'Nemesis' Tells of U.S. in Peril

A year before the attacks of Sept. 11, Chalmers Johnson warned that decades of secret U.S. operations overseas would bring disaster at home. Johnson talks about his book Nemesis, and what he calls the last days of the American republic.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

In a book called "Blowback", Asia scholar Chalmers Johnson tried to explain why the United States is hated around the world and why the long history of secret operations overseas would surely lead to retaliation at home. The book was published a year before 9/11. In a follow-up called "The Sorrows of Empire", Johnson described a global network of military bases that he says creates a modern version of colonialization. And now, in the third volume of his trilogy, Chalmers Johnson argues that the maintenance of the American empire will inevitably undercut our domestic democracy and lead to either military dictatorship or to its civilian equivalent. The author joins us in a moment.

Later in the program, the husband of a little-known but highly regarded classical pianist confesses that he faked her recordings - the denouement of the Hatto hoax - and your letters.

But first, Chalmers Johnson on his new book "Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic". If you have questions about why he thinks imperial ambitions will destroy our prosperity and our democracy, join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

Chalmers Johnson is president of the Japan Policy Research Institute. He joins us from the studios of member station KPBS in San Diego. Thanks very much for coming in today.

Mr. CHALMERS JOHNSON (Author, "Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic"): Thank you for the invitation.

CONAN: As you note in "Nemesis", most Americans do not think of the United States as an empire or, I guess by extension, as a colonial power. Describe it for us. How does it work?

Dr. JOHNSON: Well, it's always been the case. I mean, Theodore Roosevelt once said, of course, we're not imperialists. Expansionism, that's in our blood, but not imperialism. It's just a semantic thing. The truth of the matter is I believe - try to argue...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. JOHNSON: ...try to demonstrate, that 737 American military bases - that's the official Pentagon number - around the world in over 130 countries, add up to what technically, political science - historian-wise we would call imperialism. I believe it's extremely costly to us. The main proposition in "Nemesis", and why the subtitle - which I actually do mean, it's not just hype to try and sell books - is to argue history tells us there's no more unstable combination than that of a domestic democracy and a foreign empire.

The - you can't be both. You can be an imperialist, or you can be democratic, but if you try to do both, you're going to fall off into either dictatorship or you're going to have to give up your empire.

The classic example is the Roman Republic. It's important to us because, as we know from Madison and many others, it was such a model for many of the things written into our own Constitution. It decided after the assassination of Julius Caesar to retain its empire, and in the process, it evolved into a military dictatorship. Democracy did not return for well over a thousand years.

In "Nemesis", I try to offer an alternative, and that is Great Britain after World War II. It does seem to me that - it's not a perfect example. There have been a great many atavistic throwbacks by the British, not least of which is Blair in Iraq. But that nonetheless, the British concluded after World War II to retain the jewel in their crown, India, would require administrative massacres. They had used them many times in the past, but that in light of the just ended war against Nazism, British attitudes - had they attempted to do that, they would have turned Britain itself into a tyranny.

I believe they admirably chose to give up their empire and maintain their democracy. It's something I think we ought to be debating very strenuously in the United States today since it's getting pretty close for us.

CONAN: That would require, I guess, broad acceptance of the idea that America is an empire.

Dr. JOHNSON: It would require acceptance. I don't think that it's a matter of just semantic denial. There's almost no one on earth today on the receiving end that doesn't understand the effect of - I mean, imperialism is a form of tyranny. It never rules through consent. The Iraqis have assuredly not consented to our presence in Iraq, neither have the people of Okinawa or the people of Italy around Vicenza, or any number of places on earth. The - we may speak of the desire to spread democracy and we - and imperialists always couch their activities in abstract and pleasing objectives. But the truth of the matter is it is a form of tyranny, and it requires military force.

CONAN: Point taken, perhaps, on Iraq. In terms of the area around Vicenza in northern Italy, of course that's part of the Italian state. The Americans are there by the...

Dr. JOHNSON: Oh, no question.

CONAN: ...invitation of the Italian government. And also you spoke about Okinawa. This is, again, at the invitation of the Japanese government.

Dr. JOHNSON: That's quite - well, invitation may be too strong. We've been there now ever since the Battle of Okinawa of 1945, and for - until 1972, it was ruled directly as a Pentagon colony. It was ruled by an Army lieutenant general. But there's no question that part of the problem in the Japanese case - it's a complex issue. The Japanese like the Japanese-American Security Treaty. They don't like having American troops, the Third Marine Division, based in their country.

Therefore, they've come up with a gimmick. They put them down in an island, the most southern territory of Japan that's really a Japanese equivalent of Puerto Rico, a place that was long discriminated against. It was acquired by the Japanese empire late in the 19th century. They have no say - 1,300,000 Okinawans live cheek by jowl with 17,000 Marines, and the largest military installation in East Asia - Kadena Air Force Base - revolt there has been endemic for well over 50 years.

CONAN: Hmm, we're talking with Chalmers Johnson. His new book is titled "Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic". If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org.

The title, it is a character from Greek mythology. Explain...

Dr. JOHNSON: Yes.

CONAN: ...you use it as a metaphor throughout the book.

Dr. JOHNSON: Right. Nemesis was the Greek goddess of revenge, of retaliation for hubris, for people who - through their arrogance and loss of understanding of the way the world works - commit crimes that are unforgivable. She was a very important figure - the sister of Erato, the goddess of love poetry. She's the one who led Narcissus to the pond, and he looked in and saw his face, fell in love with it, fell into the pond and drowned. She's a rather fierce figure. I believe, I contend in the book, that she is already present in our country, just biding her time before she carries out her divine mission.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Maureen calls us. Maureen's calling from Corvallis in Oregon.

MAUREEN (Caller): Yes, hello. I am just fascinated by this because I read "The Sorrows of Empire", and I'm also a retired military intelligence officer who was station in Okinawa...

Dr. JOHNSON: Wow.

MAUREEN: ...so I saw firsthand the things that you refer to. My question is this - and I'll take it off air - what key indicators should we be looking for? Because I think a lot of people are suspicious right now that, you know, we're close to our demise as an American republic. What would Mr. Johnson say we should be looking for to really see that it is, perhaps, imminent?

Dr. JOHNSON: Well, it's a complex series of conditions we face, none of them pleasant. Probably the surest sign that we were - that the United States as a world power had come to an end would be if the oil-producing states started demanded that they be paid in Euros - in anything other than dollars. Or that the ministers of finance of China and Japan, who are our creditors - we live well, well beyond our means, more than any other nation - if they began to do everything - and they're already trying it - but to get rid of dollars, to dump them as fast they could.

This would mean the bankruptcy of the United States. It would not be the literal end of the United States any more than bankruptcy meant the end of Germany in 1923 or China in 1948 or Argentina just a few years ago in 2001 and 2. But it would mean a catastrophic loss of our level of living.

Now there's a lot of other things worse that could happen, but I - my wife keeps saying to me, come up with something optimistic, will you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. JOHNSON: And I think, yes, I have. It's bankruptcy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. JOHNSON: Yeah, go out with a financial whimper rather than a nuclear bang.

MAUREEN: There seems also to be a conspiracy of silence about just how close we are to this.

Dr. JOHNSON: I think that's true, that there's no doubt that an American college student taking Econ 101 would be instructed as the hardest theory we've got, that the United States should have collapsed some time ago with current account deficits of six percent of GDP, indebted hugely to China. Marshall Auerback, a financial analyst that I admire, has referred to the United States as a Blanche Dubois economy. That's referring to the leading character in Tennessee Williams' "Streetcar Named Desire" in which - as you'll remember Blanche Dubois lived on the kindness of strangers...

CONAN: Yes, of course...

Dr. JOHNSON: ...but I must tell you, there's not many strangers left that want to be kind to America, either.

CONAN: You point out that if China and Japan called in their chips, it would mean bankruptcy for the United States. Would it not be bankruptcy for China and Japan, too? Who would buy their products?

Dr. JOHNSON: Oh, no question. That is to say it would be a howling global recession. My contention is, though, they would start coming out of it very fast because they have worked - they are economic powerhouses. We don't manufacturer that much in this country anymore except weapons and munitions. They've been absorbing the costs of American profligacy by using it to build up their industrial strength. Japan is an economic powerhouse. China - clearly by 2025, barring unforeseen events - will be the world's largest and the world's richest country. It is by now virtually unavoidable. We have to start learning to adjust to it. We should have - for a long time ago.

But the problems as I see it - if we just do it also on this subject - it's insidious the way in which we are becoming dependent on the military industrial complex in exactly the way we were warned against it by our first president, George Washington, in his farewell address, in which he said the greatest enemy of liberty is standing armies, and it's a particular enemy of republican liberty.

And then, of course, Dwight Eisenhower in 1961, when he invented the phrase military industrial complex and warned us of the dangers of becoming dependent on a huge weapons industry with vested interests in regular wars and things of this sort. Now we see it's perfectly logical for any secretary of defense to want to close military bases that are no longer needed, that sometimes go back to the Civil War.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. JOHNSON: Just try it, and everybody erupts. Save our base. Stop it. We need those jobs.

CONAN: We're speaking today - Maureen, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MAUREEN: Well, thank you.

CONAN: We're speaking today with Chalmers Johnson about his new book "Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic". If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255. Or send us e-mail: talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Our guest today is Chalmers Johnson. A year before 9/11, he warned that decades of secret U.S. operations overseas would blowback and bring disaster here at home. The title of his latest book speaks for itself. It's called "Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic". You can read the first chapter at our Web page, npr.org. Chalmers Johnson is our guest this hour. He's president of the Japan Policy Research Institute.

If you have questions about why he thinks imperial ambitions will destroy our prosperity and our democracy: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is has changed over the years. Just a little background. You served as an officer in the United States Navy and for years as a scholar of Japan and China. At one point, you were an advisor to the Central Intelligence Agency.

Dr. JOHNSON: That's true. I've made no secret of the fact that I was a cold warrior. I regarded the Soviet Union as a menace. In retrospect, I still do. But it was a series of events - John Maynard Keynes, the great English economist, when once accused of being inconsistent, said when I get new information, I alter my position accordingly...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. JOHNSON: ...what, sir, do you do with new information? The new information was the unexpected, unwarned collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and then to me the astonishing development that almost instantly our government set out to find a replacement enemy. Without even catching its breath, it had to keep the military industrial complex working. It went after China, terrorism, drug lords, even instability - anything to keep it going. It was then also in 1996 -I spent my life studying Japan and East Asia, but I had never been in Okinawa. It's off the beaten track.

In 1996, I was invited to the island by the governor after a terrible incident in 1995 in which two Marines and a sailor had abducted, beaten and raped a 12-year-old girl. It produced the worst demonstrations against the United States since we signed the Security Treaty.

I was, frankly, shocked by what I saw: 37 American military bases located on an island smaller than Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands. The smell of the Raj was everywhere. Racism was in the air. It was disgusting. My first reaction to it was that this is exceptional, that the press just doesn't get down here. Nobody pays attention. This is a military paradise much like the Soviet forces have enjoyed all these years in East Germany. As I began then, however, to study the well over 700 American military bases around the world, I discovered, no, Okinawa was not unusual. It was, unfortunately, typical.

CONAN: Yet you have a jaundiced view of American soldiers: arrogant, swaggering, drunken.

Dr. JOHNSON: Well, I believe that's true. I did serve in the armed forces myself. I know something about it. I believe that we - on the evening news every night, the networks romanticize our soldiers. You've got to understand service in the armed forces today is not an obligation of citizenship as it was when I was in the armed forces. Since 1973, it has been a career choice. The officer corps loves that. It makes it much easier to deal with than with conscripts, because conscripts know why they're there and are forever watching to see how their officers behave, what's going on, whether the strategy makes any sense, or things of that sort. But I don't see any sense...

CONAN: They...

Dr. JOHNSON: Go ahead.

CONAN: They also like it because it's a better Army. The Army of 1973 was rife with drug addiction among other things - indiscipline, and it just was in the process of losing a major war.

Dr. JOHNSON: It is something we could argue about, whether it is a better Army. With an Army of - expeditionary force of about 150,000 troops armed to the teeth, backed up by all the air power and naval power you could ask for, to be fought after five years to a standstill by maybe 20,000 insurgents armed with improvised devices - I think there's ample reason why, again, we come back to the failure that interests us so much.

It's not President Bush or Vice President Cheney and their ambitions. It is what happened to Congress? What happened to its constitutional obligation to attempt oversight on a military budget that is larger than all other military budgets on earth put together - once you add in everything for nuclear weapons to wounded soldiers and foreign military sales and things of this sort that are not in the Pentagon.

In that respect, I believe it is time to observe that our military is very largely out of control, protected by secrecy. Bear in mind, 40 percent of the defense budget is black. Nobody gets to see it. And it's been that way for a long time, regardless of Article I of the Constitution that guarantees the citizens information on how their tax dollars ultimately were spent.

CONAN: Just to reinforce, black - in that context - meaning secret, hidden from view.

Dr. JOHNSON: Secret, absolutely, secret, just as in the case of the 16 intelligence agencies - everything they do is secret. The only serious - there was no oversight at all until the Church Committees in the 1970s. As we now see regularly, the oversight that we do have is largely farcical. It is the president's private army, as I try to argue in "Nemesis", and no president since Truman - once they've been told that they have a private army that can do anything they order: overthrow a government, teach terrorism, assassinate somebody - no president has ever yet failed to use it.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Jason, Jason with us from Tucson, Arizona.

JASON (Caller): Hi, how you doing?

CONAN: OK.

JASON: Well, my question is regarding - I draw a lot of parallels from the Roman Republic to Empire.

Dr. JOHNSON: Yes.

JASON: I mean, there's no coincidence why we have Capitol Hill, and in Rome there's a Capitoline Hill.

CONAN: Yes.

JASON: Lots of the things that I see are during the Republic's time, that they usually used excuses to get into the (unintelligible) of their empire, but they're always justified. And in the end, you have lots of civil wars, and one man who came out - Augustus, who became the first emperor - and he called himself the first among equals because I think people were trying - were giving up liberties for security. And I just think the question is would that -something like that can happen here, do you think? Would people give up those liberties for security when there's that kind of chaos?

Dr. JOHNSON: Isn't it fascinating that two millennia later we can still be arguing about what went on in the Roman Republic? I mean, you're quite right. Washington, D.C., used to have a creek down the Mall that was called the Tiber, that flowed into the Potomac.

It's a haunting parallel that we are approaching this direction. And you may -like Gibbon himself - admire the young Octavian who became the god Augustus Caesar, but it is always worth reminding ourselves what followed. There was Tiberius, who retreated to Capri with a covey of his small boys for his sexual pleasure, followed by a genuine horror, Caligula, who was then followed by a drooling idiot, Claudius, who was assassinated - poisoned by his wife in order that she could bring to power her son by an earlier marriage, namely Nero.

Now I mention this simply to say whatever you may think of the Roman Empire, this wasn't good government compared with the world of Roman liberty under the Republic, with its elaborate checks and balances, two councils, the ability to veto each other, the - all of the words that come - concepts that are written into our Constitution - fixed term limits, periodic elections, things of this sort. These were extremely important.

And they were all lost as a result of transforming the armies of the Roman Republic from citizen armies, raised to defend the country in a case of a genuine emergency, to standing armies - to the armies that George Washington warned us against - because these large standing armies with long service and then the need to find work or find security for the troopers afterwards, that these were indispensable to establishing the empire, protecting the empire, policing the empire. There is no way to have an empire without a military industrial complex, a military establishment.

CONAN: Jason, thanks very much for the call.

JASON: Thank you.

CONAN: It seems critical to your theory, this idea of the imperial presidency...

Dr. JOHNSON: Yes.

CONAN: ...emblematic of particularly the last six years. Yet it goes on, you suggest, really, from World War II on. And there have been swings of the pendulum one way or another. You recalled the Church Committee earlier, this after a period of...

Dr. JOHNSON: Yes.

CONAN: ...of abuses by the Central Intelligence Agency and the FBI and other agencies that were brought forward in the wake of Watergate, really.

Dr. JOHNSON: Absolutely.

CONAN: And in the current context, you have people like Vice President Cheney, who was of course Gerald Ford's chief of staff at that particular moment...

Dr. JOHNSON: Right, yes.

CONAN: ...who goes back to say, look, we've got to swing the pendulum back the other way. A lot of people would say that maybe he's gone too far, but isn't this just the pendulum swinging? Don't we have tendencies towards presidents arrogating power to themselves, and slowly, Congress will take it back?

Dr. JOHNSON: It's a plausible point of view. It's something that I would think any ordinary American historian at an American university peddles all the time, that it's a self-correcting situation. My argument is that this is, in the Eisenhower sense, different.

You see, the interesting thing about Eisenhower's warning - it was so strident. It wasn't diplomatic. He was scared to death about what had been created during his administration, and that it was going to dominate us - that military Keynesianism would come to exercise a powerful influence over our society.

I agree with this. I think that it is - let's put it this way. If I'm wrong, you're going to be so pleased I was wrong you're going to forgive me. But what I really fear is that I'm not wrong.

That - we have good institutions in our constitution for dealing with unsatisfactory political leaders. It's called impeachment. So the American people, last November, elect the opposition party in Congress. They come to power, and the first thing they say is that impeachment is off the table.

Well, with remarks like that, I think it's possible that democracy is off the table. The Congress is not working the way it was supposed to. The citizens are not playing the citizen role that, for example, Thomas - or Benjamin Franklin imagined. In a certain sense they're not, because they're so poorly informed, they have such enormous difficulty gaining information.

It's one of the reasons why we continue to admire the efforts by NPR to overcome the interests of people who report simply for advertising purposes. But at the same time, NPR is not unaware that it's often been a target of people who have vested interests.

CONAN: Public radio's going to play a very small part in no matter which way this goes. I'll say that public radio will not be decisive.

Dr. JOHNSON: Well, (unintelligible).

CONAN: So let's move onto other subjects.

Dr. JOHNSON: OK.

CONAN: You write, could the people themselves restore constitutional government? A grassroots movement to abolish the CIA, break the hold of the military industrial complex, and establish public financing of the elections may be theoretically conceivable, but is unlikely given the conglomerate control of the mass media and the difficulties mobilizing our large and diffuse population.

When you talk about a grassroots movement, what are you really talking about?

Dr. JOHNSON: Oh, well, I am thinking about the possibility that the public does become alarmed, aware of what's going on. Certainly in my experience, now I've written three volumes - Gibbon took six to do "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire".

CONAN: Mostly collected in three volumes. But go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. JOHNSON: Yeah. I know. And he did it two millennia after the fact, too. But nonetheless, it is to say the public could be mobilized - inattentive citizens could be caused to understand what they're about to lose and what it would cost them.

What I meant to say was that in the three volumes I've published so far, I received a much more cautious, inquiring response to "Nemesis" in talks at universities or bookstores or things of that sort than I did to the first two.

The public is clearly worried. They seem ripe for mobilization by somebody who could warn them of the dangers coming. I obviously would not be on this radio program if I thought that was absolutely hopeless.

CONAN: Right.

Dr. JOHNSON: You know, that we - that there was no way to mobilize anybody. But, as a matter of fact, I suspect that as a - you know, I'm not Cassandra -but my rough guess, we will stagger along maintaining a facade of constitutional government until we are overcome by bankruptcy.

CONAN: We're speaking with Chalmers Johnson about his new book, "Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic". You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Albert. Albert's with us from Palo Alto in California.

ALBERT (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

ALBERT: Paul Kennedy wrote a book called "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers". And I'm informed that Mr. Johnson is well aware of this book. And...

CONAN: This is about mid '80s, I think.

ALBERT: Correct.

Dr. JOHNSON: Yes.

ALBERT: Professor Kennedy wrote his thesis somewhat dispassionately, but it also seemed to indicate that there was a certain degree of inevitability about the cycle of births and growths and supremacy and decline of the various great powers, whether they be the Roman Empire, as Mr. Johnson just alluded to.

So he says he's not hopeless, and I would like to hear him speak to his optimism about our ability to wrest control of the government from the military industrial complex. And perhaps continue the American century, if not forever, then at least for a greater period of time.

CONAN: And...

Dr. JOHNSON: It...

CONAN: Go ahead. I'm sorry.

Dr. JOHNSON: It's a tough, tough question. I mean I - as a political scientist, I am professionally not optimistic. That's just - for no other reason, mistaken optimism is never forgiven. Mistaken pessimism is easily forgiven.

But I do not see it in the cards that we are going to mobilize the American public, given the raw lack of information, the inability to conduct elementary oversight on our government. That's why that I believe the one thing that has to be done or we will write the United States off is to reconstitute, to energize the constitutional system. To bring the - that was what Washington was talking about.

He wasn't opposed to defending the country. He was saying standing armies inevitably are going to move wealth, money, influence to Washington, D.C. and to the executive branch. That's the imperial presidency. That's what we have today. That's what we have probably defended by the greatest use of secrecy in the history of our government.

These are serious problems. The country doesn't - at the time as I see it right now - seem very serious about them. But clearly, I am attempting to issue a warning.

CONAN: Paul Kennedy issued not dissimilar warnings, and certainly not dissimilar pessimistic warnings in the mid-1980s, and yet the American economy seemed to reinvent itself. The United States seemed to bound from weakness to strength.

Dr. JOHNSON: That would be all from a different perspective. Yes.

CONAN: Does the United States have the ability to regenerate itself? And I've given you a whole 30 seconds to answer that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. JOHNSON: Kennedy's key concept was the imperial overstretch.

CONAN: Yes.

Dr. JOHNSON: I believe he was right about it. I believe that the truth of the matter is our mistake - the invitation to "Nemesis" began after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when we began extremely arrogantly saying we were the lone super power, beyond good and evil, a new Rome capable of doing anything. We would insist on dominating the world through military power.

The truth of the matter is both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. lost the Cold War. It was simply that we were always richer. We three - lost it for the same reasons: imperial overstretch, economy ideology and failure to reform.

CONAN: Chalmers - Albert, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. And Chalmers Johnson, thank you for your time today. We appreciate that, too.

Dr. JOHNSON: Well, I greatly appreciate the invitation. Thanks for good questions.

CONAN: Chalmers Johnson's book is "Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic". He joined us today from KPBS, our member station in San Diego, California.

When we come back from a short break, the coda to the Joyce Hatto case of musical fakery. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic'

Chapter One: Militarism and the Breakdown of Constitutional Government

Last week, filled with grief and sorrow for those killed and injured and with anger at those who had done this, I confronted the solemn responsibility of voting to authorize the country to go to war. Some believe this resolution was only symbolic, designed to show national resolve. But I could not ignore that it provided explicit authority, under the War Powers Resolution and the Constitution, to go to war. It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the September 11 events — anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation's long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit. In granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibility to understand the dimensions of its declaration. I could not support such a grant of war-making authority to the president; I believe it would put more innocent lives at risk.

— Congresswoman Barbara Lee ([Democrat from California], the only member of Congress to vote against the transfer of the war power to the president for the invasion of Afghanistan), San Francisco Chronicle, September 23, 2001

One of the oddest features of political life in the United States in the years since the terrorist attacks is how few people have thought or acted like Barbara Lee. The public expresses itself in opinion polls, which some students of politics scrutinize intently, but there is little passion in the society, certainly none proportionate to the threats facing our democratic republic. The United States today is like a cruise ship on the Niagara River upstream of the most spectacular falls in North America. 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 or 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.

If the American democratic system is no longer working as planned, if the constitutional checks and balances as well as other structures put in place by the founders to prevent tyranny are increasingly less operational, we have not completely lacked for witnesses of every stripe, domestic and foreign. General Tommy Franks, commander of the American assault on Baghdad, for instance, went so far as to predict that another serious terrorist attack on the United States would "begin to unravel the fabric of our Constitution," and under such circumstances, he was open to the idea that "the Constitution could be scrapped in favor of a military form of government." The historian Kevin Baker feared that we are no longer far from the day when, like the Roman Senate in 27 B.C., our Congress will take its last meaningful vote and turn over power to a military dictator. "In the end, we'll beg for the coup," he wrote.

On October 10, 2002, Senator Robert Byrd (Democrat from West Virginia) asked plaintively about the separation of powers, "Why are we being hounded into action on a resolution that turns over to President Bush the Congress's Constitutional power to declare war? ... The judgment of history will not be kind to us if we take this step." Nonetheless, the following day, the resolution carried by a 77–23 vote in the Senate and 296–133 in the House of Representatives. The Berkshire Eagle editorialized, "The Senate, which was designed by the framers of the Constitution to act as a brake on the popular passions of the day, was little more than a speed bump under the White House steamroller." The libertarian writer Bill Winter conjectured that the problem was "the monarchization of America under Bush." Adam Young, a Canadian political commentator, wondered, "How did the chief magistrate of a confederated republic degrade into the global tyrant we experience today, part secular pope, part military despot, part pseudo-philosopher-king and full-time overbearing global gangster?" Indeed, that is the question for all of us.

Former British foreign secretary Robin Cook noted that "[a]ll the checks and balances that the founding fathers constructed to restrain presidential power are broken instruments." Cook observed the hubris and megalomania that flowed from this in John Bolton, then the number three official at the State Department (subsequently ambassador to the United Nations). When asked about possible incentives that might cause Iran to end its nuclear ambitions, Bolton replied, "I don't do carrots." Cook accurately predicted that members of the Bush administration "will ... celebrate their [2004] election victory by putting [the Iraqi city of] Fallujah to the torch," as they did that very November.

Marine general Anthony Zinni, General Franks's predecessor as Centcom commander in the Middle East, worried about the way the Pentagon was further expanding its powers at the expense of other agencies of government. "Why the hell," he asked, "would the Department of Defense be the organization in our government that deals with the reconstruction of Iraq? Doesn't make sense." One anonymous foreign service officer supplied an answer to Los Angeles Times reporter Sonni Efron, "I just wake up in the morning and tell myself, 'There's been a military coup,' and then it all makes sense." Even the president himself was a witness of sorts to the changes under way, baldly asserting at a White House press conference on April 13, 2004, that he was "the ultimate decision-maker for this country" — a notion that would have appalled the authors of the Constitution.

I believe that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have led the country into a perilous cul-de-sac, but they did not do it alone and removing them from office will not necessarily solve the problem. The crisis of government in the United States has been building at least since World War II. The emergence of the imperial presidency and the atrophying of the legislative and judicial branches have deep roots in the postwar military-industrial complex, in the way broad sectors of the public have accepted the military as our most effective public institution, and in aberrations in our electoral system. The interesting issue is not the damage done by Bush, Cheney, and their followers but how they were able to get away with it, given the barriers that exist in the Constitution to prevent just the sorts of misuses of power for which they have become notorious.

Historian Carol Berkin in her book A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the Constitution argues that the nation's "Founders — including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania and dozens of others — envisioned a supreme legislative branch as the heart and soul of America's central government... . America's modern presidency, with all its trappings, would be unimaginable to men like Madison, Washington, and Franklin. Of all those historic figures at the 1787 [Constitutional] Convention, perhaps only Alexander Hamilton would relish today's playing of 'Hail to the Chief.' "

The intent of the founders was to prevent a recurrence of the tyranny they had endured under Britain's King George III. They bent all their ingenuity and practical experience to preventing tyrannies of one, of the few, of a majority, of the monied classes, or of any other group that might obtain and exercise unchecked power, often adopting institutional precedents from the Roman Republic. Inspired by the French political philosopher Montesquieu's discussion of the "separation of powers" in his On the Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748, the drafters of the American Constitution produced a sophisticated scheme to balance power in a republic. The most basic structure they chose was federalism, setting up the states as alternatives to and limitations on the power of the national government. Congress was given that quintessential parliamentary power — control of the budget — without which it would be merely an ornamental body like the "people's congresses" in communist-dominated countries. Congress was also charged with initiating all legislation, making the final decision to go to war, and if necessary getting rid of an unsatisfactory president by impeachment, something also achievable through periodic elections. To moderate the power of Congress somewhat, the Constitution divided it into two quite differently elected and apportioned houses, each capable of vetoing the other's decisions.

Both houses of Congress must ultimately pass all laws, and the president, who is entrusted with implementing them, is given a veto as well. The Congress, in turn, can override a presidential veto with a two-thirds vote, and even when Congress and the president agree on a law, the Supreme Court, exercising the function of interpreting the laws, can still declare it unconstitutional. The president and members of Congress must be re-elected or leave office, but judges serve for life, although Congress can impeach them. The president nominates the heads of the cabinet departments, who serve at his pleasure, as well as all judges, but the Senate must approve them.

Over time, this balance-of-power spirit came to influence other institutions of government that the Constitution did not mention, including the armed forces, where competition among the services — the army, navy, air force, and Marine Corps — dilutes somewhat the enormous coercive power entrusted to them. To prevent a tyranny of the majority, the Constitution authorizes fixed terms and fixed times for elections (borrowed from the Roman Republic) as a way to interfere with the monopolization of power by an individual, an oligarchy, or a political party.

Unfortunately, after more than two centuries (about the same length of time that the Roman Republic was in its prime), this framework has almost completely disintegrated. For those who believe that the structure of government in Washington today bears some resemblance to that outlined in the Constitution of 1787, the burden of proof is on them. The president now dominates the government in a way no ordinary monarch possibly could. He has at his disposal the clandestine services of the CIA, a private army unaccountable to the Congress, the press, or the public because everything it does is secret. No president since Harry Truman, having discovered what unlimited power the CIA affords him, has ever failed to use it. Meanwhile, the "defense" budgets of the Pentagon dwarf those of the rest of the government and have undermined democratic decision making in the process. Funds for military hardware are distributed in as many states as possible to ensure that any member of Congress who might consider voting against a new weapons system would be accused of putting some of his constituents out of work.

When in May 2005, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld listed a large number of unneeded domestic military bases that he wanted to close as an economy measure, the affected communities promptly erupted in protest and began frantic lobbying efforts to "save" their particular installations. Advocates of keeping the bases open phrase their arguments in terms of national security, but the true reason is jobs, jobs, jobs. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote at the height of the Cold War, "It is no secret that the billions of dollars demanded by the Pentagon for the armaments industry are necessary not for 'national security' but for keeping the economy from collapsing."

"The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." It is not precisely clear who first spoke these immortal words — Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, or the antislavery abolitionist Wendell Phillips — but during the Cold War and its aftermath, Americans were not particularly vigilant when it came to excessive concentration of power in the presidency and its appendages, and we are now paying a very high price for that. From the founding of the republic to the moment of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address in 1961, some of our leaders have warned us that the greatest threat to our republican structure of government is war, including its associated maladies of standing armies, a military-industrial complex, and all the vested interests that develop around a massive military establishment.

The classic statement of this threat was by the chief author of the Constitution, James Madison:

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; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare ... 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. In war, the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed; and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venal love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.

The United States has been continuously engaged in or mobilized for war since 1941. Using statistics compiled by the Federation of American Scientists, Gore Vidal has listed 201 overseas military operations between the end of World War II and September 11, 2001, in which the United States struck the first blow. Among these, a typical example was Operation Urgent Fury in 1983, "Reagan's attack on the island of Grenada, a month-long caper that General [Alexander M.] Haig disloyally said could have been handled more efficiently by the Provincetown police department." Excluding minor military operations, Drexel University historian and political scientist Michael Sullivan counts only "invasions, interventions, and regime changes since World War II" and comes up with thirty bloody, often clandestine, American wars from Greece (1947–49) to Yugoslavia (1995 and 1999). Neither of these compilations included the wars in Afghanistan (2001–) and Iraq (2003–).

It should be noted that since 1947, while we have used our military power for political and military gain in a long list of countries, in no instance has democratic government come about as a direct result. In some important cases, on the other hand, democracy has developed in opposition to our interference — for example, after the collapse of the regime of the CIA-installed Greek colonels in 1974; after the demise of the U.S.-supported fascist dictatorships in Portugal in 1974 and Spain in 1975; after the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986; after the ouster of General Chun Doo-Hwan in South Korea in 1987; and after the ending of thirty-eight years of martial law on the island of Taiwan in the same year. The United States holds the unenviable record of having helped install and then supported such dictators as the Shah of Iran, General Suharto in Indonesia, Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and Sese Seko Mobutu in Congo/Zaire, not to mention the series of American-backed militarists in South Vietnam and Cambodia until we were finally expelled from Indochina. In addition, for decades we ran one of the most extensive international terrorist operations in history against Cuba and Nicaragua because their struggles for national independence had produced outcomes that we did not like.

The unintended result of this record of militarism is the contemporary Leviathan that dominates Washington, threatening our nation with bankruptcy, turning many of the organs of our "free press" into Pravda-like mouthpieces, and disgracing the nation by allowing our young men and women to torture prisoners picked up on various battlefields or even snatched from city streets in allied countries. In using the term "militarism," I want to distinguish it from defense of country. No one questions the need to raise a citizens' army and the obligation of able-bodied men and women to serve in it in order to defend the nation from foreign aggression. But the wars listed above are virtually all ones that we entered by choice rather than out of necessity. In many cases, they were shrouded in secrecy, while our political leaders lied to Congress and the public about the need to fight them. The launching of the Vietnam and Iraq wars are only the most blatant examples of presidential deception. There are almost certainly several cases currently hidden behind the walls of "classification" in which we secretly fomented the downfall of a government and offered clandestine assistance to the side we favored. Most recently, these may well include the abortive attempt to overthrow President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela in April 2002 and the use of front organizations to bring to power pro-U.S. governments in the former Soviet states of Georgia in November 2003 and the Ukraine in November 2004.

Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate and a Vietnam veteran with twenty-three years of service in the U.S. Army, believes, "Americans in our own time have fallen prey to militarism, manifesting itself in a romanticized view of soldiers, a tendency to see military power as the truest measure of national greatness, and outsized expectations regarding the efficacy of force. To a degree without precedent in U.S. history, Americans have come to define the nation's strength and well-being in terms of military preparedness, military action, and the fostering of (or nostalgia for) military ideals."

How did this come about? As a start, we have indeed fought too many wars of choice, starting in 1898 with our imperialist conquests of the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and our establishment of a protectorate over Cuba, shortly followed by World War I. World War II, while not a war of choice, produced the most complete mobilization of resources in our history and led to the deployment of our forces on every continent. After the victory of 1945, some Americans urged a rapid demobilization, which actually was well under way when the Cold War and the Korean War restored and enlarged our military apparatus. It would never again be reined in, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The inevitable result was a continual transfer of powers to the presidency exactly as Madison had predicted, the use of executive secrecy to freeze out Congress and the judiciary, the loss of congressional mastery over the budget, and the rise of two new, extraconstitutional centers of power that are today out of control — the Department of Defense and the fifteen intelligence organizations, the best known of which is the Central Intelligence Agency. I believe we will never again know peace, nor in all probability survive very long as a nation, unless we abolish the CIA, restore intelligence collecting to the State Department, and remove all but purely military functions from the Pentagon. Even if we did those things, the mystique of America as a model democracy may have been damaged beyond repair. Certainly, under the best of circumstances, it will take a generation or more to overcome the image of "America as torturer."

In 1964, Hannah Arendt addressed a similar problem when she tried to plumb the evil of the Nazi regime. Her book Eichmann in Jerusalem dealt with the trial of the former SS officer Adolf Eichmann, who was charged with organizing the transport of Jews to death camps during World War II. She subtitled her book A Report on the Banality of Evil but used that now famous phrase only once, at book's end, without explaining it further. Long after Arendt's death, Jerome Kohn, a colleague, compiled a volume of her essays entitled Responsibility and Judgment. What made Eichmann both evil and banal, Arendt concluded in one of those essays, was his inability to think for himself.

"Some years ago," she wrote, "reporting the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem, I spoke of the 'banality of evil' and meant with this no theory or doctrine but something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was perhaps an extraordinary shallowness. However monstrous the deeds were, the doer was neither monstrous nor demonic, and the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think."

Arendt was trying to locate Eichmann's conscience. She called him a "desk murderer," an equally apt term for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld — for anyone, in fact, who orders remote-control killing of the modern sort — the bombardment of a country that lacks any form of air defense, the firing of cruise missiles from a warship at sea into countries unable to respond, such as Iraq, Sudan, or Afghanistan, or, say, the unleashing of a Hellfire missile from a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle controlled by "pilots" thousands of miles from the prospective target.

How do ordinary people become desk murderers? First, they must lose the ability to think because, according to Arendt, "thinking conditions men against evil doing." Jerome Kohn adds, "With some degree of confidence it may be said that the ability to think, which Eichmann lacked, is the precondition of judging, and that the refusal as well as the inability to judge, to imagine before your eyes the others whom your judgment represents and to whom it responds, invite evil to enter and infect the world." To lack a personal conscience means "never to start the soundless solitary dialogue we call thinking."

If an individual's thinking is short-circuited and does not rise to the level of making judgments, he or she is able to understand acts, including evil acts, only in terms of following orders, doing one's duty, being loyal to one's "homeland," maintaining solidarity with one's fellow soldiers, or surrendering one's will to that of the group. This phenomenon is common in some forms of political life, as Arendt demonstrated in her most famous work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, but it is ubiquitous in military life, where, in order to prevail in battle, soldiers have been conditioned to follow orders instantly and to act as a cohesive group. In such roles, "Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their existence." This is one reason why democratic republics must be particularly vigilant about standing armies and wars of choice if, that is, they intend to retain their liberties.

At Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, some American soldiers had become so inured to the torture of Iraqi inmates that they made a screen saver of naked Iraqi captives stacked in a "pyramid" with their tormentors looking on and laughing in the background. By contrast, on January 13, 2004, Sergeant Joseph M. Darby of the army's 372nd Military Police Company turned over a computer disk of similar photos from Abu Ghraib of American soldiers torturing Iraqis to the army's Criminal Investigations Division. He said that the photos "violated everything that I personally believed in and everything that I had been taught about the rules of war." Sergeant Darby had not stopped thinking.

Copyright © 2006 by Chalmers Johnson. All rights reserved.

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