Best of TomDispatch: Chalmers Johnson, Dismantling the Empire

Chalmers Johnson died on November 20, 2010, but — for me at least — his spirit lives on in the most active of ways. In his last years at, he regularly chewed over the profligacy of the Pentagon, our unbridled urge for military spending, and our penchant for war-making and war preparations without end. He was convinced that we had long passed the point at which we were still a “republic,” that we had decisively opted for empire, and — long before the U.S. intelligence community came to that conclusion — that we were on the downward slide, helped along by what he called a “military Keynesianism” run amok.

One question he raised regularly in conversation, but never answered in print, was: What would it mean for the United States — i.e., a great military superpower — to bankrupt itself? After all, we aren’t Argentina. But if there was no obvious model to draw on, he never doubted one thing: if we didn’t change our ways and reverse course on empire, we would certainly be a candidate for debtor’s prison and a wreck of a country. In his last major essay, also the title of his last (and still unbearably relevant) book, he turned to the issue of “dismantling the empire,” knowing full well that it wasn’t on any imaginable Washington agenda.

Having just lived through one of the more bizarre months in the history of the former republic — what I recently termed “a psychotic spectacle of American decline” — it seemed to me that Johnson’s “dismantling” essay couldn’t be more timely, and so on this quiet Sunday in August, on the weekend the author of Blowback would have turned 80, I’m bringing it back from the TomDispatch archives. It was first posted on July 30, 2009, and it has only gained in relevance from the two years of debacle that have followed. If only I could bring Chalmers back as well. This country could use him right now.

TomDispatch Blocked by State Department!

I have a friend who sends a note every year in December, pleading with me to pen one upbeat, hopeful piece before the next year rolls around. Mind you, I consider myself an upbeat guy in a downbeat world and, for me, when it comes to pure upbeatness, you couldn’t have beaten this week if you tried. This was when my Oscar came in—or the equivalent on the political Internet anyway. On December 7th, the State Department announced its brave decision to host UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day in 2011. (“[W]e are concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information…”) Less than two weeks later, I learned that if you try to go to from a State Department computer, you can’t get there. The following message appears instead:

“Access Denied for Security Risk (policy_wikileaks)

“Your requested URL has been blocked to prevent classified information from being downloaded to OpenNet.”

OpenNet is what the State Department calls its unclassified Web system. Maybe it should now consider changing that name as it prepares for World Press Freedom Day. (Small tip to State Department officials: remember that TomDispatch is just as good a read at home as at work!) I’m sure this is all part of the Obama administration’s fabulous sunshine policy, that “new standard of openness” the president embraced on his first day in the Oval Office. It’s certainly part of the U.S. government’s ridiculous attempt to bar its officials, contractors, and anyone else it can reach from the once-secret State Department documents that WikiLeaks is slowly releasing and that everyone else on Earth has access to.

As for me in this holiday season, I couldn’t be happier. Among those sites banned by the State Department, I’m sure in good company and, of course, you’re not likely to be banned if no one’s reading you in the first place. And here’s the holiday miracle: somehow TomDispatch made it onto The List without revealing a single secret document or even hosting one at the site, evidently on the basis of having commented in passing on the WikiLeaks affair.

Chalmers Johnson, RIP

Last night, antiwar historian Chalmers Johnson died after an extended illness. This note is from Tom Engelhardt, who was Chalmers’ good friend and editor of his books.

I’m sad to report that Chalmers Johnson died on Saturday. He was a stalwart of this site, writing for it regularly from its early moments. Without the slightest doubt, he was one of the most remarkable authors I’ve had the pleasure to edit, no less be friends with. He saw our devolving American world with striking clarity and prescience. He wrote about it with precision, passion, and courage. He never softened a thought or cut a corner. I dedicated my new book to him, writing that he was "the most astute observer of the American way of war I know. He broke the ground and made the difference." I wouldn’t change a word. He was a man on a journey from Depression-era Arizona through the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and deep into a world in which the foundations of the American empire, too, began to shudder. A scholar of Japan, one-time Cold Warrior, and CIA consultant, in the twenty-first century, he became the most trenchant critic of American militarism around. I first read a book of his – on Communist peasants in North China facing the Japanese "kill-all, burn-all, loot-all" campaigns of the late 1930s – when I was 20. I last read him this week at age 66. I benefited from every word he wrote. His Blowback Trilogy (Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis.) will be with us for decades to come. His final work, Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope, is a testament to his enduring power, even as his body was failing him. To my mind, his final question was this: What would the "sole superpower" look like as a bankrupt country? He asked that question. Nobody, I suspect, has the answer. We may find out. "Adios," he invariably said as he signed off on the phone. Adios, Chal.

James Fallows has a short obituary for Chalmers at The Atlantic.

The Ambassador, the Iraqi, and the Penguin

An ambassador – his name happens to be Timothy Carney – an Iraqi, and a penguin walk into a bar. The bartender asks how the Iraqi will ever possibly pay for his drink. The ambassador replies:

“The point to make there is that Iraq is basically a rich country; that in fact there’s been a successful effort to mightily reduce the debt that Iraq had incurred during the Saddam Hussein era. I would argue that as Iraq returns to its former levels of 3 million-plus barrels a day of oil exported, that you’re going to find as much money as the country needs for the major portion of this effort at maintenance and sustainment as you’ve defined it.”

Oh wait, I think I’ve already heard this joke before; but back in March 2003, it went like this:

A Deputy Secretary of Defense – his name was Paul Wolfowitz – an Iraqi exile, and a penguin walk into the House Committee on Appropriations. A Congressman asks how the invasion and occupation the Bush administration has just launched will be paid for. The Deputy Secretary of Defense replies that our “Second Iraq War” won’t be “overly expensive for American taxpayers”: “There’s a lot of money to pay for this that doesn’t have to be U.S. taxpayer money, and it starts with the assets of the Iraqi people… and on a rough recollection, the oil revenues of that country could bring between $50 and $100 billion over the course of the next two or three years… We’re dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon.”

Oh, and ambassador Carney, who is officially in Baghdad as the “coordinator for Economic Transition in Iraq,” offered his gem on how the Iraqis could take over paying for the “reconstruction” of their country in a March 9th, 2007 Department of Defense briefing in the Iraqi capital.

When you hear jokes like this repeated almost four years later, head for the exits… fast.

Biking With Donald Rumsfeld

Last week, someone slipped New York Times reporters Michael R. Gordon and David S. Cloud the secret memo finished by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld just two days before he “resigned.” It was the last in a flurry of famed Rumsfeldian “snowflakes” that have fluttered down upon the Pentagon these past years. This one, though, was “submitted” to the White House and clearly meant for the President’s eyes. In it, the Secretary of Defense offered a veritable laundry list of possible policy adjustments in Iraq, adding up to what, according to Gordon and Cloud, is both an acknowledgement of failure and “a major course correction.”

Think of this last zany, only semi-coherent Rumsfeldian document — part of Washington’s grim ongoing silly season over Iraq — as Rumsfeld’s last stand. In it, he quite literally cycles (as in bicycles) back to the origins of the Bush administration’s shredded Iraq policy. It is, in a pathetic sense, that policy stripped bare.

Here are just three last-stand aspects of the memo that have been largely or totally overlooked in most reporting:

1. “Begin modest withdrawals of U.S. and Coalition forces (start ‘taking our hand off the bicycle seat’), so Iraqis know they have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country.”

From the early, carefree, “stuff happens” period of the occupation comes the wonderfully patronizing image embedded in this mixed metaphor of a passage — though I suppose Iraqis perched on bike seats could indeed have crumpled socks. The image of the Iraqi (child) learning how to ride the bike of democracy — or whatever — with the American (parent) looming behind, hand steadying the seat, was already not just a neocolonial, but a neocon classic by the time the President used it back in May 2004. (In fact, in an even more infantilizing fashion, he spoke of taking the “training wheels” off the Iraqi bike.)

Many others in the administration proudly used it as well. Rumsfeld in his rococo fashion elaborated wildly on the image in a speech to U.S. troops that same year:

“Getting Iraq straightened out… was like teaching a kid to ride a bike: ‘They’re learning, and you’re running down the street holding on to the back of the seat. You know that if you take your hand off they could fall, so you take a finger off and then two fingers, and pretty soon you’re just barely touching it. You can’t know when you’re running down the street how many steps you’re going to have to take. We can’t know that, but we’re off to a good start.'”

And now, long after kids stopped riding bikes in Iraq and started ending up dead in ditches, our nearly former Defense Secretary just couldn’t help cycling back to the good old days.

2. “Conduct an accelerated draw-down of U.S. bases. We have already reduced from 110 to 55 bases. Plan to get down to 10 to 15 bases by April 2007, and to 5 bases by July 2007.”

Talk about cycling back to the beginning, Rumsfeld’s “major course correction” takes us right to the original basing plans the Pentagon had on entering Iraq. As the New York Times reported in a front-page piece on April 19, 2003 (and then no one, including reporters at the Times, paid much attention to again), the Pentagon entered Iraq with plans already on the drawing board to build four major bases well beyond urban areas. These were to be permanent in all but name and, from them, the Bush administration planned to nail down the oil heartlands of the planet (while making up for the loss — thanks to Osama bin Laden’s efforts — of our bases in Saudi Arabia).

Now, here we are, over three and a half catastrophic years later, back to those four bases (built to the tune of multibillions of American taxpayer dollars) plus one — undoubtedly the former Camp Victory, the huge American base that grew up on the edge of Baghdad International Airport (as well, of course, as the new, almost finished billion-dollar U.S. embassy with its “staff” of thousands inside Baghdad’s Green Zone).

3. “Aggressively beef up the Iraqi MOD [Ministry of Defense] and MOI [Ministry of the Interior], and other Iraqi ministries critical to the success of the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] — the Iraqi Ministries of Finance, Planning, Health, Criminal Justice, Prisons, etc. — by reaching out to U.S. military retirees and Reserve/National Guard volunteers (i.e., give up on trying to get other USG Departments to do it.)”

This mad suggestion, hardly noticed by anyone, cycles us back to the attitude with which Bush & Co. first entered Iraq. Iraqi sovereignty? Who ever heard of it? Just do what you want. Flood any ministry with a bunch of U.S. military retirees, all of whom can have their heavy hands on untold Iraqi bureaucratic bike seats. This is an idea just about as brilliant as every other one initiated by this administration in Iraq.

And why do I have a sneaking suspicion that all those “U.S. military retirees” and other “volunteers” might just not rush to offer their services to Iraq’s death-squad infiltrated Ministries of the Interior and Defense? If you biked around that corner without those training wheels — and some body armor — I suspect you’d be likely to find yourself in the Baghdad morgue in no time at all.

In this way was Rumsfeld’s last stand remarkably like his first pedal. If only, after September 11, 2001, someone had left the training wheels on when the Bush administration went pedaling off on its merry, shock-and-awe way.

Cross-posted from The Nation blog. Visit TomDispatch for more Tom Engelhardt.

The Lessons of Iraq, Gates-style

Robert M. Gates, the man slated to fill the “stuff happens” combat boots of Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, offered his first cautious pass at the lessons of the Iraq War this week. In a questionnaire he filled out for the Senate Armed Services Committee in preparation for his upcoming confirmation hearings, he responded to a query about what he would have done differently with the following, according to the Associated Press:

“‘War planning should be done with the understanding that post-major combat phase of operations can be crucial,’ Gates said in a 65-page written response submitted to the committee Tuesday. ‘If confirmed, I intend to improve the department’s capabilities in this area…With the advantage of hindsight, I might have done some things differently.'”

With the advantage of “hindsight”… hmmm.

So, let’s see if we can get this straight: With hindsight, his lesson would be that, in the next Iraq-style invasion and occupation, we should focus more on that “post-major combat phase” – a nice phrase that resonates with our President’s famed “mission accomplished” moment on May 1, 2003 aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, when he announced that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”

Of course, by then, a lot of “stuff” had already happened and Baghdad, as well as much of the rest of Iraq had been thoroughly looted. But assumedly the new Secretary of Defense has learned his lesson: More troops for the occupation, more well-trained US MPs for the streets, a few people who actually speak the language of whatever invaded countries we might end up in, and maybe a good strongman in our pocket, not to speak of an undisbanded army of well-trained locals to keep him and us company.

It’s so early in the “withdrawal” game and yet Gates’ sad answer sums up the sad state of what passes for debate right now in the mainstream, including among the members of James Baker’s Iraq Study Group.

Of course, there’s only one lesson of the Iraq War to start with, the sort of lesson that parents tell kids every day: Don’t do it!

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a Secretary of Defense who, having absorbed the lessons of this war, would begin planning to do no planning for future invasions of Iraq-like countries, not to speak of the post-major combat phases of such invasions. But we might as well wish for the confirmation of Tinkerbell.

Cross-posted from The Nation blog. Visit TomDispatch for more Tom Engelhardt.