In March 1999, President Clinton toured several Latin American countries, surveying areas devastated by Hurricane Mitch and meeting with governmental delegations to promote his vision of globalized trade and cooperative regional diplomacy. In each country, he received a warm welcome. When Clinton spoke before the National Assembly of El Salvador, members of the leftist FMLN party, former guerilla leaders who had become elected representatives, responded with a standing ovation.
Given that the United States had worked diligently throughout the 1980s to destroy the rebel movement, this was an astonishing sight. Yet, in spite of the United States’ long interventionist history, Bill Clinton was popular in Latin America. He had a way of charming would-be critics. Gabriel García Márquez shared dinner with Clinton, listened to the president spontaneously recite long passages of Faulkner, and subsequently wrote an admiring profile.
These days, the world’s Nobel Laureates are more likely to turn acid pens against the White House. The Bush administration has succeeded in shocking the international community with its aggressive militarism, its belief in unitary executive power, its use of torture, and its good-versus-evil understanding of global affairs.
These same troubling traits have commanded the attention of Chalmers Johnson, who believes they have brought us to the “last days of the American republic.” Johnson, a retired professor of Asian Studies at the University of California, San Diego, and current president of the Japan Policy Research Institute, popularized the CIA-originated term “blowback” with his 2000 book of that title. That volume warned that America’s covert interventions abroad would come back to haunt us, and it became a bestseller after the attacks of 9/11 seemed to fulfill the author’s prophesy.
Since then, according to Johnson, our country’s predicament has only worsened. His new book, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, takes its name from the Greek “goddess of retribution and vengeance… punisher of pride and hubris.” Put secularly, Johnson is arguing that the United States is its own worst enemy. Sooner rather than later, he contends, U.S. arrogance will be its downfall.
Johnson’s book is made up of largely autonomous chapters on a range of loosely-related subjects: how the Bush administration’s executive power grab undermines the U.S. Constitution as well as international law, how the CIA functions as the president’s private army, the extent to which America’s extensive global network of military bases provides an infrastructure for imperial power projection, why space may be the final frontier for military expansion, and what lessons might be learned from the defunct British and Roman empires. Linking these topics is the idea that together they point to the end: “The time to head off financial and moral bankruptcy is short,” Johnson writes. Later he concludes, “We are on the cusp of losing our democracy for the sake of keeping our empire.”
Johnson’s writing is often described as “polemic,” but that doesn’t capture the heartfelt concern that underlies his distress about our country. Whereas many of us have grown numb to White House outrages, Johnson’s indignation at the administration–its torture memos, its contempt for the freedom of public information, its defacing of established treaties–is vivid. This might be due to his conservative background: a Navy lieutenant in the early ’50s, a consultant for the CIA from 1967 to 1973, and a long-time defender of the Vietnam War, Johnson became horrified at American militarism and interventionism only later in life. He now writes like he is making up for lost time.
Johnson’s most distinctive contribution to the debate about U.S. empire is his documentation of America’s vast network of overseas military bases, a project he began in his 2004 book The Sorrows of Empire. “Once upon a time, you could trace the spread of imperialism by counting up colonies,” he writes in Nemesis. “America’s version of the colony is the military base.” The United States officially maintains 737 bases worldwide, worth more than $127 billion and covering at least 687,347 acres in some 130 foreign countries. For local populations exposed to the pollution, bar fights, and brothels that surround such encampments, they are wounds that fester daily. At home, Johnson argues, Americans suffer from the bloated military budgets required to maintain this “baseworld.”
Each of Johnson’s erudite chapters both enlightens and disturbs. But his underlying jeremiad about democracy’s death lacks analytical force. Johnson looks incredulously upon “those who believe that the structure of government in Washington today bears some resemblance to that outlined in the Constitution of 1787.” And it seems that there is no going back: “[T]he legislative branch of our government is broken,” he writes, “and it is hard to imagine how it could repair itself, given the massive interests that feed off it.” Likewise, a grassroots movement to reclaim democracy “is unlikely given the conglomerate control of the mass media and the difficulties of mobilizing.” Johnson has essentially thrown up his hands.
Such pessimism feels overblown. The republic has survived Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, and democracy, however battered, will outlast Bush as well. The president has lost his deferential Congress; his approval ratings have sunk to all-time lows. Bush today is less an omnipotent tyrant than a lame duck.
In terms of geopolitics, the Bush legacy is also ambiguous. Nemesis is a book about hard power. Likening America’s far-flung bases to Rome’s garrisons, Johnson posits that not much has changed since the days of Caesar and Octavian. But, with nuclear weapons scattered amongst major and minor global powers, military might goes only so far as mutual destruction. Hard power has its limits.
To judge the strength of a nation, then, one must also gauge its talent for softer persuasion. And here the Bush administration militarists have indeed become their own worst enemies. Acting out visions of global dominance, they have inflamed a world of resentment and spawned ever more challenges to American power. Our troops are embattled. Bush’s state visits attract street protests. Discourteous politicians hover at every podium. It all makes you wonder: How much more dangerous was it when our president was both commanding and esteemed, lauded by laureates, touring our imperial backyard to standing ovations?