Well before Abu Ghraib suddenly burned itself into the American conscience, Chalmers Johnson was an in-demand lecturer. For years he has been telling horrified audiences that their country now runs a world empire based on over 700 overseas military bases, a global gulag of prisons for "illegal combatants," and host of agencies that ignore Americans' rights.
When his listeners ask what they can do about it, Johnson has a simple reply: Buy a condo in Vancouver.
"My wife says I shouldn't end my lectures like that," he told me in a recent interview. But at this late date he doesn't see much hope for restoring American democratic values and institutions.
Johnson's latest book is The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. At first glance it looks like other anti-Bush best-sellers. Against All Enemies, Plan of Attack, Worse Than Watergate, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, House of Bush, House of Saud--the books pour off the presses, meeting a seemingly insatiable demand. Almost unanimously, they see Bush as an aberration, an awful stumble away from real American values.
Chalmers Johnson takes a wider view, and sees Bush as the natural heir of a century of American imperial expansion. A naval officer in the Korean War, then a scholar of international relations, Johnson at 72 has become an American Tacitus. In The Sorrows of Empire, like the Roman historian Tacitus, he describes the wasteland imperialists call peace.
Goes back to 1898
Johnson sees the roots of U.S. militarism in the Spanish-American War of 1898, but it did not flower until after World War II and the onset of the Cold War. The Soviet threat provided good grounds for a huge standing army, for overseas bases, and for budgets that could pay for them.
But the Soviet collapse between 1989 and 1991 did not lead to a shrinkage in American military power. On the contrary, the U.S. under Clinton and then Bush scrambled to spend more and to establish yet more bases in regions like Central Asia. Over 700 U.S. bases now ring the globe, permitting it to project power anywhere on earth.
Unlike earlier empires, this one doesn't trouble to found colonies or impose its own bureaucracy on the natives. Instead its bases are little military suburbias plunked down in Qatar and Uzbekistan. Okinawa has been more or less the property of the U.S. Marine Corps for almost 60 years.
Ostensibly all these bases are to protect American interests; in reality, argues Chalmers, their presence actually harms American interests, ensuring that the locals hate both the U.S. and their own governments. The governments in turn protect themselves against their own people by purchasing billions of dollars' worth of American weapons. The eastward expansion of NATO has required its new members to re-equip themselves with U.S.-made weapons as well.
Four sorrows of empire
In 300 well-documented pages, Johnson makes a concise and very well-written historical case for American imperialism right up to the early days of the Iraq War. It's a depressing but illuminating book.
And what exactly are the sorrows of empire? Johnson names four: perpetual war, the loss of democracy and rights, the supremacy of propaganda and disinformation, and financial ruin.
When I asked him which of these was the least discussed, he replied instantly: "The erosion of the Constitution. The overbalancing of the imperial presidency has created a loss of democracy and rights. The political system doesn't offer a solution."
He cited James Madison's comment that the most important power in the Constitution is the right of Congress alone to decide when to go to war. That power has now been handed over to the executive.
And what is the most advanced sorrow of empire?
"That's a hard call," Johnson said. "A public that's uninterested in our clandestine activities deserves what it gets. But even if the public is indifferent to perpetual war and public lying, bankruptcy will cause a crisis."
He estimated the U.S. is currently spending the unimaginable sum of $750 billion a year on "defense"--not only regular military spending, but also the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and unknown billions for intelligence activities. "Forty percent of the defense budget is secret," he said, "and 100 percent of the intelligence budget.
"But it's not being paid," he went on. "It's being borrowed from East Asia. If they decide to go to the euro instead of the dollar, we get the end of the empire, and of course a worldwide howling recession. Even conservatives like the Heritage Foundation now say Bush is the most fiscally irresponsible president in history."
'Purpose is to mobilize'
Johnson says the reviews of his book in the New York Times and Washington Post were "decidedly cool," with no analysis of the militarism question. He's seen little hard criticism of his arguments, "just shock and dismay." But when he appeared on C-SPAN, sales of his book on Amazon carried it to the number 6 position, and almost 50,000 copies are now in print.
"I'm not doing it for the money," he told me. "My purpose is to mobilize citizens, to alert them to what they're about to lose."
The Sorrows of Empire makes it very clear that no political group in the U.S. advocates an end to the empire; the debate is only about whether to rule the world politely or not. About the best hope Chalmers Johnson offers is that empires' shelf lives are getting shorter.
"It took Rome 300 years to fall," he says. "The Soviet Union collapsed in three years. The American empire could fall even faster."
In which case, should Americans follow Chalmers' advice, the B.C. real estate market for foreigners would get even hotter.
Crawford Kilian, a frequent contributor to The Tyee, has taught at Capilano College in North Vancouver since 1968.