Chalmers Johnson: Is Imperial Liquidation Possible For America?


Richard Moore

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Is Imperial Liquidation Possible
For America?
By Chalmers Johnson
16 May, 2007

In politics, as in medicine, a cure based on a false diagnosis is almost always 
worthless, often worsening the condition that is supposed to be healed. The 
United States, today, suffers from a plethora of public ills. Most of them can 
be traced to the militarism and imperialism that have led to the near-collapse 
of our Constitutional system of checks and balances. Unfortunately, none of the 
remedies proposed so far by American politicians or analysts addresses the root 
causes of the problem.

According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, released on April 26, 2007, 
some 78% of Americans believe their country to be headed in the wrong direction.
Only 22% think the Bush administration's policies make sense, the lowest number 
on this question since October 1992, when George H. W. Bush was running for a 
second term -- and lost. What people don't agree on are the reasons for their 
doubts and, above all, what the remedy -- or remedies -- ought to be.

The range of opinions on this is immense. Even though large numbers of voters 
vaguely suspect that the failings of the political system itself led the country
into its current crisis, most evidently expect the system to perform a course 
correction more or less automatically. As Adam Nagourney of the New York Times 
reported, by the end of March 2007, at least 280,000 American citizens had 
already contributed some $113.6 million to the presidential campaigns of Hillary
Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Mitt Romney, Rudolph Giuliani, or 
John McCain.

If these people actually believe a presidential election a year-and-a-half from 
now will significantly alter how the country is run, they have almost surely 
wasted their money. As Andrew Bacevich, author of The New American Militarism, 
puts it: "None of the Democrats vying to replace President Bush is doing so with
the promise of reviving the system of check and balances.... The aim of the 
party out of power is not to cut the presidency down to size but to seize it, 
not to reduce the prerogatives of the executive branch but to regain them."

George W. Bush has, of course, flagrantly violated his oath of office, which 
requires him "to protect and defend the constitution," and the opposition party 
has been remarkably reluctant to hold him to account. Among the "high crimes and
misdemeanors" that, under other political circumstances, would surely constitute
the Constitutional grounds for impeachment are these: the President and his top 
officials pressured the Central Intelligence Agency to put together a National 
Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq's nuclear weapons that both the 
administration and the Agency knew to be patently dishonest. They then used this
false NIE to justify an American war of aggression. After launching an invasion 
of Iraq, the administration unilaterally reinterpreted international and 
domestic law to permit the torture of prisoners held at Abu Ghraib prison in 
Baghdad, at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and at other secret locations around the 

Nothing in the Constitution, least of all the commander-in-chief clause, allows 
the president to commit felonies. Nonetheless, within days after the 9/11 
attacks, President Bush had signed a secret executive order authorizing a new 
policy of "extraordinary rendition," in which the CIA is allowed to kidnap 
terrorist suspects anywhere on Earth and transfer them to prisons in countries 
like Egypt, Syria, or Uzbekistan, where torture is a normal practice, or to 
secret CIA prisons outside the United States where Agency operatives themselves 
do the torturing.

On the home front, despite the post-9/11 congressional authorization of new 
surveillance powers to the administration, its officials chose to ignore these 
and, on its own initiative, undertook extensive spying on American citizens 
without obtaining the necessary judicial warrants and without reporting to 
Congress on this program. These actions are prima-facie violations of the 
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (and subsequent revisions) and of 
Amendment IV of the Constitution.

These alone constitute more than adequate grounds for impeachment, while hardly 
scratching the surface. And yet, on the eve of the national elections of 
November 2006, then House Minority Leader, now Speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.),
pledged on the CBS News program "60 Minutes" that "impeachment is off the 
table." She called it "a waste of time." And six months after the Democratic 
Party took control of both houses of Congress, the prison at Guantánamo Bay was 
still open and conducting drumhead courts martial of the prisoners held there; 
the CIA was still using "enhanced interrogation techniques" on prisoners in 
foreign jails; illegal intrusions into the privacy of American citizens 
continued unabated; and, more than fifty years after the CIA was founded, it 
continues to operate under, at best, the most perfunctory congressional 

Promoting Lies, Demoting Democracy

Without question, the administration's catastrophic war in Iraq is the single 
overarching issue that has convinced a large majority of Americans that the 
country is "heading in the wrong direction." But the war itself is the outcome 
of an imperial presidency and the abject failure of Congress to perform its 
Constitutional duty of oversight. Had the government been working as the authors
of the Constitution intended, the war could not have occurred. Even now, the 
Democratic majority remains reluctant to use its power of the purse to cut off 
funding for the war, thereby ending the American occupation of Iraq and starting
to curtail the ever-growing power of the military-industrial complex.

One major problem of the American social and political system is the failure of 
the press, especially television news, to inform the public about the true 
breadth of the unconstitutional activities of the executive branch. As Frederick
A. O. Schwarz and Aziz Z. Huq, the authors of Unchecked and Unbalanced: 
Presidential Power in a Time of Terror, observe, "For the public to play its 
proper checking role at the ballot box, citizens must know what is done by the 
government in their names."

Instead of uncovering administration lies and manipulations, the media actively 
promoted them. Yet the first amendment to the Constitution protects the press 
precisely so it can penetrate the secrecy that is the bureaucrat's most 
powerful, self-protective weapon. As a result of this failure, democratic 
oversight of the government by an actively engaged citizenry did not -- and 
could not -- occur. The people of the United States became mere spectators as an
array of ideological extremists, vested interests, and foreign operatives -- 
including domestic neoconservatives, Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi exiles, the 
Israeli Lobby, the petroleum and automobile industries, warmongers and 
profiteers allied with the military-industrial complex, and the entrenched 
interests of the professional military establishment -- essentially hijacked the

Some respected professional journalists do not see these failings as the mere 
result of personal turpitude but rather as deep structural and cultural problems
within the American system as it exists today. In an interview with Matt Taibbi,
Seymour Hersh, for forty years one of America's leading investigative reporters,
put the matter this way:

"All of the institutions we thought would protect us -- particularly the press, 
but also the military, the bureaucracy, the Congress -- they have failedŠ So all
the things that we expect would normally carry us through didn't. The biggest 
failure, I would argue, is the press, because that's the most glaringŠ. What can
be done to fix the situation? [long pause] You'd have to fire or execute ninety 
percent of the editors and executives."

Veteran analyst of the press (and former presidential press secretary), Bill 
Moyers, considering a classic moment of media failure, concluded: "The 
disgraceful press reaction to Colin Powell's presentation at the United Nations 
[on February 5, 2003] seems like something out of Monty Python, with one key 
British report cited by Powell being nothing more than a student's thesis, 
downloaded from the Web -- with the student later threatening to charge U.S. 
officials with 'plagiarism.'"

As a result of such multiple failures (still ongoing), the executive branch 
easily misled the American public.

A Made-in-America Human Catastrophe

Of the failings mentioned by Hersh, that of the military is particularly 
striking, resembling as it does the failures of the Vietnam era, thirty-plus 
years earlier. One would have thought the high command had learned some lessons 
from the defeat of 1975. Instead, it once again went to war pumped up on our own
propaganda -- especially the conjoined beliefs that the United States was the 
"indispensable nation," the "lone superpower," and the "victor" in the Cold War;
and that it was a new Rome the likes of which the world had never seen, 
possessing as it did -- from the heavens to the remotest spot on the planet -- 
"full spectrum dominance." The idea that the U.S. was an unquestioned military 
colossus athwart the world, which no power or people could effectively oppose, 
was hubristic nonsense certain to get the country into deep trouble -- as it did
-- and bring the U.S. Army to the point of collapse, as happened in Vietnam and 
may well happen again in Iraq (and Afghanistan).

Instead of behaving in a professional manner, our military invaded Iraq with far
too small a force; failed to respond adequately when parts of the Iraqi Army 
(and Baathist Party) went underground; tolerated an orgy of looting and 
lawlessness throughout the country; disobeyed orders and ignored international 
obligations (including the obligation of an occupying power to protect the 
facilities and treasures of the occupied country -- especially, in this case, 
Baghdad's National Museum and other archaeological sites of untold historic 
value); and incompetently fanned the flames of an insurgency against our 
occupation, committing numerous atrocities against unarmed Iraqi civilians.

According to Andrew Bacevich, "Next to nothing can be done to salvage Iraq. It 
no longer lies within the capacity of the United States to determine the outcome
of events there." Our former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas W. Freeman, says 
of President Bush's recent "surge" strategy in Baghdad and al-Anbar Province: 
"The reinforcement of failure is a poor substitute for its correction."

Symbolically, a certain sign of the disaster to come in Iraq arrived via an 
April 26th posting from the courageous but anonymous Sunni woman who has, since 
August 2003, published the indispensable blog Baghdad Burning. Her family, she 
reported, was finally giving up and going into exile -- joining up to two 
million of her compatriots who have left the country. In her final dispatch, she

"There are moments when the injustice of having to leave your country simply 
because an imbecile got it into his head to invade it, is overwhelming. It is 
unfair that in order to survive and live normally, we have to leave our home and
what remains of family and friends.... And to what?"

Retired General Barry McCaffrey, commander of the 24th Infantry Division in the 
first Iraq war and a consistent cheerleader for Bush strategies in the second, 
recently radically changed his tune. He now says, "No Iraqi government official,
coalition soldier, diplomat, reporter, foreign NGO, nor contractor can walk the 
streets of Baghdad, nor Mosul, nor Kirkuk, nor Basra, nor Tikrit, nor Najaf, nor
Ramadi, without heavily armed protection." In a different context, Gen. 
McCaffrey has concluded: "The U.S. Army is rapidly unraveling."

Even military failure in Iraq is still being spun into an endless web of lies 
and distortions by the White House, the Pentagon, military pundits, and the 
now-routine reporting of propagandists disguised as journalists. For example, in
the first months of 2007, rising car-bomb attacks in Baghdad were making a 
mockery of Bush administration and Pentagon claims that the U.S. troop 
escalation in the capital had brought about "a dramatic drop in sectarian 
violence." The official response to this problem: the Pentagon simply quit 
including deaths from car bombings in its count of sectarian casualties. (It has
never attempted to report civilian casualties publicly or accurately.) Since 
August 2003, there have been over 1,050 car bombings in Iraq. One study 
estimates that through June 2006 the death toll from these alone has been a 
staggering 78,000 Iraqis.

The war and occupation George W. Bush unleashed in Iraq has proved unimaginably 
lethal for unarmed civilians, but reporting the true levels of lethality in 
Iraq, or the nature of the direct American role in it was, for a long time, 
virtually taboo in the U.S. media. As late as October 2006, the journal of the 
British Medical Association, The Lancet, published a study conducted by 
researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and al-Mustansiriya 
University in Baghdad estimating that, since March 2003, there were some 601,027
more Iraqi deaths from violence than would have been expected without a war. The
British and American governments at first dismissed the findings, claiming the 
research was based on faulty statistical methods -- and the American media 
ignored the study, played down its importance, or dismissed its figures.

On March 27, 2007, however, it was revealed that the chief scientific adviser to
the British Ministry of Defense, Roy Anderson, had offered a more honest 
response. The methods used in the study were, he wrote, "close to best 
practice." Another British official described them as "a tried and tested way of
measuring mortality in conflict zones." Over 600,000 violent deaths in a 
population estimated in 2006 at 26.8 million -- that is, one in every 45 
individuals -- amounts to a made-in-America human catastrophe.

One subject that the government, the military, and the news media try to avoid 
like the plague is the racist and murderous culture of rank-and-file American 
troops when operating abroad. Partly as a result of the background racism that 
is embedded in many Americans' mental make-up and the propaganda of American 
imperialism that is drummed into recruits during military training, they do not 
see assaults on unarmed "rag heads" or "hajis" as murder. The cult of silence on
this subject began to slip only slightly in May 2007 when a report prepared by 
the Army's Mental Health Advisory Team was leaked to the San Diego 
Union-Tribune. Based on anonymous surveys and focus groups involving 1,320 
soldiers and 447 Marines, the study revealed that only 56% of soldiers would 
report a unit member for injuring or killing an innocent noncombatant, while a 
mere 40% of Marines would do so. Some militarists will reply that such 
inhumanity to the defenseless is always inculcated into the properly trained 
soldier. If so, then the answer to this problem is to ensure that, in the 
future, there are many fewer imperialist wars of choice sponsored by the United 

The Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex

Many other aspects of imperialism and militarism are undermining America's 
Constitutional system. By now, for example, the privatization of military and 
intelligence functions is totally out of control, beyond the law, and beyond any
form of Congressional oversight. It is also incredibly lucrative for the owners 
and operators of so-called private military companies -- and the money to pay 
for their activities ultimately comes from taxpayers through government 
contracts. Any accounting of these funds, largely distributed to crony companies
with insider connections, is chaotic at best. Jeremy Scahill, author of 
Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, estimates that
there are 126,000 private military contractors in Iraq, more than enough to keep
the war going, even if most official U.S. troops were withdrawn. "From the 
beginning," Scahill writes, "these contractors have been a major hidden story of
the war, almost uncovered in the mainstream media and absolutely central to 
maintaining the U.S. occupation of Iraq."

America's massive "military" budgets, still on the rise, are beginning to 
threaten the U.S. with bankruptcy, given that its trade and fiscal deficits 
already easily make it the world's largest net debtor nation. Spending on the 
military establishment -- sometimes mislabeled "defense spending" -- has soared 
to the highest levels since World War II, exceeding the budgets of the Korean 
and Vietnam War eras as well as President Ronald Reagan's weapons-buying binge 
in the 1980s. According to calculations by the National Priorities Project, a 
non-profit research organization that examines the local impact of federal 
spending policies, military spending today consumes 40% of every tax dollar.

Equally alarming, it is virtually impossible for a member of Congress or an 
ordinary citizen to obtain even a modest handle on the actual size of military 
spending or its impact on the structure and functioning of our economic system. 
Some $30 billion of the official Defense Department (DoD) appropriation in the 
current fiscal year is "black," meaning that it is allegedly going for highly 
classified projects. Even the open DoD budget receives only perfunctory scrutiny
because members of Congress, seeking lucrative defense contracts for their 
districts, have mutually beneficial relationships with defense contractors and 
the Pentagon. President Dwight D. Eisenhower identified this phenomenon, in the 
draft version of his 1961 farewell address, as the 
"military-industrial-congressional complex." Forty-six years later, in a way 
even Eisenhower probably couldn't have imagined, the defense budget is beyond 
serious congressional oversight or control.

The DoD always tries to minimize the size of its budget by representing it as a 
declining percentage of the gross national product. What it never reveals is 
that total military spending is actually many times larger than the official 
appropriation for the Defense Department. For fiscal year 2006, Robert Higgs of 
the Independent Institute calculated national security outlays at almost a 
trillion dollars -- $934.9 billion to be exact -- broken down as follows (in 
billions of dollars):

Department of Defense: $499.4
Department of Energy (atomic weapons): $16.6
Department of State (foreign military aid): $25.3
Department of Veterans Affairs (treatment of wounded soldiers): $69.8
Department of Homeland Security (actual defense): $69.1
Department of Justice (1/3rd for the FBI): $1.9
Department of the Treasury (military retirements): $38.5
NASA (satellite launches): $7.6
Interest on war debts, 1916-present: $206.7

Totaled, the sum is larger than the combined sum spent by all other nations on 
military security.

This spending helps sustain the national economy and represents, essentially, a 
major jobs program. However, it is beginning to crowd out the civilian economy, 
causing stagnation in income levels. It also contributes to the hemorrhaging of 
manufacturing jobs to other countries. On May 1, 2007, the Center for Economic 
and Policy Research released a series of estimates on "the economic impact of 
the Iraq war and higher military spending." Its figures show, among other 
things, that, after an initial demand stimulus, the effect of a significant rise
in military spending (as we've experienced in recent years) turns negative 
around the sixth year.

Sooner or later, higher military spending forces inflation and interest rates 
up, reducing demand in interest-sensitive sectors of the economy, notably in 
annual car and truck sales. Job losses follow. The non-military construction and
manufacturing sectors experience the largest share of these losses. The report 
concludes, "Most economic models show that military spending diverts resources 
from productive uses, such as consumption and investment, and ultimately slows 
economic growth and reduces employment."

Imperial Liquidation?

Imperialism and militarism have thus begun to imperil both the financial and 
social well-being of our republic. What the country desperately needs is a 
popular movement to rebuild the Constitutional system and subject the government
once again to the discipline of checks and balances. Neither the replacement of 
one political party by the other, nor protectionist economic policies aimed at 
rescuing what's left of our manufacturing economy will correct what has gone 
wrong. Both of these solutions fail to address the root cause of our national 

I believe that there is only one solution to the crisis we face. The American 
people must make the decision to dismantle both the empire that has been created
in their name and the huge (still growing) military establishment that 
undergirds it. It is a task at least comparable to that undertaken by the 
British government when, after World War II, it liquidated the British Empire. 
By doing so, Britain avoided the fate of the Roman Republic -- becoming a 
domestic tyranny and losing its democracy, as would have been required if it had
continued to try to dominate much of the world by force.

For the U.S., the decision to mount such a campaign of imperial liquidation may 
already come too late, given the vast and deeply entrenched interests of the 
military-industrial complex. To succeed, such an endeavor might virtually 
require a revolutionary mobilization of the American citizenry, one at least 
comparable to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Even to contemplate a drawing back from empire -- something so inconceivable to 
our pundits and newspaper editorial writers that it is simply never considered 
-- we must specify as clearly as possible precisely what the elected leaders and
citizens of the United States would have to do. Two cardinal decisions would 
have to be made. First, in Iraq, we would have to initiate a firm timetable for 
withdrawing all our military forces and turning over the permanent military 
bases we have built to the Iraqis. Second, domestically, we would have to 
reverse federal budget priorities.

In the words of Noam Chomsky, a venerable critic of American imperialism: "Where
spending is rising, as in military supplemental bills to conduct the wars in 
Iraq and Afghanistan, it would sharply decline. Where spending is steady or 
declining (health, education, job training, the promotion of energy conservation
and renewable energy sources, veterans benefits, funding for the UN and UN 
peacekeeping operations, and so on), it would sharply increase. Bush's tax cuts 
for people with incomes over $200,000 a year would be immediately rescinded."

Such reforms would begin at once to reduce the malevolent influence of the 
military-industrial complex, but many other areas would require attention as 
well. As part of the process of de-garrisoning the planet and liquidating our 
empire, we would have to launch an orderly closing-up process for at least 700 
of the 737 military bases we maintain (by official Pentagon count) in over 130 
foreign countries on every continent except Antarctica. We should ultimately aim
at closing all our imperialist enclaves, but in order to avoid isolationism and 
maintain a capacity to assist the United Nations in global peacekeeping 
operations, we should, for the time being, probably retain some 37 of them, 
mostly naval and air bases.

Equally important, we should rewrite all our Status of Forces Agreements -- 
those American-dictated "agreements" that exempt our troops based in foreign 
countries from local criminal laws, taxes, immigration controls, anti-pollution 
legislation, and anything else the American military can think of. It must be 
established as a matter of principle and law that American forces stationed 
outside the U.S. will deal with their host nations on a basis of equality, not 
of extraterritorial privilege.

The American approach to diplomatic relations with the rest of the world would 
also require a major overhaul. We would have to end our belligerent 
unilateralism toward other countries as well as our scofflaw behavior regarding 
international law. Our objective should be to strengthen the United Nations, 
including our respect for its majority, by working to end the Security Council 
veto system (and by stopping using our present right to veto). The United States
needs to cease being the world's largest supplier of arms and munitions -- a 
lethal trade whose management should be placed under UN supervision. We should 
encourage the UN to begin outlawing weapons like land mines, cluster bombs, and 
depleted-uranium ammunition that play particularly long-term havoc with civilian
populations. As part of an attempt to right the diplomatic balance, we should 
take some obvious steps like recognizing Cuba and ending our blockade of that 
island and, in the Middle East, working to equalize aid to Israel and Palestine,
while attempting to broker a real solution to that disastrous situation. Our 
goal should be a return to leading by example -- and by sound arguments -- 
rather than by continual resort to unilateral armed force and repeated foreign 
military interventions.

In terms of the organization of the executive branch, we need to rewrite the 
National Security Act of 1947, taking away from the CIA all functions that 
involve sabotage, torture, subversion, overseas election rigging, rendition, and
other forms of clandestine activity. The president should be deprived of his 
power to order these types of operations except with the explicit advice and 
consent of the Senate. The CIA should basically devote itself to the collection 
and analysis of foreign intelligence. We should eliminate as much secrecy as 
possible so that neither the CIA, nor any other comparable organization ever 
again becomes the president's private army.

In order to halt our economic decline and lessen our dependence on our trading 
partners, the U.S. must cap its trade deficits through the perfectly legal use 
of tariffs in accordance with World Trade Organization rules, and it must begin 
to guide its domestic market in accordance with a national industrial policy, 
just as the leading economies of the world (particularly the Japanese and 
Chinese ones) do as a matter of routine. Even though it may involve trampling on
the vested interests of American university economics departments, there is 
simply no excuse for a continued reliance on an outdated doctrine of "free 

Normally, a proposed list of reforms like this would simply be rejected as 
utopian. I understand this reaction. I do want to stress, however, that failure 
to undertake such reforms would mean condemning the United States to the fate 
that befell the Roman Republic and all other empires since then. That is why I 
gave my book Nemesis the subtitle "The Last Days of the American Republic."

When Ronald Reagan coined the phrase "evil empire," he was referring to the 
Soviet Union, and I basically agreed with him that the USSR needed to be 
contained and checkmated. But today it is the U.S. that is widely perceived as 
an evil empire and world forces are gathering to stop us. The Bush 
administration insists that if we leave Iraq our enemies will "win" or -- even 
more improbably -- "follow us home." I believe that, if we leave Iraq and our 
other imperial enclaves, we can regain the moral high ground and disavow the 
need for a foreign policy based on preventive war. I also believe that unless we
follow this path, we will lose our democracy and then it will not matter much 
what else we lose. In the immortal words of Pogo, "We have met the enemy and he 
is us."

Chalmers Johnson is the author of Nemesis: The Last Days of the American 
Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007). It is the final volume of his 
Blowback Trilogy.

Copyright 2007 Chalmers Johnson
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