Chalmers Johnson Interview (2007): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Last Days of the American Republic: Conversation with Chalmers Johnson, President, Japan Policy Research Institute; March 7, 2007, by Harry Kreisler

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Why They Hate Us

In my opinion, the most anti-American democracy on earth is probably Greece. They will never forgive us for five years of the Greek colonels, the late sixties, early seventies, installed by the CIA, [who] produced an onerous regime until finally the colonels simply went too far themselves. This is the sort of thing that [resulted in what] happened on 9/11. My book Blowback had been published a year earlier. On the morning of 9/11 I was chatting with my publisher in New York over what had happened. We were now aware that it was a terrorist incident but we hadn't yet tumbled to the idea that these were Islamic terrorists, that these were Saudi Arabians, and our first thought was, "Well, look at the date: September 11." September 11, 1973, is the best-known date in Latin America. It's the day the CIA overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile and installed probably the most odious dictator on either side in the Cold War, General Augusto Pinochet. So, I thought, "Maybe they're Chileans. They might be [from] any number of other countries in the southern cone of South America. Maybe they're Okinawans, maybe they're Greeks. They could be any number of people. It could be Indonesians: we got rid of Sukarno and then put in General Suharto and finally got rid of him when he got on our nerves."

This is a good point to show your book again, Nemesis by Chalmers Johnson, and to point out that in your chapter on militarism -- no, I actually think it's the chapter on the "president's army," the CIA, you help us understand where Osama bin Laden came from. It's essentially the funding of the Mujahadeen through Pakistan with Saudi money that helps us understand that day.

The largest single clandestine operation we ever carried out was recruiting, arming, training, sending into battle of the Mujahadeen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Osama bin Laden was without question an asset, an ally, just the sort of man you would have expected to meet if you were a house guest at Kennebunkport under the first George Bush.

Or at least the father.

Yes, at least the father. A wealthy, pious young Saudi from a very wealthy family, and who was outraged by being dumped after the Soviet Union withdrew in 1988. We had no interest at all in the fact that Afghanistan would descend into one of the most pitiless civil wars in modern times, in which it got so bad that you would welcome the Taliban, finally, to bring it to an end.

When the retaliation finally did genuinely come on 9/11, it was certainly not the first. Bin Laden had attacked us in 1973, he attacked our barracks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, he'd attacked two embassies in East Africa, the USS Cole in the port of Aden, and then finally 9/11. But then we come up with this nonsense about this is a "clash of civilizations," that he dislikes our way of life, our democracy. The President is posing these faux questions about "Why do they hate us?"

The truth of the matter is, a week after 9/11 bin Laden published in all of the presses of the world his stated reasons for why he carried out what the Defense Department called "an act of asymmetric warfare." One was, "You people placed American troops in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War. That wasn't necessary; we do not believe that the House of Saud needed to be defended by infidel troops, particularly since they are charged with defending the two most sacred sites in Islam, Mecca and Medina."

"Secondly," he said, "you Americans will never know peace so long as you continue to support one-sidedly the Israelis in their aggression against the Palestinian people and their land." And third, he accused us of something that we now all acknowledge, that during the most vigorous sanctions ever enforced in the 1990s by Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright, we killed a half-million Iraqi children in the process. We starved them, they died of disease, we prohibited the importation of things that would produce clean water, things of this sort.

I cite these not because I agree with it, but these are genuine casus belli. These are not abstract statements of a clash of "medieval Islam versus modern America." These are genuine grievances, and it's a way of catching our attention. Well, he certainly did that. We then made a bad mistake of making the situation worse by declaring a war on terrorism, refusing to follow our procedures for people who commit crimes against innocent bystanders. It would not have been terribly difficult for us to have gone after the whole al Qaeda bunch, arrested them, extradited them, brought them back to the United States, tried them in American courts, found them guilty and executed them. That's what we should have done and we should never have called it a war. An emergency would have been a better term.

I want to underline a point you've made in passing, which is the consequences of the militarism at home and the acts of our secret armies abroad, and two particular things that you discuss in the book is the way we dealt with the cultural artifacts of Iraq after the invasion. Also, you mentioned the sanctions in the nineties under Bill Clinton and the consequences for children there. So, in other words, as a result of this dependence on military behavior, and on the empire bases as the primary instrument of our power, we wind up taking actions that if you took a vote among the American people they would say, "This is incompatible with what we stand for."

Clearly. The president now spends a lot of time talking about our promotion of democracy. To turn that over to the military is insane. You're not going to promote democracy through people kicking down doors and behaving the way our military does. They're not trained to [promote democracy], they're not any good at it, they're counter-productive. There seems to be no question that the Iraqi people will hate us 'til the end of time, that they didn't ask for this, and that moreover, to have had such stupid militarists, that is, that it turns out the war is two years old before the president is informed about the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam, and that the regime that he just overthrew was a minority Sunni government that had dominated the mass of the Shia population in Iraq, and that once you overthrew him, guess what? These people are going to come to power and they're going to ally themselves with their Shia neighbor, the Shia superpower, Iran, and that this is not going to be to your advantage, to Israel's advantage, or any of the other pipe dreams come up with -- by amateurs sitting in extremely conservative and right-wing think tanks, paid for by American billionaires in Washington DC.

You actually talk about -- you call it something -- not stupidity, but ...

It might be.

Well, it is stupidity but there is a ...

When we're told that at the time of the invasion we had four people in the army who spoke Arabic -- now that's stupid. When you [look] back to the days of the war with Japan, we trained a huge cadre of extremely distinguished Japanese linguists at Boulder, at the University of Michigan, things of this sort. We don't seem capable of doing that at all anymore.

You were citing the arguments of Hannah Arendt, and the whole question of thinking that part of morality is being able to look at problems and think rationally about them, and draw on the training and expertise that must exist in the government.

Yes. Maybe I ought to say a word about that, simply because I do use one of Arendt's arguments and it is always dangerous, I believe, in our society to ever compare anything to the Nazis. But in her famous book Eichmann In Jerusalem, the trial of Adolf Eichmann that she covered, she ended the book with this now famous line [about] the "banality of evil." She went out of her way later to say that she didn't really mean anything by that, except that he was a "desk murderer," he was remote from the crime itself, he was indifferent to it. He was a technician supplying transportation to the death camps. Rather famously in the book, Eichmann has revealed himself to be well educated and claimed to be a devout man. Judge Landau, presiding over the court, said in that case, "Explain to us the meaning of Kant's categorical imperative." And Arendt argued, "I never heard it better expressed." There was no doubt that he knew exactly what Emmanuel Kant was getting at. But she said he had forgotten how to think. He no longer -- now this was relevant, to me: he had no conscience. He was unable to put things in context.

Abu Ghraib -- we come now to Americans who are torturing prisoners in an extremely grotesque manner and photographing [themselves] laughing about it. The Pentagon had signs, posters put up of the enlisted men and women who have subsequently been convicted, that these are the six morons who lost the war. I, in my first chapter, expand this to seven morons and start with the president and go down to General Myers, and a few others of that sort.

And Donald Rumsfeld, I'm guessing.

Certainly Donald figures there.

One of the people I had in mind was Sergeant Darby, who was also in these cell blocks in Abu Ghraib, who got one of the computer disks with photographs of people in grotesque positions and being tortured, and he looked at it and said, "This is contrary to everything I believe in, contrary to everything the U.S. Army stands for," and he delivered it to Army criminal investigation. And that's the way it started, and then on to General Tacuba's report. I said, "Well, even though he has been pilloried by many professional militarists in this country, Darby was an American who had not forgotten how to think."

In the end, you're somewhat pessimistic about the [future of the nation].

The subtitle -- I mean it.

"The Last Days of the American Republic." But one must believe that there's a broader group of people in the military who are concerned about the violation of international law.

No question.

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