Book Review - Bush whacked - Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic
By Stephen Graubard
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: April 7 2007 03:00 | Last updated: April 7 2007 03:00
Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic
by Chalmers Johnson
Metropolitan Books $26, 368 pages
Chalmers Johnson, a leading American political commentator on east Asia, has in recent years turned his attention to his homeland. Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic is his most searing commentary to date on the current state of US politics. It describes how the US constitutional system of checks and balances, invented in the 18th century, is now regularly violated by a presidency that has become imperial. For Johnson, Congress is uninformed and manipulated. It is unable to control an executive that he sees as arrogant, ignorant and aggressive.
Johnson's book is a sober reminder that the US has become an empire. Like other empires, including those of Rome and Great Britain, it is not destined to last forever. Indeed, so serious are the flaws that Johnson sees in the US body politic, he is prepared to say that its republican status is imminently endangered. He thinks despotism in the US looms as a real possibility.
Johnson is unafraid to take issue with those who know only how to praise the US - no matter what their different reasons for doing so. He refuses to join in the lauding of celebrated pro-American thinkers such as Niall Ferguson and Michael Ignatieff or three- times Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Thomas Friedman. Such men may enjoy great reputations on both sides of the Atlantic - and sell their books by the tens of thousands - but they do not figure in the pantheon of Johnson's intellectual heroes.
Indeed, few intellectuals of great international repute figure among those whom Johnson believes have understood recent world events as well as he does. For him, the heroes of the US republic are men such as Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. This politician's speeches, in the author's opinion, ought to serve as a primer for all who care to understand how President George W. Bush came to violate his oath of office, through the fabrication of a history that bears no relation to reality.
In his feisty prose, Johnson does not have a good word to say for the CIA. He claims that only a very few members of Congress are privy to any knowledge of how its vast funds are distributed or used. He describes the agency's perpetual failure to foresee or understand the complex world in which we live, and refers to it as Bush's "private army", wholly under the president's personal control.
In Johnson's opinion, the CIA's covert activities, increasingly important, are too little inquired into by members of Congress. This has allowed Bush to abuse his legitimate presidential authority. As a result, he has claimed powers the constitution never gave him, initiating the war in Iraq based on flawed intelligence, and continuing with it to the economic, political and moral detriment of the nation.
Johnson reminds readers that the US maintains 737 bases abroad, mostly for use by the US air force and navy. (Britain, in 1898, at the zenith of its imperial age, had 36 bases.) In some instances, states abroad are compelled to keep secret the fact that they have granted the US base rights, knowing that their populations will resent such an infringement on their sovereignty. Johnson believes that, even if a future Iraq government determined to close all its American bases, the US would never allow it.
Is much of the damage to US civil liberties attributable simply to Bush and his aide-in-chief, the voluble vice-president Dick Cheney? Johnson finds them insupportable, and is prepared to blame them. But he refuses to see them as the sole villains. He knows that the US, without being attacked, has repeatedly initiated wars and military actions. He believes that the Pentagon is even more dangerous today than in 1961, when Eisenhower, in his last presidential speech, warned against the military-industrial complex, an overly close relationship between the armed forces, private industry and politics. Not everyone, however, will accept this black-and-white description of US foreign policy since the second world war.
Yet the concrete evidence Johnson offers demonstrates two incontestable truths. Those who have supported the US's aggressive expansionist policies, however defective their reasoning, have been immensely influential. And those who have resisted them have enjoyed nowhere near such power.
Why has this been so? It is the one question that Johnson never explicitly answers. It is a question asked almost two centuries ago by the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville. His influential work Democracy in America raised concerns about the role of a popular democratic military force, essentially different from armies and navies led by aristocratic officers that had so long predominated in Europe.
Johnson's arguments are not always watertight. The analogies he makes with the decline of the Roman and the British empires may seem far-fetched as they ignore the very substantial differences that separate American society from either of the others. When the US ceases to be an empire - and that day will almost certainly come - it is unlikely to be for the reasons that either the Roman or the British empire met its end.
But the serious question for the future of the US is whether any of those now contending for the presidency in 2008 will be able to alter the recent US penchant for foreign aggression. This is not to say that the candidates have learned nothing from Bush's Iraq debacle, but they appear to lack the political will to take on strong internal enemies, defeat them and mock them for their flawed arguments.
Earlier presidents made Americans laugh; Bush and his crowd know only how to frighten them.
Stephen Graubard is the author of "The Presidents" (Penguin).