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An Interview with Chalmers Johnson (Part Two)

Whatever Happened to Congress?

by TOM ENGELHARDT

In Part 1 of his interview, Chalmers Johnson suggested what that fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall, end-of-the-Cold-War moment meant to him; explored how deeply empire and militarism have entered the American bloodstream; and began to consider what it means to live in an unacknowledged state of military Keynesianism, garrisoning the planet, and with an imperial budget–a real yearly Pentagon budget–of perhaps three-quarters of a trillion dollars. TE

TOM ENGELHARDT: You were discussing the lunacy of the 2007 Pentagon budget …

Chalmers Johnson:What I don’t understand is that the current defense budget and the recent Quadrennial Defense Review (which has no strategy in it at all) are just continuations of everything we did before. Make sure that the couple of hundred military golf courses around the world are well groomed, that the Lear jets are ready to fly the admirals and generals to the armed forces ski resort in Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps or the military’s two luxury hotels in downtown Seoul and Tokyo.

What I can’t explain is what has happened to Congress. Is it just that they’re corrupt? That’s certainly part of it. I’m sitting here in California’s 50th district. This past December, our congressman, Randy Cunningham, confessed to the largest single bribery case in the history of the U.S. Congress: $2.4 million in trinkets–a Rolls Royce, some French antiques–went to him, thanks to his ability as a member of the military subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee to add things secretly to the budget. He was doing this for pals of his running small companies. He was adding things even the Department of Defense said it didn’t want.

This is bribery and, as somebody said the other day, Congress comes extremely cheap. For $2.4 million, these guys got about $175 million in contracts. It was an easy deal.

The military is out of control. As part of the executive branch, it’s expanded under cover of the national security state. Back when I was a kid, the Pentagon was called the Department of War. Now, it’s the Department of Defense, though it palpably has nothing to do with defense. Hasn’t for a long time. We even have another department of the government today that’s concerned with "homeland security." You wonder what on Earth do we have that for–and a Department of Defense, too!

The government isn’t working right. There’s no proper supervision. The founders, the authors of the Constitution, regarded the supreme organ to be Congress. The mystery to me–more than the huge expansion of executive branch powers we’ve seen since the neoconservatives and George Bush came to power–is: Why has Congress failed us so completely? Why are they no longer interested in the way the money is spent? Why does a Pentagon budget like this one produce so little interest? Is it that people have a vested interest in it, that it’s going to produce more jobs for them?

I wrote an article well before Cunningham confessed called "The Military-Industrial Man" in which I identified a lot of what he was doing, but said unfortunately I didn’t know how to get rid of him in such a safe district. After it appeared on the Los Angeles Times op-ed page, the paper got a couple of letters to the editor from the 34th district in downtown LA saying, I wish he was my congressman. If he’d bring good jobs here, I wouldn’t mind making something that just gets blown up or sunk in the ground like missile defense in Alaska. I mean, we’ve already spent $100 billion on what amounts to a massive high-tech scarecrow. It couldn’t hit a thing. The aiming devices aren’t there. The tests fail. It doesn’t work. It’s certainly a cover for something much more ominous–the expansion of the Air Force into outer space or "full spectrum dominance," as they like to put it.

We need to concentrate on this, and not from a partisan point of view either. There’s no reason to believe the Democrats would do a better job. They never have. They’ve expanded the armed forces just as fast as the Republicans.

This is the beast we’re trying to analyze, to understand, and it seems to me today unstoppable. Put it this way: James Madison, the author of our Constitution, said the right that controls all other rights is the right to get information. If you don’t have this, the others don’t matter. The Bill of Rights doesn’t work if you can’t find out what’s going on. Secrecy has been going crazy in this country for a long time, but it’s become worse by orders of magnitude under the present administration. When John Ashcroft became attorney general, he issued orders that access to the Freedom of Information Act should be made as difficult as possible.

The size of the black budget in the Pentagon has been growing ever larger during this administration. These are projects no one gets to see. To me, one of the most interesting spectacles in our society is watching uniformed military officers like General Michael Hayden, former head of the National Security Agency, sitting in front of Congress, testifying. It happened the other day. Hillary Clinton asked him: Tell us at least approximately how many [NSA warrantless spying] interventions have you made? "I’m not going to tell you" was his answer. Admiral Jacoby, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, was asked directly about a year ago, are we still paying Ahmed Chalabi $340,000 a month? And his reply was, "I’m not going to say."

At this point, should the senator stand up and say: "I want the U.S. Marshall to arrest that man." I mean, this is contempt of Congress.

TE: You’re also saying, of course, that there’s a reason to have contempt for Congress.

Johnson: There is indeed. You can understand why these guys do it. Richard Helms, the director of the CIA back in 1977, was convicted of a felony for lying to Congress. He said, no, we had nothing to do with the overthrow of [Chilean President] Salvador Allende when we had everything to do with it. He gets a suspended sentence, pays a small fine, walks into the CIA building at Langley, Virginia, and is met by a cheering crowd. Our hero! He’s proudly maintained the principles of the secret intelligence service, which is the private army of the president and we have no idea what he’s doing with it. Everything they do is secret. Every item in their budget is secret.

TE: And the military, too, has become something of a private army

Johnson: Exactly. I dislike conscription because it’s so easily manipulated, but I do believe in the principle of the obligation of citizens to defend the country in times of crisis. Now, how we do that is still an open question, but at least the citizens’ army was a check on militarism. People in the armed forces knew they were there involuntarily. They were extremely interested in whether their officers were competent, whether the strategy made sense, whether the war they might have to fight was justified, and if they began to believe that they were being deeply lied to, as in Vietnam, the American military would start to come apart. The troops then were fragging their officers so seriously that General Creighton Abrams said, we’ve got to get them out of there. And call it Vietnamization or anything else, that’s what they did.

I fear that we’re heading that way in Iraq. You open the morning paper and discover that they’re now going to start recruiting down to level four, people with serious mental handicaps. The terrible thing is that they’ll just be cannon fodder.

It’s not rocket science to say that we’re talking about a tragedy in the works here. Americans aren’t that rich. We had a trade deficit in 2005 of $725.8 billion. That’s a record. It went up almost 25 percent in just over a year. You can’t go on not making things, fighting these kinds of wars, and building weapons that are useless. Herb Stein, when he was chairman of the council of economic advisers in a Republican administration very famously said, "Things that can’t go on forever don’t."

TE: So put our problems in a nutshell.

Johnson: From George Bush’s point of view, his administration has achieved everything ideologically that he wanted to achieve. Militarism has been advanced powerfully. In the minds of a great many people, the military is now the only American institution that appears to work. He’s enriched the ruling classes. He’s destroyed the separation of powers as thoroughly as was possible. These are the problems that face us right now. The only way you could begin to rebuild the separation of powers would be to reinvigorate the Congress and I don’t know what could shock the American public into doing that. They’re the only ones who could do it. The courts can’t. The president obviously won’t.

The only thing I can think of that might do it would be bankruptcy. Like what happened to Argentina in 2001. The richest country in Latin America became one of the poorest. It collapsed. It lost the ability to borrow money and lost control of its affairs, but a great many Argentines did think about what corrupt presidents had listened to what corrupt advice and done what stupid things during the 1990s. And right now, the country is on its way back.

TE: But superpower bankruptcy? It’s a concept nobody’s really explored. When the British empire finally went, we were behind them. Is there somebody behind us?

Johnson: No.

TE: So what would it mean for us to go bankrupt? After all, we’re not Argentina.

Johnson: It would mean losing control over things. All of a sudden, we would be dependent on the kindness of strangers. Looking for handouts. We already have a $725 billion trade deficit; the largest fiscal deficit in our history, now well over 6 percent of GDP. The defense budgets are off the charts and don’t make any sense, and don’t forget that $500 billion we’ve already spent on the Iraq war–every nickel of it borrowed from people in China and Japan who saved and invested because they would like to have access to this market. Any time they decide they don’t want to lend to us, interest rates will go crazy and the stock exchange will collapse.

We pour about $2 billion a day just into servicing the amounts we borrow. The moment people quit lending us that money, we have to get it out of domestic savings and right now we have a negative savings rate in this country. To get Americans to save 20 percent of their income, you’d have to pay them at least a 20 percent interest rate and that would produce a truly howling recession. We’d be back to the state of things in the 1930s that my mother used to describe to me–we lived in the Arizona countryside then–when someone would tap on the rear door and say, "Have you got any work? I don’t want to be paid, I just want to eat." And she’d say, "Sure, we’ll find something for you to do and give you eggs and potatoes."

A depression like that would go on in this country for quite a while. The rest of the world would also have a severe recession, but would probably get over it a lot faster.

TE: So you can imagine the Chinese, Japanese, and European economies going on without us, not going down with us.

Johnson: Absolutely. I think they could.

TE: Don’t you imagine, for example, that the Chinese bubble economy, the part that’s based on export to the United States might collapse, setting off chaos there too?

Johnson: It might, but the Chinese would not blame their government for it. And there is no reason the Chinese economy shouldn’t, in the end, run off domestic consumption. When you’ve got that many people interested in having better lives, they needn’t depend forever on selling sweaters and pajamas in North America. The American economy is big, but there’s no reason to believe it’s so big the rest of the world couldn’t do without us. Moreover, we’re kidding ourselves because we already manufacture so little today–except for weapons.

We could pay a terrible price for not having been more prudent. To have been stupid enough to give up on infrastructure, health care, and education in order to put eight missiles in the ground at Fort Greeley, Alaska, that can’t hit anything. In fact, when tested, sometimes they don’t even get out of their silos.

TE: How long do you see the dollar remaining the international currency? I noticed recently that Iran was threatening to switch to euros.

Johnson: Yes, they’re trying to create an oil bourse based on the euro. Any number of countries might do that. Econ 1A as taught in any American university is going to tell you that a country that runs the biggest trade deficits in economic history must pay a penalty if the global system is to be brought back into equilibrium. What this would mean is a currency so depreciated no American could afford a Lexus automobile. A vacation in Italy would cost Americans a wheelbarrow full of dollars.

TE: At least it might stop the CIA from kidnapping people off the streets of Italy in the style to which they’ve grown accustomed.

Johnson: [Laughs.] Their kidnappers would no longer be staying in the Principe di Savoia [a five-star hotel] in Milano, that’s for sure.

The high-growth economies of East Asia now hold huge amounts in American treasury certificates. If the dollar loses its value, the last person to get out of dollars loses everything, so you naturally want to be first. But the person first making the move causes everyone else to panic. So it’s a very cautious, yet edgy situation.

A year ago, the head of the Korean Central Bank, which has a couple of hundred billion of our dollars, came out and said: I think we’re a little heavily invested in dollars, suggesting that maybe Dubai’s currency would be better right now, not to mention the euro. Instantaneous panic. People started to sell; presidents got on the telephone asking: What in the world are you people up to? And the Koreans backed down–and so it continues.

There are smart young American Ph.D.s in economics today inventing theories about why this will go on forever. One is that there’s a global savings glut. People have too much money and nothing to do with it, so they loan it to us. Even so, as the very considerable economics correspondent for the Nation magazine, William Greider, has written several times, it’s extremely unwise for the world’s largest debtor to go around insulting his bankers. We’re going to send four aircraft-carrier task forces to the Pacific this summer to intimidate the Chinese, sail around, fly our airplanes, shoot off a few cruise missiles. Why shouldn’t the Chinese say, let’s get out of dollars. Okay, they don’t want a domestic panic of their own, so the truth is they would do it as subtly as they could, causing as little fuss as possible.

What does this administration think it’s doing, reducing taxes when it needs to be reducing huge deficits? As far as I can see, its policies have nothing to do with Republican or Democratic ideology, except that its opposite would be traditional, old Republican conservatism, in the sense of being fiscally responsible, not wasting our money on aircraft carriers or other nonproductive things.

But the officials of this administration are radicals. They’re crazies. We all speculate on why they do it. Why has the president broken the Constitution, let the military spin virtually out of control, making it the only institution he would turn to for anything–another Katrina disaster, a bird flu epidemic? The whole thing seems farcical, but what it does remind you of is ancient Rome.

If a bankruptcy situation doesn’t shake us up, then I fear we will, as an author I admire wrote the other day, be "crying for the coup." We could end the way the Roman Republic ended. When the chaos, the instability become too great, you turn it over to a single man. After about the same length of time our republic has been in existence, the Roman Republic got itself in that hole by inadvertently, thoughtlessly acquiring an empire they didn’t need and weren’t able to administer, that kept them at war all the time. Ultimately, it caught up with them. I can’t see how we would be immune to a Julius Caesar, to a militarist who acts the populist.

TE: Do you think that our all-volunteer military will turn out to be the janissaries of our failed empire?

Johnson: They might very well be. I’m already amazed at the degree to which they tolerate this incompetent government. I mean the officers know that their precious army, which they worked so hard to rebuild after the Vietnam War, is coming apart again, that it’s going to be ever harder to get people to enlist, that even the military academies are in trouble. I don’t know how long they’ll take it. Tommy Franks, the general in charge of the attack on Baghdad, did say that if there were another terrorist attack in the United States comparable to 9/11, the military might have no choice but to take over. In other words: If we’re going to do the work, why listen to incompetents like George Bush? Why take orders from an outdated character like Donald Rumsfeld? Why listen to a Congress in which, other than John McCain, virtually no Republican has served in the armed forces?

I don’t see the obvious way out of our problems. The political system has failed. You could elect the opposition party, but it can’t bring the CIA under control; it can’t bring the military-industrial complex under control; it can’t reinvigorate the Congress. It would be just another holding operation as conditions got worse.

Now, I’ll grant you, I could be wrong. If I am, you’re going to be so glad, you’ll forgive me. [He laughs.] In the past, we’ve had clear excesses of executive power. There was Lincoln and the suspension of habeas corpus. Theodore Roosevelt virtually invented the executive order. Until then, most presidents didn’t issue executive orders. Roosevelt issued well over a thousand. It was the equivalent of today’s presidential signing statement. Then you go on to the mad Presbyterian Woodrow Wilson, whom the neocons are now so in love with, and Franklin Roosevelt and his pogrom against Americans of Japanese ancestry. But there was always a tendency afterwards for the pendulum to swing back, for the American public to become concerned about what had been done in its name and correct it. What’s worrying me is: Can we expect a pendulum swing back this time?

TE: Maybe there is no pendulum.

Johnson: Today, Cheney tells us that presidential powers have been curtailed by the War Powers Act [of 1973], congressional oversight of the intelligence agencies, and so on. This strikes me as absurd, since these modest reforms were made to deal with the grossest violations of the Constitution in the Nixon administration. Moreover, most of them were stillborn. There’s not a president yet who has acknowledged the War Powers Act as legitimate. They regard themselves as not bound by it, even though it was an act of Congress and, by our theory of government, unless openly unconstitutional, that’s the bottom line. A nation of laws? No, we are not. Not anymore.

TE: Usually we believe that the Cold War ended with the Soviet Union’s collapse and, in essence, our victory. A friend of mine put it another way. The United States, he suggested, was so much more powerful than the USSR that we had a greater capacity to shift our debts elsewhere. The Soviets didn’t and so imploded. My question is this: Are we now seeing the delayed end of the Cold War? Perhaps both superpowers were headed for the proverbial trash bin of history, simply at different rates of speed?

Johnson: I’ve always believed that they went first because they were poorer and that the terrible, hubristic conclusion we drew–that we were victorious, that we won–was off the mark. I always felt that we both lost the Cold War for the same reasons–imperial overstretch, excessive militarism, things that have been identified by students of empires since Babylonia. We’ve never given Mikhail Gorbachev credit. Most historians would say that no empire ever gave up voluntarily. The only one I can think of that tried was the Soviet Union under him.

TE: Any last words?

Johnson: I’m still working on them. My first effort was Blowback, The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. That was well before I anticipated anything like massive terrorist attacks in the United States. It was a statement that the foreign-policy problems–I still just saw them as that–of the first part of the 21st century were going to be left over from the previous century, from our rapacious activities in Latin America, from our failure to truly learn the lessons of Vietnam. The Sorrows of Empire, Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic was an attempt to come to grips with our militarism. Now, I’m considering how we’ve managed to alienate so many rich, smart allies–every one of them, in fact. How we’ve come to be so truly hated. This, in a Talleyrand sense, is the sort of mistake from which you can’t recover. That’s why I’m planning on calling the third volume of what I now think of as "The Blowback Trilogy," Nemesis. Nemesis was the Greek goddess of vengeance. She also went after people who became too arrogant, who were so taken with themselves that they lost all prudence. She was always portrayed as a fierce figure with a scale in one hand–think, Judgment Day–and a whip in the other

TE: And you believe she’s coming after us?

Johnson: Oh, I believe she’s arrived. I think she’s sitting around waiting for her moment, the one we’re coming up on right now.

TOM ENGELHARDT, author of The End of Victory Culture, is the editor of Tomdispatch, where this interview originally appeared.