Review of Chalmers Johnson's The Sorrows of Empire

News Abroad

Mr. Kutler is the author of The Wars of Watergate.

Chalmers Johnson's The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic explores the present extent of what Johnson regards as U.S. militarism and empire. It is a disquieting revelation of the effects of current affairs upon American freedom and democracy. Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute and professor emeritus at UC San Diego, is a formidable writer whose many books have garnered considerable acclaim. His work on the Japanese postwar political economy is unrivaled.

Blowback, his study of the unintended consequences of U.S. overseas military and political adventures, published before Sept. 11, 2001, proved prescient. It forms the backdrop for this new and eagerly awaited work.

Here Johnson is equally concerned with the potentially destructive consequences of U.S. actions for our constitutional republic. He views the last thirty years as of a piece, with policies calculated to maximize our influence and profits abroad. But the Bush administration, he insists, came to power determined to offer new military muscle and doctrine to expand our impact abroad. And as we increasingly invoke our power throughout the world - the "only superpower," as we are wont to say - he contends that our values as a free, open society increasingly are subordinated to the demands of war.

Johnson wants you to think Masirah Island. Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan. Kosovo. Ramstein. Think of 725 bases in 120 countries, and U.S. military personnel flung across the world like Roman legionnaires on the marches of empire. Now he also wants you to say "American Empire."

We are loath to use the word "empire" to describe our international role, thinking it has only a pejorative implication. But Johnson quotes George W.
Bush calling our nation "the greatest force for good in history." The drive to export our goodness has a divine-like quality and long antedates Bush.

During the American Revolution and in our first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, we envisioned the annexation of Canada, an idea that persisted into the twentieth century. When Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, he called it the "Empire of Liberty." Andrew Jackson spoke of Manifest Destiny as "expanding the area of freedom." Our "splendid little war" with Spain in 1898 scarcely concealed the ambitions of policymakers eager to acquire and enlarge an American imperium first in the Caribbean, which became an American sea, then in the Pacific, which became an American ocean.

Johnson offers many examples. The Spanish-American War enabled us to rescue our "little brown brothers," as President McKinley called them, in the Philippines. Stumping for taking over the Philippines, Theodore Roosevelt, who is so appropriately fashionable today, insisted "there is not an imperialist in the country.... Expansion? Yes.... Expansion has been the law of our national growth." Euphemisms abound. Johnson reminds us of Democrat Woodrow Wilson's liberal "idealist imperialism," one that would make the world safe for democracy.

U.S. history has many sides. As Johnson convincingly demonstrates, we have committed blatant acts of imperial domination and exploitation. But we also liberated Europe from the yoke of Nazi tyranny, rebuilt it with the generosity of the Marshall Plan, sent some of our best and brightest to do great works with the Peace Corps and stymied the expansion of communism, eventually forcing it to implode. We have - sometimes - been a "force for good."

Our role abroad often is a parody of the Marxist critique of imperialism. Johnson underlines the point with the well-known 1933 memoir of Marine Lt.
Gen. Smedley Butler, winner of two Medals of Honor. Butler summed up his thirty-three years of active service: "I spent most of my time as a high-class muscle-man for big business, for Wall Street, and the bankers.... Thus, I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenue in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street.... In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested."

Today's leaders bristle at being characterized as imperialists yet curiously wax nostalgic about the good old days of the British Empire. Johnson cites Max Boot, author of a celebratory account of America's various wars, touting the British as a model, when he remarked that "Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets." Johnson wonders why then did the British with their jodhpurs and pith helmets fail in Afghanistan, as did the Russians, whether against Cossacks with swords or Soviets with missiles? Why did the British retreat from their empire in the 1950s, and why did the Soviets leave Afghanistan in the 1980s? In Johnson's view, markets and profits were the prizes then, and nothing has changed.

Analogies must be used cautiously. Iraq is not Vietnam. There we confronted a resourceful, ferocious opponent that battled for more than three decades for its ideas. The vaunted Iraqi Republican Guard proved to be made of the same phantasmagorical material as the various alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Yet in the aftermath of the Vietnam disaster, Americans came to believe that the war provided the irrefutable lesson of the limits of U.S. power.
Now a determined group of policymakers has induced amnesia on the subject. It doesn't acknowledge limits to U.S. power. In fact, Johnson describes how its members have launched a new era, with President Bush instituting preemptive war as the foundation of our international role and insisting that the United States offers the "single sustainable model for national success," one that is "right and true for every person in every society."

The United States, he declared, "must defend liberty and justice because these principles are right and true for all people everywhere." John F.
Kennedy, too, once promised that we would go anywhere, fight any foe, to promote liberty and freedom. Before Kennedy died, he apparently realized his folly, and, in his American University speech in June 1963, said we could not unilaterally impose our will.

Although Iraq is not Vietnam, our experience in Indochina should have taught us the limits of our ability to be the world's policeman. We could not impose our will and force people to surrender their aspirations for independence and freedom (by their lights) only to become our client. Alas, those lessons now seem lost, even overwhelmed as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) confidently asserts that we would have won the Vietnam War had George W. Bush been president.

President Bush rightly has condemned North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein for their tyranny, brutality and oppression. But the president neglected to mention how readily Americans tend to measure moral behavior in others for our convenience. Johnson shows no such reluctance, and his book is replete with many instances. Donald H. Rumsfeld heartily supported Iraq in its 1980s war against Iran, ignoring the gassing of Kurds, Iraqis and Iranians. But U.S. officials needed Hussein then, if for no other reason than that he fought our great Persian enemy. And now Bush entertains and rewards President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, President Askar A. Akayev of Kyrgyzstan, President Nursultan Nazabayev of Kazakhstan and President Saparmurad A. Niyazov of Turkmenistan because they allowed our troops to use their bases and fly over their territories. Democracy in these countries? The word is unknown. Their leaders are Stalinist relics of the old Soviet Union, hardly paragons for liberty, democracy, freedom and an open society. But they do know how to flatter us. Johnson dryly notes that Kyrgyzstan's president allowed the United States to name a new base in that country after the highest-ranking New York City firefighter to die in the World Trade Center attacks.

Since World War II, Americans have witnessed the growth of the "imperial presidency," with ever-expanding presidential powers, especially in foreign policy. The largely symbolic War Powers Resolution of 1973 eventually satisfied congressional egos as long as presidents made some gesture toward shared decision-making in matters of military action.

Johnson seeks to hoist the "neo-conservatives" with their own petard. They love, he writes, to breathe the air of "originalism" in the Constitution, yet they openly reject the framers' wisdom. James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution," wrote in 1793: "In no part of the Constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not the executive.... The trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man."

Yet President Bush unilaterally declared a long war against terrorism. Johnson notes that a White House spokesman at the time remarked that the president "considers any opposition to his policies to be no less than an act of treason." Treason? In his campaign, Bush joked in October 2000, "If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator." After Sept. 11, he told a reporter: "I'm the commander - see, I don't need to explain - I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation." So much for James Madison.

Johnson has given us a polemic, but one soundly grounded in an impressive array of facts and data. The costs of empire are our sorrow, he contends.
He anticipates a state of perpetual war, involving more military expenditures and overseas expansion, and presidents who will continue to eclipse or ignore Congress. He documents a growing system of propaganda, disinformation and glorification of war and military power. Finally, he fears economic bankruptcy as the president underwrites these adventures with a congressional blank check while neglecting growing problems of education, health care and a decaying physical infrastructure.

The Sorrows of Empire offers a powerful indictment of current U.S. military and foreign policy. It also provides an occasion to consider the constitutional values of our republic. A national frenzy erupted when Bill Clinton lied under oath about his sexual encounters. The media obsessed on the subject. His enemies passionately exalted the Holy Writ of the Constitution with religious-like devotion. Their silence now is deafening. Loyalty to the flag and the president seems more important, but these are not mandated constitutional principles. Would that these erstwhile defenders of constitutional faith and purity had expressed similar fervor in defense of the Constitution during the last two years.

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Don Williams - 1/19/2004

1) Ask the people of Kuwait how much democracy and freedom they have after Bush1 "freed" them in 1991.

The problem for the world --and for us -- is that the US Presidency is periodically captured by puppets for the Houston oil boys -- whose "bidness" requires the aggressive use of the US military (at US Taxpayer expense,naturally) to protect their investments, to coerce/intimidate foreign rulers into signing away their peoples' birthright in exchange for a piece of the pie, and to install corrupt puppets whenever a foreign leader balks at betraying his people.

2) That's why the world knows that democracy in Iraq is a deceitful sham -- that Executive operatives are working furiously behind the scenes to rigs the caucuses and install a puppet government that will write a blank check for Houston. Just look at how they duck and dodge whenever the Shite sheik demands opens elections.

3) Johnson didn't mention other countries where Al Qaeda has support. Indonesia, for example, where we installed a dictator in the 1960s, gave him a list of 100,000 people to kill, and then stood by for the next 4 decades as he and his family stole everything not nailed down -- throwing the millions of people in that country into deep poverty.

Iran, for example, where the CIA overthrew a lawfully elected Prime Minister ( Mossadagh), installed the
Shah , and then stood by while his Savak murdered and torured for decades.

How about the Phillipines? Anyone remember any US objection when their corrupt ally Marcos stole those people blind?

Notice how the US newspapers were careful to dance around the facts re the US company hit in the bombing in Saudi Arabia last year -- that that company had long supplied mercenaries and military technology to the "Saudi National Guard" -- a la the Saudi Gestapo?

4) Lest anyone talk of "patriotism" , let us note that Bush and his corrupt supporters are the real traitors to the American people. Bush's own Feb 2003 budget document showed that federal debt in 2008 will be $9.3 Trillion -- $3.3 Trillion higher than what he indicated two years earlier,in his Feb 2001 budget document. That's $70,000 of debt dumped on the middle class taxpayer --debt which will assuredly be collected in the near future, either by
high taxes on their "before tax" IRA/401Ks savings, by returning only a small portion of their Social Security/Medicare savings, or both.

Yet loudmouthed warbloggers like Glenn Reynolds over at Instapundit.com are quiet on the actual cost of Bush's actions. Glenn was extolling his Bush tax cut -- but failed to inform his readers that most of them had $70,000 of additional debt dumped on them by Bush, even though I sent Glenn explicit URLs to Bush's budget documents.
Glenn has recently acknowledged that there is something called "deficits".

5) Plus let's not forget the 500 men killed in Iraq so far and the thousands more maimed from wounds. Those men signed up with the understanding that they would defend the US, not be used as cannon fodder for an aggressive business plan.

6) The costs that Americans will have to pay for Bush have just started. The leaders of Europe, China, Russia, and Japan are starting to realize Bin Ladin's point in the Dawn interview: that
"There are many innocent and good-hearted people in the West. American media instigates them against Muslims. However, some good-hearted people are protesting against American attacks because human nature abhors injustice.

The Muslims were massacred under the UN patronage in Bosnia. I am ware that some officers of the State Department had resigned in protest. Many years ago the US ambassador in Egypt had resigned in protest against the policies of President Jimmy Carter. Nice and civilized are everywhere. The Jewish lobby has taken America and the West hostage."

but that

"The Sept 11 attacks were not targeted at women and children. The real targets were America's icons of military and economic power.

The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) was against killing women and children. When he saw a dead woman during a war, he asked why was she killed ? If a child is above 13 and wields a weapon against Muslims, then it is permitted to kill him.

The American people should remember that they pay taxes to their government, they elect their president, their government manufactures arms and gives them to Israel and Israel uses them to massacre Palestinians. The American Congress endorses all government measures and this proves that the entire America is responsible for the atrocities perpetrated against Muslims. The entire America, because they elect the Congress. "

"HM: Can it be said that you are against the American government, not the American people ?

OSB: Yes! We are carrying on the mission of our Prophet, Muhammad (peace be upon him). The mission is to spread the word of God, not to indulge massacring people. We ourselves are the target of killings, destruction and atrocities. We are only defending ourselves. This is defensive Jihad. We want to defend our people and our land. That is why I say that if we don't get security, the Americans, too would not get security.

This is a simple formula that even an American child can understand. This is the formula of live and let live. "

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/16/2004

How can the international community be both "corrupt and fake?"

Elia Markell - 1/16/2004

On the one hand, Professor Kutler tasks the Bush administration for "imperial overreach" and a failure to recognize limits to American power. On the other, he tasks it for not demanding perfection in the flawed leaders we cooperate with, as in Uzbekistan, etc. These are in fact contradictory criticisms. So which is it, professor?

Were we to insist on paragons everywhere, THAT would be imperial overreach. We would then, for instance, have invaded Lybia instead of pressuring it more subtlely as we have done (above all through the example of Iraq) into a more cooperative mode. Likewise Syria, now thrashing about in an effort to appear moderate without offending its terrorist clientele. Likewise Pakistan, now inching toward reconciliation with India. Likewise Saudi Arabia, where actual calls for openness are not automatically suppressed. Likewise Iran now scurring to seem cooperative on nuclear weapons programs. None of these cases is firm enough proof of the enormous success of our one war in Iraq. But they are certainly hopeful signs, are they not?

The notion that, because we took care of business in Iraq, finally, after twelve years of Saddam's provocation of the entire world, we somehow are engaged in some vast imperial adventure is absurd. What is new now is merely that a U.S. president is not willing to have a corrupt and fake "international community" exercise a veto on our efforts to assert our national interest. In the age of the spirit of transnational progressivism, that alone constitutes imperial overreach, I guess. To me it would seem as American as apple pie except that it is exactly what every other nation does in similar circumstances.

Michael Meo - 1/15/2004

Johnson's work fairly describes the imperium Americanum, and predicts its collapse.

It is logical that it will happen, and all the shrieking of the rightist patriots in the world will not delay its implosion by a single minute.