Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Chalmers Johnson and America's Imperial Decline

Chalmers Johnson's one of the nation's foremost experts on Japanese politics and international economic competitiveness. A professor emeritus at UC San Diego, Johnson's book, MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975, remains one of the most important selections on Japanese politics graduate syllabi. In recent years Johnson's been writing on trends in American foreign policy, particularly the consequences of America's clandestine intelligence operations and the "blowback" from U.S. strategic reach and ambition.

Johnson's got a new book out, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Empire, which looks at what Johnson sees are threats to the republic from the country's massive military industial complex, which emerged from our post-World War II foreign policy of containing threats to U.S. national security.

Nemesis received
an outstanding review by Tim Rutten in today's Calendar at the Los Angeles Times:

The thesis proffered here is that, since the end of World War II, the United States has been undergoing a kind of creeping coup in which the growth of an imperial presidency, the development of the CIA as a secret presidential army, the bloating of an outsized military establishment, and a venal and derelict Congress have conspired to undermine the American republic — perhaps irremediably.
Much of what Johnson denounces is the Bush administration's advocacy of executive branch supremacy in the realm of national security, manifest, for example, in the adminstration's early policies on the detention and torture of enemy combatants. But Johnson goes too far in making his case, essentially equating the Bush administration's excesses with the totalitarianism of Hitler's Nazi regime. Here's what Rutten says about that analytical overstretch:

Many of the conclusions Johnson teases from his shrewdly assembled and analyzed material are not so convincing. For example, appropriating Hannah Arendt's description of Adolf Eichmann — "desk murderer" — and applying it to Cheney, George W. Bush and Donald H. Rumsfeld isn't just histrionic, it's wrong on the merits, wrong in ways so fundamental that it renders moral judgment itself a uselessly blunt instrument. However horrific events in Iraq have been, they have nothing in common with Hitlerian Germany's "final solution," and it does violence to both reason and history to carelessly suggest otherwise for mere effect.

On the other hand, when Johnson argues that America "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," he presents a case that demands consideration.
That sounds pretty fair. Rutten goes on to give additional examples of the difficulties of Johnson's analysis. For example, even if the Bush administration succeeded in elevating White House power into an "imperial presidency," the election of a Democratic majority in the November midterms has already started the process of restoring the balance of power among the branches in the federal system. The democracy's not in jeopardy of succumbing to a military dictatorship any time soon, as Rutten ably points out.

(An interesting aside here is that Johnson's book shares its title, Nemesis, with the second edition of Ian Kershaw's authoritative biography of Adolph Hitler, Hitler: 1936-1945, Nemesis. I agree with Rutten, though, that comparing Bush to Hitler -- or U.S. foreign policy to Nazi foreign policy -- defies reason. The antiwar left, nonetheless, loves to denounce the Bush administration as fascist. Whether the shared title was deliberate or coincidental is an intriguing footnote to Johnson's scholarship.)

I've been reluctant to read Johnson's latest books. Upon skimming The Sorrows of Empire at Barnes and Noble, for example, I got the feeling the work was just a dressed-up, high-brow anitwar attack on the Bush administration war policies. Rutten's cool-handed review has convinced to give Johnson's writing a second look, however. There's a growing debate on America's continued leadership of the global system -- which I have discussed
here and here, for example -- and Johnson's work certainly adds an important dimension to the discussion.

No comments: