excerpted from the book
The Costs and Consequences of American Empire
by Chalmers Johnson
Henry Holt, 2000
Every now and then ... America's responsibility for its imperial
policies briefly comes into public view. One such moment occurred
on July 17, 1998, in Rome, when, by a margin of 120 to 7, delegates
from the nations of the world voted to establish an international
criminal court to bring to justice soldiers and political leaders
charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
This court will differ from the International Court of Justice
in The Hague in that, unlike the older court, which can settle
disputes only among nations, it will have jurisdiction over individuals.
As a result, efforts like those to bring Bosnian and Rwandan war
criminals to justice, which today need specially constituted U.N.
tribunals, will be far easier. The new court will put on trial
individuals who commit or order atrocities comparable to those
of the Nazis during World War II, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Saddam
Hussein in Iraq, the Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Hutus in
Rwanda, or military governments like those of El Salvador, Argentina,
Chile, Honduras, Guatemala, Burma, and Indonesia in the 1980s
Leading democracies of the world, including Britain, Canada,
Holland, France, Japan, and Germany, supported the treaty. Only
Algeria, China, Israel, Libya, Qatar, Yemen, and the United States
voted against it.
The terms of the treaty setting up the court specifically include
as war crimes rape, forced pregnancy, torture, and the forcible
recruitment of children into the military. The United States objected
to including these acts within the court's jurisdiction, claiming
that the court should concern itself only with genocide. The French
at first joined the United States in opposing the treaty because
French troops had trained the Hutu-controlled Rwandan military,
which in 1993 and 1994 helped organize the massacres of some eight
hundred thousand people belonging to the Tutsi tribe. France feared
that its officers and men could be charged with complicity in
genocide. After a clause was added to the treaty allowing signatories
to exempt themselves from the court's jurisdiction for its first
seven years, France said that its fears had been assuaged and
agreed to sign.
This escape clause was still not enough for the United States.
Its representative held that because the "world's greatest
military and economic power . . . is expected" to intervene
in humanitarian catastrophes wherever they occur, this "unique
position" makes its personnel especially vulnerable to the
mandate of an international criminal court capable of arresting
and trying individuals. He did not deal with the question of whether
war crimes charges against Americans might on some occasions be
warranted, nor did he, of course, raise the possibility that if
his country intervened less often in the affairs of other states
where none of its vital interests were involved, it might avoid
the possibility of even a capricious indictment.
At Nuremberg, the United States pioneered the idea of holding
governmental leaders responsible for war crimes, and it is one
of the few countries that has an assistant secretary of state
for human rights. Its pundits and lawmakers endlessly criticize
other nations for failing to meet American standards in the treatment
of human beings under their jurisdiction. No country has been
more active than the United States in publicizing the idea of
"human rights," even if it has been notably silent in
some cases, ignoring, implicitly condoning, or even endorsing
acts of ~ ate terrorism by regimes with which it has been closely
The American government displays one face to its own people (and
its English-speaking allies) but another in areas where the support
of repressive governments seems necessary to maintain American
imperial dominance. Whenever this contradiction is revealed, as
at Rome, Americans try to cover it up with rhetoric about the
national burden of being the "indispensable nation,"
or what the Council on Foreign Relations calls the world's "reluctant
Only seven months before the Rome vote, there was another
moment when the nature of America's stealth imperialism was revealed.
In December 1997, in Ottawa, 123 nations pledged to ban the use,
production, or shipment of antipersonnel land mines. Retired American
military leaders like General Norman Schwarzkopf, commanding general
of allied forces in the Gulf War, have endorsed the ban, arguing
that these primitive but lethal weapons have no role in modem
warfare. The Clinton administration, however, bowed to military
vested interests desperate to retain land mines in the American
arsenal. Among other things, it insisted that land mines were
needed to protect South Korea against the "North's overwhelming
military advantage," itself a myth. The holdouts against
this agreement were Afghanistan, China, Russia (which later reversed
its position), Vietnam-and the United States. An American citizen,
Jody Williams of Putney, Vermont, would later win the Nobel Peace
Prize for her efforts in organizing nations and various lobbying
groups like the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation to work
toward ending the use of this "garbage weapon"-a phrase
from Robert Muller, another American and a Vietnam veteran wounded
by a land mine, who set in motion the movement that resulted in
the treaty. The Clinton administration felt so embarrassed by
its vote that in May 1998 it convened its own Conference on Global
Humanitarian Demining at the State Department in a public relations
attempt to improve its image. Only twenty-one countries attended.
There are today between sixty million and one hundred million
deployed land mines in some sixty countries around the world (at
least ten million in Cambodia alone and another nine million in
Angola). They cost on average about three dollars apiece to produce.
They kill some twenty-six thousand people a year, primarily civilians
in developing countries, and they have been responsible for the
deaths of more people than all the weapons of mass destruction
It is not just a matter of personal courage. The relationship
between the civilian elite that runs this country and its powerful
military has undergone a sea change since the 1950s. It is now
increasingly likely that a congressman, a senator, a state department
official, even a president will not have served in the military.
The draft-deferment system during the Vietnam War signaled the
early stages of this process, in which promising students and
professionals-mainly middle- or upperclass young men-were kept
out of Vietnam in the name of national security and the nation's
welfare, while the poor and working-class largely fought the war.
Both President Clinton and his secretary of defense William Cohen
enjoyed student deferments during Vietnam (Cohen had a marital
one as well), and neither served in the armed forces. In the wake
of Vietnam, with the military transformed into a purely volunteer
career choice, the gap between the experiences of the civilian
and the military hierarchies has only widened-and with the threat
of the former USSR ended, the fact is that the military has for
the first time begun to slip beyond civilian control.
In 1987 ... the government created a new Special Operations Command
headquartered in Tampa, Florida, and placed it under an equally
new assistant secretary of defense for special operations and
low-intensity conflict. The command's purpose was to consolidate
and coordinate the activities of the forty-seven thousand "special
forces" groups scattered across the military's complex organizational
charts, including the army's Green Berets, Rangers, and covert
Delta Force; the Navy's SEALS and covert Team 6; and the special
operations and commando
units of the air force and the Marine Corps. One of the sponsors
of this new structure was William Cohen, then a Republican senator
from Maine, whose "keen interest in special operations"
Washington Post reporter Dana Priest has noted "dates back
decades." Some military professionals and observers discount
special operations because they do not rely on traditional military
subdivisions and because they cost so little money compared with
carrier task forces or B-2 bombers. Their political clout, however,
vastly exceeds their budgetary needs and they were in no way "downsized"
after the end of the Cold War. These covert units work closely
with the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon's Defense
Intelligence Agency (DIA). Programs like the ClA's efforts at
an army base in Colorado and in Okinawa until 1968 to train some
four hundred Tibetan exiles to fight the Chinese or the ClA's
vast operations in supplying weapons to guerrillas harassing the
Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s have now been turned
over to the Special Operations Command.
In 1991, Congress inadvertently gave the military's special
forces a green light to penetrate virtually every country on earth.
It passed a law (Section 2011, Title 10) authorizing something
called the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program. This
allowed the Department of Defense to send special operations forces
on overseas exercises with military units of other countries so
long as the primary purpose of the mission was stated to be the
training of our soldiers, not theirs. The law did not indicate
what JCET exercises should train these troops to do, but one purpose
was certainly to train them in espionage. They return from such
exercises loaded with information about and photographs of the
country they have visited, and with new knowledge of its military
units, terrain, and potential adversaries. As of 1998 the Special
Operations Command had established JCET missions in 110 countries.
The various special forces have interpreted this law as an
informal invitation to train foreign military forces in numerous
lethal skills, as well as to establish relationships with their
officer corps aimed at bringing them on board as possible assets
for future political operations. Most of this has been done without
any oversight by Congress, the State Department, or ambassadors
in the countries where JCET exercises have been conducted. As
a series of expose articles in the Washington Post indicated in
1998, most members of the foreign policy apparatus had never even
heard of JCET, and the assistant secretary of defense in charge
of these special operations was noticeably vague in his answers
to congressional questions about the programs.
It has only slowly come to light, for instance, that in JCET
exercises Americans offered crucial training to the Turkish mountain
commandos, who in their ongoing operations against their country's
rebellious Kurdish population have killed at least twenty-two
thousand people; that during 1998 multiple special forces operations
were carried out in each of the nineteen countries of Latin America
and in nine Caribbean nations; and that United States special
forces units have given training in such skills as advanced sniper
techniques, close-quarters combat, military operations in urban
terrain, and psychological warfare operations to military units
in Colombia, Rwanda, Surinam, Equatorial Guinea, Sri Lanka, Pakistan,
and Papua New Guinea, among other nations. In each of these cases,
they were acting in violation of U.S. human rights policies and
sometimes of direct presidential or congressional prohibitions...
The Washington Post obtained a copy of a 1990 Department of
Defense manual entitled Doctrine for Special Forces Operations,
which describes the main activity of special forces on JCET missions
as giving instruction in FID, or "foreign internal defense."
In other words, most of the training exercises are meant to prepare
foreign militaries for actions against their own populaces or
rebel forces in their countries. The manual defines FID as organizing,
training, advising, and assisting a foreign military establishment
in order to protect its society from "subversion, lawlessness,
... Stripped of its euphemistic language, FID amounts to little
more than instruction in state terrorism. Republican representative
Christopher Smith, chairman of the House of Representatives Subcommittee
on International Operations and Human Rights, says, "Our
joint exercises and training of military units-that have been
charged over and over again with the gravest kind of crimes against
humanity, including torture and murder-cry out for explanation."
But the U.S. secretary of defense seems to be unconcerned. "In
those areas where our forces conduct JCET," Secretary Cohen
averred, L "they encourage democratic values and regional
The IMF ... is staffed primarily with holders of Ph.D.s in economics
from American universities, who are both illiterate about and
contemptuous of cultures that do not conform to what they call
the American way of life." They offer only "one size
(or, rather, one capitalism) fits all" remedies for ailing
economic institutions. The IMF has applied these over the years
to countries in Latin America, Russia, and East Asia without ever
achieving a single notable success.
The Pentagon's most recent route around accountability is: "privatization"
of its training activities. As investigative journalist Ken Silverstein
has written, "With little public knowledge or debate, the
government has been dispatching private companies-most of them
with tight links to the Pentagon and staffed by retired armed
forces personnel-to provide military and police training to America's
foreign allies." The companies involved are generally associated
with the Department of Defense's Special Operations Command, which
has replaced the ClA's Directorate of Operations as the main American
sponsor of covert action in other countries. Nonetheless, these
are privately contracted mercenaries who, by their nature, are
not directly responsible to the military chain of command. In
many cases, these private companies have been formed by retired
special forces personnel seeking to market their military training
to foreign governments, regardless of the policies of the Defense
One reason privatization appeals to the Pentagon is that whatever
these companies do becomes "proprietary information."
The Pentagon does not even have to classify it; and as private
property, information on the activities of such companies is exempt
from the Freedom of Information Act. Given the extreme legalism
of American political culture, this is sufficient to shield such
companies from public scrutiny, although it would probably not
protect them from the new international criminal court. Private
companies are at present training the armies of Croatia and Saudi
Arabia and are active in Honduras, Peru, and many other Latin
American countries. Such firms also purchase weaponry from former
Soviet states for distribution to groups that the U.S. government
may want to arm without being accused of doing so, such as guerrillas
fighting for Bosnia and in Kosovo.
... By several orders of magnitude the United States maintains
the world's largest military establishment and is the world's
biggest arms exporter. According to 1995 figures released by the
U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (whose very name is an
Orwellian misnomer and which, in 1998, was absorbed by the State
Department), the world spent $864 billion on military forces.
Of this amount, the United States accounted for $278 billion,
or 32 percent, some 3.7 times more than the then second-ranked
country, Russia. The most dramatic cuts in military spending since
1987, the all-time peak year, when $1.36 trillion worth of arms
passed from manufacturers to buyers, have come from Russia and
other states of the former Soviet Union. The Stockholm International
Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reports that in 1997 the U.S.
share of global deliveries of major conventional weapons, worth
about $740 billion, had grown to 43 percent whereas Russia's share
was 14 percent.
In 1997, total worldwide military and arms spending was approximately
one-third lower than ten years ago, at the end of the Cold War.
Nonetheless, in addition to being the world leader in arms transfers,
the United States continues to dominate the development of military
technology. According to SIPRI, the U.S. military research and
development budget was more than seven times that of second-place
France. In 1997, SIPRI found that the world spent $58 billion
on military R&D, of which the United States spent $37 billion.
In terms of overall national military spending, the Pentagon's
most recent Quadrennial Defense Review, concluded in May 1997,
envisaged defense budgets in the range of $250-260 billion until
the end of time-an amount vastly greater than anything that might
be spent by any conceivable combination of adversaries. The defense
budget for the year 2000 was $267.2 billion, plus augmentations
in order to pay for the Kosovo war.
Together with NATO, Japan, South Korea, and Israel, the United
States accounts for 80 percent of the world's total military spending.
In 1995, the United States alone outspent Russia, China, Iraq,
Syria, Iran, North Korea, Libya, and Cuba combined, by a ratio
of two to one; with its allies, it outstripped all potential adversaries
by a ratio of four to one. If the comparison is restricted to
only those countries considered regional threats by the Pentagon-the
"rogue states" of Iraq, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Libya,
and Cuba-the United States outspent them twenty-two to one.
Interestingly enough, maintaining access to Persian Gulf oil requires
about $50 billion of the annual U.S. defense budget, including
maintenance of one or more carrier task forces there, protecting
sea lanes, and keeping large air forces in readiness in the area.
But the oil we import from the Persian Gulf costs only a fifth
that amount, about $11 billion per annum. Middle Eastern oil accounts
for 10 percent of U.S. consumption, 25 percent of Europe's, and
half of that of Japan, which contributes in inverse proportion
to maintaining a G-7 military presence there. It is not that Europe
and Japan are incapable of securing their own oil supplies through
commercial treaties, diplomacy, or military activity, but that
America's global hegemony makes it unnecessary for them to do
One of the things this huge military establishment also does
is sell arms to other countries, making the Pentagon a critical
economic agency of the United States government. Militarily oriented
products account for about a quarter of the total U.S. gross domestic
product. The government employs some 6,500 people just to coordinate
and administer its arms sales program in conjunction with senior
officials at American embassies around the world, who spend most
of their "diplomatic" careers working as arms salesmen.
The Arms Export Control Act requires that the executive branch
notify Congress of foreign military and construction sales directly
negotiated by he Pentagon. Commercial sales valued at $14 million
or more negotiated by the arms industry must also be reported.
Using official Pentagon statistics, between 1990 and 1996 the
combination of the three categories amounted to $97,836,821,000.
From this nearly $100 billion figure must be subtracted the $3
billion a year the government offers its foreign customers to
help subsidize arms purchases from the United States.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute,
the five leading arms suppliers for the period 1993 through 1997
were the United States, Russia, England, France, and Germany,
though total American sales were some $14 billion greater than
those of the other four combined. SIPRI has found that the five
leading arms purchasers for that period were Saudi Arabia, Taiwan,
Turkey, Egypt, and South Korea, each of which spent between $5
billion and $10 billion on arms over this five-year period. Japan
was the second-biggest purchaser of high-tech weapons. All the
leading purchasers were close American allies or clients.
Both the United States government and the world's arms dealers
claim that the arms trade has declined since 1987, the benchmark
year for the Cold War. However, this "decline" is based
almost entirely on declining arms sales by the former Soviet bloc-and
it is likely that the 1987 estimates of arms sales by the former
Soviet Union were as inflated as the estimates of, for example,
the Soviet naval threat during the 1980s. American arms sales
in any case have actually increased in the years since the Cold
War ended. By 1995, according to its own Arms Control and Disarmament
Agency, the United States was the source of 49 percent of global
arms exports. It shipped arms of various types to some 140 countries,
90 percent of which were either not democracies or are human rights
Arms sales are ... a major cause of a developing blowback world
whose price we have yet to begin to pay.
In many cases, for instance, the United States has been busily
arming opponents in ongoing conflicts-Iran and Iraq, Greece and
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and China and Taiwan. Saddam
Hussein of Iraq, the number-one "rogue" leader of the
1990s, was during the 1980s simply an outstanding customer with
an almost limitless line of credit because of his country's oil
reserves. Often the purchasing country makes its purchases conditional
on the transfer of technology and patents, so that it can ultimately
manufacture the items for itself and others. The result is the
proliferation around the world not just of weapons but of new
weapons industries. On January 10, 1995, former CIA director James
Woolsey told Congress that weapons sales "have the potential
to significantly alter military balances, and disrupt U.S. military
operations and cause significant U.S. casualties." Yet on
August 27, 1998, in a typical example of the Pentagon shaping-or
misshaping-foreign policy through arms sales, the Department of
Defense announced the sale of several hundred missiles and antisubmarine
torpedoes to Taiwan for $350 million. China naturally denounced
the sale as a violation of agreements it had with the United States.
The Defense Department's response was, "The proposed sale
of this military equipment will not affect the basic military
balance in the region." If that is true, why sell the equipment
in the first place? Was it merely to enhance the balance sheets
of several defense corporations to which the Pentagon is closely
tied? If it is not true, why even bother to suggest that the balance
of power is of any interest to the Pentagon?
In August 1996, then Secretary of Defense Perry called for
an end to a decades-old ban on arms sales to Latin America on
the grounds that most countries in the region were now democracies,
so it is inconceivable that they would use newly purchased arms
against one another. A year later, on August 1, 1997, the White
House announced, "In the past decade, Latin America has changed
dramatically from a region dominated by coups and military governments
to one of democracy and civilian control.... Some Latin American
countries are now addressing the need to modernize their militaries."
The Clinton administration thereupon authorized the sale of advanced
American weapons to any and all buyers south of the border (except,
of course, Cuba).
In 1999, he observed, "Americans have shown great concern
about the reported loss of classified nuclear secrets to the Chinese.
But they should be just as outraged that their country gives away
many other military secrets voluntarily, in the form of high-tech
arms exports. By selling advanced weaponry throughout the world,
wealthy military contractors not only weaken national security
and squeeze taxpayers at home but also strengthen dictators and
worsen human misery abroad."
When such contradictions are exposed, the Pentagon falls back
on the argument that if it does not sell the arms to Latin America,
some other country will. By analogy, Colombia might say to the
United States comfortably with his wife and children in Florida.
The economic benefits of arms sales have been vastly overstated.
The world's second-largest capitalist economy, Japan, does very
well without them. In the late l990s, the economy of Southern
California started to thrive once it finally got beyond its Cold
War dependence on aerospace sales. Many of the most outspoken
congressional champions of reducing the federal budget are profligate
when it comes to funding arms industries in their localities,
often with the expectation of what future export sales will do
for their constituents. In January 1998, then House Speaker Newt
Gingrich added $2.5 billion to the defense budget for more F-22s
and C-130s, which even the air force did not want (or need), only
because they were partly manufactured in Georgia. In June 1998,
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott added the construction of another
helicopter aircraft carrier (that the navy insisted it did not
need) to that year's $270 billion defense appropriations bill
because the ship was to be built at Pascagoula, Mississippi.
- The Costs and Consequences of American Empire