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Bush’s Amazing Achievement

1.

One of the few foreign policy achievements of the Bush administration has been the creation of a near consensus among those who study international affairs, a shared view that stretches, however improbably, from Noam Chomsky to Brent Scowcroft, from the antiwar protesters on the streets of San Francisco to the well-upholstered office of former secretary of state James Baker. This new consensus holds that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a calamity, that the presidency of George W. Bush has reduced America’s standing in the world and made the United States less, not more, secure, leaving its enemies emboldened and its friends alienated. Paid-up members of the nation’s foreign policy establishment, those who have held some of the most senior offices in the land, speak in a language once confined to the T-shirts of placard-wielding demonstrators. They rail against deception and dishonesty, imperialism and corruption. The only dispute between them is over the size and depth of the hole into which Bush has led the country he pledged to serve.

Last December’s Baker-Hamilton report, drawn up by a bipartisan panel of ten Washington eminences with perhaps a couple of centuries of national security experience between them and not a radical bone in their collective body, described the mess the Bush team had left in Iraq as “grave and deteriorating.” The seventy-nine recommendations they made amounted to a demand that the administration repudiate its entire policy and start again. In the words of former congressman Lee Hamilton, James Baker’s co-chair and a rock-solid establishment figure, “Our ship of state has hit rough waters. It must now chart a new way forward.”1

So it comes as less of a surprise than once it might have to see Dennis Ross and Zbigniew Brzezinski—two further fixtures of the national security elite—step forward to slam the administration in terms that would, in an earlier era, have seemed uncouth for men of their rank. Neither Ross, who served as Middle East envoy for both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, nor Brzezinski, a conservative Democrat and cold war hawk, could be dismissed as Nation-reading, Howard Dean types. Yet in withering new books they both eviscerate the Bush record, writing in the tone of exasperated elders who handed over the family business to a new generation, only to see their successors drive the firm into bankruptcy. Both books offer rescue plans for a US foreign policy they consider to be in tatters.

Accordingly, their arguments are less striking than the fact that it is Ross and Brzezinski who are making them. Those who have been listening to the antiwar movement since 2002 will nod along at this assessment of the Iraq adventure:

It is hard to exaggerate the Bush administration’s fundamental miscalculations on Iraq, including but not limited to unrealistic policy objectives; fundamental intelligence failures; catastrophically poor understanding of what would characterize the post-Saddam period, and completely unrealistic planning as a result; denial of the existence of an insurgency for several months; and the absence of a consistent explanation to the American people or the international community about the reasons for the war.

Small wonder that after nearly four years of warfare, Iraq has been a disaster, costing thousands of lives, requiring the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, stretching our forces and reserve system to the breaking point, and becoming a magnet for terrorists and hostility toward the United States throughout the Muslim world.

But they should marvel that it comes from Dennis Ross, a loyal former lieutenant of Baker’s who writes glowingly of Bush père and who was as comfortable in a Republican administration as a Democratic one. If they do not, then it is only because Chuck Hagel, Gordon Smith, Scowcroft, and even the late Gerald Ford have made Republican attacks on the Bush record since 2001 seem normal.

Similarly, a sentence like this has been uttered in European chancelleries every week for five years:

The Iraq War in all its aspects has turned into a calamity—in the way it was internally decided, externally promoted, and has been conducted—and it has already stamped the Bush presidency as a historical failure.

Yet that verdict comes not from some Venusian in Paris or Berlin but from Brzezinksi, that hardheaded Martian creature of Washington. Lest there be any doubt, the former national security adviser to Jimmy Carter issues a report card on the three presidencies since the end of the cold war. George H.W. Bush gets a B, praised for his calm management of the expiration of the Soviet Union and the united international front he constructed for his own desert confrontation with Saddam. Clinton manages a C, credited for effective championing of globalization and oversight of NATO enlargement, but debited for allowing too many important matters, especially nuclear proliferation, to drift. Bush’s son is slapped with an unambiguous F.

That verdict is rooted in the administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, which can’t help but form the heart of both books. Judged even by the lights of Bush’s own “war on terror” it has been a spectacular failure. It took a country that had been free of jihadist militants and turned it into their most fecund breeding ground; it took a country that posed no threat to the United States and made it into a place where thousands of Americans, not to mention many tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Iraqis, have been killed. And it diverted resources from the task that should have been uppermost after September 11, namely the hunting down of Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, allowing them to slip out of reach.

What’s more, Bush’s “war on terror” did bin Laden’s work for him. Brzezinksi is not alone in suggesting that it was a mistake to treat September 11 as an act of war, rather than as an outrageous crime; in so doing, the administration endowed al-Qaeda with the status it craved. What followed was a series of missteps that seemed bent on vindicating the jihadists’ claim of a war of the West against Islam. Whether it was the invasion of Iraq or the early talk of a “crusade” or the abuses at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the Bush administration fed violent Islamism all it needed to recruit young men the world over. What began as a fringe sect has become, thanks in no small measure to the Bush administration, a global movement able to draw on deep wells of support.

There were ancillary effects. North Korea and Iran, in addition to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq the other two charter members of the axis of evil, became more dangerous in the Bush years, advancing further down the nuclear road. That was partly because, with the US tied down in Iraq, they were given a free hand; and partly because the thumping of Saddam had taught would-be nuclear powers a crucial lesson. As Ross puts it, “We attacked Iraq, which did not have nuclear weapons, but have avoided doing the same with the North Koreans, who may have as many as twelve.” The 2003 invasion served as a glossy advertisement for the protective power of nuclear arms.

Both Ross and Brzezinski reserve special contempt for Bush’s handling of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, shifting the US position from that of an honest broker, albeit one sympathetic to one side, to a partisan ready to indulge whatever course Israel chose to adopt. Here Ross draws on his experience as Middle East envoy during the years of the Oslo peace process, explaining how disengagement by the Bush administration has not only prevented progress but also actively aggravated the conflict. Both authors lay out how the administration’s refusal to undertake the hard work of peacemaking has deprived the Palestinians of the state they have craved so long, denied Israel the long-term security it needs, and allowed the sore that most poisons Muslim attitudes toward the West to fester.

For those with the stamina to face it, there are further indictments in both books of every aspect of US foreign policy, from the failure to take a lead on dealing with climate change to the distracted inattention to the rise of China. Some of these strategic blunders relate once again to the invasion of Iraq, whether it be the needless estrangement of European allies or the avoidable driving into a corner of Iran, whose influence from Baghdad to Beirut has self-evidently increased.

The accumulated result has been a plunge in global esteem for the United States. A survey in January 2007 for the BBC World Service found that only 29 percent of those polled in eighteen countries believed the US was playing a “mainly positive role in the world,” a fall of eleven points in two years.2 As Brzezinski writes,

Because of Bush’s self-righteously unilateral conduct of US foreign policy after 9/11, the evocative symbol of America in the eyes of much of the world ceased to be the Statue of Liberty and instead became the Guantánamo prison camp.

It’s hard to read Ross and Brzezinksi without coming to share their nostalgia for the steady, realistic, and grounded statecraft of George H.W. Bush in contrast with the faith-based pursuit of neoconservative fantasy that has passed for international affairs under his son.

2.

Scathing as they are, these books are mere slaps on the wrist compared to Nemesis, the third volume in Chalmers Johnson’s blistering trilogy, which stands as the centerpiece of the American Empire Project, a series of works published by Metropolitan Books examining recent changes in America’s strategic thinking, particularly under the Bush administration, and the consequences of those changes at home and abroad. The first in Johnson’s series, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, argued that the United States had, particularly through the covert activities of the Central Intelligence Agency, spilled so much blood and caused so much damage in other people’s countries that it was only a matter of time before it felt the wrath of those nations’ vengeance. (The term “blowback,” Johnson concedes, was not his own coinage: the CIA used it following its involvement in the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, an event that, according to Johnson, led to the blowback of the 1979 revolution and the installation by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of the anti-American theocracy which has ruled ever since.) Blowback was published in March 2000, making little impact. It took only eighteen months, however, for Blowback suddenly to look chillingly prescient, winning an audience for Johnson he might otherwise have lacked.

For while Brzezinski in particular edges up to the outer limits of the Washington foreign policy consensus, Johnson unabashedly stands far outside it. Ross and Brzezinski, as former security officials, take as their premise the belief that the United States should be the dominant force in international relations; Brzezinski goes so far as to dub Bush, Clinton, and Bush as “Global Leader” I, II, and III. The chief complaint of both Brzezinski and Ross is that the current president has fumbled this designated role. Johnson’s starting point is quite different: he brands as imperial arrogance the very assumption that America should extend its reach across the planet (and beyond, into the heavens).

The clue is in the subtitle: “The Last Days of the American Republic.” Johnson joins those who urge Americans, despite their anti-imperial origins in ejecting King George, to see that they have succeeded both ancient Rome and nineteenth-century Britain in becoming the empire of their age. This impulse became fashionable in the post–September 11 period, including among those who saw the imperial mission in a benign light.3 Johnson’s perspective is very different. He wants the scales to fall from American eyes so that the nation can see the truth about its role in the world, a truth he finds ugly.

Scholars can make a parlor game of compare and contrast between Washington and Rome, and the parallels are indeed striking.4 Both rank as the predominant military powers of their time, Rome brooking no competition, while, by Johnson’s reckoning, US military spending exceeds that of all the other defense budgets on earth combined. In each case, military strength both fosters and is fostered by technological prowess: while Roman armies built the straight roads that served as the arteries of their conquered lands, so the US Department of Defense incubated the information superhighway, the Internet that now girdles the globe.

The Romans often preferred to exercise power through friendly client regimes, rather than direct rule: until Jay Garner and L. Paul Bremer became US proconsuls in Baghdad, that was the American method too. Rome even took in the scions of their defeated peoples’ leading families, the better to prepare them for their future as Rome’s puppets; perhaps comparable are Washington’s elite private schools, full of the “pro-Western” Arab kings, South American presidents, and African leaders of the future. Sometimes the approach backfired, then and now. Several of those who rebelled against Rome had earlier been sponsored as pliant allies; their contemporary counterparts would surely be Saddam Hussein, a former US ally against Iran, and the one-time CIA-funded “freedom fighter,” Osama bin Laden.

Still, Johnson is in deadly earnest when he draws a parallel with Rome. He swats aside the conventional objection that, in contrast with both Romans and Britons, Americans have never constructed colonies abroad. Oh, but they have, he says; it’s just that Americans are blind to them. America is an “empire of bases,” he writes, with a network of vast, hardened military encampments across the earth, each one a match for any Roman or Raj outpost. Official figures speak of 737 US military bases in foreign countries, adding up to an armed American presence, whether large or small, in 132 of the 190 member states of the United Nations.

Johnson reckons the number is actually higher, if one includes those bases about which the Pentagon is coy. The 2005 Base Structure Report omits to mention, for example, garrisons in Kosovo, as well as bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, and Uzbekistan, even though it is well known that the US established a vast presence in both the Persian Gulf and Central Asia after September 11. (Admittedly, the US was evicted from its base in Uzbekistan in 2005.) Nor does the Pentagon ledger include the extensive military and espionage installations it maintains in Britain, estimated to be worth some $5 billion, since these are nominally facilities of the Royal Air Force. “If there were an honest account, the actual size of our military empire would probably top 1,000 different bases overseas, but no-one—possibly not even the Pentagon—knows the exact number for sure,” writes Johnson. Intriguingly, he notes that the thirty-eight large and medium-sized US facilities around the world, mostly air and naval bases, match almost exactly both the thirty-six naval bases and army garrisons Britain maintained at its imperial peak in 1898 and the thirty-seven major sites used by the Romans to police the empire from Britannia to Egypt, Hispania to Armenia in 117 AD. “Perhaps,” muses Johnson, “the optimum number of major citadels and fortresses for an imperialist aspiring to dominate the world is somewhere between thirty-five and forty.”

Precise figures are hard to come by, but there are an estimated 325,000 US military personnel deployed abroad, often alongside dependents and large numbers of civilians, most of them living in sealed compounds, each one a little island of America. As Johnson showed in his 2004 book, The Sorrows of Empire, this is a parallel world that has its own airline, the Air Mobility Command, connecting one base to another, and an elaborate system, known as Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR), dedicated to ensuring that America’s imperial servants feel they have never left home. They can be entertained in their own multiplexes playing the latest blockbusters, amused by satellite television airing American shows, and fed by fully stocked branches of Burger King. Johnson spares no detail:

Some of the “rest-and-recreation” facilities include the armed forces ski center at Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps, over two hundred military golf courses around the world, some seventy-one Learjets and other luxury aircraft to fly admirals and generals to such watering holes, and luxury hotels for our troops and their families in Tokyo, Seoul, on the Italian Riviera, at Florida’s Disney World, and many other places.

The most recent addition to the empire is perhaps the most arresting. The new US embassy in Baghdad is, despite its name, a base. It is set inside a 104-acre compound, making it “six times larger than the UN, as big as Vatican City, and costing $592 million to build.” It will be defended by blast walls and ground-to-air missiles, and have its own apartment buildings, along with its own electricity, water supply, and sewage system. (In a dry aside, Johnson notes that “like the former American embassy in Saigon, the Baghdad embassy will have one or more helipads on the roofs.”) Life will continue here as it already goes on in the US-enforced Green Zone, complete with its swimming pools, dry-cleaning outlets, and around-the-clock availability of pork in the mess canteen, as cosseted and disconnected from the surrounding reality as Happy Valley was from the rest of Kenya.5

Johnson argues this point in the same way he presents his entire case, through the accumulation of cold numbers and hard facts. Little of his material is drawn from primary research; rather Johnson scours published sources and draws facts together to form a picture few others are willing to see. He doesn’t labor the imperial analogies, but the similarities are clear. While Rome used to tax its colonies, the US expects those who host American bases to do their bit for “burden sharing,” paying for their own protection, as it were. Japan pays up most: $4.4 billion in 2002. These arrangements are presented as voluntary, but Johnson is skillful at showing how, stage by stage, the host countries have little hope of showing their American guests the door.

In some respects, the parallel with the British Empire is the more striking, with the defeated and therefore reliable nations of Japan and Germany playing the role Britain once assigned to its dominions in South Africa or New Zealand. More importantly, the British told themselves to the very end that they were only ruling other parts of the world, painting the map pink, from the noblest of intentions. Their goal was to bring civilization to the dark continents, their rhetorical fervor no less than the Americans of today who swear their sole purpose is the export of democracy.

Some, even among American foreign policy’s sternest critics, accept that self-description. William Pfaff has recently written that today’s Americans, like the British before them, are engaged in something other than crude, acquisitive imperialism. If that was their goal, if Iraq really was all about oil, as many in the antiwar movement have long insisted, then the US could simply have annexed the relevant areas and installed a dictator. But Pfaff argues that the American purpose is of a different order. While “empires usually leave their subjects as they find them,” he wrote, “colonizers want to teach new values, convert the hearts and—so to speak—save the souls of the colonized.” Iraq has been, wrote Pfaff, an exercise in “value conversion,” seeking to win the country for Western-style government and market capitalism.6

I suspect that Chalmers Johnson would snort at the notion that Americans are well-meaning colonizers, set only on saving the souls of their subject peoples. For Johnson, the talk of value conversion is only so much fluff, designed to win the public support that would be absent for a naked smash-and-grab raid on a sovereign state. All imperial adventures have disguised themselves as civilizing missions; even the Spanish conquistadors of the sixteenth century claimed to be freeing from superstition and backwardness the Aztec, Mayan, and Inca peoples they crushed. In this reading, the rhetoric is only rhetoric. America’s purpose is the same as imperialism’s ever was, to allow the foreign power safe and unimpeded access to whatever pickings the plundered nation has to offer.

What complicates the picture is the sincerity, naive as it may be, of so many of those neoconservative dreamers, perhaps extending to the President himself. Clearly they, no less than their British predecessors, believe, or believed, that they are engaged in the work of liberation rather than conquest. Are they themselves deceived by shadowy forces who use the veneer of spreading democracy to conceal a more base purpose? Or is it instead that imperialism, once in motion, exerts a momentum of its own?

3.

While they often converge on the same point, Johnson enters this discussion from an angle different from that of Noam Chomsky and the traditional anti-imperialist left. He certainly has sympathy for those who have found themselves on the receiving end of America’s sense of manifest destiny, including the luckless Japanese who have had to endure the boorishness and sometimes outright brutality of the 50,000 US troops, military-related civilians, and their dependents stationed in Okinawa. But his is a patriot’s passion: his motive is to save the American republic he loves. While Chomsky argues that American guilt can be traced back to the Constitution—he disapprovingly quotes James Madison’s insistence that the new Republic should “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority”7—Johnson reveres that document and the careful balance of powers it constructed. His fear is that America’s steady descent into imperialism renders those arrangements unsustainable, just as the rise of the Roman Empire ensured the slow death of the Roman Republic.

This is the core of his argument, that by extending its reach in the world America is not only endangering itself physically, by increasing the risk of blowback, but bankrupting itself, financially, constitutionally, and morally. The economic evidence is devastating, a succession of numbers each more stark than the last. The annual Pentagon budget, which falls short of $500 billion, is far from the whole story. There are also the separately accounted costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which stood in 2006 at approximately $450 billion since their inception. When those sums are combined with military spending by agencies other than the Pentagon, the national defense outlay for 2007 reaches $622 billion. Johnson would have us add to that figure the ongoing costs of wars past, including the lifetime care of the seriously wounded ($68 billion) and widows’ pensions, as well as State Department subsidies paid to foreign countries to encourage their purchase of US-made weapons ($23 billion). That would still exclude the interest paid on the share of the national debt incurred by military spending, for which Johnson cites one estimate of $138.7 billion. Even on the most conservative reckoning, the US is spending more in real terms on defense now than at any time since the Second World War. If it accounts for a relatively modest share of GDP, perhaps less than 5 percent, that is only because the US economy is now so much bigger than it was.8

What’s driving this is a nexus of military, political, and financial interests, all of whom benefit from ever-increasing military spending. Johnson provides an anatomy of one particularly egregious example, the expansion into space weaponry represented by the so-called National Missile Defense program (NMD). Patiently he demonstrates why a system aimed at intercepting nuclear bombs before they can land on America does not and could not work. For one thing, no one has yet worked out how to identify a hostile launch and no interceptor has yet been designed that can tell the difference between an incoming warhead and a decoy. The result is that NMD is nothing more than a boondoggle in the sky, at last count pulling in $130 billion of American taxpayers’ money, a figure which on current plans would reach $1.2 trillion by 2015.

But the NMD pork-in-space project is far from exceptional. Seeking fat contracts, the big defense companies give donations to those politicians who will pay them back by commissioning expensive defense projects; the contractors then reward the politicians by locating their firms in their districts; finally the voters, glad of the jobs, reward the politicians by reelecting them. Johnson offers dozens of examples, including Florida’s Democratic senator Bill Nelson, a member of the Armed Services Committee, who in the 2006 federal budget “obtained $916 million for defense projects, about two-thirds of which went to the Florida-based plants of Boeing, Honeywell, General Dynamics, Armor Holdings, and other munitions makers.” Since 2003, Nelson has received $108,750 in campaign contributions from thirteen companies for which he arranged contracts. It’s a cycle perpetuated by everyone involved: contractors, politicians, voters. Everyone benefits from this untamed form of military Keynesianism—except the next generations of Americans who can be expected to drown in a debt that now measures $9 trillion and grows daily.

Yet even this does not pose the greatest danger to the republic. Johnson looks to Rome and to Caesar to demonstrate how the powers required to maintain an empire are incompatible with the checks and balances of a republic. His attempts to argue this theoretically are weaker than his practical case studies. He describes in detail the CIA’s transformation from Harry Truman’s provider of reliable intelligence into an outfit that performs covert military operations—such as the toppling of Chile’s democratically elected president Salvador Allende in the 1973 coup which installed the murderous regime of Augusto Pinochet. The CIA, writes Johnson, has long been beyond the reach of meaningful democratic oversight; it has become a presidential private army, an American counterpart to Rome’s praetorian guard.

Tellingly, however, his most powerful evidence is drawn from the Bush years since 2001. Johnson may argue that these are trends that have been in evidence for decades, but it is the current administration which has illuminated them. By declaring the nation at war and himself a wartime president, Bush has grabbed powers to himself that America’s founders never intended him to have. As the infamous “torture memo” made clear, Bush’s legal team has constructed something it calls the “unitary executive theory of the presidency” to place the Oval Office outside the law, arguing that there can be no infringement on his “ultimate authority” as commander in chief in the conduct of war. Because practically any measures taken, at home or abroad, since September 11, 2001, can be construed as the conduct of war, this doctrine is nothing less than a claim of absolute power. Whether it be treaties signed and ratified by the US, like the Geneva Conventions, or the laws of the land passed in Congress, nothing can touch him. He is Caesar.

There was a time when such claims would have sounded overheated (and some, like Johnson’s comparison of Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld to Adolf Eichmann, still do). Yet now Johnson finds mainstream allies for at least part of his case, Brzezinski among them. Not only is Brzezinski unafraid to describe US activities as imperial, he has joined those who believe the current administration is “propagating fear and paranoia” and is engaged in “the deliberate manipulation of public anxiety.” Once again, this was the sort of argument previously marshaled chiefly by those outside the United States and a world away from its governing circles.9 It testifies to Bush’s recklessness that he has now placed a man of Brzezinski’s stature alongside them.

With the license granted by the “war on terror,” and the acquiescence of both Congress (until January 2007) and much of the US press and television, as well as several federal judges, the administration has been able to trample on the Constitution and the once-cherished liberties it contains. The pattern is clear, whether it involves eavesdropping without a warrant by the National Security Agency; the denial of habeas corpus to inmates of Guantánamo Bay; the deliberate obstruction of the Freedom of Information Act; the constant use of presidential “signing statements” usually to nullify legislation passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President himself; or the torture at Abu Ghraib and Camp X-Ray. As Johnson writes:

Over any fairly lengthy period of time, successful imperialism requires that a domestic republic or a domestic democracy change into a domestic tyranny…. The United States today, like the Roman Republic in the first century BC, is threatened by an out-of-control military-industrial complex and a huge secret government controlled exclusively by the president. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, cynical and short-sighted political leaders of the United States began to enlarge the powers of the president at the expense of the elected representatives of the people and the courts.

The public went along, accepting the excuse that a little tyranny was necessary to protect the population. But, as Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1759, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

4.

What can be done? For Ross and Brzezinski, the solutions are arduous, but at least imaginable. Ross urges a return to statecraft, to the painstaking work of diplomacy and alliance building. Indeed, of the three books, his is the one that would be of most direct use to the next administration taking office in 2009. Condoleezza Rice’s successor could do worse than sit down with Ross’s “Negotiation: Twelve Rules to Follow,” followed by his “Eleven Rules for Mediation.” (A canny publisher might try to publish those sections on their own, aiming them at the CEO market; inside Ross’s foreign policy monograph there may be a business best-seller crying to get out.)

Among his concrete tips is the suggestion that the US back a new nongovernmental body to perform, under international direction and in secular fashion, the popular tasks now undertaken by the Islamists of Hamas or Hezbollah, namely providing social services and building civic institutions like hospitals and schools. Ross surely sees the danger of such an approach: that any agency known to be US-backed would instantly be deemed suspect by much of the Palestinian street. His answer might be to seek Saudi, rather than American, patronage, exploiting Riyadh’s palpable anxiety over the rise of Iran and its Islamist proxies in Gaza and Lebanon. The Saudis, Ross argues, could be persuaded to bankroll anti-Islamist forces, including the Fatah party of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, if that would weaken Hamas.

Ross is right to see the opportunity presented by Sunni concern over the rise of Iran, an opportunity to form an alliance against aggressive Islamism that the Bush administration has squandered. Still, one cannot help but detect a bad, even imperialist habit here: the desire to pick other nations’ representatives for them. Rather than devising clever ruses to marginalize Hamas, would not US energies be better spent encouraging Hamas toward a political, rather than armed, pursuit of its goals, dangling before the organization the rewards that would come if it changed course?

Ross has some imaginative ideas for Iran, too, including an alternative to full-scale military action. He floats the notion of a covert operation to sabotage Iran’s delicate nuclear machinery. Such a step, he writes cheerfully, would “prove very costly for the Iranians to overcome, and yet would be completely deniable.” Unlike Bush’s former UN ambassador John Bolton, who said, “I don’t do carrots,” Ross is keen to show he would use both the carrots of “soft power” and the sticks of physical force as well. One wonders, though, how “deniable” such force could be in today’s world and if such a covert plan could be efficiently executed in the first place.

Brzezinski is equally brimming with advice, calling, like Ross, for a Washington that shows more respect to the world and one that would shore up the Euro-Atlantic area of nations, lest it lose its influence to East Asia. Most radically, he advocates for a shift in the American social model, away from excess consumption and income inequality toward a more ecologically sustainable pattern that would appeal internationally. One of Brzezinski’s most striking observations is that an “awakening” is underway around the world, a stirring, if vague, sense of injustice—and that the United States can only succeed if it is held to be on the right side of the divide. “In today’s restless world, America needs to identify itself with the quest for universal human dignity,” he writes. What that will take, he adds provocatively, is both “a cultural revolution and regime change.”

Necessarily, it is Johnson, who has diagnosed a more radical problem, who has to come up with a more radical solution. He cannot merely call for greater powers for Congress, because by his own lights, “the legislative branch of our government is broken,” reduced to the supine creature of large corporations, the defense contractors first among them. Instead, he urges a surge in direct democracy, “a grassroots movement to abolish the CIA, break the hold of the military-industrial complex, and establish public financing of elections”—but he has the grace to recognize how unlikely such a development is.

So he is left offering not an eleven- or twelve-step program, but rather a historical choice. Either the United States can follow the lead of the Romans, who chose to keep their empire and so lost their republic. Or “we could, like the British Empire after World War II, keep our democracy by giving up our empire.” That choice was neither smooth nor executed heroically, but it was the right one. Now much of the world watches the offspring of that empire, nearly two and a half centuries later—hoping it makes the same choice, and trembling at the prospect that it might not.

Letters

Bin Laden and the CIA August 16, 2007

  1. 1

    Iraq Report Well Received in Washington,” NPR, December 6, 2006, available at www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6587217.

  2. 2

    World View of US Role Goes from Bad to Worse,” available at www.pub licdiplomacy.org/14.htm#Apr2007.

  3. 3

    See, among others, Michael Ignatieff, “The Burden,” The New York Times Magazine, January 5, 2003; and Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire (Penguin, 2004).

  4. 4

    See, for the most recent example, Cullen Murphy, Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).

  5. 5

    For a breathtaking account of the American enclave in Baghdad, see Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone (Knopf, 2006).

  6. 6

    The Doomed Colonial Wars of the US and NATO,” March 2, 2007, available at www.williampfaff.com/modules/ news/article.php?storyid=212.

  7. 7

    See Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (Metropolitan, 2006), p. 207.

  8. 8

    Much of the publicly available data on military spending is gathered by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, www.csbaonline.org.

  9. 9

    See the BBC TV documentary The Power of Nightmares, written and produced by Adam Curtis, 2004. It argued that politicians who could no longer inspire, sought to scare instead, citing the Bush team as a prime example. “Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us: from nightmares,” the film’s introduction declares. It has never been shown on American television.

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