So Johnson can't even offer us the hope of a grassroots revolt that would return the U.S. to its 18th-century values. The Americans will continue to rule the world until they go broke—and that, Johnson suggests, may be sooner than they think.

But what else could we expect, when the U.S. spends more on "defence" than the rest of the world combined -- and then has to spend another $120 billion a year actually to put its forces in the field?

Ruling the world on credit

Johnson points out that China and Japan hold close to $2 trillion in dollar reserves; in effect, they allow the U.S. to run its empire on plastic, in return for creating Chinese and Japanese jobs. When they can no longer afford to do so, the U.S. will suddenly look like Russia in 1992 -- a nuclear-armed bankrupt that can't meet its payrolls.

Out of all the authors whose books have tried to make sense of the past decade, only Chalmers Johnson has looked at the U.S.'s present disasters as more than the unfortunate results of a narrowly won election in 2000. He sees them as the predictable outcome of a militarized nation deserting its democracy for jobs -- just what George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower warned against.

Bizarrely, Canada under Stephen Harper has followed the U.S. into disaster. Unless we turn aside, we will experience the same nemesis our neighbours have chosen. Books explaining this nemesis will appear very quickly after the crash.

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