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Interview with Chalmers Johnson
Part 1. An Empire of More Than 725 Military Bases

Discussing the books "The Sorrows of Empire" and "Blowback"
Cardiff, California

Chalmers Johnson
Chalmers Johnson. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Chalmers Johnson, Ph.D., is the author of the best-selling books “Blowback” and “The Sorrows of Empire,” the landmark “MITI and the Japanese Miracle,” and many other publications. He is the co-founder and president of the Japan Policy Research Institute This interview was conducted on May 29, 2004, by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine in Cardiff, California. Also see Part 2: "From CIA Analyst to Best-Selling Scholar".

The very origins of the republic

In Motion Magazine: You say in “the Sorrows of Empire” that the U.S. military bases around the world represent a new type of imperialism. Can you explain that?

Chalmers Johnson: The Spanish-American War was the beginning of formal American imperialism on the European model, in which we acquired as colonies Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, places of this sort. In the same context, we annexed the Hawaiian islands, which were an independent kingdom.

It was quite controversial at the time, however. There was a strong anti-imperialist party in the United States. Theodore Roosevelt, who was the imperialist leader, went out of his way to say, “There’s not an imperialist in the country. Expansionism, of course, it’s in our blood.” And that’s why I say you could trace this back to the very origins of the republic. That is, it wasn’t imperialism if you believe the North American continent was empty and you don’t regard Native Americans or Mexicans as human beings. Then you could say this was simply expansionism. But no, it was very much like Tsarist imperialism across central Asia, although it was understood then not as imperialism but as expansionism. We didn’t need colonies for purposes of getting rid of undesirables, as say the British did, exporting Irishmen and others to Virginia or, after the American revolution, to Australia, or the French exporting people to Algeria, because we had this continent to expand into.

1898 – Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba

But in 1898, we did commit ourselves to a genuinely imperial project. And, as I say, one which generates its own opposition very quickly.

It became apparent fairly rapidly that the expansion into the Philippines was an unmitigated disaster that would ultimately lead to war with Japan since the islands are 6,000 miles from Los Angeles and only a couple of thousand miles from Japan, off the Chinese coast. We were intruding ourselves into an area where we never had any reason to be.

The case of Puerto Rico today remains something very much like Okinawa vis-à-vis Japan. It’s a possession of the United States where the people have anything but full citizenship and are discriminated against in the structure of our government.

And the peculiar case of Cuba is complex. I always want to say today, “If you are the least bit interested in American foreign policy toward Cuba, either now under the Castro regime or in the past, you’ve got to become an authority on Florida politics.” That is the reason Cuba was not annexed in 1898. It was because the state of Florida was worried it would ruin the tourist industry if you could go directly to Havana instead of going to hell-holes like Tampa that were in those days full of malaria. Nonetheless, we brought Cuba decisively under our control through all sorts of imperialist devices that essentially made Cuba a protectorate.

The unit of our empire is the military base

Even so, the unit of the American empire is not the colony, as it was in French and British imperialism. Instead the unit of our empire is the military base -- a separate enclave that originally had a strategic purpose, but when that strategic purpose no longer existed we didn’t give up the base. We retained it, very creatively inventing some new reasons why we had to do so -- some new alleged strategic development such as, for example, the threat to Latin America of Soviet intrusion, which led us to retain the Panama Canal until very late in the Cold War.

The Second World War

These bases grew as a result of our wars but without doubt the greatest expansion of the American empire was not the Spanish American War, but the Second World War. This is when we developed our military enclaves, particularly in the defeated axis countries of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Then came Korea. Also, with the development of the Cold War, the British agreed to lease us numerous Royal Air Force bases that are not counted in the Department of Defense’s base structure report, an annual inventory of what the Pentagon owns overseas.

In the case of Britain, our bases are disguised as Royal Air Force bases. There are no Britons on them. They are staffed by Americans. This was never done via an act of Parliament or Congress. It was an administrative agreement between the British government and the American ambassador in the early years of the Cold War to turn over to the U.S. these territories that had been built up and often used by the Americans during World War II. Many of them today have become critical espionage bases.

RAF Menwith Hill, in Yorkshire, is easily the most important National Security Agency base outside the U.S. It listens to every email, telephone call, and fax across the Atlantic. It’s called Echelon: an agreement among the English-speaking countries to exchange intelligence. I go into this in some detail in “The Sorrows of Empire”.

The Fall of the Shah

My definition of empire is this world of bases that has its foundation in World War II. It was expanded by the Korean War and then into the Persian Gulf after the collapse of the regime of the Shah of Iran in 1979. It was also expanded to places like Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

There are 725 of these bases that the military lists. The actual number is almost surely another 100 or so -- if you include the espionage bases, the British bases, the three secret bases in Israel, and the bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which are not counted. There are also fourteen bases being built in Iraq right now, and a large number of bases in Afghanistan. We’ve got a very considerable empire, one that combines imperialism with militarism.

New strategic functions

The empire of these bases began as the leftover residue of World War II, which then evolved into the Cold War. Bases that were created for strategic purposes during World War II were given new strategic functions as part of the Cold War -- for example, the defense of Germany against an alleged ground assault by the Soviet Union through the Fulda Gap.

We’ve been in Germany and these other countries for all of these years, often with not just the troops being based there, but also a huge camp following of dependents, spies, teachers, contractors, and so forth. Today, about a half million Americans connected with the Pentagon are based abroad, of which half are uniformed troops, and the rest are part of the apparatus that goes with them. There are well over 70,000 Americans based in Germany.

The development of empire and militarism

It is a moving target to study and to understand, but I think my contribution is that I’ve uncovered something people didn’t know about. But it doesn’t really begin to become an empire, in a sense that you can speak of a separate self-governing autonomous world, until various other things happened.

Professionalization of the Armed Forces

The lost Vietnam War began to generate professionalism in the armed forces. It is no longer a citizen army. The armed forces are today a way of life, and service is not an obligation of citizenship but a career choice.

Critical to this, certainly, is the 1973 abandonment of conscription in America. Citizens are not required to serve, as was the case when I was in the Navy back in 1953. One has to be induced to join, i.e., recruited, today, so life in the military has to be made attractive to people.

We know that a great many people in the armed forces are there as a route of social mobility. They are trying to escape from one or another dead-end in our society. That’s why African-Americans are twice as well represented in the Army as they are in the society, and fifty percent of the women in the armed forces come from national minorities.

This professionalization of the armed forces together with the growth of the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower so famously warned against begins to create a “military establishment,” a corporate entity devoted to protecting and enlarging the functions of the armed forces and their civilian appendages. I’m interested, in my book, in militarism, which is not the same thing as defense of the country. Militarism is concerned with vested interests, with promotion of a particular way of life. Defense of the country is an obligation of citizenship.

The base world is separated off from civilian life. It is serviced by its own airline -- the Air Mobility Command. There are some 240 golf courses around the world run by the Pentagon, and luxury hotels in downtown Tokyo and Seoul for the use of our troops. There’s a special corner of Disneyland in Orlando, Florida, where American troops and their families can visit at cheaper prices.

A standing army to defend the empire

I’m contending that the right word for this global apparatus is imperialism. As in the case of empires in the past, all empires -- certainly including the British Empire even though apologists for it dislike acknowledging it -- lead inevitably to militarism. That is, the inescapable accompaniment of imperialism is militarism because managers of an empire need a standing army to defend it, to expand it, to ensure that it doesn’t slip the leash.

This is the thing that ultimately destroys the home country, as it did classically in the case of the Roman republic in the first two centuries B.C. The first really great experiment in democratic government collapsed into a military dictatorship as a result of the pressures put on the structure of democracy.

Which is of course what George Washington warned against in his famous farewell address. “Standing armies,” he said, “are everywhere a threat to liberty and they are a particular threat to republican liberty.” He was not an isolationist any more than Eisenhower was. He was saying that standing armies inevitably break the division of labor that is built into the republic.

The idea of republican government is that there should be no concentration of power. You need this elaborate division of labor, of checks and balances, three separate branches of government that compete with each other. Washington was arguing that standing armies require more taxes, take control away from communities and states, and create an expansionist mindset. Once a leader has a standing army, he and his military leaders will want to try it out, to “blood” it. Such standing armies not raised for a national emergency are going to bring more power to the executive branch, which is ultimately going to overwhelm the legislative and judicial branches.

We see it rather palpably in our society today in that the Pentagon directly confronts the courts over making law for, say, prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. They invent new categories like “illegal combatant,” which exist nowhere in international law. You’ve got the secretary of defense deciding when and where the Geneva Conventions apply. The constitution says that ratified treaties are the supreme law of the land. We helped write the Geneva Conventions and all four of them are ratified treaties. It is not up to the secretary of defense to interpret these things. Certainly he’s infringing on the judicial branch.

Congressional oversight

As for the legislative branch, it’s become farcical. A few weeks ago, the secretary of defense and the entire High Command went before the Armed Services Committee to begin to explain the Abu Ghraib torture scandals but they were basically treated with kid gloves. The Congress never looked more worthless, with perhaps only one exception, who has himself been a prisoner of war, Senator McCain. He said directly to the secretary of defense, “No, don’t refer it to one of your generals; answer my question.”

But as it turns out the “Army Times” has been more effective than the Congress. It has written editorials saying, "Obviously, this goes up to the top.” They say, in almost so many words, “If the secretary of defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff were honorable men they would have resigned. Since they are not honorable men, fire them.” This is a much more powerful statement than anything made by members of the Armed Services Committee, who are constitutionally supposed to be exercising civilian oversight of this massive out-of-control establishment.

Bill Clinton was a better imperialist

People sometimes think that I’m attacking the Bush administration. But empire has a much longer history than just the Bush administration, and I would be the first to argue (as I do in my book), that Bill Clinton was a better imperialist than George Bush because he cleverly disguised what we were doing under various rubrics that he invented. That is the essence of strategy: not to give away one’s true purpose but to use an indirect approach. For example, Clinton argued that our attack on Serbia in 1999 was humanitarian intervention. In other cases, he disguised our imperialism as part of a newly discovered ineluctable process called “globalization.”

I’m not going to say that there aren't circumstances under which the use of military force to prevent genocide might be called for, but the issue always is who decides that it’s legitimate to do so. If you yourself say, “I’m invading Panama but this is humanitarian intervention,” well, no, that’s imperialism. The odd thing about our humanitarian intervention is that we invoked it for Kosovars against Milosevic, and for starving Somalis back in 1993; but we’ve not invoked it for Rwandans, Palestinians, Tibetans, East Timorese, and any number of people that one might have argued need protecting, even if it required the use of military force to do so.

Even more important was Clinton’s camouflaging American imperialism under the cover of globalization. He suggested that rather than this being American policies to exploit defenseless Third World farmers for the sake of our own wealth, we were simply reacting to technological forces that were transcending national boundaries.

Regime change

George Bush, by contrast, drops the mask. He comes up with an “Axis of Evil” and enthrones “preventive war” as a strategy. He and his vice president have said there are forty to fifty (in the words of Cheney), or (in the case of Bush in his West Point speech) sixty countries in which we’d like to bring about regime change by using our armed missionaries, the U.S. Army. This changes things a great deal. There is no longer any doubt that the Americans are an imperial juggernaut and if they’ve got you on their list they are coming after you.

It’s not absolutely different from what the Clinton administration was doing, but it’s certainly different from the way Clinton government justified and explained to the world what it was doing.

De-nationalized corporations

In Motion Magazine: Talking about President Clinton and globalization, what is the relationship between the Pentagon and multinational corporations? Who is in charge?

Chalmers Johnson: It’s a good question and a hard question. I tend to resist putting it that way because I think it often falls off into a kind of reductionist Marxism that suggests you could understand the world if you only understood, in the old C. Wright Mills sense, some power elite of corporate directors that was running things. Whereas, when you actually look concretely at the world of the multinational corporations today, they are increasingly denationalized. For example, the Union Oil Company has gone out of its way to say that if it keeps being harassed over the kinds of projects it’s carried out in Burma, or in Afghanistan, it’s going to move its corporate headquarters to the Bahamas or the Cayman Islands. It doesn’t much give a damn about being located in Los Angeles any longer.

Open to corruption

Certainly, there are huge corporate vested interests in the military-industrial complex and in the Pentagon. But these corporate interests are probably closer to state socialism than anything that is going to be called capitalism because these corporations have only one customer. There is very little competition among them. In the current Defense Appropriations Bill, there’s well over $10 billion for missile defense, but it’s not allocated. It is not appropriated in any accounting sense but simply assigned to the Missile Defense Agency in the Pentagon which then consults with the manufacturers -- Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon, Northrop-Grumman, and Boeing -- on how to spend it. And to say that this is open to corruption is just perfectly obvious. Whether the anti-ballistic missile works or not -- and it almost surely doesn’t -- it is expensive. And it’s going to keep a lot of people sitting at their desks toying with, as they say, “How can you shoot a bullet to hit another bullet.” It’s a very hard bit of physics to bring that off and almost totally unnecessary for the defense of the country. One of the easiest things to do in national security is to detect where an intercontinental missile came from and retaliate instantly against it. The surest defense is knowledge on the part of aggressors that retaliation is a certainty. Deterrence is light years more effective than a technological quick fix that can easily be overwhelmed by more technology.

Dick Cheney and privatizing the military

There is huge money to be made in servicing the military, and there are also complex issues today that are complicating it even further. When Dick Cheney was secretary of defense in the first Bush administration, he got the idea that what we needed to do was to start privatizing aspects of the military. This was supposed to save money if we put out to private companies all sorts of allegedly non-military functions such as kitchen police, so-called KP duty, and cleaning latrines, collecting and distributing the mail, cooking meals, and doing the laundry. If you were a veteran of World War II, or of Korea, or of Vietnam you remember that such chores were part of life in the armed forces. It simply isn’t true anymore today. This work has gone to companies like the Kellogg, Brown and Root subsidiary of Halliburton, and it’s extremely lucrative.

But it clearly hasn’t saved money. In fact, I find it’s absurd to think that we are now firing people in the armed forces who know foreign languages and could be used as intelligence officers and interrogators, while going out and hiring private companies to supply these people. This invariably costs more than if you had someone in the armed forces doing it.

Kellogg, Brown & Root

Dick Cheney, when he was secretary of defense, hired Kellogg, Brown & Root. The old Brown & Root Company is famous in Texas politics. It was a political company back in the 1930s, when it built the great dams around Austin that prevented floods and invariably used political connections to get these contracts. In all the biographies of Lyndon Johnson you will discover that Brown and Root were among his great backers. He was critically important to them. They acquired another company called Kellogg, at some point, which then was acquired by Halliburton, which is a famous old oil-field services company based in Houston.

Cheney hired Kellogg, Brown and Root to do a feasibility study on privatizing various things done in the armed forces and then hired Kellogg, Brown and Root to implement the things that the company recommended. Then, of course, when George Bush lost the election, Cheney became president of Halliburton, the owner of Kellogg, Brown and Root, and he remained its president right up until the day he became vice president of the United States. It’s therefore not surprising that all of us are looking askance at the large number of open-ended, no-competition contracts given to Brown and Root to serve all the meals to the 130,000 troops in Iraq; to build the bases that are being built there; to do virtually all the maintenance.

Classic mercenaries

There are so-called private military companies (PMCs) which like to say that they do everything but pull the trigger. That’s anything but true. The most interesting of them, like MPRI (Military Professional Resources Inc.), Vinnell Corporation, Dyn Corporation, are made up of former Special Forces officers who are war lovers, people who once they left the armed forces decided they still liked doing that work. They are classic mercenaries and they have certainly pulled triggers. That’s probably why four of them got blown up in their vehicle in Falluja, setting off a huge battle in which we rather hypocritically said that we were defending these four innocent entrepreneurs. They were obviously anything but innocent.

A servant of the military establishment

Lockheed-Martin is the world’s largest munitions maker. Its profits went up by more than 25% last year. When war becomes that profitable you are going to see more of it. Right now, a politically well-connected capitalist manufacturer in America can’t do better than to become a servant of the military establishment -- supplying it with its equipment, with the services it requires, making life in the armed forces attractive.

For example, at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, one of the first signs that the Air Force intended to stay was a very fancy swimming pool that they dug and built there. And they had to install a lot of equipment to bring the temperature of the water down rather than warming it up. This is characteristic of bases throughout the Persian Gulf area. They are really quite comfortable, complete with air-conditioning. That’s why the high command fought the second Iraq war from Qatar, sitting there looking at computer screens.

The end of the republic

But I don’t believe we are talking about a cabal of capitalists who favor war. In most cases, it seems to me, the genuine capitalists, sort of like the Zaibatsu (industrial groups in Japan) in the 1930s, would have preferred peace. They can make more money in a peacetime economy selling automobiles or manufactured goods.

In “The Sorrows of Empire” my subtitle is “Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic” because I think militarism is separate from a capitalist economy, even one that has vested interests in a war economy. I’m very much aware that one of the things that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union was that even when it got, in the person of Gorbachev, leadership that was committed to reform, it was stopped by vested interests in the Cold War system. Gorbachev could not easily introduce the kind of changes that were needed because they would have been to the great disadvantage of long-established industries that serviced the Red Army and the Soviet empire.

And that’s certainly true in the United States. There is nothing that produces a more extraordinary firestorm on Capitol Hill than the annual efforts at domestic base closing. There I agree with Rumsfeld. He’d like to close a quarter of the U.S. Army bases in the domestic United States and a third of the Air Force bases, but he knows he probably can’t do it. He’s going to run into unimaginable vested interests in every state where he tries it. This comes down next year, 2005, and it’s worth paying attention to that.

Vested interests

Of course there are huge economic vested interests in the military-industrial complex. But what I find more tragic is that these are less the influence of capitalist wealth, or investments by the very rich, than the job prospects of people who are often at the lower rungs of our society, who have jobs working for Lockheed Martin, or Boeing, or for the military establishment here in San Diego. They have electoral strength and they are extremely fearful, as were many people in the Soviet Union in 1991, over what would happen to their jobs if we ceased being a military empire.

So the answer to your question is that I do not believe that the military-industrial complex represents a cabal of American capitalists and that if we only had a socialist system we wouldn’t have it. I don’t believe that for a minute. But by the same token I certainly do recognize that one of the ways the military and the arms manufacturers protect themselves is to spread the wealth as widely as they can, to involve as many different states as they possibly can, and to invoke interests in both political parties. For example, we have an aircraft carrier named after Ronald Reagan, but we’ve also got one named after John Stennis, who was just a typical Democratic chairman of the Armed Services Committee. All of this is, indeed, a tremendous obstacle to the reform of militarism and that’s why I become less and less optimistic daily that the political system is the answer to our problems.

An upsurge of direct democracy

The only answer I see is an upsurge of direct democracy. Slightly more than a year ago, we had ten million people around the world demonstrating against the war in Iraq, against George Bush, and for democracy. Our first victory on that front is José Zapatero in Spain.

If democracy means anything at all, it means that public opinion matters. We have governments in the United States, in Britain, in Italy, in Australia, and in Japan that are saying, “We don’t give a damn what public opinion is.” Even though these are formally democracies.

I believe that it is possible to bring these governments down by the pressure of democracy. My argument for voting for John Kerry is not that I care for him all that much, but I think he might be more responsive to the pressures of direct democracy than George Bush is.

The Commanders-in-Chief

In Motion Magazine: Please tell me about your analysis of the CINCs (Commanders-in-Chief).

Chalmers Johnson: Commanders-in-Chief are regional military commanders. There are various regional commands – CENTCOM Central Command, meaning the Middle East and South Asia; SOUTHCOM, based in Miami, which covers South America; NORTHCOM, for North America; PACOM, Pacific Command; and EUCOM, the European Command. These are headed by very high-ranking military officers to whom all the various ambassadors now report. They create the foreign policies for their particular regions and they are not constrained by the chain of command. They go directly to the secretary of defense and to the president. They do not go through, for example, the secretary of the Army, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In Motion Magazine: The secretary of state?

Chalmers Johnson: Certainly not. I raise all this because one of the sure signs of militarism is the military’s beginning to expand into areas which settled political thought would have said were not appropriate for uniformed military officers.

Today the State Department is being systematically displaced by the Pentagon. What this means is that our foreign policy turns first and foremost to the use of cruise missiles and carrier task forces instead of to things we pioneered in this country during the Cold War, such as the use of foreign aid. Things like the Fulbright program that provides some money to bring foreign scholars here to study in our universities: all this is being displaced by a lunatic overemphasis on foreign-policy-making by people who don’t know what the word diplomacy means. As I cite in my book, of the money spent by the United States on foreign affairs today, 93% is spent by the Pentagon, and only 7% by the State Department.

Expansion of the military

The Commanders-in-Chief are a good example of the growth of the military. We see it also in their insane competition with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where they are trying to expand radically the military’s Special Forces and use them in competition with the CIA’s clandestine services. All are basically private armies in the hands of the president, beyond any form of Congressional oversight and protected by rigid secrecy.

The CINCs exemplify the expansion of the military in numerous ways. General Zinni, who was CENTCOM commander before Tommy Franks (the general who led the attack on Baghdad), had a huge staff and an aviation component to fly him around his world. All the Middle Eastern ambassadors reported to Zinni. He was a close personal friend of Pervez Musharraf, the military officer who led a coup d’etat and is today the president of Pakistan.

The CINCs often regard themselves as beyond the law. When Admiral Dennis Blair was Pacific Commander, despite Congressional laws prohibiting contacts with the military government of Indonesia and General Suharto, Admiral Blair on his own decided that he wanted contacts with them. Regardless of what they had done in East Timor, over the objections of the American ambassador to Indonesia, he flew to Indonesia and opened direct negotiations of his own with the military government there.

Proconsuls or militarists?

The CINCs are sometimes compared to Roman proconsuls. But a Roman proconsul was not just a military officer; he had already held the highest office in the land. He was a retired consul -- that is, one of the two elected supreme figures in the country, and only after his term was up did he become a proconsul governing the Roman colonies. But the CINCs, virtually by definition, have had no civilian experience at all. People like General Wesley Clark, who entered the race to be nominated Democratic presidential candidate, was first in his class at West Point, a four star general, NATO commander, but he has had no civilian experience whatsoever. His orientation is not that of a proconsul in the Roman sense, but of a professional militarist.

I regard the CINCs as a manifestation of the tendency of militarism, once it gets into power, to expand its functions throughout the society in many different ways, and to replace any number of activities that have normally been reserved to civilians.

The Posse Comitatus Act

Let me offer you one critical example that I use in my book. The Posse Comitatus Act was enacted after the Civil War because of the intervention of Northern troops in elections in the South after it was defeated. The Act says, quite explicitly, that so long as the courts are open and functioning, under no circumstances is the uniformed military to exercise police functions in the United States over American citizens.

With the creation of the Northern Command, we now have this potentiality. The Command is located at Peterson Air Force base in Colorado, and the General in charge is General Eberhart. He was recently quoted as saying, “In order to carry out my functions, I favor the abolition of the Posse Comitatus Act.” My answer is, “General, it has nothing to do with your functions. The purpose of the Posse Comitatus Act is to protect us from people like you.” During World War II, the president, Congress, and the military agreed never to create a command charged exclusively with the defense of North America because it could become a focus for military intervention in politics via the assumption of emergency powers.

We also have General Franks, recently retired CENTCOM commander, saying that with another terrorist incident comparable to 9/11 in America, “We’ll probably have to take over.” And that’s what happened to the Roman Republic, the world’s first great experiment in institutionalized democracy, and an enormous source of precedence for the authors of the American constitution.

Beyond our own Rubicon

In Motion Magazine: Franks actually said this?

Chalmers Johnson: Yes. It was published in the December 2003 issue of Cigar Aficionado magazine. He said in so many words that the military might have to assume emergency powers. There is a distinct possibility that we are beyond our own Rubicon, and that there’s no way back.

Am I being alarmist? Yes, of course I am. I am alarmed.

But by the same token, if I am wrong you are going to forgive me you are going to be so pleased I was wrong. But I myself do not see how any president -- George Bush, John Kerry, or any other person -- can stand up to the Pentagon, the secret intelligence agencies, and the military-industrial complex today, if for no other reason than that 40% of the defense budget is secret and all of the intelligence agencies’ budgets are secret. This makes it impossible for a member of Congress to get the necessary information to do oversight even if he or she wanted to.

Robber barons and/or neo-conservatives

In Motion Magazine: From reading The Sorrows of Empire,” these people certainly herald where they are going. There have been three papers: two written by Cheney -- one on privatization of the armed forces, and one on oil. And then the third, which he signed, was the Project for the New American Century. They’ve had a theory. They’ve laid it out. And now they are carrying it out. Could you go into this?

Chalmers Johnson: Yes. I spend a lot of time in the book talking about this and I think it is all true. Although, I want to draw back from it in one sense. I have been impressed by Ron Susskind’s interviews will Paul O’Neill, the former secretary of the treasury who sat in on the cabinet meetings from the moment this government came to power. Whatever you may think of O’Neill, he has capitalist credentials as good you could ask for: namely, president of Alcoa Aluminum. When asked directly by Susskind, “What did you think of the people you met in the Cabinet room?" meaning above all Dick Cheney, O’Neill said, “They are robber barons.” He didn’t say, “They are neo-conservatives,” or ideologues. He thought they were people determined to get as rich as possible in the shortest possible time.

Now, I found this interesting. It may go back to your earlier question about capitalism. Maybe I’m wrong and there’s much greater corporate exploitation of a gullible United States than I am fully aware of. Perhaps the military are rather small fry.

From Wolfowitz to Doctor No

But turning to the ideologues, we know what happened. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and before the ’92 elections, or the coming to power of Clinton, Cheney set Paul Wolfowitz, who was then on his staff in the Defense Department, to write a new national security strategy, in light of the fact that we no longer had an enemy.

Wolfowitz is a very smart, dangerous, political scientist from the University of Chicago. But he basically makes one of the greatest mistakes ever made -- a Talleyrand-type mistake of such critical strategic importance one never recovers from it. He concludes that we won the Cold War and that we are now a Collossus athwart the world. We no longer need international law, allies, the United Nations, arms control treaties, the whole apparatus of our government during and after World War II. We are beyond good and evil. We can do as we please.

He comes close to quoting the old imperial slogan, “It doesn’t matter if they love us, so long as they fear us.” Moreover, he puts forward as new doctrine that we intend to use our military force in order to prevent the development of any challenge to our absolute supremacy from either friend or foe. That means we will intervene and use our entire apparatus to undercut governments in Japan, or France, or wherever else someone might look like they are developing a potential military-economic foundation.

And about the only country you could imagine which has that potential is the fastest growing economy on earth today, namely China. And they certainly focused on China very early.

Wolfowitz wrote this up in 1992 and it was publicized and immediately shot down as far too extreme. Many people objected to it at once as a clear statement of world domination. I use it as an epigraph in one chapter my book: James Bond says to Doctor No, “It’s the same old dream -- world domination.”

Revisionist powers

It is a sign that the United States is beginning to move from a status quo power committed to its own wealth and the wealth of its allies, and committed to a structure of legality that protects this wealth and the United Nations, into what in international relations we call a revisionist power. By revisionist powers we mean powers that are adamantly opposed to the structure of the world as they find it and are prepared to use military force to change it, such as Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, Bolshevik Russia, and Mao’s China. A great many good scholars today argue that the United States has become the most dangerous of all revisionist powers.

If you take the Bush administration’s doctrine literally, we are prepared to use armed force to alter the shape of the world in the sense that we are going to use our army to shove American forms of capitalism, democracy, and free markets down the throats of everybody else on earth. Even in his speech at the Army War College, the President seemed to re-affirm it. He seemed to use it as an idealistic goal, as if he were a modern militaristic Wilsonian.

At any rate, these are the ideas that Wolfowitz came up with. In my view they are terribly flawed but not totally wrong. That is to say, the potentiality was there in a way it had never been before for the United States to assume a global hegemony, a Roman-type imperialism, combined, of course, with the American ideology that ours would be a good empire. This is an idea forever being promoted by English scholars like Niall Ferguson, who is an apologist for British imperialism, and who tells us, “We can teach you to be a good empire, as we were a good empire and brought the world hegemonic stability.”

I always want to say, “Mr. Ferguson, you can’t just sweep under the rug the way India ended up. You can’t sweep under the rug the Amritsar massacre at which General Dyer killed Punjabis until he ran out of ammunition. You can’t sweep under the rug the Boer War, where the Brits invented concentration camps. And the Andaman Islands were a British prison colony like our Guantanamo Bay.”

Project for a New American Century

Anyway, the Republicans lost the election in 1992 and they were out in the cold. But they kept the ideas alive that were there in the original Wolfowitz report in the form of an organization they called the Project for a New American Century, centered very much at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI),, which is a right-wing think tank in Washington.

These think tanks, by the way, reflect the fact that today the universities play a much smaller role than they used to in American strategy formation. Policy studies in universities have become so arcane that nobody understands what they are doing. This vacuum has been filled by the world of the Washington “think tank,” which speaks the King’s English rather than academic jargon but also says precisely what the political client wants to hear. There are a very few left-wing think tanks, but above all there has been a rise of right-wing institutions, of which the AEI is a good example.

Oil politics

Anyway, concentrated in this organization are all of the leaders of foreign policy in the current administration, including a few convicted felons left over from Iran-Contra in the Reagan administration. They reflected various trends and it is a complex issue to sort out. But there are at least two prominent strands of thought. One is oil politics: the belief that with the collapse of the Soviet Union all of the southern Eurasian area, from the Balkans to China, became open for imperialist penetration.

The Caspian Sea and the land around it are one of the last great underdeveloped areas for oil exploitation on earth today. I’ve actually swum in the Caspian Sea and I guarantee you it has a distinctly oily smell to it -- even though when I was there back in 1978 it was really quite clean and was chiefly known for Beluga sturgeon that produce the world’s greatest caviar. I wish it were still associated more with caviar than with oil. And certainly we were interested in this area throughout the Clinton administration as much as we are today.

Saudi Arabia could go the way of Iran

The oil people began to worry that Saudi Arabia very likely could go the way of Iran in that our clients there, the House of Saud, were as corrupt and incompetent as the Shah and might one of these days be overthrown. One of the two pillars of our policy in the Persian Gulf, going back for years, was our unique position in Saudi Arabia that began in the 1930s with the creation of the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO). ARAMCO cleverly exploited the fact that by this time there was great hostility towards the British Empire because of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and the way they exploited Iran.

But there were two pillars, and the second one was the Shah of Iran, whom we brought to power in 1953, when the CIA helped overthrow Mohammad Mossadeq. The Shah was then destroyed in the Islamist revolution of 1979.

Once that happened, particularly given the fact that the Shah had developed a powerful authoritarian regime and an extremely strong police apparatus in the form of Savak, we began to worry that with the collapse of the Iranian pillar of our policy the same thing could happen in Saudi Arabia, where the place is equally ripe for fundamental change. And any future form of democratic government in Saudi Arabia is going to be anti-American, given the history of the U.S. relationship with the House of Saud.

Oil and the rise of China

So, the oil people certainly know how much oil Iraq produces -- it has the world’s second largest reserves. They began to target this as a way to begin to control what was further starting to worry them terribly, in the Wolfowitz sense, the rise of China, which has become a net petroleum importer. China has a voracious demand as it is industrializing extremely rapidly. It is easily the fastest growing large economy on earth today. It grew 9.1% last year. The idea was that we can always keep East Asia under control by controlling their access to Persian Gulf oil. They are even more dependent on it than we are.

Likud Party

The second great element in all of this, that is almost taboo to mention in the United States -- it is the 600-pound gorilla in any conversation -- is the Likud Party in Israel. Many of the people in the Project for a New American Century are extremely close to the right wing of the Likud Party. They were well known and well publicized registered agents for Benjamin Netanyahu when he was Israel’s prime minister (he is today the foreign minister). They reflected powerfully the views of Israel that Iraq was a threat, even though it was no threat to the United States. Iraq was a threat as far as the Israelis were concerned because of the size of its army. And, more importantly, Saddam Hussein carried on a systematic policy of aiding the families of Palestinian suicide bombers in the second Intifada. These Americans began to use quite brilliantly their influence in the U.S. Congress to convince us that we had a grievance against Iraq.

These people combined their oil policy and their pro-Likud policy. They are quite explicit in opposing the Oslo Accords. They promote Zionist imperialism. One of their favorite figures is Ariel Sharon, who you might easily argue has done more to destroy Israeli security than any other person, starting back with his invasion of Lebanon in 1982.


Beyond that, though, it seems to me there is the general factor of imperialism. There is the growing sense in the minds of these people that the Persian Gulf area was one of the most critical strategic areas on earth today and that we had to dominate it.

Amazingly, these people came to power in 2001, with the election, or appointment, of George Bush.

Empire and bankruptcy

So, to return specifically to the theme of militarism, it is not fully appreciated what militarism is doing to us. Great Britain on the eve of the First World War was still an extremely rich country. It had trade and current account surpluses of 5% of GDP. It could afford bad mistakes like the Boer War because it was a rich country. The United States today has the largest governmental and trade deficits in recent economic history. At some point, all economic theory tells us, countries that run those kinds of debts see their currency collapse.

Meanwhile, we’re probably going to get disaster anyway simply because the money spent on defense is approaching 3/4 of a trillion dollars a year. That is $750 billion. This is going to lead to bankruptcy. The defense appropriations bill for the Pentagon alone is $425 billion a year right now. There’s another $75 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, and another $30 billion for nuclear weapons in the Department of Energy. And then there are untold billions for military retirements and taking care of the wounded and disabled. For example, the Pentagon has yet to acknowledge that the casualty rate for the first Gulf War is now 30% -- so many of them have come down with depleted-uranium illnesses. They’ve applied to the Veterans Administration and very quickly they get assigned, by law, disability pensions that are cumulatively very expensive.

And we are not paying for it. We are just putting it on the tab. As Herbert Stein, when he was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors in a Republican administration, rather famously put it, “Things that can’t go on forever, don’t.” Our budgets are not being financed by us but by savers in East Asia. All that would have to happen is, one day, for the minister of finance of China to decide that the European Union is working and that, the Euro now being a much more valuable currency than the dollar, China’s foreign assets ought to be invested mainly in Europe. The day that happens the American stock exchange collapses and inflation goes off the chart because if we are now going to finance America’s debts ourselves, we’re going to have interest rates of 22%, or something like that, to get people to save that much capital in this country. At 22% it would be quite profitable to put your money in the bank as a CD and let the government use it. There would be a howling depression around the world for a couple of years, and the United States would never quite recover from it.

That’s my argument in “The Sorrows of Empire.” I end by saying that without a renaissance of mass democracy, Nemesis -- the goddess of revenge, the punisher of hubris, arrogance, pride -- is impatient for a meeting with the United States. And it’s nowhere written that this couldn’t happen very quickly and very easily.

Imperial overstretch

If we were having this conversation in 1985, and I had said to you, “Four years from now the Soviet Union will collapse and in six years it will disappear,” you would have thought, “This is not a reliable observer.” But the U.S.S.R. is gone -- disappeared -- and we didn’t predict it. Russia today is a much smaller country than the former Soviet Union. The CIA had all the wrong data. We also made a mistake when we concluded that we had won the Cold War. We had almost nothing to do with what happened in the Soviet Union: there were internal issues and it certainly wasn’t Star Wars.

We now know in detail how Gorbachev brought Sakharov out of exile in Gorky to address the Politburo on, “What would you do about a ballistic missile defense?” Sakharov said, “It’s easy to overwhelm it with missiles. I wouldn’t spend a ruble on it.” And they didn’t. But in mistakenly thinking that we won the Cold War, we strongly imply that we did something to cause that. Instead, the Soviet Union collapsed because of overstretch, a case of imperial overstretch.

Perpetual war, loss of the republic, disinformation, bankruptcy

I fear that in our own case it has also gone too far. In the last chapter of my book I list four sorrows of empire: perpetual war; loss of the republic (in the sense of the loss of the structure of the republic, which is the main defense of the Bill of Rights); lying and disinformation by the executive branch; and bankruptcy. And I do not see any of these things being reversed just yet.

To read Part 2 of this interview :

Published in In Motion Magazine September 19, 2004

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