Wake Up!

Washington’s alarming foreign policy

Chalmers Johnson

The Rubicon is a small stream in northern Italy just south of the city of Ravenna. During the prime of the Roman Republic, roughly the last two centuries B.C., it served as a northern boundary protecting the heartland of Italy and the city of Rome from its own imperial armies. An ancient Roman law made it treason for any general to cross the Rubicon and enter Italy proper with a standing army. In 49 B.C., Julius Caesar, Rome’s most brilliant and successful general, stopped with his army at the Rubicon, contemplated what he was about to do, and then plunged south. The Republic exploded in civil war, Caesar became dictator and then in 44 B.C. was assassinated in the Roman Senate by politicians who saw themselves as ridding the Republic of a tyrant. However, Caesar’s death generated even more civil war, which ended only in 27 B.C. when his grand nephew, Octavian, took the title Augustus Caesar, abolished the Republic and established a military dictatorship with himself as emperor” for life. Thus ended the great Roman experiment with democracy. Ever since, the phrase to cross the Rubicon” has been a metaphor for starting on a course of action from which there is no turning back. It refers to the taking of an irrevocable step.

I believe that on November 2, 2004, the United States crossed its own Rubicon. Until last year’s presidential election, ordinary citizens could claim that our foreign policy, including the invasion of Iraq, was George Bush’s doing and that we had not voted for him. In 2000, Bush lost the popular vote and was appointed president by the Supreme Court. In 2004, he garnered 3.5 million more votes than John Kerry. The result is that Bush’s war changed into America’s war and his conduct of international relations became our own. 

This is important because it raises the question of whether restoring sanity and prudence to American foreign policy is still possible. During the Watergate scandal of the early 70s, the president’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, once reproved White House counsel John Dean for speaking too frankly to Congress about the felonies President Nixon had ordered. John,” he said, once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s very hard to get it back in.” This homely warning by a former advertising executive who was to spend 18 months in prison for his own role in Watergate fairly accurately describes the situation of the United States after the reelection of George W. Bush.

James Weinstein, the founding editor of In These Times, recently posed for me the question How should U.S. foreign policy be changed so that the United States can play a more positive role on the world stage?” For me, this raises at least three different problems that are interrelated. The first must be solved before we can address the second, and the second has to be corrected before it even makes sense to take up the third. 

Sinking the ship of state

First, the United States faces the imminent danger of bankruptcy, which, if it occurs, will render all further discussion of foreign policy moot. Within the next few months, the mother of all financial crises could ruin us and turn us into a North American version of Argentina, once the richest country in South America. To avoid this we must bring our massive trade and fiscal deficits under control and signal to the rest of the world that we understand elementary public finance and are not suicidally indifferent to our mounting debts.

Second, our appalling international citizenship must be addressed. We routinely flout well-established norms upon which the reciprocity of other nations in their relations with us depends. This is a matter not so much of reforming our policies as of reforming attitudes. If we ignore this, changes in our actual foreign policies will not even be noticed by other nations of the world. I have in mind things like the Army’s and the CIA’s secret abduction and torture of people; the trigger-happy conduct of our poorly trained and poorly led troops in places like Iraq and Afghanistan; and our ideological bullying of other cultures because of our obsession with abortion and our contempt for international law (particularly the International Criminal Court) as illustrated by Bush’s nomination of John R. Bonkers” Bolton to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Third, if we can overcome our imminent financial crisis and our penchant for boorish behavior abroad, we might then be able to reform our foreign policies. Among the issues here are the slow-moving evolutionary changes in the global balance of power that demand new approaches. The most important evidence that our life as the sole” superpower is going to be exceedingly short is the fact that our monopoly of massive military power is being upstaged by other forms of influence. Chief among these is China’s extraordinary growth and our need to adjust to it.

Let me discuss each of these three problems in greater depth.

In 2004, the United States imported a record $617.7 billion more than it exported, a 24.4 percent increase over 2003. The annual deficit with China was $162 billion, the largest trade imbalance ever recorded by the United States with a single country. Equally important, as of March 9, 2005, the public debt of the United States was just over $7.7 trillion and climbing, making us easily the world’s largest net debtor nation. Refusing to pay for its profligate consumption patterns and military expenditures through taxes on its own citizens, the United States is financing these outlays by going into debt to Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and India. This situation has become increasingly unstable, as the United States requires capital imports of at least $2 billion per day to pay for its governmental expenditures. Any decision by Asian central banks to move significant parts of their foreign exchange reserves out of the dollar and into the euro or other currencies in order to protect themselves from dollar depreciation will likely produce a meltdown of the American economy. On February 21, 2005, the Korean central bank, which has some $200 billion in reserves, quietly announced that it intended to diversify the currencies in which it invests.” The dollar fell sharply and the U.S. stock market (although subsequently recovering) recorded its largest one-day fall in almost two years. This small incident is evidence of the knife-edge on which we are poised.

Japan possesses the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves, which at the end of January 2005 stood at around $841 billion. But China also sits on a $609.9 billion pile of U.S. cash, earned from its trade surpluses with us. Meanwhile, the American government insults China in every way it can, particularly over the status of China’s breakaway province, the island of Taiwan. The distinguished economic analyst William Greider recently noted, Any profligate debtor who insults his banker is unwise, to put it mildly. … American leadership has … become increasingly delusional — I mean that literally — and blind to the adverse balance of power accumulating against it.”

These deficits and dependencies represent unusual economic statistics for a country with imperial pretensions. In the 19th century, the British Empire ran huge current account surpluses, which allowed it to ignore the economic consequences of disastrous imperialist ventures like the Boer War. On the eve of the First World War, Britain had a surplus amounting to 7 percent of its GDP. America’s current account deficit is close to 6 percent of our GDP.

In order to regain any foreign confidence in the sanity of our government and the soundness of our policies, we need, at once, to reverse President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, including those on capital gains and estates (the rich are so well off they’ll hardly notice it), radically reduce our military expenditures, and stop subsidizing agribusinesses and the military-industrial complex. Only a few years ago the United States enjoyed substantial federal surpluses and was making inroads into its public debt. If we can regain fiscal solvency, the savers of Asia will probably continue to finance our indebtedness. If we do not, we risk a fear-driven flight from the dollar by all our financiers, collapse of our stock exchange and global recession for a couple of years — from which the rest of the world will ultimately emerge. But by then we who no longer produce much of anything valuable will have become a banana republic. Debate over our foreign policy will become irrelevant. We will have become dependent on the kindness of strangers. 

Ugly Americans

Meanwhile, the bad manners of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and their band of neoconservative fanatics from the American Enterprise Institute dominate the conduct of American foreign policy. It is simply unacceptable that after the Abu Ghraib torture scandal Congress has so far failed to launch an investigation into those in the executive branch who condoned it. It is equally unacceptable that the president’s chief apologist for the official but secret use of torture is now the attorney general, that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld did not resign, and that the seventh investigation of the military by the military (this time headed by Vice Admiral Albert Church III) again whitewashed all officers and blamed only a few unlucky enlisted personnel on the night shift in one cellblock of Abu Ghraib prison. Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate and a veteran of 23 years of service as an army officer, says in his book The New American Militarism of these dishonorable incidents: The Abu Ghraib debacle showed American soldiers not as liberators but as tormentors, not as professionals but as sadists getting cheap thrills.” Until this is corrected, a president and secretary of state bloviating about freedom and democracy is received by the rest of the world as mere window-dressing.

Foreign policy analysts devote considerable attention to the concept of credibility” — whether or not a nation is trustworthy. There are several ways to lose one’s credibility. One is to politicize intelligence, as Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney did in preparing for their preventive war against Iraq. Today, only a fool would take at face value something said by the CIA or our other secret intelligence services. China has already informed us that it does not believe our intelligence on North Korea, and our European allies have said the same thing about our apocalyptic estimates on Iran.

Similarly, our bloated military establishment routinely makes pronouncements that are untrue. The scene of a bevy of generals and admirals — replete with campaign ribbons marching up and over their left shoulders — baldly lying to congressional committees is familiar to any viewer of our network newscasts.

For example, on February 3, 1998, Marine pilots were goofing off in a military jet and cut the cables of a ski lift in northern Italy, plunging 20 individuals to their deaths. The Marine Corps did everything in its power to avoid responsibility for the disaster, then brought the pilots back to the States for court-martial, dismissed the case as an accident and exonerated the pilots. The Italians haven’t forgotten either the incident or how the United States treated an ally. On March 4, 2005, American soldiers opened fire on a civilian car en route to Baghdad airport, killing a high-ranking Italian intelligence officer and wounding the journalist Giuliana Sgrena, who had just been released by kidnappers. The U.S. military immediately started its cover-up, claiming that the car was speeding, that the soldiers had warned it with lights and warning shots and that the Italians had given no prior notice of the trip. Sgrena has contradicted everything our military said. The White House has called it a horrific accident,” but whatever the explanation, we have once again made one of our closest European allies look like dupes for cooperating with us.

In its arrogance and overconfidence, the Bush administration has managed to convince the rest of the world that our government is incompetent. The administration has not only tried to undercut treaties it finds inconvenient but refuses to engage in normal diplomacy with its allies to make such treaties more acceptable. Thus, administration representatives simply walked away from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming that tried to rein in carbon dioxide emissions, claiming that the economic costs were too high. (The United States generates far more such emissions than any other country.) All of the United States’ democratic allies continued to work on the treaty despite our boycott. On July 23, 2001, in Bonn, Germany, a compromise was reached on the severity of the cuts in emissions advanced industrial nations would have to make and on the penalties to be imposed if they do not, resulting in a legally binding treaty so far endorsed by more than 180 nations. The modified Kyoto Protocol is hardly perfect, but it is a start toward the reduction of greenhouse gases. 

Similarly, the United States and Israel walked out of the United Nations conference on racism held in Durban, South Africa, in August and September 2001. The nations that stayed on eventually voted down Syrian demands that language accusing Israel of racism be included. The conference’s final statement also produced an apology for slavery as a crime against humanity” but did so without making slaveholding nations liable for reparations. Given the history of slavery in the United States and the degree to which the final document was adjusted to accommodate American concerns, our walkout seemed to be yet another display of imperial arrogance — a bald-faced message that we” do not need you” to run this world. 

Until the United States readopts the norms of civilized discourse among nations, it can expect other nations — quietly and privately — to do everything in their power to isolate and disengage from us.

Future reforms

If through some miracle we were able to restore fiscal rationality, honesty and diplomacy to their rightful places in our government, then we could turn to reforming our foreign policies. First and foremost, we should get out of Iraq and demand that Congress never again fail to honor article 1, section 8, clause 11 of the Constitution giving it the exclusive power to go to war. After that, I believe the critical areas in need of change are our policies toward Israel, imported oil, China and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, although the environment and relations with Latin America may be equally important. 

Perhaps the most catastrophic error of the Bush administration was to abandon the policies of all previous American administrations to seek an equitable peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Bush instead joined Ariel Sharon in his expropriation and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. As a result, the United States has lost all credibility, influence and trust in the Islamic world. In July 2004, Zogby International Surveys polled 3,300 Arabs in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. When asked whether respondents had a favorable” or unfavorable” opinion of the United States, the unfavorables” ranged from 69 to 98 percent. In the year 2000 there were 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide, some 22 percent of the global population; through our policies we have turned most of them against the United States. We should resume at once the role of honest broker between the Israelis and Palestinians that former President Clinton pioneered.

The United States imports about 3.8 billion barrels of oil a year, or about 10.6 million barrels a day. These imports are at the highest levels ever recorded and come increasingly from Persian Gulf countries. A cut-off of Saudi Arabia’s ability or willingness to sell its oil to us would, at the present time, constitute an economic catastrophe. By using currently available automotive technologies as well as those being incorporated today in new Toyota and Honda automobiles, we could end our entire dependency on Persian Gulf oil. We should do that before we are forced to do so.

China’s gross domestic product in 2004 grew at a rate of 9.5 percent, easily the fastest among big countries. It is today the world’s sixth largest economy with a GDP of $1.4 trillion. It has also become the trading partner of choice for the developing world, absorbing huge amounts of food, raw materials, machinery and computers. Can the United States adjust peacefully to the reemergence of China — the world’s oldest, continuously extant civilization — this time as a modern superpower? Or is China’s ascendancy to be marked by yet another world war like those of the last century? That is what is at stake. A rich, capitalist China is not a threat to the United States and cooperation with it is our best guarantee of military security in the Pacific.

Nothing is more threatening to our nation than the spread of nuclear weapons. We developed a good policy with the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which with its 188 adherents is the most widely supported arms control agreement ever enacted. Only India, Israel and Pakistan remained outside its terms until January 10, 2003, when North Korea withdrew. Under the treaty, the five nuclear-weapons states (the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom) agree to undertake nuclear disarmament, while the non-nuclear-weapons states agree not to develop or acquire such weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is authorized to inspect the non-nuclear-weapons states to ensure compliance. The Bush administration has virtually ruined this international agreement by attempting to denigrate the IAEA, by tolerating nuclear weapons in India, Israel, and Pakistan while fomenting wars against Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and by planning to develop new forms of nuclear weapons. Our policy should be to return at once to this established system of controls.

Finally, the most important change we could make in American policy would be to dismantle our imperial presidency and restore a balance among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of our government. The massive and secret powers of the Department of Defense and the CIA have subverted the republican structure of our democracy and left us exposed to the real danger of a military takeover. Reviving our constitutional system would do more than anything else to protect our peace and security.

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Chalmers Johnson is the author of the Blowback Trilogy. The first two books of which, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, and The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic—are now available in paperback. The third volume is being written.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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