In July 2004, Zogby International Surveys interviewed 3,300 Arabs in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Asked to identify “the best thing that comes to mind about America,” almost all of the respondents replied: “Nothing at all.”
Since then, according to Chalmers Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute, the wild, dark ride of the United States toward moral and financial bankruptcy has accelerated, around the globe and at home. As the nation’s military garrisons the planet and colonizes outer space, Americans are living with perpetual war and covert operations, as well as assaults on individual freedom, the separation of powers and constitutional government. Like the Roman Army, the Pentagon has become a state within a state. And like Octavian, “our own putative Boy Emperor from Crawford, Texas,” has united America’s political institutions “under one person—himself.” Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and vengeance, is ready: “[T]he short, happy life of the American republic may be coming to its end.”
Preceded by Blowback (2000), an exposé of the costs of clandestine C.I.A. activities, and The Sorrows of Empire (2004), an indictment of global overreach, Nemesis is the final volume of Mr. Johnson’s apocalyptic trilogy. The argument remains the same: In a futile attempt to maintain an empire, a bloated military-industrial complex is destroying America’s democracy. Mr. Johnson is a 21st-century Jeremiah (more pit bull than bullfrog) armed with “shock and awe” rhetoric. Atop his list of the “seven morons” who lost the war in Iraq is President George W. Bush, a “desk murderer” who has “repeatedly rejected diplomacy as a useful tool of American foreign policy.” Donald Rumsfeld and his generals, Mr. Johnson asserts, showed “indifference—even glee” at the looting of the treasures housed Baghdad’s museums. And Americans remain “comfortable with the idea of forcing thousands of people to be free by slaughtering them.”
It’s easy to dismiss Mr. Johnson as a Chicken Little with two left wings. But along with the Bush-bashing, Nemesis provides fascinating information about the Department of Defense’s practices, many of which have received little Congressional oversight and no public scrutiny. Relentless and resourceful, Mr. Johnson draws on obscure publications like The Orbital Debris Quarterly News to blow the whistle on the Pentagon’s vast network of military bases, Status of Forces Agreements, and weapons designed to destroy the surveillance satellites of other countries.
According to Mr. Johnson, the D.O.D. inventory of 737 installations—a staggering number in itself—omits “facilities provided by other nations at foreign locations,” including bases in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, Uzbekistan and Israel. And it fails to include deployments that might embarrass host countries, like the 5,000 troops based in Jordan. An honest count would probably top 1,000 bases; by any estimate, the Pentagon is one of the largest landlords on the planet.
These installations, Mr. Johnson claims, are designed, in the lexicon of the Pentagon, for “full spectrum dominance.” The United States uses the war on terrorism to pressure foreign governments to allow huge Main Operating Bases, midsize Forward Operation Sites or Cooperative Security Locations (“lily pad” staging areas for emergencies) on their soil. The penetration of Paraguay, for example, began with demands that the “triborder” area shared with Argentina and Brazil, where many Syrians and Lebanese live, be cleared of terrorists. But the Special Forces, Mr. Johnson suggests, are really there to intervene against Evo Morales of Bolivia, who recently nationalized the second-largest natural gas field in South America.
Most U.S. installations are exempt from the environmental regulations and noise-pollution ordinances of the host countries. And, Mr. Johnson indicates, Status of Forces Agreements stoke additional resentment among local citizens because they stipulate that jurisdiction over service personnel accused of crimes remains with the United States. In 1995, the rape of a 12-year-old girl by two Marines and a sailor sparked huge anti-American protests in Okinawa. Nine years later, anger erupted again when the armed forces of the United States sealed off a helicopter crash site at Okinawa International University, barring local police and Japanese aviation officials. Under pressure, the American government agreed to give “sympathetic consideration” to relinquishing jurisdiction over suspects accused of “heinous crimes.” And the Bush administration revealed plans to transfer 8,000 Marines to Guam.
Mr. Johnson believes that the military base, “America’s version of the colony,” may be an endangered species. “It is no longer inconceivable,” he writes, that Germany, Japan, Spain, Turkey and South Korea “might one day kick us out—and get away with it, just as the East Europeans did with the Soviet Union in 1989.” Without bases, he implies, America’s empire would collapse.
And yet, he acknowledges grudgingly, in 2006 the Japanese government signed an “extraordinary” security agreement with the United States. Japan has agreed to pay $6.1 billion to house American soldiers and families, construct a new airport, and host a new Army command center near an upscale residential area whose residents adamantly oppose enlarging the base. (The Koizumi government, Mr. Johnson fumes, acted without popular support.)
Reports of the death of America’s overseas bases may well be exaggerated. So, too, may be Chalmers Johnson’s prediction that the United States will drift along until a financial crisis produces a dictatorship. He’s surely right that empire and democracy are incompatible. But the apocalypse he envisions seems neither imminent nor inevitable. The military-industrial complex is, of course, embedded in the structure of America’s political economy. But imperialist designs ebb and flow and are subject to countervailing forces. Despite “military Keynesianism,” for example, Bill Clinton managed to reduce military spending to about 3 percent of G.D.P. while balancing the budget—and intervening in Kosovo on humanitarian grounds.
American imperialism, economic exploitation, military bases, the arms race, covert operations and the arrogance of power won’t disappear when George W. Bush’s Presidency expires. But “preventive war,” a militarized foreign policy, unilateralism, torture memos, signing statements, the theory of the “unitary executive” and warrantless wiretaps could exit the White House with him. Nemesis, in that case, might not feel compelled to strike. Not yet.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.