The 9/11 commission is confirming what Paul O’Neill, Richard Clarke, Bob Woodward and many others have separately shown: This administration’s obsession with Iraq — and for a significant subset of its members, Star Wars and Missile Defense — blinded it to the possibilities of the World Trade Center attacks. Afterward, they seized on the attacks as pretext to pursue these obsessions as solutions.
This underscores the problem with Chalmers Johnson’s book, The Sorrows of Empire: He concludes there is a coherent imperialist plot on the part of the U.S. establishment, yet the evidence suggests there are lots of plots, not many of them coherent.
With the exception of the frequently sidelined Colin Powell, this administration is full of fundamentalists. But individuals and factions within it have different faiths. There’s the High Frontier crowd like Donald Rumsfeld, who imagine that the United States’ future is in space. There is a joint crew of neocons and Christian fundamentalists — from Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle to John Ashcroft — who think Ariel Sharon should get anything he wants. There are those like Halliburton’s Dick Cheney, who seem to believe that if God put oil under ground he did so for Texans. And while a neoliberal streak runs throughout the administration, every one will throw out balanced budgets and free trade to further their more eschatological ends.
Neocons like Perle and Wolfowitz have a keen eye for political divisions and how to exploit them, as befits former Trotskyist infiltrators into the socialist movement whose anticommunism became pathological. They have been remarkably successful in harnessing the different agendas, and their high point was pulling together the separate motivations that converged on the invasion of Iraq.
But Johnson has been mixing with too many hard leftists and is guilty of framing a guilty administration by adducing evidence that just does not add up. He leaves telltale hostages to fortune, like referring to the U.S. campaign against the “elected” Sandinista government. The Sandinista regime may have had many fine features — but elections were not one of them. They lost the only one they held.
And then there is the pipeline thing. Far too many on the far left trace real and imagined oil pipelines across the world as cause for U.S. interventions. So, on the one hand, Johnson claims that the bases in Bosnia and Kosovo are there to protect a potential pipeline from the Black Sea to the Adriatic. In another chapter, he says the real pipeline the United States is pushing for runs from the Caspian oil to the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, wisely missing the Black Sea.
Johnson also cites the U.S. network of military bases as evidence of a geopolitical imperial imperative. It is far from sure, however, that the military is so sold on this empire business. After all, expanding bases in a typical bureaucratic fashion, as he describes it, is better in creating career-enhancing vacancies than waging wars. Despite his claims, Johnson writes that in country after country, bases were so unpopular that governments told the Pentagon to move them out — and it did. Real empires are made of sterner stuff.
Johnson does himself and his conclusions no credit by pandering to infantile left dogmas. If everything were, as he hints, a neoimperialist conspiracy, it might almost be reassuring. In fact, on the evidence of the impressive range of sources he has quoted, what is really worrying is the irrationality of this administration’s policy.
By attacking Iraq, the administration has alienated much of the world, creating a de facto counterbalancing alliance of Russia, Germany and France, with China as a semi-detached member. It has alienated billions of Muslims. And it has put the United States on the verge of bankruptcy, with record trade and budget deficits. As plots go, this is a pretty silly one.
However, Johnson’s conclusion about what we should do is sound — up to a point. He wants a resurgent democracy that revitalizes Congress and scrutinizes the Pentagon and the secret agencies. In fact, he does not go far enough. We need a revitalized electorate that cares enough about foreign affairs to realize just how much it has been led by the nose since September 11, 2001.
Presenting the invasion of Afghanistan as an imperialist plot is unlikely to win over voters. Pointing out that Osama bin Laden is still running loose because the president took the whole army to Iraq to pursue some personal obsession is more likely to raise interest, particularly as the evidence mounts of the spurious excuses for the war — and for its bloody cost.