Apocalypse Now? | The Nation


Apocalypse Now?

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From Johnson's perspective, neither Congress nor the American public nor the Democratic Party offers much hope. Gazing into his crystal ball, Johnson reports that "we will never again know peace, nor in all probability survive very long as a nation, unless we abolish the CIA, restore intelligence collecting to the State Department, and remove all but purely military functions from the Pentagon." The United States will be embroiled in foreign wars until it collapses, in other words. At this point, we can finally grasp the force of Johnson's farfetched analogy between George W. Bush and Julius Caesar. A Democratic Brutus may deliver a fatal blow to the Bush political machine in 2008, but the chances of saving the country by returning it to idealized republican origins are nil.

About the Author

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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A high-spirited book full of arresting details, Nemesis is nevertheless marred by several implausible claims, most of them associated with the strained analogy between ancient Rome and contemporary America. The book's principal shortcoming, however, is the inherent slipperiness of the concept of blowback. Johnson's determination to establish that subsequent harms to America are caused by prior American misdeeds often seems fanciful. The following is typical: "On August 5, 1998, the International Islamic Front for Jihad, in a letter to an Arab-language newspaper in London, promised a reprisal for recent U.S. renditions from Albania. Two days later, al-Qaeda blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania with a loss of 224 lives." Such intimations of causality don't quite succumb to the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, but they veer perilously close. Moreover, when American bullying does not produce the predicted American setback (as when the bad behavior of American soldiers in Japan does not cause the Japanese to close US bases there), Johnson readily discovers countervailing causal forces (such as the Japanese need to support US bases to pre-empt the rise of Chinese power in East Asia) and thereby casts doubt on the inevitability of negative fallout from America's unrestrained behavior abroad.

But the largest problem with blowback is the sheer miscellaneous variety of Johnson's examples. Given Cheney's historically unsubstantiated conviction that violence, if violent enough, invariably generates compliance, Johnson is right to stress the contrary, namely that violence often breeds violence, imperial oppression fostering anticolonial terrorism, for instance. But most of the unintended negative consequences of American policy to which Johnson draws our attention have only a tenuous relation to the breeding of violence by violence: for instance, how habits of borrowing without forethought from Japan's and China's central banks risk driving the United States into bankruptcy, or how the antisatellite warfare for which the Pentagon is planning would inevitably create orbital debris so extensive as to destroy the effectiveness of satellite-based telecommunications.

Such examples of self-defeating behavior are so diverse that the purpose of grouping them together, without any attempt to distinguish or relate them, sometimes seems merely rhetorical. True enough, serendipity is ubiquitous in human history, and those who indulge in omnipotent fantasies will eventually come crashing to earth. But the amply documented unpredictability of history makes it hard to take seriously Johnson's seer's pose. Similarly, his tendency to discover the inevitable unfolding of higher justice in every unintended consequence of immoral behavior can only be ascribed to wishful thinking.

To dwell on such theoretical shortcomings is not to deny that Nemesis is a serious contribution to current debates, richly repaying careful study. True, readers skeptical about blowback will have to unearth other, less mythological, sources of hope than Johnson's curious conceit that America's wrongdoings will be justly punished by an inexorable fate. But the chances of finding equivalent consolation in the nonmythical world are probably not very great.

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