Thursday, March 29, 2007
Chalmers Johnson Speaks in San Diego
Warns of “Nemesis” Facing U.S. as Its Empire Collapses
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“History tells us that one of the most unstable political combinations is a country, like the United States today, that tries to be both a domestic democracy and a foreign imperialist,” said retired UCSD professor Chalmers Johnson to an audience of about 200 at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest March 18. He was there to promote his new book Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, which he described as the third in a series of books on U.S. foreign policy and the dangers posed by America’s imperialist ambitions.
“I did not set out to write a trilogy on the increasingly dangerous threats to our democracy,” Johnson acknowledged, “but as I uncovered the legacy of our imperialist pressures on many other countries, one book led to the others.” The first book in the series, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, actually came out in 2000 and was inspired by his academic specialty: the politics and economics of east Asia. “My research on China, Japan and the two Koreas persuaded me that our policies there had serious future consequences.”
Johnson got the title Blowback from a CIA term that, he explained, “does not just mean retaliation for things our government has done to and in other countries. It refers specifically to retaliation for the many illegal operations that have been carried out around the globe that were kept totally secret from the American public. These operations include the clandestine overthrow of governments we do not like … training other countries’ militaries in the techniques of state terrorism; rigging elections in foreign countries; interfering with the economic viability of countries that seem to threaten the interests of American companies; and the torture and assassination of selected foreigners.”
Blowback got good reviews but didn’t become a best seller until after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., when a lot of Americans were asking, “Why do they hate us?” President Bush said the terrorists hated us because they hate our freedoms; Johnson couldn’t have disagreed more. According to him, the 9/11 attacks were retaliation for a long series of American assaults on the Muslim world, from our overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian government of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 to our open support of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land in the West Bank and Gaza and the stationing of U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia from 1990 to 2003.
“The fact that these actions are secret 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,” Johnson said. “So they tend to support acts intended to lash out against the alleged perpetrators, thereby culminating later on in another cycle of blowback.”
Johnson’s next project was to research the network of U.S. military bases around the world. According to U.S. Defense Department statistics, this nation maintains 737 permanent bases throughout the globe, though Johnson is sure there are even more than that and some of them are totally secret. “Regardless of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, we now station over half a million U.S. troops, spies, contractors and others on military bases located in more than 130 countries, many of them presided over by dictatorial regimes that have given their citizens no say in the decision to let us in,” Johnson explained.
In 2004, Johnson published the second book in his trilogy on U.S. imperialism, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the U.S. Republic. Its most controversial argument was that this global network of U.S. military bases has enabled the U.S. to extend imperialist dominance throughout the world without having to colonize other countries and rule them directly the way the Romans, British, Dutch, French and Germans did in their imperial eras. In his speech, Johnson ironically compared the current U.S. empire to the Soviet Union’s system of satellites in Eastern Europe from 1946 to 1991, in which the Soviet Union controlled countries that were nominally “independent” by stationing its troops either in them or on their borders, establishing pro-Soviet puppet governments and integrating them into the Soviet economic system.
“This is the sort of empire the U.S. has created and is now trying to maintain, by way of its military forces and its bases, and threats such as those issued daily against Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, the Palestinians and other regimes we don’t approve of,” Johnson said. “To do this, the President has assumed powers specifically denied him by our Constitution, and the Congress has abdicated its responsibilities to the balance of power in the face of these executive threats. Despite the Democratic sweep in the 2006 elections, it remains to be seen whether these tendencies can be reversed or controlled.”
Johnson’s number one point in Nemesis — named after the Greek goddess who punished human arrogance — is that a country can be either a republic or an empire, but not both. His historical precedents are ancient Rome, which 2,000 years ago gave up its republic and became a military dictatorship to preserve its vast overseas empire; and Britain after World War II, which more or less voluntarily gave up its empire and thereby preserved its democracy. Though he acknowledged that “the British did not do a particularly good job of liquidating their empire,” and in at least two places in the 1950’s — Kenya and Egypt — they tried to maintain overseas colonies and satellites through military force, he said that “the overall thrust of postwar British history” was a rejection of empire in favor of preserving democracy at home.
“The people of the British Isles, after the defeat of Nazism, realized that in order to keep India, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of their empire, it would require that they resort — as they had done so often in the past — to administrative massacres,” Johnson explained. “In order to do that, Britain itself would have had to become a tyranny. They therefore chose democracy over imperialism, gave up their empire and remain a democracy today.”
Unfortunately, Johnson is not optimistic that any political force in the modern U.S. could short-circuit this country’s path to imperialist tyranny and restore republican rule. “The American political system failed to prevent this combination [of a domestic republic and a foreign empire] from developing, and I believe that by now it is probably incapable of correcting it,” he said. “The evidence strongly suggests that the legislative and judicial branches of our government have become so servile in the presence of the imperial presidency, they have already lost the ability to respond in a principled and independent manner.”
Nor does Johnson think that a popular revolution — bloodless or otherwise — is likely. “A grass-roots movement to abolish the CIA, rein in the pull of the military-industrial complex, and establish public financing of elections is at least theoretically conceivable,” he said. “That’s what, in a sense, we are doing here today. We’re trying to mobilize independent citizens to what they’re about to lose. And remember, once the Roman republic lost it, it didn’t return for more than 1,000 years. It doesn’t come back. But given the conglomerate control of our mass media, and the difficulties in mobilizing our large and diverse population, it seems unlikely.”