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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.