Chalmers Johnson has led an interesting life. Trained as a political scientist with a special interest in Asia, he was a strong Anti-Communist, who worked as a consultant for the C.I.A. and supported the War in Vietnam. During those years, he wrote, he was
irritated by campus antiwar protesters, who seemed to me self indulgent as well as sanctimonious and who had so clearly not done their homework [on the history of communism in East Asia] . . . . As it turned out, however, they understood far better than I did the impulses of a Robert McNamara, a McGeorge Bundy, or a Walt Rostow. They grasped something essential about the nature of America's imperial role in the world that I had failed to perceive. In retrospect I wish I had stood with the anti war movement. For all its naivete and unruliness, it was right and American policy was wrong.
It is that perspective which informs Johnson's latest book, Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope. In a recent article at TomDispatch, Chalmers reevaluates American foreign policy, almost fifty years after Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August was first published. And he asks the question which no one else dares to ask:
What harm would befall the United States if we actually decided, against all odds, to close those hundreds and hundreds of bases, large and small, that we garrison around the world? What if we actually dismantled our empire, and came home? Would Genghis Khan-like hordes descend on us?
He then answers that question: "Not likely. . . .the main fears you might hear in Washington -- if anyone bothered to wonder what would happen should we begin to dismantle our empire -- would prove but chimeras."
That is not to say that Washington would then cast aside a hornet's nest of troubles:
In fact, we would still be a large and powerful nation-state with a host of internal and external problems. An immigration and drug crisis on our southern border, soaring health-care costs, a weakening education system, an aging population, an aging infrastructure, an unending recession -- none of these are likely to go away soon, nor are any of them likely to be tackled in a serious or successful way as long as we continue to spend our wealth on armies, weapons, wars, global garrisons and bribes for petty dictators.
But there is an alternative. It is, says Chalmers, to invest in productive, not destructive, industries and to invest in America's infrastructure and its people. "Unfortunately," he writes, "I don't see that happening.
My own role these past 20 years has been that of Cassandra, whom the gods gave the gift of foreseeing the future, but also cursed because no one believed her. I wish I could be more optimistic about what's in store for the U.S. Instead there isn't a day that our own guns of August don't continue to haunt me.
Like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, Johnson can hope that Americans awake a sadder but a wiser people on the morrow morn -- particularly in the week after the last combat brigade has left Iraq.
This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.