Chalmers Johnson Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Militarism and the American Empire: Conversation with Chalmers Johnson, President of the Japan Policy Institute, January 29, 2004 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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The End of the Republic

Let's break this down a little and put it in this context. What you're really saying is that, lo and behold, we've created an empire of bases, a different kind of empire, and that it's basically changing who we are and the way our government operates.

The right word is exactly what you said: "lo and behold." It reminds you of the Roman Republic, which existed in its final form with very considerable rights for Roman citizens, much like ours did for about two centuries. James Madison and others, in writing the defense of the Constitution in the Federalist Papers, signed their name "Publius." Well, who is Publius? He was the first Roman consul. That is where the whole world of term limits, of separation of powers, things like that, [began].

By the end of the first century BC, Rome had seemingly, again, "inadvertently" acquired an empire that surrounded the entire Mediterranean Sea. They then discovered that the inescapable accompaniment, the Siamese twin of imperialism, is militarism. You start needing standing armies. You start having armies that are demobilized, of men who have done nothing but spend all their lives in the military. It's expensive to pay them. You have to now provide them, in the Roman Empire, with farms or things of this sort. They become irritated with the state. And then along comes the military populist, the figure who says, "I understand your problems. I represent your interests against the Roman Senate." And, certainly, Julius Caesar is the model for this. "The only requirement is that I become life dictator for this" -- Napoleon Bonaparte, Juan Peron, this type of figure.

I wrote a little essay on the subject for the Internet. Two weeks after it was published, General Clark entered the Democratic race, and I thought, "My God, it's coming with the speed of FedEx these days." Here we have a four-star general offering himself to the public as a way to solve their problems. Indeed, one wonders whether we have already crossed our Rubicon, whether we can go back. I don't know.

I remain enormously impressed by these brilliant speeches that Senator Robert Byrd, from West Virginia, gives week-in/week-out to an empty Senate chamber. They sound like Cicero. They really do sound like a passionate lover of our constitution and what it stood for. Nobody is listening to him. The news media don't report it. And Cicero did end up with his head and both hands nailed to the Forum wall by the young Octavian.

In your indictment of what we are becoming, or maybe have become, you go through a list. We can't do all of it; we don't have enough time. But essentially: civilians who think in military ways now making decisions; the Pentagon expropriating the functions of the State Department; a policy being perceived as military policy as opposed to all of the dimensions of ...

People around the world who meet Americans, meet soldiers. That's how we represent ourselves abroad, just as the Roman Empire represented itself abroad as the Legionnaires. People have to conclude, even if they don't come into military or armed conflict with us, that this is the way the Americans think. This is the way they represent themselves today. It's not foreign aid any longer. It's not our diplomats. It's not the Fulbright program. It's the military. It's uniformed 18- to 24-year-old young men and some young women.

Moving on beyond the government, and we're not even going through the list -- people should read the book for that -- the privatization of the military, the development of the CINCs; that is, the military commanders all over the world who are proconsuls ...

These people like to call themselves, "old Roman proconsuls." They're not proconsuls, but they go outside of the chain of command, directly to the president and secretary of defense. They have a huge entourage around them, their own aviation, and things of this sort. Ambassadors report to them.

And then coming home, after 9/11, to changing the laws about wiretaps, about the use of the military domestically. What you're pointing to is an erosion, as you just said, of the foundations of our republic.

And then, also, the world of ideas. Because I believe that what you're saying is that, on the one hand, you have one group that basically wants to use the military for domination and another group that says, "Oh, no, we're good guys. We want to use it for humanitarian intervention." And you don't see much difference. The point being that the system of empire is there to be used.

There's no question that a group of intellectuals who have served in the government for many years -- in the Reagan administration, in the first Bush administration, now prominently represented in the Department of Defense; people like Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, others -- these people made, in my view, a very wrong conclusion after the demise of the Soviet Union, namely that we won the Cold War. I don't think we did; I think we just didn't lose it the way the Soviet Union did. But they concluded from that we were a new Rome; that we were beyond good and evil; that our policy should be the famous old Roman phrase, "We don't care whether they love us, so long as they fear us." Wolfowitz was writing back at the very end of first Bush administration on how our policy should be the military domination of the globe to ensure that no one, enemy or ally, offers competition to our military force.

On the other hand, just as you were saying, particularly in the Clinton administration, there were those imperialists who spoke of the duty to intervene in the case where human life was at risk and things of this sort. The issue here is not that such a duty or obligation doesn't exist; it is how it's legitimatized. It is not just up to us to decide that we are now going to do a humanitarian liberation of Kosovo from Yugoslavia, but not Chechens, or Palestinians, or East Timorese, or whoever else that we don't want to get involved with. Humanitarian intervention, if it is not legitimatized -- and the only form of legitimacy we have is by sanction of the U.N. Security Council -- is simply a euphemism for imperialism, in which we declare that we have good intentions, but nobody is going to stop us.

So for you, Iraq isn't surprising at all -- that there are no weapons of mass destruction; that the Senate essentially passed the resolution; that we ignored the U.N. and that, now, we've changed our mission. In the end, we may not get democracy, but we will have four or five bases.

There's a lot of continuity here, too. What Americans don't realize is how remarkably hard the Clinton administration worked at promoting the Taliban in Afghanistan -- our purpose there to get a stable government in Afghanistan with which we could, then, for the sake of the Union Oil Company of California, build gas and oil pipelines from Tajikistan across Afghanistan, and emptying through Pakistan into the Arabian Sea. Jim Baker, the very distinguished former Secretary of State, his law firm, Baker Botts, has five attorneys in Baku, Azerbaijan. Now, I want to tell you, there's not a lot of legal work going on in Baku these days. This is the military-petroleum complex at work. The involvement of very high-ranking advisors in our government, of the Kissinger-Brzezinski-Scowcroft class, as advisors to these oil companies is ubiquitous.

We now know from Former Secretary of Treasury Paul O'Neill, as well as from Condoleezza Rice herself, that on the day the Bush administration was finally sworn in, they had decided to go to war to conquer Iraq in order to steal its resources. It's got the second largest oil reserves on earth, and it was also part of a plan that includes Camp Bondsteel in the Balkans, that includes the bases surrounding the Caspian Sea, the ring of bases along the Persian Gulf, reflecting our increasing anxiety that we were going to lose Saudi Arabia exactly the same way we lost Iran in 1979, as a result of our own bungling interventionist policy.

The decision on the part of, certainly, Vice President Cheney, was that we needed the oil. And yet, we know that we have the technology today to completely eliminate our requirements for Persian Gulf oil, if we would simply institute fuel conservation procedures. Instead, the symbol of the United States, after 9/11, became, at least domestically, somebody driving a Chevrolet Suburban down the freeway at high speeds with an American flag attached to their antenna. Sales of this huge SUV have doubled since 9/11. The gas mileage is rotten on the thing.

It was a decision on our part to go in this direction, also to attempt to control the world ... places like China. China is the world's fastest growing economy. It grew at 9.1 percent last year. The decline of American economic influence is, today, irreversible. There's simply nothing that can be done about it. We don't manufacture much anymore. We just trade in securities. But we can control the Chinese, if we control the oil. They are now major petroleum importers too. This is the kind of geopolitical, geostrategic thought that was going on among the neo-con defense intellectuals during the period they were out of power, between the two Bushes. To my way of thinking, the greatest difference between the two administrations was that in the first administration ...

That is, the first Bush administration.

The first Bush administration. President Bush's national security advisor, Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft, I do not believe is the brightest bulb that ever came along. But, nonetheless, he is a man steeped in the prudential world of foreign policy: take your time, get a lot of different opinions, don't jump to conclusions. And even though all of these people like Wolfowitz, Perle, etc. served in those governments, they were never given their head. That is, they had to go through Scowcroft, and he kept them under control.

The difference is when you come to the boy emperor, to the new Bush. He doesn't seem to honestly know who these people are, and they have seen a brilliant opportunity to colonize the Department of Defense. General Zinni, whom you interviewed rather famously (I enjoyed the interview) coined the term "chicken hawks" to characterize people with no experience of either barracks life or war; many of them are the ones making the decisions in the Department of Defense today. They have elaborate, and I don't think it's excessive to say Roman, schemes of controlling the world.

Bush and Cheney once listed between fifty and sixty countries where they wanted regime change through military means. It may turn out that Iraq will slow them down, because they're now so deeply in trouble in Iraq that they probably can't stay and can't leave. That is, if they stay, the casualties mount for the American side; it becomes politically unacceptable. If they leave, it would probably produce civil war among the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, with consequences even beyond Iraq that we can't fully calculate.

We can hope that books like yours will make a difference and the debate.

The only purpose of a book like this is to try and catch the attention of inattentive Americans and give them some information they didn't have. It differs from an awful lot of books that I admire that are being published right now, [for example,] Kevin Phillips's book on the Bushes [American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush]. Mine is not particularly a political book, in the sense that I'm not arguing that the Democratic Party is going to change things over the Republican Party if they come to power in Washington, D.C. I am saying that, in fact, we are a very different country from the one that we think we are when we think of the Constitution of 1787.

As a student of revolution and social change, can you point to any areas of hopefulness within the American system that might turn these things around?

The greatest source of hope in the world today happened in February of 2003, February 15th and 16th, when some 10 million people around the world in every democracy on earth expressed their overwhelming opposition to the war in Iraq -- 400,000 in New York City, 2 million in London, a million in Rome, another 800,000 in Madrid, equally large numbers in Berlin. These people haven't melted away. They're very sensitive to the way the world is going. I urge your viewers to get a copy of and read Arundhati Roy's brilliant speech to the World Social Forum in Bombay, which is sort of the overall umbrella organization of the peace movement. Her speech is called "Do the Turkeys Enjoy Thanksgiving?" You'll get an idea of the unbelievable quality of this quite brilliant mind that I really do admire. This is a source of optimism that these people are out there.

As it stands right now in America, on the public opinion polls it seems that the country probably breaks down 70/30. That is, 70 percent in favor of the war party and of the presidential leadership; 30 percent, the part I'm in, deeply opposed to it and convinced that it leads to disaster. What we have on our side is the Internet, The Nation magazine, Paul Krugman; and we have 30 percent of a big country -- that isn't an insignificant amount. Senator Byrd believes that the American public is simply waiting to be awakened to what has happened to their country, and that once that happens, they will unite and recreate democracy.

I'm a little more doubtful. I think one of the greatest single problems we have is the hopeless failure of our news media in reporting accurately on what is going on in the world, as they have been turned into or owned by entertainment conglomerates, and advertising running everything there. It is tragic to see the ease with which the public is manipulated by things like images of the president pretending to fly a navy jet onto the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln off my hometown, off San Diego harbor, on May 1st of last year. These are so corny they're laughable, except that it isn't funny because they do seem to work. Karl Rove knows what he's doing.

So I put it to you this way: the United States is having very real problems very rapidly. We are failing in Iraq. We have not produced a friendly regime in Afghanistan. Instead, it's looking much more like it was before 9/11, the world's largest producer of opium and a major source of terrorists.

I do fault the current administration for not continuing the policies of the Clinton administration or all previous administrations to try and produce an equitable and fair reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Having abandoned that program, we have no influence at all in the Muslim world. But, also, we should be aware of the dangers, long-range dangers, that we are imposing on a society in which we have great emotional interest, namely Israel. It's a tragic situation, in my opinion.

Economically, we have a jobless recovery. The national debt is growing exponentially. Herb Stein, when he was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, once made the comment: "Things that can't go on forever, don't." Well, we are doing many things in terms of public finance that can't go on forever. Once they stop, it's going to be rather painful. There won't be a soft landing. Bankruptcy will produce a crisis, even if the public doesn't care what happens to the Constitution. It will require a reanalysis of how we are spending our resources on the military. Do we really want military budgets of $400 billion a year, not counting Afghanistan and Iraq? Things like that.

Well, I think, Chalmers, that it's clear that your book, The Sorrows of Empire is at least a first step --

I hope so.

-- in opening the dialogue. I want to thank you very much for coming back to Berkeley, for appearing on our show, and if I can be so bold as to thank you for changing the focus of your research.

Well, thank you, Harry. I very much admire what you have been doing with this program.

Thank you. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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