Is there anything historically unprecedented about the Bush Administration's military adventurism, intense secrecy and fearmongering? This question is vexing, especially to those historians and political scientists who, however appalled by current US foreign policy, cannot be genuinely surprised by the most recent incarnation of an imperial presidency. But it remains a critical question, not least because the answer to it could shed light on what progressives can hope to achieve after Bush.
Chalmers Johnson, a former Navy man, cold war consultant to the CIA and emeritus professor at the University of California, San Diego, helps us unravel this mystery by breathing new life into an old myth. In ancient Greece, Nemesis was the goddess of divine retribution for acts of hubris. Transgressions would never go unpunished; balance and proportion would inevitably be restored. The contemporary incarnation of Nemesis is "blowback," a notion apparently coined by the CIA and commonly used to explain the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 as a form of delayed revenge for the American-orchestrated overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh's democratically elected government in 1953. Admonitory aphorisms about self-defeating aggression--malefactors reap what they sow--also provide the best general framework for understanding the origins of 9/11, or so Johnson would have us believe in Nemesis, the third volume of "an inadvertent trilogy" that includes Blowback (2000) and The Sorrows of Empire (2004).
Johnson has no patience for those who attribute 9/11-style terrorism to a clash of civilizations or an unchanging "Salafi radicalism" and its irredeemably wicked adherents. He argues that anti-American rage, rather than emerging fully formed from a highly malleable religious tradition, has been triggered by decades of immoral and illegal behavior by American officials and proxies abroad. It is unavoidable that some of these "secret U.S. government operations and acts in distant lands would come back to haunt us," Johnson writes. He is thinking of covert actions well-known to Iranians and Guatemalans and Chileans (not to mention the US agents who carried them out) but that have barely penetrated the consciousness of most American citizens.
Identifying blowback as the root cause of 9/11, Johnson also argues that Bush's excessively violent and lawless reaction to the attack, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, will provoke blowback of its own. Significantly, because Johnson inaugurated his three-part series before the Bush Administration had begun to inflict its impulsiveness and inexperience on the world in earnest, he presents Bush's militarized response to 9/11 less as a sharp departure from the military policies of preceding administrations than as a predictable continuation of them, stressing, for instance, that "the United States has been continuously engaged in or mobilized for war since 1941."
Extrapolating freely from the documented history of blowback, Johnson speculates that we have already entered the "last days" of the Republic. America's post-World War II "imperialism," he predicts, will soon put an end to self-government in the United States: "I believe that to maintain our empire abroad requires resources and commitments that will inevitably undercut our domestic democracy and in the end produce a military dictatorship or its civilian equivalent." The destruction of the American Republic may even illustrate a profound historical regularity, he implies: "Over any fairly lengthy period of time, successful imperialism requires that a domestic republic or a domestic democracy change into a domestic tyranny." He even thinks that the American military is now "ripe" for "a Julius Caesar"--that is, for "a revolutionary, military populist with little interest in republican niceties so long as some form of emperorship lies at the end of his rocky path."
Johnson's conviction that imperialism tends to transform democracies into autocracies is based largely on his study of ancient Rome. He argues that the basic dynamics of Rome's imperial adventures and annexation of conquered territory ushered in the collapse of the Roman Republic. As sporadic and regional military campaigns were replaced by continuous and distant ones, Rome's citizen army had to be replaced by a standing army. Loyal not to political classes in Rome but to their commanders in the field, the professionalized Roman legions made it possible for Caesar to initiate the dismantling of the Republic brought to a conclusion by his grand-nephew Augustus.
"Roman history suggests that the short, happy life of the American republic may be coming to its end," Johnson writes, adding that "Bush has unleashed a political crisis comparable to the one Julius Caesar posed for the Roman constitution," threatening to subvert the traditional constitutional order and put dictatorship in its place. Rather than relying on a standing army and a Praetorian Guard, our cardboard Caesar from Crawford is backed by the Pentagon and its affiliated weapons contractors, not to mention the CIA: "The United States today, like the Roman Republic in the first century, BC, is threatened by an out-of-control military-industrial complex and a huge secret government controlled exclusively by the president." Imperial republics, Johnson suggests, are destined to be destroyed by an inner contradiction.
One reason for Johnson's end-of-days gloom is that he can identify no power center capable of resisting the forces that currently drive American foreign policy. He claims that because of the costliness of re-election campaigns and the insidious influence of Congressional lobbyists, "the legislative branch of our government is broken." An elected body that owes its incumbency partly to military contractors (who, in turn, provide not only campaign funding but also jobs for voters in swing districts) cannot reasonably be expected to swivel around and eliminate the corruption that nourishes it. In Johnson's words, "our political system may no longer be capable of saving the United States as we know it, since it is hard to imagine any president or Congress standing up to the powerful vested interests of the Pentagon, the secret intelligence agencies, and the military-industrial complex."