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Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic

By academic training, Chalmers Johnson is an East Asian scholar, and a widely respected one at that. He was and remains a giant in the field of Japan Studies -- my undergraduate major 20 years ago. His seminal work MITI and the Japanese Miracle was required reading back then, and probably still is today. In the introduction to his latest book Nemesis - The Last Days of the American Republic, he therefore makes a point to tell readers that he never intended to write a trilogy on the decline and fall of the American empire. However, he says "events intervened" -- as they sometimes do. His first book in this trilogy, Blowback (2000) was based on his 30+ years of studying East Asia and observing US clandestine operations in the region. He became convinced that one or more secret US government/CIA operations would come back to end badly for the US. You may have seen Johnson explaining the concept of blowback in the excellent BBC documentary Why We Fight:

Blowback. It's a CIA term. Blowback does not mean simply the unintended consequences of foreign operations. It means the unintended consequences of foreign operations that were deliberately kept secret from the American public. So that when the retaliation comes, the American public is not able to put it in context, to put cause and effect together, and they come up with questions like "Why do they hate us?"

This lack of understanding, combined with myriad secret US government actions that never make it into the pages of the mainstream media (MSM) render average Americans bewildered and dumbstruck by world events. Such an ignorant population is malleable and easily manipulated through fear, intimidation and official disinformation campaigns, hatched by the government and propagated through the MSM. Of course the world seems like a dangerous place for America, because we generally only get half of the story. With Nemesis, Johnson gives readers at least a framework for understanding the other half: an excellent, well researched, readable guide to the clandestine workings of our military economy.

Having worked as a CIA consultant from 1967 - 1973, Johnson has in-depth knowledge of the secret operations of the CIA in Asia and throughout the world. Following the events of September 11th, Johnson and his colleagues pondered the countless nations and peoples that would have reason to attack the US. However, the Islamic freedom fighters -- originally created and funded by the CIA in the early 1980's to fight America's battles against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan -- did not immediately come to mind:

Most of us thought of the Chileans because of the date. September 11, 1973 was the day the CIA secretly helped General Augusto Pinochet overthrow Salvador Allende, the leftist elected president of Chile. Others thought of the victims of the Greek colonels we put in power in 1967, or Okinawans venting their rage over the sixty-year occupation of their island by our military. Guatemalans, Cubans, Congolese, Brazilians, Argentines, Indonesians, Palestinians, Panamanians, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Filipinos, South Koreans, Taiwanese, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, and many others had good reason to attack us

At this point, you may be bewildered as I was as to why many of these countries would want to attack the US. Apparently, not even the current president of the United States has a clue. Johnson quotes the President: "How do I respond when I see that in some Islamic countries there is vitriolic hatred for America? I'll tell you how I respond: I'm amazed that there's such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us. I am - like most Americans,I just can't believe it because I know how good we are."

One thing we are good at is self deception. A case in point is one of the most infamous cases of blowback -- in fact, the events that led the CIA to coin the term: In 1953, the CIA was involved in a coup to overthrow the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh and replace him with the despot and friend of America, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, aka the Shah of Iran. After over 25 years of ruthless repression under the iron-fisted Shah, the country was a powder keg ready to explode. It did not escape the notice of the oppressed Iranian people that the Shah was America's close ally and puppet, installed to give the US access to Iran's vast oil reserves (sound familiar?). Therefore, the Islamic revolution of 1979, in which the Shah was overthrown and 52 American hostages were taken, traces its cause directly back to the CIA's 1953 coup. Even so, most Americans remain ignorant to this no-longer-secret history. For all the news coverage of the "hostage crisis" in '79 and '80 -- it was the event that spawned ABC's Nightline, after all -- for all the discussions we had about it during "current events hour" at my junior high school -- not once did I hear anything about Kermit Roosevelt and the CIA coup to overthrow a democratically elected leader of a sovereign nation.

Yes, democracy did once bloom in the middle east, of its own accord. But America, land of the free and the home of the brave, a model constitutional republic squashed it like a bug. Ever since learning of this, I often wonder what the middle-east (and indeed the world) would be like today had the US not engaged in the clearly unconstitutional overthrow of another country's sovereign leader. But like Neo after learning the truth about the Matrix, most Americans would reject outright what the US government has done in our name, with our money, as a lie. This works to great advantage to the powers that be, since their continued power relies on a population that remains willfully ignorant. This willful ignorance allows the government to pursue its aspirations of building a global military empire. Whereas Ravi Batra believes that the US is merely a business empire, Johnson could not disagree more. The US military maintains 737 official military bases overseas, probably as many as 50% more when the CIA's secret prisons and other installations are included. These bases are not defensive, but offensive in nature - directed to both project force and enforce American interests around the globe.

The bases are also expensive, considering that most of their day-to-day functions are not run by the military itself, but are outsourced to companies such as KBR, a division of Haliburton, the company Dick Cheney headed before becoming vice president. These companies are paid tens of billions of dollars to supply meals, drive trucks and busses, do housework and maintenance, etc. for the military. When you consider that these companies in turn subcontract the work out to locals at local salaries that are a fraction of what US workers would be paid, you see how profitable such contracts are to the companies, and how wasteful they are of taxpayers' money. When all costs are added up, total defense related expenses come close to $1 trillion per year. But as Johnson notes:

We are not actually paying for these expenses. Chinese, Japanese and other Asian investors are. We are putting them on the tab and so running the largest governmental as well as trade deficits in modern economic history. Sooner or later, our militarism will threaten the nation with bankruptcy.

America, Johnson points out, has become a nation with an economy based on militarism and war. The country has been continuously engaged in, or mobilized for war since 1941. If Bush is a war president, ours has already been a war nation for the past 66 years. Funds for military hardware are distributed in as many states as possible to ensure that any member of Congress who might consider voting against a new weapons system would be accused of putting some of his constituents out of work (this is also discussed in Why We Fight). When the government tries to close domestic bases, there is not joy, but public outcries over the loss of jobs - good, high paying jobs.This is just a small clue of how dependent our economy has become on militarism.

War, the Enemy of Liberty

Americans have been warned by patriots throughout our short history that the greatest threat to our republican form of government is war, "including the associated maladies of standing armies, a military industrial complex, and all the vested interests that develop around a massive military establishment."

Johnson quotes James Madison - the chief author of our Constitution -- at length:

Of the enemies of true liberty, war is perhaps the most dreaded because it compromises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people.

"No nation," Madison concludes, "can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." These were his observations over 210 years ago and they remain as valid today. Yet we currently find ourselves bogged down in an ambiguous "war on terror" that will last anywhere from five to twenty five years to "generations." If this is truly the case, there is little chance the American republic will be able to withstand the threat -- not the threat from outside our borders, but from the enemies within who stand to reap great benefit at the expense of ourrepublican form of government.

Militarism has become entrenched and inseparable from the nation. As a result, citizens as well as our elected officials have lost the ability to steer a path toward peace. The CIA has evolved into the President's private army, beyond oversight by the people or Congress. The CIA's budget - along with every other intelligence agency's budget - is completely secret, as well as 40% of the defense budget.

What are these secret agencies doing with the hundreds of billions of dollars of US taxpayers money provided to them each year? For all we know, they could be funding the terrorists. Don't laugh before watching the PBS Documentary the Secret Government. Funding terrorists would certainly keep them in business, and they could do it without the knowledge of you, me, Congress, or even the President of the United States.

Johnson explains:

Since everything the CIA writes and does is secret, including its budget (regardless of article 1, section 9 of the Constitution, which says "a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time"), accountability to the elected representatives of the people or even an accurate historical record of actions is today inconceivable. Congressional oversight of the agency -- and many other, ever expanding intelligence outfits in the US government, including the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) - is at best a theatrical performance designed to distract and mislead the few Americans left who are concerned about constitutional government. In fact, the president's untrammeled control of the CIA is probably the single most extraordinary power the imperial presidency posesses - totally beyond the balance of powers intended to protect the United States from the rise of a tyrant.

This is by no means meant as a partisan criticism. Johnson points out that, "no president since Harry Truman, having discovered what unlimited power the CIA affords him, has ever failed to use it."

It is for this reason that Johnson fears our political system may no longer be capable of saving the United States as we know it. It is simply too difficult to imagine, he says, a Congress or any president standing up to the Pentagon and the secret intelligence agencies. The last one who was rumored to have tried was John F. Kennedy, and we all know what happened to him. The secret government has simply become too powerful; militarism too entrenched in the fabric of our society and our economy:

Regardless of who succeeds George W. Bush, the incumbent president will have to deal with an emboldened Pentagon, an engorged military industrial complex, our empire of bases, and a fifty-year-old tradition of not revealing to the public what our military establishment costs or the kinds of devastation it can inflict. History teaches us that the capacity of things to get worse is limitless. Roman history suggests that the short, happy life of the American republic may be coming to its end -- and that turning it into an openly military empire will not, to say the least, be the best solution to the problem.

So how does this story end? Johnson is pessimistic about Congress taking back the reigns of power that the Founders intended it to hold:

The separation of powers that the Founders wrote into the Constitution as the main bulkwark against dictatorship increasingly appears to be a dead letter, with the Congress no longer capable of asserting itself against presidential attempts to monopolize power. Corrupt and indifferent, Congress, which the Founders believed would be the leading branch of government, is simply not up to the task of confronting a modern Julius Caesar.

Not only Congress, but the Supreme Court too has dropped the ball. A military coup restoring the rule of law is unlikely. The only hope lies in the American people standing up and, quoting Bob Barr, saying: "'Enough of this business of justifying everything as necessary for the war on terror.' Either the Constitution and the laws of this country mean something, or they don't. It is truly frightening what is going on in this country." Likewise, Johnson believes it is possible that the people restore constitutional government by rising up in protest against the CIA and military industrial complex though a grassroots movement, but sees it as unlikely due to the conglomerate control of the mass media and the difficulties in mobilizingthe public.

More likely Johnson believes the United States will:

maintain a facade of constitutional government and drift along until financial bankruptcy overtakes it. Of course, bankruptcy will not mean the literal end of the United States any more than it did for Germany in 1923, China in 1948, or Argentina in 2002-03. It might, in fact, open the way for an unexpected restoration of the American system, or for military rule or simply for some development we cannot yet imagine. Certainly, such a bankruptcy would mean a drastic lowering of our standard of living, a loss of control over international affairs, a process of adjusting to the rise of other powers, including China and India, and a further discrediting of the notion that the United States is somehow exceptional compared to other nations.

As it stands, the country is already bankrupt, except by technicality. The national debt ceiling has been raised four times since Bush took office, and is running out of room at the current $8.96 trillion. The only thing keeping the economy afloat is massive foreign lending. Even if our deficits were reduced, Johnson maintains, it would not be enough to save the Republic, due to the nation's heavy reliance on military spending and war for our economic well-being -- what Johnson calls our "military Keynesianism." In essence, increased spending of borrowed money on war has to date prevented the US and therefore the world economy from collapsing. "Military Keynesianism" is a term originally coined by a Polish economist to describe Nazi Germany's ascent from the first great depression. Johnson notes: "For several years before Hitler's aggressive intentions became clear, he was celebrated around the world for having achieved a "German economic miracle." Comparing this to our economy today, Johnson quotes one analyst: "Despite whatever theories strategists may spin, the defense budget is now, to a large degree, a jobs program. It is also a cash cow that providesbillions of dollars for corporations, lobbyists and special interest groups."

Nemesis in the Neighborhood

Nemesis, in its colloquial usage, means one's worst enemy. But with the title of this book, Johnson is also referencing Nemesis, the mythic goddess of retribution and vengeance, the punisher of pride and hubris. Nemesis, Johnson warns, is waiting impatiently for her meeting with America. There is still time for us to rouse ourselves and save our democracy. But the time in which to head off financial and moral bankruptcy is growing short. In Johnson's own words:

This present book is my attempt to explain how we got where we are, the manifold distortions we have imposed on the system we inherited from our Founding Fathers, and what we would have to do to avoid our appointment with Nemesis, now that she is in the neighborhood.

To that end, he has done an excellent job. If you are interested in the issues discussed here, you will find the book even more fascinating and informative, for there is much information than I have room to discuss.


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