Your bestselling book, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, originally published in March 2000, offered a controversial account of American global policies. How has the world changed since the publication of Blowback?
We are without question in greater danger of terrorist attacks today than we were on September 11 two years ago. Afghanistan has descended into an anarchy comparable to that which prevailed before the rise of the ruthless but religiously motivated Taliban. The propaganda apparatus of the Pentagon claimed a stupendous U.S. victory in Afghanistan, but, in fact, leaders of the Taliban and al-Qaeda escaped and the country quickly became an even more virulent breeding ground for terrorists.
The war with Iraq that followed had even less justification and subverted the system of international cooperation that the U.S. had worked since World War II to create. Immediately following 9/11, American leaders began to fabricate pretexts for an invasion of Iraq. These were then uncritically disseminated by American print and television media, leading a majority of Americans to believe that Saddam Hussein was an immediate threat to their own safety and that he had personally supported al-Qaeda in its attacks of 9/11.
The United States will feel the blowback from this ill-advised and poorly prepared military adventure for decades. The war in Iraq has already had the unintended consequences of seriously fracturing the Western democratic alliance; eliminating any potentiality for British leadership of the European Union; grievously weakening international law, including the Charter of the United Nations; and destroying the credibility of the president, vice president, secretary of state, and other officials as a result of their lying to the international community and the American people. Most important, the unsanctioned military assault on Iraq communicated to the world that the United States was unwilling to seek a modus vivendi with Islamic nations and was therefore an appropriate, even necessary, target for further terrorist attacks.
THE SORROWS OF EMPIRE discusses imperialism and militarism and illustrates how they determine American foreign policy today. Can you explain the difference between the two?
Militarism and imperialism are Siamese twins joined at the hip. Imperialism depends upon large standing armies and the expenditures to sustain them, and the resultant militarism — meaning not national defense but vested interests in a large and growing military establishment — is the midwife of new imperialist adventures.
Wars usually begin because political leaders convince a people that the use of armed force is necessary to defend the country or pursue some abstract goal. For a major power, prosecution of any war that is not a defense of the “homeland” usually requires overseas military bases for strategic reasons. After the war is over, it is tempting for the victor to retain such bases and easy to find reasons to do so. Over time, if a nation’s aims become imperial, the bases form the skeleton of an empire. In recent centuries, wars launched from such bases have been the primary means through which imperialism has prospered and expanded. Since the end of World War II, American administrations have offered many rationales for the bases they were collecting around the world, including containing Communism, warding off the “domino theory,” fighting “ethnic cleansing,” and preventing the spread of “weapons of mass destruction.”
You say there are at least 725 American military bases in existence outside the United States. What purpose do they serve?
America‘s empire of military bases is there to garrison the world, to ensure that no nation or combination of nations can exert influence that the president, his advisers, and the Pentagon have not sanctioned.
It is possible to reduce the complex set of purposes and interests that have led to this gargantuan deployment of military power to five post-Cold War missions for our bases. These are:
- maintaining absolute military preponderance over the rest of the world, a task that includes imperial policing to ensure that no part of the empire slips the leash;
- eavesdropping on the communications of citizens, allies, and enemies alike, often apparently just to demonstrate that no realm of privacy is impervious to the technological capabilities of our government;
- attempting to control as many sources of petroleum as possible, both to service America’s insatiable demand for fossil fuels and to use it as a bargaining chip with even more oil-dependent regions;
- providing work and income for the military-industrial complex;
- and ensuring that members of the military and their families live comfortably and are well entertained while serving abroad.
No one of these goals or even all of them together, however, can entirely explain our expanding empire of bases. There is something else at work, which I believe is the post-Cold War discovery of our immense power rationalized by the self-glorifying conclusion that because we have it we deserve to have it. The only truly common elements in the totality of America’s foreign bases are imperialism and militarism — an impulse on the part of our elites to dominate other peoples largely because we have the power to do so, followed by the strategic reasoning that, in order to defend these newly acquired outposts and control the regions they are in, we must expand the areas under our control with still more bases. To maintain its empire, the Pentagon must constantly invent new reasons for keeping as many bases as possible long after the wars and crises that led to their creation have evaporated.
How does the Bush administration justify its policy of imperialism?
The Bush administration has sold its policies to the public through an unrelenting propaganda campaign of fear, combined with the direct contradiction of the plain meaning of its acts. After 9/11, the Bush administration exploited the national sense of vulnerability and confusion to implement a private agenda that it has kept hidden from the public at large.
In a speech at West Point, President Bush stated that we had a unilateral right to overthrow any government in the world we deemed a threat to our security. He argued that we must be prepared to wage a “war on terror” in many countries if weapons of mass destruction are to be kept out of terrorists’ hands. The president justified his proposed massive military effort in terms of alleged universal values. He made an assertion that is demonstrably untrue but that, in the mouth of the president of the United States on an official occasion, amounted to an announcement of a crusade: “Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, in every place.” The preamble to the National Security Strategy document that followed claimed that there is “a single sustainable model for national success” — ours — that is “right and true for every person in every society. . . . The United States must defend liberty and justice because these principles are right and true for all people everywhere.”
How has the administration been able to carry out this policy?
Bush and his administration have worked tirelessly to expand the powers of the presidency at the expense of the other branches of government and the Constitution. Article 1, section 8 of the Constitution says explicitly, “The Congress shall have the power to declare war.” It prohibits the president from making that decision. The most influential author of the Constitution, James Madison, wrote in 1793, “In no part of the Constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not the executive department. . . . The trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man.” Yet, after September 11, 2001, President Bush unilaterally declared that the nation was “at war” more or less forever against terrorism, and a White House spokesman later noted that the president “considers any opposition to his policies to be no less than an act of treason.”
During October 3 to 10, 2002, both houses of Congress voted to give the president open-ended authority to wage war against Iraq (296 to 33 in the House and 77 to 23 in the Senate). The president was given the unrestricted power to use any means, including military force and nuclear weapons, in a preventive strike against Iraq whenever he — and he alone — deemed “appropriate.” There was no debate. In light of this development, it is impossible to claim that the Constitution of the United States is still intact and functioning.
What does the future hold for the United States if U.S. officials continue on this path?
The United States is embarked on a path not so dissimilar from that of the former Soviet Union a little more than a decade ago. The Soviet Union collapsed for three reasons — internal economic contradictions, imperial overstretch, and an inability to reform. In every sense, we are by far the wealthier of the two Cold War superpowers, so it will certainly take longer for similar afflictions to do their work. But the equivalent of the economic sclerosis of the former USSR is to be found in our corrupt corporations, the regular looting by insiders of workers’ pension funds, the revelations that not a single financial institution on Wall Street can be trusted, and the massive drain of manufacturing jobs to other countries. Imperial overstretch is implicit in our empire of 725 military bases abroad, in addition to the 969 separate bases in the fifty states. Mikhail Gorbachev tried to reform the Soviet system before it collapsed but he was stopped by entrenched interests in the Cold War system. The United States is not even trying to reform, but it is certain that vested interests here would be as great or greater an obstacle. It is nowhere written that the United States, in its guise as an empire dominating the world, must go on forever. The blowback from the second half of the twentieth century has only just begun.
Is there any hope for the United States?
The few optimistic trends in the U.S. include the development of the powerful anti-globalization coalition that came into being in Seattle in November 1999 and that has subsequently evolved into an anti-war movement. The percentage of the public that does not get its information from network television but from the Internet and foreign newspapers is growing. Our wholly volunteer armed forces are composed of people who see the military as an opportunity, but they do not expect to be shot at. Now that the president and his advisers are ordering them into savagely dangerous situations, it is likely that many soldiers will not reenlist. And civil society in the United States remains strong and influential. Nonetheless, it is only prudent to estimate that these trends may not be sufficient to counter the forces of militarism and imperialism in the country.
What hope is there for the international community?
The main prospect for the future of the world is that perpetual war waged by the United States against small countries it declares to be “rogue states” will lead to the slow growth of a coalition of enemies of the United States who will seek to weaken it and hasten its inevitable bankruptcy. This is the way the Roman Empire ended.
The chief problem is that the only way an adversary of the United States can even hope to balance or deter the enormous American concentration of military power is through what the Pentagon calls asymmetric warfare (“terrorism”) and nuclear weapons. American belligerence has deeply undercut international efforts to control the nuclear weapons that already exist and has rendered the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty more or less moot (the U.S., in particular, has failed to take any actions it contracted to do under article 6, the reduction of stockpiles by the nuclear armed nations).
The only hope for the planet is the isolation and neutralization of the United States by the international community. Policies to do so are underway in every democratic country on earth in quiet, unobtrusive ways. If the United States is not checkmated and nuclear war ensues, civilization as we know it will disappear and the United States will go into the history books along with the Huns and the Nazis as a scourge of human life itself.
Chalmers Johnson is the author of the newly published The Sorrows Of Empire.