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
THE SORROWS OF EMPIRE
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,
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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,
Sorrows of Empire
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