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Totem and Taboo | The Nation

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Totem and Taboo

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In The Sorrows of Empire Chalmers Johnson expands the analysis of Blowback, his earlier study of the unintended consequences of American overseas activities, to examine the global imperial agenda. He is particularly instructive in this enormously useful study on the structure of secret programs abroad financed through "black budgets," on "humanitarian imperialism" as a pretext for global intervention, on the institutions of American militarism, on the hidden agendas of globalization, on the private military contractors who build and run the overseas bases and prisons, on the actual structure and operations of the more than 725 American bases around the world, on the politics of oil and gas in the Caspian Basin and on the dominant political, military and economic presence in the states of the Persian Gulf. This highly useful study is a fine guide to the way the empire works.

About the Author

Ronald Steel
Ronald Steel, the author of Temptations of a Superpower and other books on US politics and diplomacy, teaches...

Noam Chomsky, who has produced a shelf of books on the subject of American imperialism, may no longer be able to surprise. But he does have the ability to zero in unerringly on the lies and distortions the government uses to sell its policies, and on the realities ignored or buried by the media. In Hegemony or Survival he argues that America's effort to "maintain its global dominance and military supremacy forever" threatens human survival. While this apocalyptic scenario may seem a long stretch to many, the book, with its wealth of information, is a thoughtful, well-argued antidote to the conventional wisdom. Chomsky, whether one agrees with him or not, is a national resource, never afraid to challenge power, and is solidly within the honored tradition of American radicalism.

In a similar mode of accusation David Harvey, a scholar of anthropology and geography, charges in The New Imperialism that the Bush Administration has used the Iraq war to implement its "geopolitical vision...to control the whole globe militarily and, through oil, economically." This stylistically dense essay is neo-Marxist in tone and mode of analysis. But Harvey also has a practical sense of politics and recognizes that a "more benevolent imperial trajectory than the raw militaristic imperialism currently offered up by the neoconservative movement" will come, if at all, not from without but from within, and that "anti-Americanism from the rest of the world will not and cannot help."

For a specific investigation of the region that so puzzles and troubles our policy-makers, a good place to start is Rashid Khalidi's Resurrecting Empire. With a deep knowledge of the Middle East and a felicitous literary style, Khalidi, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Columbia University, examines the history of US involvement in the area against the backdrop of European colonialism and shows why an assertion of our good intentions has little meaning for peoples who have known two centuries of foreign occupation and domination. He also provides helpful insights into the geostrategic and geoeconomic interests that lie at the heart of the mounting conflict between Islam and the West. Linking America's role today to that of its European imperial predecessors, he argues that the central problem is the "irresoluble contradiction between the imperial center's absolute need for control...and the irrepressible desire of the peoples of the Middle East to throw off that control."

While the struggle between these forces may go on for a long time, it seems unlikely to involve any more Iraq-style adventures in the foreseeable future. Imperial fatigue has already set in among Americans, and economic bankruptcy looms on the horizon as the price for a global War Against Evil. There were "no more Vietnams" after the US foreign policy establishment was bloodied by that colonial adventure, and there are unlikely to be any more Iraqs now that the Administration's tortured case for the current war has fallen apart. Targeted nations like North Korea, Iran and Syria--so authoritatively analyzed, respectively, by Bruce Cumings, Ervand Abrahamian and Moshe Ma'oz in their informative study Inventing the Axis of Evil--may have to self-destruct on their own.

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