Apocalypse Now? | The Nation


Apocalypse Now?

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But if Congress cannot slam on the brakes, what of the American people? In a few passages, Johnson flirts with the hope that a genuinely democratic movement might possibly put a halt to America's self-defeating militarism. He even tries to explain away the public's early support for the war in Iraq by recycling the traditional excuse about good kings being misled by evil advisers, suggesting that well-meaning American citizens have been deceived by a perfidious corporate media.

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Stephen Holmes
Stephen Holmes teaches at the New York University School of Law. His most recent book is The Matador's Cape: America's...

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The duping of the public brings us to one of Johnson's central claims, namely that America's violent overreaction to 9/11 was due in part to the manufactured ignorance of American voters about their government's homicidal and exploitative actions abroad. Ignorant of the numerous ways the misconduct of the United States has excited a craving for retaliation around the world, Americans necessarily saw 9/11 as a wholly unprovoked attack and therefore as an attack requiring not self-examination but military annihilation of the enemy. The illusion that 9/11 came from nowhere, Johnson argues, that it had nothing to do with America's past behavior in the Arab world, contributed to the flaring of aggressive emotions among Americans.

This is an interesting thought. But before we lay all the blame on newspapers and networks that may have deceived the American public, we need to consider the possibility that many Americans did not and do not want to be informed about the misdeeds of their own government abroad. A majority of the electorate supported Bush for some time after the pretexts for the Iraq War were exposed as mendacious and the appalling behavior of some American personnel at Abu Ghraib became well-known. Support waned only after the war turned into an undeniable and embarrassing fiasco, not because a large majority was appalled that the war had been launched on false pretenses or conducted by immoral and illegal means.

For his part, Johnson desperately wants his fellow citizens to look at their country, if only for a moment, through the eyes of others. He almost begs his American readers to imagine what it would be like to have foreign soldiers stationed on bases inside the United States, molesting teenage American girls and running over American pedestrians while driving drunk. That anyone is listening is doubtful, however, which is why Johnson, in the end, lodges no more hope in American citizens than in the Congress they periodically elect. America's chilling disregard, not merely to the plight of ordinary Iraqis today but even to the deaths, since the 2003 invasion, of tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of civilians who had never harmed any Americans, springs from sources deep within American political culture. It was not produced by Karl Rove's trompe l'oeil propaganda and cannot be overcome by Chalmers Johnson's scholarship, however penetrating and thoughtful.

How, then, can Johnson, after surveying the illegal and immoral acts of previous American Presidents, go on to accuse the Bush Administration of betraying American traditions? How can he recount, in dismaying detail, the history of American bullying overseas but also avoid normalizing, and thereby to some extent exonerating, the actions of Bush and his circle? He struggles to avoid normalizing Bush by portraying the Administration not only as perpetuating deplorable habits of militarism and hubris but also as deviating from an American ideal of democratic anti-imperialism whose restoration he tries to imagine. In the end, he indicts the Administration principally for its radical subversion of traditional checks and balances. Under Bush, more than ever before, the separation of powers "increasingly appears to be a dead letter."

Admittedly, the "atrophying of the legislative and judicial branches" has been going on for decades. Black budgets have weakened executive-branch accountability, and the power of the purse has been diluted by various other gimmicks, including the stashing of off-budget funds in the CIA's secret Swiss bank accounts by dubious allies with obscure agendas, such as the Saudi royal family. Even the most illustrious of Bush's predecessors, moreover, have exercised excessive executive power during wartime. Johnson reminds us that "Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus; Woodrow Wilson had his 'Red Scare' with the illegal jailing or deportation of people who opposed his intervention in World War I; Franklin Roosevelt conducted a pogrom against Americans of Japanese ancestry, incarcerating almost all of them in the continental United States in detention camps." In the past, however, or so Johnson argues, "the separation of powers, even if no longer a true balance of power, continued to serve as a check on any claims of presidential dominance." That last rampart has now been breached, he concludes, pointing to warrantless wiretaps and ghost prisons as conspicuous examples of unilateral executive actions undertaken with negligible oversight or accountability.

This line of analysis is quite promising. Behind checks and balances lies a simple insight: an executive branch that is consistently shielded from well-informed criticisms is highly unlikely to perform well. The executive needs and deserves some degree of secrecy, especially in national security affairs. But secrecy can easily become excessive--and when it does, it begins to overprotect the official view of reality, based as it is on tunnel vision, overconfidence, whimsical fixations, failures of contingency planning, blindness to noxious side effects of superficially appealing strategies and the effective capture of government agencies by private-sector profiteers. By stressing the pathological effects of excessive executive-branch secrecy and the inability of a corrupted legislature to challenge it effectively, Johnson brings us a step closer to understanding the historical uniqueness of the Bush Administration.

A step closer, but a step short nevertheless. Earlier incarnations of the imperial presidency, especially under Nixon, can be characterized in much the same way. To understand what makes the current Administration seem unprecedented in American history, therefore, it's probably best to focus on the expansion of executive secrecy and the concomitant weakening of checks and balances, undertaken in response not to a palpable threat from a militarily powerful hostile state but to evanescent and unquantifiable threats from future unknown jihadists. For the executive to ask Congress and the country, on the basis of undisclosed information, for unchecked powers to fight an enemy whose true capacities are impossible to ascertain and who will perhaps continue to lurk in the shadows forever--that is truly unprecedented. The United States may not yet be in the last days of the Republic, as Johnson warns. But the country has never faced a problem quite like this. Can an eighteenth-century Constitution prevent the executive branch from using a twenty-first century terrorist threat as an all-purpose pretext for concocting secret illicit agendas unrelated to American national security? Can a weakened system of checks and balances fend off an executive power grab in a semi-permanent climate of public fear provoked by invisible dangers? Even those who hope that the answer will be yes may honorably fear that the answer will be no.

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