Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, by Chalmers Johnson

Chalmers Johnson’s book, Nemesis: Last Days of the American Empire, sounds sensationalist. Unfortunately, the content is anything but, and even the most diehard patriot will feel deflated after seeing the vices of the Bush II presidency laid bare.

On page 249 of the Metropolitan Books 2006 hardcover edition, Johnson quotes Judge Damon Keith, who wrote, “Democracies die behind closed doors...A government operating in the shadow of secrecy stands in complete opposition to the society envisioned by the Framers of the Constitution. When government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation.” Johnson also quotes James Madison, who wrote, “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” Johnson proves that Bush has used his executive power to prevent information from reaching American citizenry throughout his book.

Johnson lists the Bush II administration’s acts and contrasts it with Rome and the original intent of America’s founders. While all of this may be old hat to anyone who’s been reading The Guardian or watching the BBC, the slow trickle of information provided to American citizens about the Bush II administration seems insufficient to cause anger because of the secrecy of the acts, the delayed reporting of the acts, and the lack of overt visual evidence of corruption (e.g., Does anyone believe the majority of Americans understand why Alberto Gonzales was forced to resign?). When we see the aggregate of what Bush has done from 2000 to 2007, what emerges is a deliberate intent to increase the executive branch’s power at the expense of privacy, currency, and decency. As a result, the Supreme Court in the 1952 case, Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, seems prescient: “The doctrine of separation of powers was adopted by the Convention of 1787 not to promote efficiency but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power. The purpose was, not to avoid friction, but by means of inevitable friction incident to the distribution of the governmental powers among three departments, to save the people from autocracy.”

For example, Johnson talks about the importance of the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act). He then tells us how Bush attempted to subvert the intent of the law by signing Executive Order 13233 as well as charging non-profits $372,999 for simple requests (p. 247, 248). Unsurprisingly, John Ashcroft, who administered the executive branch’s wishes, ordered the Department of Justice, the agency charged with enforcing civil rights, to limit FOIA requests, stating, “When you carefully consider FOIA requests and decide to withhold records, in whole or in part, you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions unless they lack a sound legal basis.” In other words, the federal government intentionally encouraged its employees to withhold information from the people by charging excessively for information or redacting vital information.

Of course, had the requests been ambiguous and voluminous, such an order would be reasonable, and the citzenry would understand if the FOIA were limited. In a time of war, and with the billions spent on defense, one wonders why Congress does not also authorize a separate budget for FOIA requests. Johnson mentions later that “as of 2006, the overall cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since their inception stood at about $450 billion” (p. 276). Johnson also reveals that Congress raised the national debt limit from $8.2 trillion to $8.96 trillion in 2006 (p. 270). This is a precursor to Johnson’s most sensationalist line in the entire book: “The likelihood is that the United States will maintain a facade of constitutional government and drift along until financial bankruptcy overtakes it.”

In related news, Bernanke lowered interest rates today. In response, the Swiss Franc increased 0.41% in just one day. In the last three months, it has appreciated almost 5% against the American dollar. The Euro increased 0.82% today. In the last three months, it has appreciated around 4% against the American dollar. Since January 2006, it has appreciated over 14% against the U.S. dollar. The U.S. currency is depreciating, making it easier for foreign interests to buy U.S. property and assets. A country that cannot control its currency places itself at the mercy of foreign interests. Eisenhower knew this, and once said, “[T]o support progress in our country, and indeed throughout the free world, we must make certain that there is no cheapening, no debasement of our currency” (Presidential Reflections, 1960).

Johnson does not merely expose the Bush II administration’s follies. He also uses his background as a former CIA analyst to explore missile defense expenditures and satellite technology. We learn that we have spent around $92.5 billion and $130 billion on “the basic problem of shooting down an ICBM in flight...without even once...succeeded in doing so” (p. 230). He also makes the important point that we are spending massive amounts of money on controlling space and missile defense, but terrorists are more likely to use a cargo container on a transport ship, or an offshore vessel, or the mail to attack Americans (p. 231). My personal belief is that the L.A. and New York/New Jersey ports are the most likely targets of terrorists because of their economic importance and the general hubbub that makes it easy to be anonymous. Yet, rather than spend vast sums of money increasing protection of these ports, it appears that Congress is diverting funds to save military and defense jobs in their own districts. Johnson makes this point in the 2005 film, Why We Fight, which is a good prologue to his book.

Perhaps the most intriguing parts of Johnson’s book are his analysis of SOFA and space. He talks about how the most mundane tasks now use satellites, from the card scanner at Walmart, which uses the information to track inventory, to the Garmin GPS system in cars, television broadcasting, and even atomic clocks. He says that Congress has referred to an enemy “jamming” a satellite’s capabilities as one reason to spend billions on space defense, but that a simple missile launching of debris into space would be sufficient to endanger satellite capabilities. In one of the most interesting parts of the book, he quotes Sally Ride, who said that a “speck of paint” had dented a part of the space shuttle (p. 217). Apparently, given the velocities and gravitational forces in space, tiny objects can have extremely powerful impacts (I knew that I would weigh more in certain parts of space, but I hadn’t connected this knowledge to debris damaging satellites). Ms. Fields’ writes, “[T]he analysis afterward showed that our window had been hit by an orbiting fleck of paint, and the relative velocities were enough that the paint actually made a small but visible gouge in the window.” She then goes on to say that as soon as you increase the junk in space, the more likely it is that junk will impact expensive satellites. (So much for dumping our waste in space in case we run out of landfills on Earth.) This is Johnson’s point–that the more things we send into space, the higher the likelihood of polluting space to the extent that our ability to maneuver there becomes impossible. See Primack, who says, “Weaponization of space would make the debris problem much worse, and even one war in space could encase the entire planet in a shell of whizzing debris that would thereafter make space near the Earth high hazardous for peaceful [space exploration] as well as military purposes” (p. 217). Again, Johnson seems to say that much of missile defense and space weaponry research is a boondoggle, to the tune of billions of dollars per year (the satellite expenditures cost $97.2 billion dollars in 2004, with the U.S. spending three-quarters of this amount) (p. 237). At the beginning of the book, Johnson stated, “It is a sad fact that the U.S. no longer manufactures much–with the exception of weaponry” (p. 5).

Johnson also talks about SOFA and Japanese-American relations, which is his specialty. SOFAs are Status of Forces Agreements. They basically exempt American soldiers from international law. When such soldiers rape women and pollute local cities, they can return to the base, where they cannot be interrogated by local police. Johnson brings up this aspect of international relations to show American arrogance when dealing with other countries. The flip side of the coin is that American soldiers are in other countries to protect them and forcing consent to local laws would add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy; however, when Johnson tells us that American soldiers in Okinawa are responsible for raping local women around once a month, including ten year old girls, the agreements seem to provide excessive immunity and be a moral hazard. What is interesting about this section is that Japan’s pacifism, enshrined in law under Article 9 after WWII, is apparently a fiction: “Japan, with 139 warships, now has the second most powerful navy on the planet. Its army, navy, and air force has a total of 239,000 officers and men, deploys 452 combat aircraft, and is financed by a budget roughly equal to China’s military expenditures” (p. 203). Japan, of course, needs oil from the Middle East to sustain its economy and also fears a rising China, which is still stinging from its treatment during WWII, and the Japanese failure to apologize for “comfort women.” (Even countries that strive for racial harmony, like Singapore, still have public exhibits showing how the Japanese tortured POWs and civilians.) Johnson does a terrific job of showing that American-Japanese policies seem to be headed towards an inevitable clash with China, which is angling for more international respect. While he is extremely harsh on U.S. policies, which are based on realpolitik, Johnson forces the reader to see the problems of being the world’s policeman. It is unlikely, for instance, that the Canadians and Swiss have similar problems as the U.S. Johnson indicates that there are two paths: one, be like the Roman Empire, refuse to give up the military bases (de facto territories) we have, and collapse; or two, be like the British, who eventually repudiated their empire and focused on domestic issues.

Johnson’s other interesting point is that where the U.S. has intervened, we have made the countries worse off, relatively speaking. He mentions the Philippines, which is not doing as well as its neighbors in Southeast Asia who were not occupied by the U.S., such as Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand. But Johnson’s analysis is debatable when it comes to other countries, such as Chile and Panama, and he conflates free markets with colonialism.

Johnson is clearly anti-imperialist, so he does not give a balanced view. Joseph Nye’s words come to mind: “The biggest kid on the block always provokes a mixture of admiration and resentment.” In fact, Nye is the best counter-argument to Johnson. See Foreign Affairs, July 2003: “[T]he problem of creating an American empire might better be termed ‘imperial understretch.’ Neither the public nor Congress has proved willing to invest seriously in the instruments of nation building and governance, as opposed to military force. The entire allotment for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development is only 1 percent of the federal budget. The United States spends nearly 16 times as much on its military, and there is little indication of change to come in this era of tax cuts and budget deficits. The U.S. military is designed for fighting rather than police work, and the Pentagon has cut back on training for peacekeeping operations.” More to the point, Nye points out that the defense expenditures for 2001 were only 3.2% of GDP. Even if they have increased to 5% of GDP after 2001, that is still a tiny percentage of GDP in exchange for ruling the world (healthcare costs, i.e. Medicare, Medicaid, may be 13% of GDP by 2060). The Roman Empire never had this kind of efficiency. Such efficiency brings us to the problem: perhaps it is so easy for the U.S. to dominate the world militarily that we can continue to be unilateral until a counterweight exists. But of course, we’ve been here before–it was called the Cold War, and it seemed unnecessary then, and it seems regressive now to return to that state of existence.

Back to the book: Johnson spends the first half of it castigating the Bush administration, with gems such as this: “Secretary Rumsfeld[!] noted that international law allowed the use of force only to prevent future attacks and not for retribution...’No,’ the President yelled....‘I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass’” (p. 34). Later, Bush is shown ordering the New York Times to hold off on a story relating to FISA and warrant-less wiretapping in the name of “national security” (p. 255). The bastion of liberal news, the New York Times, actually went along with Bush and did not print the story until a year later, which caused a FISA court judge to voluntarily resign in protest (p. 255). Bush seems to provoke this reaction in many people: Judge J. Michael Luttig also resigned after being lied to by the Bush administration. Yet, with all of these facts laid bare, Americans aren’t crying out for impeachment or blood as our founders might have. The economist in me seems convinced that as long as the people are making money, they won’t care about external events. Most frightening of all, perhaps the current state of affairs can continue for another 100 years, because the weakening of the American dollar won’t be noticeable until many more Americans travel internationally, and most Americans won’t be traveling to Tokyo or London anytime soon. Even if Chinese products increase in price, there will be a Cambodia or African country to take its place, guaranteeing cheaper prices for years to come, and masking the decline of American primacy. As long as the American consumer is the master of the economic machine, perhaps current affairs will remain in its uneasy, simmering stasis.