Americas Own Worst Enemy

Mark Engler March 6, 2007

In March 1999, Pres­i­dent Clin­ton toured sev­er­al Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries, sur­vey­ing areas dev­as­tat­ed by Hur­ri­cane Mitch and meet­ing with gov­ern­men­tal del­e­ga­tions to pro­mote his vision of glob­al­ized trade and coop­er­a­tive region­al diplo­ma­cy. In each coun­try, he received a warm wel­come. When Clin­ton spoke before the Nation­al Assem­bly of El Sal­vador, mem­bers of the left­ist FMLN par­ty, for­mer gueril­la lead­ers who had become elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives, respond­ed with a stand­ing ovation.

Giv­en that the Unit­ed States had worked dili­gent­ly through­out the 80s to destroy the rebel move­ment, this was an aston­ish­ing sight. Yet, in spite of the Unit­ed States’ long inter­ven­tion­ist his­to­ry, Bill Clin­ton was pop­u­lar in Latin Amer­i­ca. He had a way of charm­ing would-be crit­ics. Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez shared din­ner with Clin­ton, lis­tened to the pres­i­dent spon­ta­neous­ly recite long pas­sages of Faulkn­er and sub­se­quent­ly wrote an admir­ing profile.

These days, the world’s Nobel Lau­re­ates are more like­ly to turn acid pens against the White House. The Bush admin­is­tra­tion shocked the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty with its aggres­sive mil­i­tarism, its belief in uni­tary exec­u­tive pow­er, its use of tor­ture and its good-ver­sus-evil under­stand­ing of glob­al affairs. 

These same trou­bling traits have com­mand­ed the atten­tion of Chalmers John­son, who believes they have brought us to the last days of the Amer­i­can repub­lic.” John­son, a retired pro­fes­sor of Asian Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, San Diego, and cur­rent pres­i­dent of the Japan Pol­i­cy Research Insti­tute, pop­u­lar­ized the CIA-orig­i­nat­ed term blow­back” with his 2000 book of that title. That vol­ume warned that America’s covert inter­ven­tions abroad would come back to haunt us, and it became a best­seller after the attacks of 911 seemed to ful­fill the author’s prophesy. 

Since then, accord­ing to John­son, our country’s predica­ment has only wors­ened. His new book, Neme­sis: The Last Days of the Amer­i­can Repub­lic, takes its name from the Greek god­dess of ret­ri­bu­tion and vengeance … pun­ish­er of pride and hubris.” Put sec­u­lar­ly, John­son is argu­ing that the Unit­ed States is its own worst ene­my. Soon­er rather than lat­er, he con­tends, U.S. arro­gance will be its downfall.

Johnson’s book is made up of large­ly autonomous chap­ters on a range of loose­ly-relat­ed sub­jects: how the Bush administration’s exec­u­tive pow­er grab under­mines the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion as well as inter­na­tion­al law, how the CIA func­tions as the president’s pri­vate army, the extent to which America’s exten­sive glob­al net­work of mil­i­tary bases pro­vides an infra­struc­ture for impe­r­i­al pow­er pro­jec­tion, why space may be the final fron­tier for mil­i­tary expan­sion, and what lessons might be learned from the defunct British and Roman empires. Togeth­er these top­ics indi­cate the end is near. The time to head off finan­cial and moral bank­rupt­cy is short,” he writes. We are on the cusp of los­ing our democ­ra­cy for the sake of keep­ing our empire.” 

Johnson’s writ­ing is often described as polemic,” but that doesn’t cap­ture the heart­felt con­cern that under­lies his dis­tress about our coun­try. Where­as many of us have grown numb to White House out­rages, Johnson’s indig­na­tion at the admin­is­tra­tion – its tor­ture mem­os, its con­tempt for the free­dom of pub­lic infor­ma­tion, its defac­ing of estab­lished treaties – is vivid. This might be due to his con­ser­v­a­tive back­ground: A Navy lieu­tenant in the ear­ly 50s, con­sul­tant for the CIA from 1967 to 1973, and long-time defend­er of the Viet­nam War, John­son became hor­ri­fied at Amer­i­can mil­i­tarism and inter­ven­tion­ism only lat­er in life. He writes like he is mak­ing up for lost time.

Johnson’s most dis­tinc­tive con­tri­bu­tion to the debate about U.S. empire is his doc­u­men­ta­tion of America’s vast net­work of over­seas mil­i­tary bases, a project he began in his 2004 book, The Sor­rows of Empire. Once upon a time, you could trace the spread of impe­ri­al­ism by count­ing up colonies,” he writes in Neme­sis. America’s ver­sion of the colony is the mil­i­tary base.” The Unit­ed States main­tains 737 bases world­wide, cost­ing more than $127 bil­lion and cov­er­ing at least 687,347 acres in some 130 for­eign coun­tries. For local pop­u­la­tions exposed to the pol­lu­tion, bar fights and broth­els that sur­round such encamp­ments, they are wounds that fes­ter dai­ly. At home, John­son argues, Amer­i­cans suf­fer from the bloat­ed mil­i­tary bud­gets required to main­tain this base­world.”

Each of Johnson’s eru­dite chap­ters both enlight­ens and dis­turbs. But his under­ly­ing jere­mi­ad about democracy’s death lacks ana­lyt­i­cal force. John­son looks incred­u­lous­ly upon those who believe that the struc­ture of gov­ern­ment in Wash­ing­ton today bears some resem­blance to that out­lined in the Con­sti­tu­tion of 1787.” And it seems that there is no going back: The leg­isla­tive branch of our gov­ern­ment is bro­ken, and it is hard to imag­ine how it could repair itself, giv­en the mas­sive inter­ests that feed off it.” Like­wise, a grass­roots move­ment to reclaim democ­ra­cy is unlike­ly giv­en the con­glom­er­ate con­trol of the mass media and the dif­fi­cul­ties of mobi­liz­ing.” John­son has essen­tial­ly thrown up his hands.

Such pes­simism is overblown. The repub­lic has sur­vived Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, and democ­ra­cy, how­ev­er bat­tered, will out­last Bush as well. The pres­i­dent has lost his def­er­en­tial Con­gress; his approval rat­ings have sunk to all-time lows. Bush is less an omnipo­tent tyrant than a lame duck.

In terms of geopol­i­tics, the Bush lega­cy is also ambigu­ous. Neme­sis is a book about hard pow­er. Liken­ing America’s far-flung bases to Rome’s gar­risons, John­son posits that not much has changed since the days of Cae­sar and Octa­vian. But, with nuclear weapons scat­tered amongst major and minor glob­al pow­ers, hard pow­er has its limits.

To judge the strength of a nation, then, one must also gauge its tal­ent for soft­er per­sua­sion. And here the Bush admin­is­tra­tion mil­i­tarists have become their own worst ene­mies. Act­ing out visions of glob­al dom­i­nance, they have inflamed world resent­ment and spawned ever more chal­lenges to Amer­i­can pow­er. Our troops are embat­tled. Bush’s state vis­its attract street protests. Dis­cour­te­ous politi­cians hov­er at every podi­um. It all makes you won­der: How much more dan­ger­ous was it when our pres­i­dent was both com­mand­ing and esteemed, laud­ed by lau­re­ates, tour­ing our impe­r­i­al back­yard to stand­ing ovations?

Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, can be reached here.
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