By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Illustration by Winston Smith
In the darkest days of the Cold War, UC Berkeley professor and sometimes consultant to the CIA Chalmers Johnson heartily denounced anti–Vietnam War protesters as misguided. Nowadays, Johnson is a hero to a new generation of peace protesters. One of the most outspoken critics of the Bush administration, his 2000 best-seller, Blowback, decried the boomerang effect the U.S. suffered by supporting Islamic fundamentalists in the 1980s. And his new volume, Sorrows of Empire, is a timely denunciation of the militarization of American foreign policy. The L.A. Weekly’s Marc Cooper spoke with Johnson recently as he passed through Los Angeles.
L.A. WEEKLY: Your view of American policy has completely reversed itself since the 1960s. But what about your feelings about your country? Can you still be patriotic while being such a fierce critic?
CHALMERS JOHNSON: Of course! As Lord Byron said, “I would have saved them if I could.” I mean, I like living here. But I think we are trending like the Soviet Union was in 1985. If I had said then that the Soviets were five years away from extinction, you’d have said I had spent too much time inhaling exotic substances around Berkeley.
What provoked your political shift?
After the Soviets, who I thought were a real threat, collapsed, I expected a much greater demobilization, a pullback of American troops, a real peace dividend, a re-orienting of federal expenditures to domestic needs. Instead, our government turned at once to find a replacement enemy: China, drugs, terrorism, instability. Anything to justify this huge apparatus of the Cold War structure.
So where does that leave today’s authentic patriots?
The role of the citizen now is to be ever better informed. When Benjamin Franklin was asked, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” he replied: “A republic if you can keep it.” We’ve not been paying attention to what we need to do to keep it. I think we made a disastrous error in the classic strategic sense when in 1991 we concluded that we “had won the Cold War.” No. We simply didn’t lose it as badly as the Soviets did. We were both caught up in imperial overreach, in weapons industries that came to dominate our societies. We allowed ideologues to capture our Department of Defense and lead us off — in a phrase they like — into a New Rome. We are no longer a status quo power respectful of international law. We became a revisionist power, one fundamentally opposed to the world as it is organized, much like Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, Bolshevik Russia or Maoist China.
Indeed, your thesis is that since September 11, the U.S. ceased to be a republic and has become an empire.
It’s an extremely open question if we have crossed our Rubicon and there is no going back. Easily the most important right in our Constitution, according to James Madison, who wrote much of the document, is the one giving the right to go to war exclusively to the elected representatives of the people, to the Congress. Never, Madison continued, should that right be given to a single man. But in October 2002, our Congress gave that power to a single man, to exercise whenever he wanted, and with nuclear weapons if he so chose. And the following March, without any international consultation or legitimacy, he exercised that power by staging a unilateral attack on Iraq.
The Bill of Rights — articles 4 and 6 — are now open to question. Do people really have the right to habeas corpus? Are they still secure in their homes from illegal seizures? The answer for the moment is no. We have to wait and see what the Supreme Court will rule as to the powers of this government that it appointed.
You know from your study of history that when we traditionally speak of empire, we have in mind the model of European colonialism — the Brits in India, the French in Algeria and Indochina. Surely that’s not what you mean when you refer to an American empire.
By an American empire I mean 725 military bases in 138 foreign countries circling the globe from Greenland to Asia, from Japan to Latin America. This is a sort of base world — a secret, enclosed, separate world where our half-million troops, contractors and spies live quite comfortably around the world. I think that’s an empire. Granted, the unit of European imperialism was the colony. The unit of American imperialism is the military base.
These American bases are an outgrowth of U.S. containment policy from the Cold War. What’s their role now? Are they just pork? Or are they there to defend U.S. investment?
What they don’t do is defend U.S. security. They just grew, whether or not they had or have strategic value. We have 101 bases today in Korea even though the war has been over for 50 years. Once created, the military is endlessly creative in finding new functions for them, long after their real value has evaporated. This base world becomes part of the vested interest we associate not with security but with militarism, the danger of the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned against.