The Sorrows of Empire

excerpted from the book

The Sorrows of Empire

Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic

by Chalmers Johnson

Henry Holt, 2004, paper



Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)

Although tyranny, because it needs no consent, may successfully rule over foreign peoples, it can stay in power only if it destroys first of all the national institutions of its own people.

The United States has been inching toward imperialism and militarism for many years. Our leaders, disguising the direction they were taking, cloaked their foreign policies in euphemisms such as "lone superpower?' "indispensable nation?' "reluctant sheriff?' "humanitarian intervention?' and "globalization?' With the advent of the George W. Bush administration and particularly after the assaults of September 11, 2001, however, these pretenses gave way to assertions of the second coming of the Roman Empire. "American imperialism used to be a fiction of the far-left imagination," wrote the English journalist Madeleine Bunting, "now it is an uncomfortable fact of life?"

From Cato to Cicero, the slogan Roman leaders was "Let them hate us so long as they fear us" (Oderint dum metuant).

Roman imperial sorrows mounted up over hundreds of years. Ours are likely to arrive with the speed of FedEx. If present trends continue, four sorrows, it seems to me, are certain to be visited on the United States. Their cumulative impact guarantees that the United States will cease to bear any resemblance to the country once outlined in our Constitution. First, there will be a state of perpetual war, leading to more terrorism against Americans wherever they may be and a growing reliance on weapons of mass destruction among smaller nations as they try to ward off the imperial juggernaut. Second, there will be a loss of democracy and constitutional rights as the presidency fully eclipses Congress and is itself transformed from an "executive branch" of government into something more like a Pentagonized presidency. Third, an already well-shredded principle of truthfulness will increasingly be replaced by a system of propaganda, disinformation, and glorification of war, power, and the military legions. Lastly, there will be bankruptcy, as we pour our economic resources into ever more grandiose military projects and shortchange the education, health, and safety of our fellow citizens.

historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., former special assistant to President John F. Kennedy, wrote

"The president has adopted a policy of 'anticipatory self-defense' that is alarmingly similar to the policy that imperial Japan employed at Pearl Harbor..."

Through its actions, the United States seems determined to bring about precisely the threats that it says it is trying to prevent. Its apparent acceptance of a "clash of civilizations" and of wars to establish a moral truth that is the same in every culture sounds remarkably like a jihad, especially given the Bush administration's ties to Christian fundamentalism. The president even implicitly equated himself with Jesus Christ in repeated statements (notably on September 20, 2001) that those who are not with us are against us, a line clearly meant to echo Matthew 12:30, "He that is not with me is against me?

John Kiesling, a senior diplomat then serving at the American embassy in Greece, resigned and wrote to the secretary of state, February 2003

"The policies we are now asked to advance are incompatible not only with American values but also with American interests .... We have begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of international relationships the world has ever known. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security."

Militarism and imperialism threaten democratic government at home just as they menace the independence and sovereignty of other countries. Whether George Bush and his zealots can bring about "regime change" in a whole range of other countries may be an open question, but they certainly seem in the process of doing so within the United States. In the second presidential debate, on October 11, 2000, Bush joked, "If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator." A little more than a year later, in response to a question by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, he said, "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 .

Bush and his administration have worked tirelessly to expand the powers of the presidency at the expense of the other branches of government and the Constitution. Article 1, section 8 of the Constitution says explicitly, "The Congress shall have the power to declare war." It prohibits the president from making that decision. The most influential author of the Constitution, James Madison, 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 department .... The trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man.' Yet, after September 11, 2001, President Bush unilaterally declared that the nation was "at war" more or less forever against terrorism, and a White House spokesman later noted that the president "considers any opposition to his policies to be no less than an act of treason.

During October 3 to 10, 2002, Congress's "week of shame" (in the phrase of military affairs analyst Winslow T. Wheeler), both houses voted to give the president open-ended authority to wage war against Iraq (296 to 33 in the House and 77 to 23 in the Senate). The president was also given the unrestricted power to use any means, including military force and nuclear weapons, in a preventive strike against Iraq whenever he and he alone-deemed "appropriate' There was no debate. Congressional representatives were too politically cowed even to address the issue.

The Bush administration also arrogated to itself the power unilaterally to judge whether an American citizen is part of a terrorist organization and could therefore be stripped of all constitutional rights, including the Sixth Amendment guarantees of a speedy trial before a jury of peers, the assistance of an attorney in offering a defense, the right to confront one's accusers, protection against self-incrimination, and, most critically, the requirement that the government spell out its charges and make them public.

On June 19, 2002, representatives of the Bush administration and the Pentagon outlined to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals a claim of presidential power that in its breathtaking sweep is unsupported by the Constitution, law, or precedent. "The military," they argued, "has the authority to capture and detain individuals whom it has determined are enemy combatants.. . including enemy combatants claiming American citizenship. Such combatants, moreover, have no right of access to counsel to challenge their detention?' They went on to contend that "the court may not second-guess the military's enemy combatant determination" because by doing so they would intrude on "the president's plenary authority as commander in chief' which supposedly includes the power to order "the capture, detention, and treatment of the enemy and the collection and evaluation of intelligence vital to national security." The courts should defer to the military "when asked to review military decisions in time of war'

Since only Congress can declare war, however, the president's personally declared "war on terror" is merely a rhetorical device. There is no legally valid war on terrorism. Moreover, the president does not enjoy "plenary" (absolute or unqualified) authority in his role as commander in chief, since both he and the military theoretically exercise their powers subject to the budgetary authority of Congress. The claim that a military commander, acting under presidential orders, can be "the supreme legislator, supreme judge, and supreme executive" within his area of responsibility was struck down by the Supreme Court following the Civil War. In Ex Parte Milligan (1866), the Court held that "martial rule can never exist where the courts are open and in the proper and unobstructed exercise of their jurisdiction."

In 1974, [the] public learned for the first time that the FBI had illegally spied on over 10,000 U.S. citizens, including virtually all national politicians as well as public figures like Martin Luther King.

To bring the FBI and CIA under some semblance of control, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which President Jimmy Carter signed into law on October 25, 1978. This act allowed the FBI and the National Security Agency to continue to conduct intelligence operations against American citizens within the United States but only under the supervision of a new secret federal tribunal known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). In snooping on suspected criminals in cases not involving intelligence, the FBI must go before an ordinary federal judge and obtain a warrant. It must also meet the "probable cause" standard by providing a judge with evidence that an individual is committing, has committed, or is about to commit a crime. The Fourth Amendment states unambiguously: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized?' In setting up the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Congress reasoned that monitoring spies might not be the same as catching thieves but that some form of judicial supervision should still exist to keep federal investigators and voyeurs in line. It has not worked out that way.

The court was originally made up of seven federal judges appointed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court; the USA Patriot Act of 2001 expanded that number to eleven. The judges' identities are secret. They meet in total privacy behind a cipher-locked door in a windowless, bugproof, vault-like room guarded twenty-four hours a day on the top floor of the Justice Department's building in Washington, DC. Everything they do is "top secret?' Since the court was created in 1978, the FBI and the NSA have requested some 13,000 warrants to spy electronically or physically on citizens, and the court has granted all but one of them. The judges hear only the government's side. The court makes annual reports to Congress, normally just two paragraphs long, that give only the total number of warrants it has approved. Beyond that, there is no congressional oversight of the court's activities whatsoever. Patrick S. Poole, an authority on the court, concludes, "The FISC has been nothing but a rubber-stamp court.

Since September 11, 2001, the situation has actually gotten worse. In the original Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, law enforcement officials could seek a FISA warrant only if gathering intelligence was the primary purpose of the investigation. But the USA Patriot Act, hastily passed by votes of 98 to 1 in the Senate and 357 to 66 in the House and signed into law by President Bush on October 26, 2001, allows FISA warrants if gathering intelligence is merely a significant purpose of the investigation. The Patriot Act allows the government to spy on Internet surfing by Americans, including to collect the terms they enter into search engines such as Google. The person spied on does not have to be the target of the investigation, and the government is not obligated to report to the court or tell the person involved what it has done.

In the autumn of 2002, Rumsfeld created a new position, deputy undersecretary of defense for "special plans" (a euphemism for "deception operations"). These missions go beyond traditional military activities like jamming enemy radars or disrupting command and control networks. Deception operations include managing (and restricting) public information, controlling news sources, and manipulating public opinion. As the air force explained, the military must prevent "the news media going to other sources [such as an adversary or critic] for information .... U.S. and friendly forces must strive to become the favored source of information." "Information warfare;' writes military analyst William M. Arkin, "includes controlling as much as possible what the American public sees and reads.' In January 2003, the White House followed up by forming its own version of Rumsfeld's Pentagon propaganda agency, the "Office for Global Communications." Its officials seem to spend their time auditioning generals to give media briefings and booking administration stars on foreign and domestic news shows. Its stated purpose is to see that "any war commentary by a U.S. official is approved in advance by the White House.

Typical information-warfare operations range from the trivial to major projects like inventing pretexts for war. An example of the former occurred on January 27, 2003, when the government arranged to have a large blue curtain placed over a tapestry reproduction of Pablo Picasso's Guernica hanging near the entrance to the United Nations Security Council. Guernica, a small Basque village in northern Spain, was the site Adolf Hitler chose on April 27, 1937, to demonstrate his air force's new high-explosive and incendiary bombs. He was then allied with the Spanish fascist dictator Francisco Franco. The hamlet burned for three days, and sixteen hundred civilians were killed or wounded. Picasso's famous depiction of this atrocity is perhaps modern art's most powerful antiwar statement. The government decided that the carnage wrought by aerial bombing was an inappropriate backdrop for its secretary of state and its ambassador to the United Nations when they made televised statements that might lead Li the bombing of Iraqi cities.

Permanent military domination of the world is an expensive business. For fiscal year 2003, our military appropriations bill, signed on October 23, 2002, came to $354.8 billion. For fiscal year 2004, the Department of Defense asked Congress for and received an increase to $379.3 billion, plus $15.6 billion for nuclear weapons programs administered by the Department of Energy and $1.2 billion for the Coast Guard. The grand total was $396.1 billion. These amounts included neither intelligence budgets, most of which are controlled by the Pentagon, nor expenditures for the second Iraq war itself, nor a Pentagon request for a special $10 billion account to combat terrorism. When this outsized budget was presented to the House, sycophantic members spent most of their time asking the secretary of defense if he was sure he did not need yet more money and suggesting weapons projects that might then be located in their districts. The message they sent seemed to be: No matter how much the United States spends on "defense;' it will never be enough. The budget of the next-largest military spender, Russia, is only 14 percent of the US. total. The military budgets of the next twenty-seven highest spenders would have to be added together to equal our expenditures.

The first Gulf War cost slightly over $61 billion. However, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and other American allies chipped in $54.1 billion, about 80 percent of the total, leaving the U.S. financial contribution at a minuscule $7 billion . Japan alone contributed $13 billion. Nothing like that will happen again soon. Virtually the entire world was agreed on the eve of the second Iraq war that if the lone superpower wanted to go off in personal pursuit of a "preventive" victory, it could pick up its own tab.

The economic consequences of imperialism and militarism are also transforming our value system by degrading "free enterprise:' which many Americans cherish and identify with liberty. Our military is by far the largest bureaucracy in our government. Militarism removes capital and resources from the free market and allocates them arbitrarily, in accordance with bureaucratic decisions uninfluenced by market forces but often quite responsive to insider influence and crony capitalism. For example, on March 10, 2003, the government invited five engineering companies to submit bids for postwar reconstruction work in Iraq, including the Kellogg Brown & Root subsidiary of the Halliburton Company and the Bechtel Group. Brown & Root, as we noted earlier, is Vice President Dick Cheney's old company; Bechtel has half-century-old connections with the CIA and high-ranking Republican politicians." Virtually all contracts coming from the military reflect insider trading. Robert Higgs, a senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute, summarizes the military-industrial complex as follows: "a vast cesspool of mismanagement, waste, and transgressions not only bordering on but often entering deeply into criminal conduct .... The great arms firms have managed to slough off much of the normal risks of doing business in a genuine market, passing on many of their excessive costs to the taxpayers while still realizing extraordinary rates of return on investment.'

Empires do not last, and their ends are usually unpleasant. Americans like me, born before World War II, have personal knowledge-in some cases, personal experience-of the collapse of at least six empires: those of Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and the Soviet Union. If one includes all of the twentieth century, three more major empires came tumbling down-the Chinese, AustroHungarian, and Ottoman. A combination of imperial overstretch, rigid economic institutions, and an inability to reform weakened all these empires, leaving them fatally vulnerable in the face of disastrous wars, many of which the empires themselves invited. There is no reason to think that an American empire will not go the same way-and for the same reasons. If efforts at globalization delayed the beginnings of that collapse for a while, the shift to militarism and imperialism settles the issue.

At the same time, it must be recognized that any study of our empire is a work in progress. Although we may know the eventual outcome, it is not at all clear what comes next. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, only three years ago, the United States has fought two imperialist wars-in Afghanistan and Iraq-and is contemplating at least two more-in Iran and North Korea. For over eighteen months after the end of hostilities in Afghanistan it held 680 people from forty-three countries in a detention camp in Cuba without bringing any charges against them. The commandant has indicated that he plans to build a death row and an execution chamber. Law professor Jonathan Turley explains, "This camp as created to execute people. The administration has no interest in long-term prison sentences for people it regards as hard-core terrorists' It also has no interest in conforming to internationally recognized standards of justice-or in considering itself part of or in any way accountable to a community of nations, however defined.

The United States is actively seeking more oil and more bases, particularly in West Africa, which appears likely to play a role in the future similar to that of Central Asia today, except that transportation costs from south Atlantic ports are much cheaper. Our military has announced plans to build a naval base on Sao Tome, a small, desperately poor island in the Gulf of Guinea, which may be sitting on four billion barrels of high-quality crude oil. Exxon Mobil is expected to start drilling offshore by 2004. Sao Tome's 160,000 inhabitants are descendants of Angolan slaves, Portuguese political exiles, and Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition. Nigeria, Angola, and Equatorial Guinea already supply us with about 15 percent of our imported oil, nearly as much as Saudi Arabia; and that figure could grow to 25 percent by 2015. A similar picture emerges in Latin America, where one of the main purposes of our deployment of troops in Colombia is to protect Occidental Petroleum's oil and gas interests in Arauca province in the northeast."

In a particularly audacious sign of our military unilateralism, the Air Force Space Command and the National Reconnaissance Office are now talking openly about denying the use of space for intelligence purposes to any other nation at any time-not just to adversaries but also to allies. In April 2003, at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, air force secretary James Roche said, "If allies don't like the new paradigm of space dominance, they'll just have to learn to accept it' They will be given "no veto power." This new policy, which is scheduled to be put into operation in 2004, implies that we will start destroying or jamming other nations' communications and intelligence satellites in order to make those countries dependent on us.

There is plenty in the world to occupy our military radicals and empire enthusiasts for the time being. But there can be no doubt that the course on which we are launched will lead us into new versions of the Bay of Pigs and updated, speeded-up replays of Vietnam War scenarios. When such disasters occur, as they-or as-yet-unknown versions of them-certainly will, a world disgusted by the betrayal of the idealism associated with the United States will welcome them, just as most people did when the former USSR came apart. Like other empires of the past century, the United States has chosen to live not prudently, in peace and prosperity, but as a massive military power athwart an angry, resistant globe.

Sorrows of Empire

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