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The San Diego Union-Tribune ^ | January 18, 2004 | Reviewed by Ted Rall

Posted on 01/18/2004 1:51:47 PM PST by SamKeck

For Chalmers Johnson, it's only a matter of time before we reap 'The Sorrows of Empire'

Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic by Chalmers Johnson Holt, 389 pages, $25

Being right isn't much fun.

Chalmers Johnson's previous book, published during the last year of Bill Clinton's presidency, predicted that America's foreign policy poultry was about to boomerang back to the homeland.

Johnson opened his influential "Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire" by describing an incident about which you're probably a few seconds from thinking, "Oh yeah – I remember when that happened": the deaths of 20 ski-lift passengers, killed when an American military jet sliced through their gondola's cable in the Italian Alps. Though the Pentagon dismissed that tragedy as a freakish accident, it was eventually revealed that American pilots routinely entertained themselves by performing such reckless low-altitude acrobatics. Johnson wants us to know that the rest of the world isn't nearly as quick to absolve us of such mishaps as we are ourselves.

Excerpts from the sorrows of empire:

Roman imperial sorrows mounted up over hundreds of years. Ours are likely to arrive with the speed of FedEx. If present trends continue, four sorrows, it seems to me, are certain to be visited on the United States.

Their cumulative impact guarantees that the United States will cease to bear any resemblance to the country once outlined in our Constitution. First, there will be a state of perpetual war, leading to more terrorism against Americans wherever they may be and a growing reliance on weapons of mass destruction among smaller nations as they try to ward off the imperial juggernaut.

Second, there will be a loss of democracy and constitutional rights as the presidency fully eclipses Congress and is itself transformed from an "executive branch" of government into something more like a Pentagonized presidency.

The future, of course, is as yet unmade. All these trends can be resisted and other – better – futures can certainly be imagined. But it is important to be as clear-eyed as possible about what the present choices and the present path of our imperial leaders portend.

Obviously Italy hasn't yet become a hotbed of anti-Americanism jihadism. But Johnson argued that the global American empire – the existence of which most Americans remain blissfully ignorant – was accruing "a balance sheet that builds up over time. Military crimes, accidents and atrocities make up only one category on the debit side of the balance sheet that the United States has been accumulating, especially since the Cold War ended." Our presence overseas, he wrote, is overbearing, clumsy, insensitive, arrogant and aggressive. We prop up dictatorial regimes whose subjects might otherwise be capable of overthrowing them if not for our support. We prolong bloodshed by arming both sides in civil wars. And when we get caught screwing up – bombing the perfectly innocent Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum in 1998, invading Iraq to eliminate fictional weapons of mass destruction in 2003 – we never, ever apologize. It was only a matter of time before we suffered repercussions here at home for sins secretly committed elsewhere – blowback, in Langleyspeak.

Four years and 9/11 later, Johnson hopes his prescience for Y2K+1 will get us to pay attention to him this time around. He doesn't expect much – "it is difficult to imagine how Congress, much like the Roman senate in the last days of the republic, could be brought back to life and cleansed of its endemic corruption," he concludes in "The Sorrows of Empire" – but not even the most cynical Cassandra cranks out 389 pages of heavily researched polemic without suffering from Pollyanna-ism.

Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn describe America as an evil empire as if the truth of the phrase should be obvious to all but the most simpleminded.

In "The Sorrows of Empire," Johnson makes the case for empire and allows readers to draw their own sinister conclusions about its inherent goodness.

The United States defense budget accounts for more than a third of the world's military spending. We possess nearly 20,000 nuclear warheads, missiles and bombs. Nearly three million men and women serve in our full-time active-duty military, reserves and national guard units around the world. Our troops fight "hot wars" everywhere from Afghanistan to Iraq to Colombia to the Philippines. Throw an object at a globe and odds are that it will hit a U.S. military base. We've got them in Cuba, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates; Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan; Thailand, Egypt and Singapore ... well, you get the idea. To hear Johnson tell it, we're a nation addicted to militarism, the pursuit of military power for its own self-perpetuating ends. The Cold War, after all, is over. Two out of three of our self-proclaimed most dangerous threats – North Korea, Iraq and Libya – are neutralized. We should have cashed in a peace dividend after the demise of the Soviet Union. So why are we beggaring our public schools and transportation infrastructure to maintain these extravagant "symbols of American power" overseas?

Johnson, UCSD emeritus professor in the Graduate School of International Relations, lists four purposes for the present state of American muscle-flexing: "maintaining absolute military preponderance over the rest of the world, a task that includes imperial policing to ensure that no part of the empire slips the leash; eavesdropping on the communications of citizens, allies, and enemies alike, often apparently just to demonstrate that no realm of privacy is impervious to the technological capabilities of our government; attempting to control as many sources of petroleum as possible, both to service America's insatiable demand for fossil fuels and to use it as a bargaining chip with even more oil-dependent regions; providing work and income for the military-industrial complex (as, for example, in the exorbitant profits Halliburton has extracted for building and operating camps Bondsteel and Monteith); and ensuring that members of the military and their families live comfortably and are well entertained while serving abroad."

Indeed, it's hard to list many substantive differences between the U.S. military presence abroad and imperial cantonments in the late-period British Raj. On the outskirts of Ashgabat, capital of the U.S. client state of Turkmenistan, lie the residences of American diplomats and military attaches that copy a typical gated community down to its tiniest detail. Rotary sprinklers spray precious water across perfectly manicured lawns in front of suburban houses where everything from the Maytag dishwashers and Rubbermaid garbage cans to the Home Depot light fixtures have been flown in from a dozen time zones away. Crank up the air conditioner, pull down the shades and surf a hundred satellite channels; you can almost forget the 140-degree desert and desperate poverty beyond the guard shack. Just in case the locals hate us as much as their Iranian and Afghan neighbors, Marines helpfully scan the bellies of arriving SUVs with mirrors mounted on rolling sticks.

Johnson pours on tales of American hypocrisy, stupidity and excess one after another. Soldiers who rape Japanese schoolgirls (forget that one? the Okinawans haven't), Middle Easterners falling ill after coming into contact with depleted uranium from American bombs, American presidents funding and arming the very same Islamists who murdered 3,000 Americans on a sunny Tuesday in September. Structural adjustment policies, phony free trade, the president lying about Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Niger, and one of my favorite tales of late: attempts by the Clinton and Bush administrations to cozy up with the Taliban in order to build an ill-conceived oil and gas pipeline across Afghanistan – they're all here, carefully footnoted and 100 percent accurate. I wonder, though, whether this litany of loutishness will change anyone's mind.

Drawing an analogy to ancient Rome, Johnson thinks America has crossed its historical Rubicon. Just as Julius Caesar convinced the Roman people to abandon their republican ideals in favor of authoritarianism at home and expansionist militarism at the edges of a growing empire, we're sowing the seeds of future disintegration even as we bask in the televised glory of fallen autocrats reduced to sticking out their tongues when our doctors say "ah." Trouble is, Johnson assumes his readers know sufficient history or have traveled widely enough to follow his warning to turn back before – or slightly after – it's too late. Precisely because he's probably right, Johnson's "Sorrows" is as maddening as it is important.

Ted Rall, a syndicated columnist and editorial cartoonist, is author of "To Afghanistan and Back" and the upcoming "Wake Up, You're Liberal!: How We Can Take America Back From the Right" (Soft Skull Press, April 2004).

For Fair Use Only.

TOPICS: Foreign Affairs
KEYWORDS: bookreview; empire; foreignaffairs; nationbuilding
As much as I have a distaste for Ted Rall, I think the book may raise some interesting points for consideration.
1 posted on 01/18/2004 1:51:47 PM PST by SamKeck
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To: SamKeck
Just as Julius Caesar convinced the Roman people to abandon their republican ideals in favor of authoritarianism at home and expansionist militarism at the edges of a growing empire


The Romans had already completed most of their expansion when JC came to power. He came to power precisely because the republican system was unable to effectively rule the territory it had conquered.

All that was left for the Emperors to do was to fill in some spots.

2 posted on 01/18/2004 1:59:13 PM PST by Restorer
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To: SamKeck
This Ted Rall seems determined to believe the very worst he can about the direction America is taking. And we could very well become all the lamentable things he speaks of in this piece, Imperial America.

But only if the government falls back into Democrat-Socialist-One Worlder hands. As of now, America remains a responsive republic that derives its national power from the consent of the governed. Apparently this is a discipline not much appreciated.
3 posted on 01/18/2004 2:04:47 PM PST by alloysteel
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To: Restorer
"The Romans had already completed most of their expansion when JC came to power"

All the Romans wanted to do was engage in commerce and make money. At the dawn of the empire the French Gauls hit the Romans much the way the Al Quada hit us, by surprise. The Romans said to the rest of the nation states in and around the known world: "Hey, we didn't start this but we'll finish it. You're either with us or against us" Sound familiar?

All Americans want to do is engage in commerce and make money and be left alone. They didn't leave us alone. Like the Romans after the Gauls, America is at the dawn of a multi century empire. I, for one, plan to engage in commerce and make money. Anyone else?

4 posted on 01/18/2004 2:07:41 PM PST by groanup (Whom the market gods humble they first make proud.)
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To: SamKeck
Some interesting points, but mentioning Marxist tools like Noam Chomsky, using lines like "Maytag dishwashers and Rubbermaid garbage cans to the Home Depot light fixtures" and "the president lying about Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Niger" (which is itself a lie thrown in as if true) discredit both the author of the article and the book.

Yes, there are definitely some very negative aspects of American "imperialism", and I would love for more of this to be made a topic of public knowledge and discussion, but coming at the subject from an inherently anti-American point of view is a major turn-off.

Would Ted Rall expect the French to accept with open arms polemics that deride them simply for being culturally French, and espouse a hatred of France for being France? Would he accept a critique of journalism that examines only the negatives, such as mendacious Ukraine famine cheerleader Walter Duranty or William Randolph Hearst's yellow journalism?

I can no more accept criticisms of America based on a hatred of America, regardless of how they may be sourced. Expecting any American to embrace such polemic is itself unreasonable.

Even  a stopped clock is right twice a day.

5 posted on 01/18/2004 2:16:09 PM PST by Imal (What would we think if France had invaded Iraq, instead?)
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To: groanup
All the Romans wanted to do was engage in commerce and make money.

Not really true. The group that controlled Rome during almost all of the republican period, the senatorial nobility, was specifically prohibited from engaging in commerce. (Although they did thru proxies.)

The main ways the senatorial nobility got rich were through looting (especially the selling of captives into slavery), the illegal appropriation of conquered "public" lands and extortion when they were governing a province. They were not what anybody would consider proponents of a free market. By the time Caesar showed up, they were essentially a mafia gang pillaging the rest of the world.

At the dawn of the empire the French Gauls hit the Romans much the way the Al Quada hit us, by surprise. The Romans said to the rest of the nation states in and around the known world: "Hey, we didn't start this but we'll finish it. You're either with us or against us" Sound familiar?

Sorry, but this won't fly. The original Gallic invasion was from Northern Italy, not what is now France, in 390 BC, a good 300+ years before the Empire. Since the Gauls had to fight their way down the length of the Italian peninsula to get to Rome, their attack was certainly not a surprise.

The Roman Republic fought and gradually conquered the Gauls in that region over the next 200 years.

Caesar's invasion of what is now France and Belgium was just a plain old-fashioned imperialistic war. The Gauls of "France" were no threat to Rome whatsoever other than that their weakness might allow the Germans to get up close and personal with the Roman border.

6 posted on 01/18/2004 2:31:31 PM PST by Restorer
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To: SamKeck
Ahh, Ted Rall. He's convinced himself that overthrowing the Taliban was all about the US building an oil/gas pipeline and no amount of condratictory evidence or lack of corroborating evidence is ever going to change his mind.
7 posted on 01/18/2004 5:07:43 PM PST by moni kerr (Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way)
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