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Review of Chalmers Johnson's The Sorrows of Empire

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.