1 of his interview, Chalmers Johnson suggested what that fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall,
end-of-the-Cold-War moment meant to him; explored how deeply empire and militarism
have entered the American bloodstream; and began to consider what it means to
live in an unacknowledged state of military Keynesianism, garrisoning the planet,
and with an imperial budget – a real yearly Pentagon budget – of perhaps three-quarters
of a trillion dollars. Tom
TomDispatch:: You were discussing the lunacy of the 2007 Pentagon budget…
Chalmers Johnson:What I don't understand is that the current defense
budget and the recent Quadrennial Defense Review (which
has no strategy in it at all) are just continuations of everything we did
before. Make sure that the couple of hundred military golf courses around the
world are well groomed, that the Lear jets are ready to fly the admirals and
generals to the armed forces ski resort in
Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps or the military's two luxury hotels in downtown
Seoul and Tokyo.
What I can't explain is what has happened to Congress. Is it just that they're
corrupt? That's certainly part of it. I'm sitting here in California's 50th
district. This past December, our congressman, Randy Cunningham, confessed to
the largest single bribery case in the history of the U.S. Congress: $2.4 million
in trinkets – a Rolls Royce, some French antiques – went to him, thanks to his
ability as a member of the military subcommittee of the House Appropriations
Committee to add things secretly to the budget. He was doing this for pals of
his running small companies. He was adding things even the Department of Defense
said it didn't want.
This is bribery and, as somebody said the other day, Congress comes extremely
cheap. For $2.4 million, these guys got about $175 million in contracts. It
was an easy deal.
The military is out of control. As part of the executive branch, it's expanded
under cover of the national security state. Back when I was a kid, the Pentagon
was called the Department of War. Now, it's the Department of Defense, though
it palpably has nothing to do with defense. Hasn't for a long time. We even
have another department of the government today that's concerned with "homeland
security." You wonder what on Earth do we have that for – and a Department of
The government isn't working right. There's no proper supervision. The founders,
the authors of the Constitution, regarded the supreme organ to be Congress.
The mystery to me – more than the huge expansion of executive branch powers
we've seen since the neoconservatives and George Bush came to power – is: Why
has Congress failed us so completely? Why are they no longer interested in the
way the money is spent? Why does a Pentagon budget like this one produce so
little interest? Is it that people have a vested interest in it, that it's going
to produce more jobs for them?
I wrote an article well before Cunningham confessed called "The
Military-Industrial Man" in which I identified a lot of what he was doing,
but said unfortunately I didn't know how to get rid of him in such a safe district.
After it appeared on the Los Angeles Times op-ed page, the paper got
a couple of letters to the editor from the 34th district in downtown LA saying,
I wish he was my congressman. If he'd bring good jobs here, I wouldn't mind
making something that just gets blown up or sunk in the ground like missile
defense in Alaska. I mean, we've already spent $100 billion on what amounts
to a massive high-tech scarecrow. It couldn't hit a thing. The aiming devices
aren't there. The tests fail. It doesn't work. It's certainly a cover for something
much more ominous – the expansion of the Air Force into outer space or "full
spectrum dominance," as they like to put it.
We need to concentrate on this, and not from a partisan point of view either.
There's no reason to believe the Democrats would do a better job. They never
have. They've expanded the armed forces just as fast as the Republicans.
This is the beast we're trying to analyze, to understand, and it seems to me
today unstoppable. Put it this way: James Madison, the author of our Constitution,
said the right that controls all other rights is the right to get information.
If you don't have this, the others don't matter. The Bill of Rights doesn't
work if you can't find out what's going on. Secrecy has been going crazy in
this country for a long time, but it's become worse by orders of magnitude under
the present administration. When John Ashcroft became attorney general, he issued
orders that access to the Freedom of Information Act should be made as difficult
The size of the black budget in the Pentagon has been growing ever larger during
this administration. These are projects no one gets to see. To me, one of the
most interesting spectacles in our society is watching uniformed military officers
like General Michael Hayden, former head of the National Security Agency, sitting
in front of Congress, testifying. It happened the other day. Hillary Clinton
asked him: Tell us at least approximately how many [NSA warrantless spying]
interventions have you made? "I'm not going to tell you" was his answer. Admiral
Jacoby, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, was asked directly about a
year ago, are we still paying Ahmed Chalabi $340,000 a month? And his reply
was, "I'm not going to say."
At this point, should the senator stand up and say: "I want the U.S. Marshall
to arrest that man." I mean, this is contempt of Congress.
TD: You're also saying, of course, that there's a reason to have contempt
Johnson: There is indeed. You can understand why these guys do it. Richard
Helms, the director of the CIA back in 1977, was convicted of a felony for lying
to Congress. He said, no, we had nothing to do with the overthrow of [Chilean
President] Salvador Allende when we had everything to do with it. He gets a
suspended sentence, pays a small fine, walks into the CIA building at Langley,
Virginia, and is met by a cheering crowd. Our hero! He's proudly maintained
the principles of the secret intelligence service, which is the private army
of the president and we have no idea what he's doing with it. Everything they
do is secret. Every item in their budget is secret.
TD: And the military, too, has become something of a private army…
Johnson: Exactly. I dislike conscription because it's so easily manipulated,
but I do believe in the principle of the obligation of citizens to defend the
country in times of crisis. Now, how we do that is still an open question, but
at least the citizens' army was a check on militarism. People in the armed forces
knew they were there involuntarily. They were extremely interested in whether
their officers were competent, whether the strategy made sense, whether the
war they might have to fight was justified, and if they began to believe that
they were being deeply lied to, as in Vietnam, the American military would start
to come apart. The troops then were fragging their officers so seriously that
General Creighton Abrams said, we've got to get them out of there. And call
it Vietnamization or anything else, that's what they did.
I fear that we're heading that way in Iraq. You open the morning paper and
discover that they're now going to start recruiting down to level four, people
with serious mental handicaps. The terrible thing is that they'll just be cannon
It's not rocket science to say that we're talking about a tragedy in the works
here. Americans aren't that rich. We had a trade deficit in 2005 of $725.8 billion.
That's a record. It went up almost 25 percent in just over a year. You can't
go on not making things, fighting these kinds of wars, and building weapons
that are useless. Herb Stein, when he was chairman of the council of economic
advisers in a Republican administration very famously said, "Things that can't
go on forever don't."
TD:: So put our problems in a nutshell.
Johnson: From George Bush's point of view, his administration has achieved
everything ideologically that he wanted to achieve. Militarism has been advanced
powerfully. In the minds of a great many people, the military is now the only
American institution that appears to work. He's enriched the ruling classes.
He's destroyed the separation of powers as thoroughly as was possible. These
are the problems that face us right now. The only way you could begin to rebuild
the separation of powers would be to reinvigorate the Congress and I don't know
what could shock the American public into doing that. They're the only ones
who could do it. The courts can't. The president obviously won't.
The only thing I can think of that might do it would be bankruptcy. Like what
happened to Argentina in 2001. The richest country in Latin America became one
of the poorest. It collapsed. It lost the ability to borrow money and lost control
of its affairs, but a great many Argentines did think about what corrupt presidents
had listened to what corrupt advice and done what stupid things during the 1990s.
And right now, the country is on its way back.
TD: But superpower bankruptcy? It's a concept nobody's really explored.
When the British empire finally went, we were behind them. Is there somebody
TD: So what would it mean for us to go bankrupt? After all, we're not
Johnson: It would mean losing control over things. All of a sudden,
we would be dependent on the kindness of strangers. Looking for handouts. We
already have a $725 billion trade deficit; the largest fiscal deficit in our
history, now well over 6 percent of GDP. The defense budgets are off the charts
and don't make any sense, and don't forget that $500 billion we've already spent
on the Iraq war – every nickel of it borrowed from people in China and Japan
who saved and invested because they would like to have access to this market.
Any time they decide they don't want to lend to us, interest rates will go crazy
and the stock exchange will collapse.
We pour about $2 billion a day just into servicing the amounts we borrow. The
moment people quit lending us that money, we have to get it out of domestic
savings and right now we have a negative savings rate in this country. To get
Americans to save 20 percent of their income, you'd have to pay them at least
a 20 percent interest rate and that would produce a truly howling recession.
We'd be back to the state of things in the 1930s that my mother used to describe
to me – we lived in the Arizona countryside then – when someone would tap on
the rear door and say, "Have you got any work? I don't want to be paid, I just
want to eat." And she'd say, "Sure, we'll find something for you to do and give
you eggs and potatoes."
A depression like that would go on in this country for quite a while. The rest
of the world would also have a severe recession, but would probably get over
it a lot faster.
TD: So you can imagine the Chinese, Japanese, and European economies
going on without us, not going down with us.
Johnson: Absolutely. I think they could.
TD: Don't you imagine, for example, that the Chinese bubble economy,
the part that's based on export to the United States might collapse, setting
off chaos there too?
Johnson: It might, but the Chinese would not blame their government
for it. And there is no reason the Chinese economy shouldn't, in the end, run
off domestic consumption. When you've got that many people interested in having
better lives, they needn't depend forever on selling sweaters and pajamas in
North America. The American economy is big, but there's no reason to believe
it's so big the rest of the world couldn't do without us. Moreover, we're kidding
ourselves because we already manufacture so little today – except for weapons.
We could pay a terrible price for not having been more prudent. To have been
stupid enough to give up on infrastructure, health care, and education in order
to put eight missiles in the ground at Fort Greeley, Alaska, that can't hit
anything. In fact, when tested, sometimes they don't even get out of their silos.
TD: How long do you see the dollar remaining the international
currency? I noticed recently that Iran was threatening to switch to euros.
Johnson: Yes, they're trying to create an oil bourse based on the euro.
Any number of countries might do that. Econ 1A as taught in any American university
is going to tell you that a country that runs the biggest trade deficits in
economic history must pay a penalty if the global system is to be brought back
into equilibrium. What this would mean is a currency so depreciated no American
could afford a Lexus automobile. A vacation in Italy would cost Americans a
wheelbarrow full of dollars.
TD: At least it might stop the CIA from kidnapping
people off the streets of Italy in the style to which they've grown accustomed.
Johnson: [Laughs.] Their kidnappers would no longer be staying in the
Principe di Savoia [a five-star hotel] in Milano, that's for sure.
The high-growth economies of East Asia now hold huge amounts in American treasury
certificates. If the dollar loses its value, the last person to get out of dollars
loses everything, so you naturally want to be first. But the person first making
the move causes everyone else to panic. So it's a very cautious, yet edgy situation.
A year ago, the head of the Korean Central Bank, which has a couple of hundred
billion of our dollars, came out and said: I think we're a little heavily invested
in dollars, suggesting that maybe Dubai's currency would be better right now,
not to mention the euro. Instantaneous panic. People started to sell; presidents
got on the telephone asking: What in the world are you people up to? And the
Koreans backed down – and so it continues.
There are smart young American Ph.D.s in economics today inventing theories
about why this will go on forever. One is that there's a global savings glut.
People have too much money and nothing to do with it, so they loan it to us.
Even so, as the very considerable economics correspondent for the Nation
Greider, has written several times, it's extremely unwise for the world's
largest debtor to go around insulting his bankers. We're going to send four
aircraft-carrier task forces to the Pacific this summer to intimidate the
Chinese, sail around, fly our airplanes, shoot off a few cruise missiles. Why
shouldn't the Chinese say, let's get out of dollars. Okay, they don't want a
domestic panic of their own, so the truth is they would do it as subtly as they
could, causing as little fuss as possible.
What does this administration think it's doing, reducing taxes when it needs
to be reducing huge deficits? As far as I can see, its policies have nothing
to do with Republican or Democratic ideology, except that its opposite would
be traditional, old Republican conservatism, in the sense of being fiscally
responsible, not wasting our money on aircraft carriers or other nonproductive
But the officials of this administration are radicals. They're crazies. We
all speculate on why they do it. Why has the president broken the Constitution,
let the military spin virtually out of control, making it the only institution
he would turn to for anything – another Katrina disaster, a bird flu epidemic?
The whole thing seems farcical, but what it does remind you of is ancient Rome.
If a bankruptcy situation doesn't shake us up, then I fear we will, as an author
I admire wrote the other day, be "crying for the coup." We could end the way
the Roman Republic ended. When the chaos, the instability become too great,
you turn it over to a single man. After about the same length of time our republic
has been in existence, the Roman Republic got itself in that hole by inadvertently,
thoughtlessly acquiring an empire they didn't need and weren't able to administer,
that kept them at war all the time. Ultimately, it caught up with them. I can't
see how we would be immune to a Julius Caesar, to a militarist who acts the
TD: Do you think that our all-volunteer military will turn out to be
the janissaries of our failed empire?
Johnson: They might very well be. I'm already amazed at the degree to
which they tolerate this incompetent government. I mean the officers know that
their precious army, which they worked so hard to rebuild after the Vietnam
War, is coming apart again, that it's going to be ever harder to get people
to enlist, that even the military academies are in trouble. I don't know how
long they'll take it. Tommy
Franks, the general in charge of the attack on Baghdad, did say that if
there were another terrorist attack in the United States comparable to 9/11,
the military might have no choice but to take over. In other words: If we're
going to do the work, why listen to incompetents like George Bush? Why take
orders from an outdated character like Donald Rumsfeld? Why listen to a Congress
in which, other than John McCain, virtually no Republican has served in the
I don't see the obvious way out of our problems. The political system has failed.
You could elect the opposition party, but it can't bring the CIA under control;
it can't bring the military-industrial complex under control; it can't reinvigorate
the Congress. It would be just another holding operation as conditions got worse.
Now, I'll grant you, I could be wrong. If I am, you're going to be so glad,
you'll forgive me. [He laughs.] In the past, we've had clear excesses of executive
power. There was Lincoln and the suspension of habeas corpus. Theodore
Roosevelt virtually invented the executive order. Until then, most presidents
didn't issue executive orders. Roosevelt issued well over a thousand. It was
the equivalent of today's presidential signing statement. Then you go on to
the mad Presbyterian Woodrow Wilson, whom the neocons are now so in love with,
and Franklin Roosevelt and his pogrom against Americans of Japanese ancestry.
But there was always a tendency afterwards for the pendulum to swing back, for
the American public to become concerned about what had been done in its name
and correct it. What's worrying me is: Can we expect a pendulum swing back this
TD: Maybe there is no pendulum.
Johnson: Today, Cheney tells us that presidential powers have been curtailed
by the War Powers Act [of 1973], congressional oversight of the intelligence
agencies, and so on. This strikes me as absurd, since these modest reforms were
made to deal with the grossest violations of the Constitution in the Nixon administration.
Moreover, most of them were stillborn. There's not a president yet who has acknowledged
the War Powers Act as legitimate. They regard themselves as not bound by it,
even though it was an act of Congress and, by our theory of government, unless
openly unconstitutional, that's the bottom line. A nation of laws? No, we are
not. Not anymore.
TD: Usually we believe that the Cold War ended with the Soviet Union's
collapse and, in essence, our victory. A friend of mine put it another way.
The United States, he suggested, was so much more powerful than the USSR that
we had a greater capacity to shift our debts elsewhere. The Soviets didn't and
so imploded. My question is this: Are we now seeing the delayed end of the Cold
War? Perhaps both superpowers were headed for the proverbial trash bin of history,
simply at different rates of speed?
Johnson: I've always believed that they went first because they were
poorer and that the terrible, hubristic conclusion we drew – that we were victorious,
that we won – was off the mark. I always felt that we both lost the Cold War
for the same reasons – imperial overstretch, excessive militarism, things that
have been identified by students of empires since Babylonia. We've never given
Mikhail Gorbachev credit. Most historians would say that no empire ever gave
up voluntarily. The only one I can think of that tried was the Soviet Union
TD: Any last words?
Johnson: I'm still working on them. My first effort was Blowback.
That was well before I anticipated anything like massive terrorist attacks in
the United States. It was a statement that the foreign-policy problems – I still
just saw them as that – of the first part of the 21st century were going to
be left over from the previous century, from our rapacious activities in Latin
America, from our failure to truly learn the lessons of Vietnam. The
Sorrows of Empire was an attempt to come to grips with our militarism.
Now, I'm considering how we've managed to alienate so many rich, smart allies
– every one of them, in fact. How we've come to be so truly hated. This, in
a Talleyrand sense, is the sort of mistake from which you can't recover. That's
why I'm planning on calling the third volume of what I now think of as "The
Blowback Trilogy," Nemesis. Nemesis was the Greek goddess of vengeance.
She also went after people who became too arrogant, who were so taken with themselves
that they lost all prudence. She was always portrayed as a fierce figure with
a scale in one hand – think, Judgment Day – and a whip in the other…
TD: And you believe she's coming after us?
Johnson: Oh, I believe she's arrived. I think she's sitting around waiting
for her moment, the one we're coming up on right now.
Copyright 2006 TomDispatch