The Sorrows of Dogma

Ian Williams

The 911 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 régime 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 112001.

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.

Ian Williams is the author of Desert­er: Bush’s War on Mil­i­tary Fam­i­lies, Vet­er­ans and His Past, now avail­able from Nation Books.
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