Sunday, September 05, 2010

A Collapse Cometh

Becoming an expert on Japanese politics is unlikely to provide a path to fame and influence in America. But writing a book that seemed to predict 9/11 might do the trick. Such has been the road traveled by Chalmers Johnson. In 2000, he wrote a book titled Blowback. The term, which comes from the CIA, encapsulates the unintended consequences of covert action by the government upon its citizens. Johnson focused on the slew of U.S. Military bases in Okinawa, Japan to demonstrate the concept. On September 11, blowback hit the U.S. in spectacular form. Previously unheralded, Johnson's book quickly became a best seller.

There followed two more books in what became known as the Blowback trilogy. Secondly came The Sorrows of Empire, published in 2004. In it, he cataloged the immense empire of bases--perhaps one thousand in number--which the U.S. occupies across well over one hundred nations throughout the world. These bases are not only costly, siphoning American wealth to rich contractors; they also foment hatred of the United States and its policies. In 2007, Nemesis rounded out the trilogy. Johnson argued that the empire threatens, not only our democracy--which is forever waging wars without the consent of the people--but the economic well-being of all Americans. If we do not change our policies, our empire will collapse, leaving the nation mired in bankruptcy.

Like the Hitchhiker's Guide, the Blowback trilogy now has more than three books. Johnson's most recent contribution is Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope. Despite the title, he leaves the reader feeling offers little by way of hope. Although he concludes by giving the reader "10 steps toward liquidating the empire", other essays supply ample evidence that the problem may prove intractable. Johnson notes that Obama has expanded the war in Afghanistan and spent more on defense in 2010 than Bush did in his last year in power. The economy may be tanking, but the Department of Defense and its legion of dependencies are still living large.

The book breaks little new ground. In fact, only two of the fifteen essays, as well as the introduction, represent previously unpublished material; the rest were written by Johnson during the last several years. Still, his book offers a reasonably complete criticism of the U.S. empire. The Blowback trilogy is well worth reading, but those who do not desire to tackle the entire thing would do well to start with Dismantling the Empire.

The book is divided into five parts, the last of which offers a program for reform. The first part recounts recent American foreign policy misadventures, from the arming of Afghani militants to fight the Soviets, up through the present Iraqi "conflict". We are reminded that, during the latter, armed forces stood by--and even partook--as ancient artifacts were stolen and buildings were pillaged and burned.

The second part examines the CIA and the ever increasing dependence of the Department of Defense on well-paid mercenaries. The Agency's stunning ineptitude is covered thoroughly. Those who believe that the CIA's mission ought to be accomplished will clamor for reform. Johnson, who finds much of the mission itself abhorrent, advocates abolition. In the third part, Johnson gives us an overview of the empire of bases he dealt with in the trilogy's second book.

The fourth part, "the pentagon takes us down" is the most fascinating. The United States spends more money on defense than the rest of the world combined. Tabulating the costs of empire can be difficult, since so much of it is hidden, but "conservatively calculated", the U.S. spent at least 1.1 trillion in fiscal year 2008. Alas, reducing the defense budget requires herculean political effort. Many thousands of Americans are remunerated lucratively by the racket in munitions.

Moreover, because politicians subscribe to what Johnson calls "military Keynesianism", any reduction in defense spending is seen as bad for the economy. The reality is that destructive spending crowds out private sector development; instead of making cars and televisions, the U.S. economy now produces fighter jets and bombs. Once the leader of the world in manufacturing, China is set to pass the U.S. by next year. These numbers obscure a reality which is direr still: "By 1990, the value of the weapons, equipment, and factories devoted to the Department of Defense was 83 percent of the value of all plants and equipment in American manufacturing." The empire wastes valuable resources, contributing only to the national debt.

Johnson is correct in noting that the empire will speed us toward bankruptcy. But he is wrong in insinuating that liquidating it will solve the problem. The debt crisis threatens to destroy much of the western world. Yet only America is cursed with empire. Eliminating this rope around the neck of the republic is a necessary step towards restoring solvency, but it is an insufficient one. When Johnson advises that the money spent on defense could be used to pay for Social Security and schools, he fails to realize that while the empire is doomed, social democracy is also facing an existential crisis.

One other caveat: twice Johnson reveals his support for abortion, once by bemoaning the fact that women who are impregnated while in the service cannot procure abortions on base. At long last, chalk one up for the empire. The world is not a better place because American women soldiers can kill their unborn children just as easily as they can slaughter an Afghani wedding party. An opposition to aggressive violence requires defending human life in all its forms.

The salient point is that, whatever his viewpoints on other topics, Johnson is completely correct when it comes to the empire. Dismantling it is an integral step in the restoration of the republic. Obama has proven that, like his progressive predecessors--Wilson, FDR, LBJ--Democrats can wage war just like Republicans. Chalmers Johnson proves that they can also offer a cogent critique of profligate defense spending. As a fellow enemy of empire, I heartily recommend Johnson's latest book. If the two parties in Washington can unite to keep the wars going, those of divergent ideological backgrounds can set aside our differences to prevent them from doing so.

UPDATE: The link to the original column now being a dead one, I have placed the entire text of my review above.


troutsky said...

There is a great piece in the New Left Review 64 called Obama vs Okinawa by Gavan Mc Cormack. Japan is under a great deal of political tension, deciding whether to lean West or East.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Thanks for the tip, Troutsky, I'll check it out.

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